Explore The Abbey
Wymondham Abbey is a building with a great capacity to surprise. First you see the two massive towers of the church, the one ruined and the other unfinished, and then, as you draw nearer, you become aware of the fact that they are completely dissimilar, and set one at each end of the building. Next, if approaching the church from the town of Wymondham, you see the ruins and foundations at the east end, and you realise that what remains standing and in use today is only half of the great Abbey Church which once dominated the South Norfolk countryside. Only, in fact the Nave of the monastic church, together with its aisles and west and central towers. Hardly anything remains above ground of the once-splendid monastic Quire which lay beyond the tall arch of the, now-ruined, central tower.
The main entrance to the Abbey is through the North Porch, dating from the mid-fifteenth century. It is built entirely of dressed stone, some of this being a re-working of the Caen stone used by the twelfth-century builders. Rising behind and above the Porch is the north clerestory wall, which is richly decorated with typical East Anglian flushwork. This is a building technique in which knapped (split) flints are used to fill in panels cut in dressed stone, thereby creating a decorative effect.
Inside the Abbey the visitor first enters the North Aisle, which presents a very different appearance from that of the original twelfth-century Priory church. The original aisle was narrow and dark whereas the present aisle, as rebuilt about 1300, is exceptionally wide and lit by an impressive row of large windows.
Opposite the main doors is the Lady Statue (3), designed by Sir J Ninian Comper, and given to the Abbey in 1947. The Lady Statue originally stood in the Lady Chapel at the east end of the North Aisle but was moved to its present position in 1991 when the Triptych was installed in the Lady Chapel.
To the left is the Font (5), dating from about 1440, and moved to its present position from under the west end of the Nave in the early twentieth century. It is one of a comparatively large group of fonts in Norfolk and Suffolk, which are similar in form and presumably come from the same workshop.
They are characterised by deeply-cut carvings on the eight sides of the bowl. The font cover is modern, but very much in the East Anglian tradition of tall stately covers. It was designed by Cecil Upcher and given in memory of Canon Frederick Jarvis, Vicar of Wymondham from 1932 to 1953.
Moving down the North Aisle, the glory of the exceptional hammer-beam roof, built in the mid-fifteenth century and restored at the beginning of the twentieth century, can be seen. It is exceptional on account of its length, form and elaborate decoration.
The roof is supported by a long line of stone corbels, carved in a variety of subjects, with angels predominating at the western end and a fox and goose, a man playing bagpipes, the Lion of St Mark and several people wearing fifteenth century headgear appearing towards the eastern end. One of the windows in this Aisle contains the only coloured glass in the Abbey (10). Given in 1840 by John Cann, it is a late example of enamelled, rather than stained, glass. Further down the Aisle hangs a magnificent brass chandelier (12), given in 1712 by Elizabeth Hendry. Until the major restoration of the Abbey at the beginning of the twentieth century, it hung in the middle of the Nave. Behind the Altar, on the eastern wall of the Lady Chapel, is a Triptych of the Arts and Craft Movement (14), designed by E P Warren and incorporating plaster panels by R Anning Bell and paintings by W Dacres Adam, made in 1904 and brought to the Abbey in 1991.
By retracing their steps back down the North Aisle, the visitor is best placed to enter the Nave to appreciate the beauty of the Nave and the Altar Screen. The Nave is the core of the original Priory Church begun in 1107, but has changed in appearance over the years. The twelfth-century arcade and triforium support a later clerestory and great hammer-beam roof dating from the fifteenth century. The Nave was shortened at the eastern end in the late fourteenth century when the present central tower was built. The western end was remodelled in the fifteenth century when the old west front with two low towers was demolished and the present huge West Tower begun. In the eighteenth century box pews were introduced and a large gallery constructed at the western end for the present organ to stand on. At the beginning of the twentieth century this wooden gallery supporting the organ was removed and a stone-fronted organ gallery was constructed. At this time the box pews were removed and the Chancel and choir stalls rebuilt as they are today. From the sixteenth century the present wall behind the High Altar would have been left bare.
The magnificent golden Altar Screen, Tester and Rood (13) was planned in 1913 when the then Vicar, Canon S Martin Jones, invited Mr (later, Sir) J Ninian Comper to prepare a new design. Owing to the First World War the start of the work was delayed until 1919, with final completion in 1934. The Screen, Tester and Rood were made possible by the generosity of a number of benefactors, with the Screen itself begun as a memorial to the people of Wymondham who died in the First World War (1914 - 1918). The Tester and Rood were given in memory of Mrs Clara Willett, whose gift of over fourteen thousand pounds enabled the great restoration of the Abbey in 1901-1903.
Looking west down the Nave, the vista is closed by the main Organ (2), framed in the fine Tower arch, built in the 1440s, and standing on an elegant stone bridge bearing the date 1903. The Abbey has two Organs, both built by James Davis of Preston. The main Organ at the west end of the Nave under the West Tower given by Miss Ann Farmer in 1793. The present instrument having three manuals and a pedalboard.
The original keyboard is in a glass case on the ground floor under the West Tower. The Organ underwent major restoration in the mid 1950s and 1970s, but the major part of the original eighteenth century instrument, including the case and pipework survives in use today. A smaller Chamber Organ (11), by the same maker, dating from 1810, stands in the North Aisle and is used for services in the Lady Chapel. It was given to the Abbey by Mr Michael Buttolph, a former chorister.
The south aisle has a history of its own, too, having been enlarged post-dissolution, re-using stone and windows from the nearby chapter-house (the arch of which you can still see amongst the ruins by the East tower.
Bells have played a prominent part in the history of Wymondham Abbey, with the earliest record dating back to 1410. By the beginning of the eighteenth century the Abbey possessed five bells and these were used for change-ringing. But by the beginning of the nineteenth century the timbers of the bell-frame had become too dilapidated from ringing to continue and it seems that bells were silent throughout most of the nineteenth century. A new frame was built in 1903 and three new bells were added to the ring. Finally in 1967 the bell-frame was lowered and extended, and the eight bells were recast by the Whitechapel Foundry to form a ring of ten. The tenor bell weighs over 26 cwt.(1.3 tonnes).The spacious ringing chamber is located immediately beneath the bell chamber and is accessed by a stone spiral staircase up the inside wall of the West Tower.