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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

20 May 2022

A Norfolk medieval church inspires the name of Malcolm Guite’s new boat

WHEN we retired to Norfolk, I imagined many idyllic days on the Broads, following the counsel of Ratty in The Wind in the Willows and “simply messing about in boats”. To that end, as a step up from Willow, the little sailing canoe that I kept on the Cam, I acquired a lovely 20-foot sailing cutter, built by a local Broadsman, and happily named Ranworth Rose.

Her maker came from the village of Ranworth, which boasts a fine medieval church dedicated in honour of St Helen, and sometimes known as “the cathedral of the Broads”, as its tall tower can be seen from miles around and is a familiar sight to boaters. The main body of the church is 14th-century, although there has been a church there since Anglo-Saxon times.

But the real treasure of that church, apart from the tower, which gives you such a fine view of the Broads themselves, spread out like a map below you, is the extraordinary rood screen. Amazingly, it remains entire and intact, and the beautiful images of the angels, saints, and apostles, covered for centuries by whitewash, have been uncovered and carefully restored, so that it now holds what Sir Simon Jenkins has called “England’s finest church screen paintings”.

They are so fresh and delicate, and some of them are so clear and finely detailed, that you might think that the paint was scarcely dry. The fine grey feathers on St Michael’s wings contrast with the feathery gold of his armour, as he treads barefoot on the dragon with an almost nonchalant expression, a kind of musing, unconcerned contemplation.

The 12 apostles occupy the centre, of course, but St George and St Michael also have their place; and then, remarkably, the whole group is flanked by a cohort of the great female saints: St Mary Salome, with Sts John and James as toddlers; St Mary Cleophas with her four toddlers: Sts James the Less, Simon, Jude, and Joseph, some of them playing with model boats and windmills — these two could compose a medieval mums-and-toddlers group just on their own; the Blessed Virgin Mary herself is there as well; and then, flanking all these, there are the formidable figures of St Etheldreda and St Barbara. When it comes to the profile of women in the church and, indeed, to being “family-friendly”, it seems that St Helen’s, Ranworth, was well ahead of the curve.

But there is more; for, on the other side of the screen, covered by the choir stall misericords, they found the “Ranworth Roses”: finely stylised, five-petalled images of the white rose of the House of York, hidden for more than 450 years behind those miserere stalls, and seen again for the first time only in 1996. And it was these that first drew me to the church; for they were also painted, delicately, on the wood panels of my own Ranworth Rose.

I have not sailed her anything like as much as I had hoped or imagined; for retirement turns out not to be so retiring, after all. But, this year, I found her a mooring in Ranworth itself, and brought her home, as it were. So I came to Ranworth by water, as they did in the Middle Ages, and, once my boat was snug and set in her new berth, I made a pilgrimage up the lane to her mother church, said a prayer of thanksgiving for my little boat, and added a heartfelt petition that I might have a little more time to mess about in her.

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