Angel – Roof detail from St Peter Mancroft, Norwich (photo by Michael Rimmer)
Those of you who follow me on Instagram will know of my interest in ecclesiastical architecture and, in particular, Angel Roofs – medieval timber structures decorated with ornate carvings of angels – a preponderance of which are to be found in East Anglia. The money needed to construct the numerous outstanding medieval churches in this part of England came largely from the wool industry and its wealthy merchants. However the ornate timber roofs were made possible due to the large numbers of skilled carpenters in the region specialising in timber construction as well as wood carving.
It was these two factors that gave rise to the Angel Roofs. Many survived the Reformation because they were, fortunately, too inaccessible to destroy (unlike stained glass and other more accessible ‘decoration’ which was successfully obliterated by the iconoclasts). Although water, fire and woodworm have taken their toll on many of the remaining structures over the centuries, some still survive and have been preserved or restored with the assistance of the Churches Conservation Trust which help protect many historic ‘at risk’ buildings across the country.
I first came across these ‘angels in the rafters’ at Blythburgh when I was a child. We would always make a point of stopping off at the beautiful light-filled church (known as ‘The Cathedral of the Marshes’) on our way over to the Heritage Coast for family holidays. When I visited again last year I took time to film and photograph the magnificent roof and, after returning home, decided to do a little more research into these fascinating works of art and engineering.
Helpfully I discovered a wonderfully informative book by Michael Rimmer entitled ‘The Angel Roofs of East Anglia: Unseen Masterpieces of the Middle Ages’. Packed full of interesting facts and lavishly illustrated with detailed photographs, it also contains a map showing the location of the surviving Angel Roofs across the counties of Norfolk, Suffolk and East Anglia. So, from now on, I have decided to make it my mission to visit and photograph as many of these locations as I can whenever we visit the region.
On our recent trip to East Anglia, book in hand, we ‘ticked off’ St Peter Mancroft, Norwich, Wymondham Abbey, Norfolk and St Andrew, Isleham, Cambridgeshire. Each building was a revelation and not only because of its wonderful roof. I am not a religious person or a regular church goer, but I always find something intensely spiritual (in the wider non-denominational sense of the word) in old church buildings and the churchyards that surround them. The sense of history is palpable, rooted as they are in their community. High or low, small or lofty, grand or humble, each one offers peace and tranquility, a rare quality of light and the most astonishing examples of art and craftsmanship imaginable. For that reason alone I find churches are always a joy to visit. But, if they have medieval angels in their rafters then, for me, that makes them extra special.