Disastrous fire at Norfolk medieval church leaves round tower standing in the ruins

A disastrous fire at a Norfolk medieval church has left the round tower standing amidst the ruins.

Firefighters were called to St Mary’s, Beachamwell, at 10.44am on Wednesday, February 2 as flames had taken hold of the church roof.

Within minutes the entire thatched roof was ablaze and despite the efforts of firefighters, the church could not be saved. The round tower, which has Saxon and post-Norman Conquest features, remains standing – although fire had scorched the stonework. There are also signs of smoke and possible water damage on the side of the tower, where the fire was the most intense.

A marathon repair programme to replace the lead roof on south aisle and to re-thatch the south side and replace the ridge had just started about a week earlier.

It is thought that the blaze may have started as the work on replacing the lead aisle roof was being carried out. Insurance assessors were also on site later in the week as a full investigation into the cause of the fire began.

St Mary’s, recorded in William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book, has a round tower with Saxon features although there are later additions, including the octagonal belfry dating  from the 14th century.

The church has two pre-Reformation bells in the tower. The interior contained many features including a Jacobean pulpit and also some distinctive examples of medieval graffiti – the Beachamwell Demon.

In May 2019, thieves had stripped the lead from the south aisle. Work had just started to replace the lead and it was planned once this had been completed for the much-needed thatching of the south side to start.

Instead of lead, a coated-steel replacement roof would be laid on the south aisle. But just as the £41,000 project was about to start in September 2020, it was realised that this solution was not feasible. After further discussions, the insurers accepted that a lead replacement was the most sensible option. Finally, on Monday, January 24, 2022, this phase started.

The cost of thatching would have been around £30,000 – and the Round Tower Churches Society had given £3,000 towards the cost as did the Norfolk Churches Trust in July 2020.

Photographs – Credit, Archant.