IT RHYMES WITH FRECKLES
THE HELPFUL FEMALE voice with a North American accent emitting from our mobile ‘phone was quite persistent in trying to direct us onto the A47 road, the most direct route from Swaffham to Norwich, but we chose to ignore the advice we were being given. Instead, we forced ‘her’ to change her instructions so that we could follow a far longer but more pleasant route via Watton and Old Buckenham. As we wound our way between the two last mentioned places, we spotted a church with a round tower, made with flint and mortar, topped with a newer octagonal structure. This was in a Norfolk village that rhymes with freckles: Breckles. The church is St Margarets in the parish of Stow Bedon.
Churches with round towers are a rare breed in England compared with those with square towers. There are only 186 of the rounded versions (www.roundtowers.org.uk/) and some of them are in ruins. Of all the examples of this kind of church, the greatest number can be found in East Anglia, 131 of them in Norfolk. Church towers were built to house bells and sometimes the items used in services (e.g., church vessels). It is unlikely that they were built as part of the country’s defence against invaders because many of them were built after the last invasion of England (www.roundtowers.org.uk/about-round-tower-churches/).
But why were so many churches with round towers built in East Anglia and relatively few elsewhere? The following (from https://historyhouse.co.uk/articles/round_tower_churches.html) provides one possible answer:
“It has been suggested that the main reason was the lack of suitable local building material. Square towers require strong stone cut and dressed into blocks at each of the corners. But there is no suitable stone to be found in East Anglia and to transport stone from another county was very expensive for a small parish.
The only locally available stone was flint. Flint is a small, knobbly stone which, although creates strong walls when set in mortar, is not suitable for tower corners.”
The round tower of St Margarets was built in the 11th century (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1248441), so could have been constructed either before or after 1066, when the Normans invaded. The octagonal structure on the top of the tower, the belfry, is late 15th century (www.norfolkchurches.co.uk/breckles/breckles.htm). Restored in 1856, the nave and chancel were constructed in the 15th and 14th centuries, respectively.
The interior of St Margaret’s is attractively simple. The carved, probably highly restored, wooden rood screen, separating the nave from the chancel, is one of the few decorative features in this small church. However, for me, the greatest attraction is the carved stone font, which is decorated with patterns and four carved figures standing in archways. The latter are carved in a simple, almost naïve or unsophisticated style, which made me wonder whether they date to pre-Norman times. Various sources describe it as being Norman. Whatever it is, it is a lovely piece of carving. When we saw it, it was decorated with flowers and foliage as part of the church’s preparations for celebrating the harvest season.
Having seen this charming church, we were pleased that we did not obey the voice on our GPS app, but instead took a route that our electronic navigator was initially so dead against. The more round about route allowed us to find a lovely church with a round tower.