In the Domesday Book of 1086, Scarning (Skearning) is recorded as having 42.5 households, putting it in the largest 20% of settlements recorded. There are four named landholders in the parish in 1086.
Dr Augustus Jessopp, who was Rector of Scarning from 1879 to 1911, recorded that the village then comprised a few significant properties and about fifty hovels. Since then Scarning has expanded towards Dereham and now has a population of around 2400.
The parish is part of a team ministry including Dereham, Scarning, Swanton Morley, Hoe, East Bilney, Beetley, Shipdham and East and West Bradenham. The benefice is serviced by a team of clergy and lay readers led by the Rector and two team Vicars.
Scarning Hall, immediately to the west of the churchyard, used to be the rectory.
The earliest record we have for a priest in the parish is in 1299 and it is very likely that there was a previous church on this site. Indeed, if you look carefully you can see some “barley twist” fragments in the south wall which might have been recycled from an earlier building.
Experts, including Pevsner, agree that the majority of the current building dates from the 14th century. The base of the tower, with its attractive flushwork, might be a little earlier. The walls of the nave are thought to be 14th century, as are the north and south doorways and the porch.
Scarning Parish Council contributes to the upkeep of the churchyard which contains two Commonwealth War Graves. On the south side of the church there are the graves of some members of the family of Admiral Lord Nelson. The family had a small estate in Scarning and several children from the family attended the village school. Dr Jessopp’s grave is in the south west corner of the churchyard. A register and plan of the churchyard can be viewed here.
A walk round the outside of the church
Starting at the porch, we come first to the south wall of the nave, with its three large Perpendicular windows. The centre window has elongated quatrefoils in its head. The nave windows have all been re-leaded in recent years. There are two brick buttresses at the south-east corner, probably needed for reinforcement as the rood stairs are situated within the wall at this point.
The chancel has a priest’s door, described by Mortlock as ‘…a neat little example of Decorated lines’, the Decorated period being the century prior to around 1380. On the south side of the chancel also lies the two-storey vestry, built in 1576 by Michael Denby, the curate. There is a plaque on the wall inside, inscribed MD 1576. The lower storey was used as a chapel and the upper one is said to have been occupied by Michael Denby, though only for the seven years until he became rector and moved into more spacious accommodation. The window to the upper room, which must have been like a garret, can still be seen, though the vestry is now single storey. Until the 1970s new tiles on the west side of the roof showed where the old chimney had been removed.
In the mid-nineteenth century Thomas Jekyll carried out extensive restoration work on the church, including rebuilding the walls of the chancel, which Pevsner describes as ‘over restored’. He altered the roof so that he could use slates instead of lead, which saved money, and lowered the walls by two feet to accommodate this, thus increasing the pitch of the roof and gable. He renovated most of the chancel windows, completely replacing those on the north side to match those on the south. The windows on the south side were restored again in 2006.
The east window of the chancel is a Victorian renovation by William Wailes, once a colleague of Pugin. It too was refurbished in 2006.
Substantial work was carried out on the gable wall of the chancel in 2014 and 2105, as the flint facing was separating from the brick lining.
Walking back along the north side of the church, we have the three nave windows, which are replicas of those on the south side, though at a different level. At the west end of the nave is the north door, which is 14th century with two headstops. It is not currently in use.
The fine, sturdy tower, built in the Perpendicular style, has two-stepped battlements, topped with carved figures rather than pinnacles. There are big sound-holes with cusped St. Andrew’s crosses as tracery. The base of the tower has attractive flint arcading. There is also patterned flint arcading on the second stages of the diagonal buttresses. The turret stair is on the south side of the tower, with small openings allowing light into the stairway inside.
The main part of the tower is 16th century. In 1521 Robert Kyrby left 13s. 4d. each year for six years ‘to the belding of the stepull’, and in 1524 John Dykeman made a similar bequest. There were other bequests, the final one being from Thomas Secker in 1547 ‘as the new werke goethe forward on the tower’. A survey of 1553 records that there were three bells, as well as the ‘sacring’ [sanctus] bell, so we assume that the tower was complete, or substantially so, by this time. In 1894 Dr Augustus Jessopp paid for the restoration of the tower, and it is hoped that another restoration will be carried out in the near future.
Returning to the 14th century porch, we can see a sundial, dated 1861, above the outer doorway.
Inside the church
Entering the church, we see the massive 13th century font, which shows Norman influence. The bowl is roughly square, having angle columns and standing on five octagonal columns. The font cover, which is Jacobean with a restored base, can be raised by a system of counter-weights.
Passing through the tower arch into the base of the tower, the ancient door to the turret stair is on the left, and opposite is the frame of the Ellacombe apparatus which allows one person to chime all six bells. The church has a fine ring of bells, some of which are over 300 years old and listed as being of historic interest. (For more a full description of the bells and their history click here)
The broad, spacious nave, well lit by its six big windows, has no aisles and has a heavily beamed restored roof.
The Royal Arms of George III, after the union with Ireland, hang over the north door.
The lectern is a fine copy in wood of the brass pelican lectern in Norwich Cathedral. The carved figures on its base represent the threefold ministry of bishops, priests and deacons. A silver plate records that it was a gift to the Reverend Doctor Augustus Jessopp from his parishioners in 1897 to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.
In 2001 the first three rows of pews were removed to provide an area of open space and a suitable setting for the celebration of Holy Communion around the nave altar table. A new floor of hand made pamments was laid. The nave altar is a fine Jacobean table.
The rood stairs can be seen in the south-east corner behind the organ. These gave access to the rood loft and they appear to curve round inside the angle of the corner which is now reinforced by two outside buttresses.
The rood screen is good perpendicular with delicate panel tracery over one-light panels. Doctor Jessopp wrote in the parish magazine of 1904 that the screen must have been put up where it now stands at the beginning of the 15th century. It was intended to separate the clergy who conducted the service in the chancel from the congregation who were kept in the nave.
Above the rood screen was a platform reached via the staircase behind the organ. Life-sized wooden figures of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and St John would have stood on the platform. Regrettably the platform was taken down and destroyed in 1864. A covering of whitewash was removed from the screen at the same time to reveal some of the original paintwork and gilding. This was restored in the 1960s but the original paintwork may still be seen in the lower panels.
The sanctus bell was rung during the consecration of the bread and wine in Holy Communion and it used to be outside the church, probably on the roof. It is now fixed to the south-east corner of the screen and hangs in its original frame.
The organ is a single manual instrument but it is noted for its fine tone which compliments the excellent acoustic in the church.
There are several items of interest in the chancel. The vestry is now a single storey and on either side of the window is an aumbry. These are recesses which were formerly used to house the communion plate and the reserved sacrament and they would have had wooden doors with locks.
A second altar stands behind the communion rail. The splendid altar frontal was made as a project to mark the millennium. There is a smaller Jacobean table which is similar in style to the nave altar. In the south wall of the chancel, near the altar, is a perpendicular cinque-foiled piscine. This is a recessed perforated stone basin for carrying away water used in rinsing the communion vessels.
The vibrant colours in the stained glass give the east window a jewel-like quality. The window dates from 1870 and is a memorial to Phillip Norris Aufrere, son of the rector Phillip du Val Aufrere and his second wife, who are both buried near the south wall in the chancel. The window was restored and re-leaded in 2006. The window arch is old and dates back to the 13th century. There are two fine corbels on the east wall in the corners.
On the north wall there is a memorial alabaster figure of a child reclining on a skull and an inscribed tablet for Edward Games, son of John Games, who died just 12 hours after birth on 14 May 1623. The memorial is by the noted sculptor Epiphanius Evesham. The north-west window with a brass plate below is in memory of the Revd Ellis Wharcup, RN, who was chaplain to HMS Pelorus. He died in Melbourne in 1860 and there is also a shield showing his boar’s head in the south-east window.
On the south wall is a memorial plaque to the Revd Doctor Augustus Jessopp, author and historian. He was the Headmaster of King Edward VI’s School in Norwich for 20 years before serving as Rector of Scarning for 32 years. He was also a Canon of Norwich Cathedral and a Chaplain to King Edward VII. He died in 1914.
The church plate includes one flagon of 1706 which weighs over 65 troy ounces and a further flagon of 1746. These items are no longer kept in the church. They are on loan to the Castle Museum in Norwich and form part of the collection of church silver which is regularly displayed in the Castle or the Cathedral. Scarning’s ancient silver also includes a chalice which is used occasionally for Holy Communion services.
Several members of the Browne family lie buried under the high altar. They were a Royalist family, and one tablet to Marke Browne “born in Amsterdam in 1691 and deceased and interred in Scarning in 1693” speaks mutely of the connection and intermingling of East Anglia and the Netherlands in those days. The oldest floor vault still readable is a tiny one in the chancel to the daughter of Edward Blackhall, who died in 1658.
The Evans-Lombe family were patrons of St Peter and St Paul for many generations.
The work of caring for the building continues. The church and vestry were re-roofed in 1979. The clock is of the flat bed type and is wound automatically. The church has a PA system and a ramp to help with access.
Switchgear and heating were replaced in 2007 with the help of a grant from Awards for All.
In 2012 the PCC was offered a major grant from English Heritage for high level restoration work and the installation of a new drainage system. The offer was conditional on the PCC raising a further substantial amount toward the cost and generous support from the local community triggered grants from other bodies. The completion of the work in spring 2015 was marked by a special service led by the Bishop of Norwich. Since the installation of the new drainage system, the conditions within the church have improved significantly.
There were further improvements to the switchgear in 2019 and the installation of more efficient heaters. Pew cushions were provided.
The project to restore the nave windows was completed in 2021.
In normal times, services are held every Sunday at 11.15. The church is open daily for private prayer and visits, and continues to serve as a focal point for village life in Scarning.
This is an ancient church, maintained and cherished over many generations.