St. Cuthbert’s may not have the ancient heritage of St. Mary & St. Margaret’s , but in many ways St. C’s is perhaps the most unique of our two Church buildings. The red brick walls are steeped in the history and stories of ordinary working people; so you won’t find any great monuments to the land owners and aristocratic families who found their final resting places over at St. Mary & St. Margaret’s, but you will find clues as to how St. Cuthbert’s has been shaped to the changing needs of the local community over the last 130 years; and perhaps appreciate how this place has an individual beauty and character all of its own.
The Church and Vicarage were built on land known as “Fairstead Field”, which was used by Sprowston Fair from the 13th century until 1828, when the fair was stopped by the Council because of all the fighting and drinking etc. Built in 1886 to serve the rapidly growing southern part of Sprowston, the church and the adjacent vicarage were paid for in part by the Gurney family, who lived at Sprowston Hall. The land was given by John Gurney Esq. who also donated £1,600 towards the total cost of around £2,000. The rest was raised by public appeal. A small memorial to John Gurney can be found in the West end of the Church on the North wall, which you can see below; below that is a portrait of the man himself.
Below is a copy of the original St.Cuthbert’s appeal leaflet from 1884, which included an artist’s impression of the building, and floor plan. The leaflet mentions that public worship in this part of the Parish had previously been conducted in the School room, which was considered unfit for this purpose. A public meeting in the Summer of 1883 appointed a committee to pursue the building of “additional Church accommodation”, and there was an appeal for funding: “The Parish being a very poor one, and especially the population for whom the new Church is intended, the committee will be grateful for any help that may be given”.
The main local industry was brick-making and the pub on the opposite side of the Wroxham Road roundabout is built on a former site of the brickworks – hence the name The Brickmakers. It is not surprising therefore that the church is built entirely of brick. Below you can see one of the Brickmaking sites, a furnace, and a group photo of some Brickmakers.
St. Cuthbert’s was built using handmade bricks known as “Norfolk Reds”, as were a number of the older houses around Sprowston; bricks were often combined with flint in the construction of these buildings, and indeed, flint was used for decorative purposes on the Church; connecting it to the surrounding medieval Churches constructed largely from Norfolk flint. The brickyards were labour intensive businesses in the 19th century; employing people of all ages, men, women and boys from the age of six, many working in their bare feet. Towards the end of the 19th Century there were nine Brickworks and a total of 11 kilns or clamps in Sprowston. St. Cuthbert’s was clearly intended as the Church for the working people, and each brick serves as a memorial to the people whose blood, sweat and tears made this place possible. Over the years, Sprowston became more residential, as industry grew in Norwich itself; the last Brick works closed in 1955. More information about brickmaking in Sprowston can be found on the Sprowston heritage website here
Loading the kiln
In July 2021 the Brickmakers heritage mural, located in St. Cuthbert’s Porch, was unveiled by the Landlady of the Brickmakers pub, Charley South. The mural was painted by community art group, As One Arts.
A copy of the Parish magazine from 1913
Cuthbert ( 634 – 687) is a saint of the early Northumbrian church in the Celtic tradition. He was a Monk, Bishop, and Hermit; closely associated with the island of Lindisfarne, where he became Bishop, he is often depicted surrounded by the wildlife of that Isle. Find out more about him here
But why St. Cuthbert? Well, here are the thoughts of Revd David Tuck, who was Vicar of the Parish from 1973-1984:
No-one, I think, knows for sure how Sprowston came to have St. Cuthbert as a patron saint. I suspect that it may have been a combination of Edward Linton’s origins (he was Vicar then) – as a lowland Scot, and the proximity of St. Cuthbert’s twelve- hundredth anniversary at about the time the Church was built. It was, in any event, a happy choice; St. Cuthbert’s great pastoral love for his people; the rootedness of his spirituality in the beauty of the natural world; his important influence as a reconciling force between old and new in a time of change – all these characteristics we have come to love and appreciate in this patron saint. Revd David Tuck, writing for St. Cuthberts’ centenary celebration in 1986.
As we shall see, St. Cuthbert’s Church has been in a special position to be able to reconcile the old and new, and to adapt with the times. When St. Cuthbert’s was built it was designated as a “Chapel of ease” rather than a Parish Church, as such the building is licensed rather than consecrated, and therefore not liable to the same legal restrictions as our own St. Mary & St. Margaret’s. This has enabled St. Cuthbert’s to be more easily adapted to changing needs, and to be shaped by the community for whom St. Cuthbert’s provides a social and spiritual home.
The picture above was taken in 1909, when Sprowston was a very different place. At that point St. Cuthbert’s was surrounded by a more traditional Church yard, with a gate typical of the times. Sprowston itself was a village community, with agriculture in the north (where the Parish Church is located) and Brickmaking at the south end of the Parish, which was rapidly becoming more suburban. Given the times, you’d expect St.Cuthbert’s to be very traditional. However, you only need to walk through the door, even today, to realise that St. Cuthbert’s broke the mold, and was, in many ways, ahead of its time. The architect, Arthur Fenning, has certainly had his share of both praise and criticism for his creation. A guide to the Church from 1976, states that: Somebody once described it as “ugliest Victorian interior in Norwich and District” It was certainly different, but times change, and today we are can better appreciate the building’s sense of space and elegant simplicity, which through time has proved itself to be easily adaptable.
Below is a postcard from the 1930’s; you can see the Church, and also the Great War (WW1) memorial.
Particularly noticeable in these early pictures is the chimney, now gone; the Church was originally heated by a tortoise stove. As stated above, the church is built of local red brick with dressed stone in places, and Norfolk flint decoration around the windows, in the style known as Early English. The north and south walls are each pierced by six pairs of lancet windows and two single lancets.
The east window is a group of three trefoil-headed lancets, and the west window a group of five. Beneath the west window is the narthex porch , again lit by simple lancet windows, and with a pair of large trefoil-headed entrance arches. Above the west window is a bell cote, housing a single bell cast by Thomas Lewis of Brixton (a well-known organ builder who for a short time produced church bells). It has a diameter of almost 18” and weighs 1½cwt. Accounts of 1886 record that it cost £14.10.0d.
The interior is broad and barn like, and was originally intended to accommodate 350 people; the red brick walls are crowned by the distinctive arch-braced roof, which is often commented on; many say that it resembles an upturned boat.
In the picture below, taken in the mid 1970’s we can see that how interior was originally decked out in the style of a more traditional late Victorian Church (although in this picture the altar has been pushed further forward than it would have originally been); at the eastern end there was a chancel and sanctuary, with wood-panelled box-vestries (small rooms) at either side for clergy and choir. Next to the Choir vestry is the Organ. This is the Organ we still use today, which was built by Rayson of Ipswich, and cost £250 in 1905.
As you walk round the interior of our Church, look closely, and you will see the history of our Church and community etched onto the walls. St. Cuthbert’s wears its scars well, and takes pride in how time has left its mark. Still present today are the fixings for the blackout curtains which were hung during the Second World War, when Norwich suffered extensive bombing raids; see the picture below:
During the war and early post war period, until 1954, the community picked up their Ration books from the Church.
Below are more pictures from this period, featuring the Choir and Sunday School.
The Font was obtained in 1974 from the derelict Church of St Paul, Kempstone in west Norfolk, by the then-Curate Revd David Cawley. It is octagonal, with quatrefoils in the panels of the bowl and cinquefoil headed arches around the stem, and dates from the 15th century.
Below is a picture of St. Cuthbert’s as it was in the early 1970’s; the Church is open to the road, as it is today; Wroxham road was widened in the 1960’s as the area became ever more populated. Behind the Church you can just see the Annexe, which dates from around 1913.
The Annexe was the original “Church room”, and was probably intended as a temporary measure, however, it is still in use today. In the picture below you can see the Annexe as it was in the late 1960’s, and how it is today:
During the mid-twentieth Century the Parish grew at a pace, and it was decided in the mid-1970s to construct a Church Centre against the north side of St.Cuthbert’s, incorporating a hall, meeting room, kitchen and toilet facilities. Below you can view it’s progress, from a model to the completed structure.
There was a fundraising drive to build the new Hall, but it was completed thanks to a generous gift from Yatton Parish in Somerset, who had excess funds from their own project, and were looking to help others. So the meeting room in our new centre was named “The Yatton Room” in recognition.
Very much like the Church itself, the centre has proved to be quite a distinctive presence in Sprowston; it’s eclectic mix of pebble, stone and brick (a style which harks back to traditional building in the area), together with the soft curves of the meeting room and store, which contrast with the more angular hall, has prompted many to comment that it looks a bit like a “Hobbit house”. Once again St. Cuthbert’s rejoiced in being unique. Since it was built, the centre has provided a home for many different community groups, and today it is also the administrative base of our busy Parish.
At around the same time as the plans were drawn up for the new Church Centre, a further development came into being. The Sprowston Memorial plaques, which commemorate local lives lost during two World Wars, needed a new home. The plaques are believed to have been made by “Barnards Ltd”, and have been located in a number of places over the years. They found their new home on a memorial wall, located just outside the Church Centre.
When the Church centre was completed, it was decided, as a finishing touch, that a sculpture should be placed there. The sculptor Geoffrey Clarke R.A was commissioned; his previous work included the high altar cross in Canterbury Cathedral.
“Our path” portrays life as being confused and involved; but as we progress through the maze, the way straightens, although there are still some setbacks; finally it plunges out of sight into death, to emerge again through the Cross. The sculpture is a combination of Roman and Celtic forms, in recognition of St. Cuthbert’s role as a mediator. The work was donated by Eastern Arts, Art in Churches, and the friends of Doris Gallant.
The centenary of St. Cuthbert’s, in 1986, saw a number of projects and events; including a flower festival, and the creation of some colourful pew cushions, each representing different schools, clubs and societies in the community, as well as life in St. Cuthbert’s itself; many of the cushions were made in memory of particular individuals by their families and friends,
Following an outbreak of dry rot at around the time of the church’s centenary, its Victorian wood-block floor, sanctuary area, and timber wall panels had to be removed. The work was extensive , and included the laying of a concrete floor which would eventually be carpeted. Below you can see the extent of the rot, and the then Vicar, Revd Mark Aitken, overseeing work on the floor.
The opportunity was taken to re-model the interior; the Organ was repositioned to a purpose built steel gallery below the west window. Under the gallery, surviving elements of the ornate Victorian vestry woodwork were utilised to create a new vestry and a chapel area. You can see the work in progress below:
In addition to this, a rectangular sanctuary dais was created at the centre of the east wall.
And a large needlework triptych depicting the life of St Cuthbert was made by a parishioner, Mrs Mary Betts.
The triptych depicts the wildlife on Lindisfarne, together with St. Cuthbert’s Cross as the central element. The actual cross is still in existence, and can be seen in Durham Cathedral where St. Cuthbert is buried. It is regarded as a fine example of 7th century Anglo- Saxon craftwork; made from thin gold inlayed with garnet. Such a rich possession would hardly accord with the strict rule of poverty that St. Cuthbert set himself, so it is possible that he did not wear it in his lifetime; it may have been a gift of the King when Cuthbert became Bishop of Lindisfarne, or it may have been acquired later, and placed on the body after his death. Whatever it’s true history, this particular cross has become a great symbol of a dynamic faith; able to reconcile the old and new, rooted in the natural world, and particularly concerned with the welfare of the ordinary person; an appropriate symbol then for St. Cuthbert’s past, present and future.
We’re truly blessed to be stewards of such a unique building, and in the first decade of the 21st Century it was decided to develop the space still further; enabling St.Cuthbert’s to be a multi-purpose space for all the community. The east end was again re-modelled, to form a platform the full width of the church; the work was carried out in 2010 by Paul House; stage builder to the Theatre Royal. A collapsible gantry was also built to hang curtains and stage flats; together with new sound facilities and stage lighting. St. Cuthbert’s has long provided a home to community theatre, but we now have a dedicated performance space which has staged Pantomimes, Passion Plays, Dramas and Concerts; as well as special events for occasions such as Remembrance Sunday and Christmas.
For additional flexibility, padded seating has subsequently replaced the former wooden pew benches, and a large multimedia screen is now situated at the west end of the Church. The space is now fully adaptable to a range of purposes, including modern worship, children’s activities, presentations, conferences, fetes and fairs.
We believe that St. Cuthbert’s is a rare jewel, albeit a bit of a rough diamond. This characteristic, spacious “barn” continues to be a place of exploration and renewal; a home for the community, with Christ very much at the centre. It is also a humble place; born in the shadow of our much grander Parish Church; St. Cuthbert’s has developed a personality and purpose all of its own, shaped by ordinary people. Time has left its mark, and maintenance can be a financial challenge, so we rely on the generosity of those who use this place to keep the building in good repair. But the unique beauty of St. Cuthbert’s is undimmed, as is the faith which has lived here for so long. During the Covid Pandemic St. Cuthbert’s entered cyberspace with the installation of a state of the art video production / streaming system; a move which has the ability to bring St. Cuthbert’s direct to your home.
See also the new guide to our ancient Parish Church here