The Church of St Mary, Houghton-on-the-Hill, North Pickenham, Swaffham, Norfolk, PE37 8FB

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Although traces of medieval wall paintings were noted at St Mary’s as far back as 1994 it wasn’t until a decade later that their true significance was realised. Following Bob & Gloria Davey’s initially lone campaign to secure the churches future Norfolk County Council’s Historic Buildings Team undertook a series of repairs and renovations to the crumbling structure. During this work, which involved replacing the entire roof and removing over five decades of vegetation, it was realised that the amount of surviving medieval paintwork was far larger than first thought. Experts from English Heritage and the Courtauld Institute were called in.

It was only then that it became apparent that, although there were fragments of post reformation and late medieval wall paintings still present, what little remained actually sat on top of a far earlier, and far more complete paint scheme. From the style of painting and the subject matter it soon became clear that these other paintings, still partially concealed by later plaster, lime-wash and centuries of dirt, were extremely early. Showing clear elements of Anglo-Saxon style, and painted on to what is probably very early Norman building fabric, but Saxon origins cannot be entirely ruled out, it is now believed that the paintings date back to the decades immediately following the Norman conquest - making them the most complete set of early Norman wall paintings to be found anywhere in England.

The wall paintings were gradually uncovered in a series of conservation programmes that culminated, in 2006, with the award of a substantial Heritage Lottery Grant to fully conserve them for future generations.

The conservation project allowed detailed study of the images for the very first time; a study that is still on-going. What is clear is that much of the imagery is unique in the history of English medieval wall paintings. An enthroned God is surrounded by faces of the adoring saved, whilst Jesus sits alongside both apostles and demons. The true extent of the wall paintings, and their meaning, has yet to be fully explored…

Rediscovery Conservation