Parish churches in English villages often strike visitors as being far too big for the community that they serve. One forgets that at one time attendance at church on Sundays was compulsory, and also that rural populations were, in many places, much larger than they are now due to the highly labour-intensive nature of agriculture in the days before tractors and combine harvesters.
The Church of St John the Evangelist at Oxborough, Norfolk, provides an excellent illustration of how a church can shrink in size and yet be perfectly adequate for modern needs. However, the shrinkage was not caused by any wish of the villagers or its clergy.
St John’s Church was built during the 14th century in the Perpendicular style, using stone and flint. It must have been an impressive structure in its heyday, with a nave and chancel of comparable length, and a magnificent stone tower and spire that rivalled that of Norwich Cathedral in its dimensions.
Oxborough has long been the home of the Bedingfield family, who built Oxburgh Hall in the late 15th century. This splendid moated manor is a place that is well worth a visit. The first occupant of the Hall, Sir Edmund Bedingfield, directed in his will that a chapel be built at the side of the nave of St John’s Church to contain his tomb. He died in 1496 and the chancery chapel was built in 1500 and enhanced by later Bedingfields.
The church spire was struck by lightning in 1877 and rebuilt in 1879. However, the new structure was not strong enough to contain a peal of six bells and, on a windy morning in April 1948, it collapsed for a second time, but it fell in such a way that it brought down the entire roof of the nave.
A decision was made not to rebuild the church as it had been but to preserve what could be saved and – in effect – create a village church that was more suited to the needs of the mid-20th century.
The chancel was largely undamaged, so a new flint wall was built to enclose the chancel, which now forms a perfectly adequate parish church in its own right. Fortunately, the Bedingfield Chapel was also spared from the collapse, as were the terracotta monuments that it contains. The Chapel is now entered from the roofless nave.
The church opened in its new configuration eight years after the collapse, with one of the offending bells finding a use as the sanctus bell above the new entrance.
Although Oxborough Church looks very strange today, being a half-ruin without a tower, it is one that has an unusual tale to tell, and it is a story of resurgence from disaster in which the local community can take justifiable pride.