The oldest building in the village
This is the Grade II-listed Church of St Mary the Virgin, built of flint, with freestone dressings.
The oldest visible parts of this great church are in the chancel, which was built shortly before the Black Death in 1348. It’s likely that St Mary’s is built on the site of an earlier Saxon church as there are references to land being owned by Aelfric, Bishop of Elmham, in 1038. In fact, recent archaeological excavations taking place during building works revealed a skeleton that had probably been buried wrapped in a shroud which pre-dates the current church.
The 80-foot tower is massive for a Norfolk church. It was built around the time of the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, the year when Henry V dissolved the alien priories. There was a priory in Docking which was an alien cell of the Abbey of Ivry, Normandy, who owned the Rectory and so this was passed to Joan, Dowager Queen of England, and thence by Henry VI to Eton College in 1441.
The top of the tower is one of the highest points in Norfolk, and commands excellent views over the Wash and North Sea. Its tall buttresses indicate that it was intended to take a substantial ring of bells to call the people to worship from all parts of this extra-large parish in a period when they possessed no clocks. It contains a peal of five bells which are chimed mechanically. The oldest of these bells dates from 1622 and bears the inscription ‘John Draper made me’. It was recast in 1890.
The clock, made by J Smith & Sons of the Midland Steam Clock Works in Derby, was installed in 1902 to commemorate the coronation of Edward VII, who did so much for the churches around Sandringham when he was Prince of Wales.
The south porch of the Perpendicular period has an interesting outer doorway with two empty niches above the arch, which would have once held statues, probably of St John and St Mary. There is also a smaller chancel porch which is no longer in use.
An ancient record refers to a tomb in the churchyard by the south porch with the Latin inscription “John Houton 1428, pray for his soul”. The very old horizontal tombstone east of the porch is identifiable as that of John Houton, though the inscription is badly eroded. It is extremely rare to find a churchyard grave with an inscription as early as this one.
The Victorian Restoration
The Victorian restoration of the church started early with a new roof and seats in 1838, but by 1875 with a growing population, the people of Docking were dissatisfied with the size and quality of their church. In those days the children sat in a gallery at the west end, where a man kept order and conducted their singing with a special stick that had a silver knob on it.
A London architect, Mr F Preedy, was engaged to enlarge the church, remove the gallery and raise the height of the nave roof. He planned for a robed choir in the chancel with the organ in a special chamber near the choir. He designed the whole of the north aisle with its apex roof, the vestry, the organ chamber, the slate roof to the nave and new seating in 1875/6 for a cost of £4314. Major H J & Mrs Hare were the main donors contributing £3023 between them, the balance being raised by public subscription.
A detailed model of the church before this great restoration was made by John Skerry in 1875 and can be found on display in the church today.
Three shields on the north aisle buttresses pose a problem. They appear to be Victorian copies of much earlier shields which could have been on the nave buttresses which had to be demolished to make way for the new north aisle. In which case they could refer to the donors of the Perpendicular period windows. They represent the families of Heydon and Uphall who also feature on the battlements of Harpley church. Reverend Heydon was rector of Southmere (Summerfield) in the middle of the 16th century. Another interesting feature on the outside is the money box (now disused) in the north door for churchyard expenses. The central window in the north aisle was reglazed in a modern style in memory of Terence Rowland (T R) Wagg, Master Baker from Docking, who died in 1973.
The 15th century octagonal shaped font is the great treasure of this church. The faces on it were mutilated at the reformation, possibly in compliance with the order of Edward VI that statues were to be removed from churches. Around the bowl are Saint Luke, Saint Mark, Saint Matthew and Saint John with their emblems just below the bowl, and alternating with these evangelists are others including St Andrew with his Saltire and St John holding a chalice on a closed book in his left hand, and a branch in his right. Around the stem are eight female saints, including Saint Catherine, Saint Margaret, Saint Elizabeth, Saint Mary and unusually, St Appolonia, the patron saint of dentists. She is shown holding forceps or pincers in her hand. The angles of the bowl have figures on them depicting nude angels which signify the souls of the righteous. On the base are four animals.
The pulpit was given to the church, quite independently of the Victorian restoration, by H E (Hannah Elizabeth) Hare, in memory of her mother Charlotte Newbold who died on March 20th 1862. Hannah was the wife of Humphrey J Hare of Docking Hall. It is made of Caen stone, nicely carved on five sides. The carvings include the Chi Rho (pronounced kee roe), a sacred monogram composed of the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ, χριστός (chrīstós), meaning “anointed one”. Another panel is carved with the Alpha and Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet used to emphasise the eternity and infinity of God, while a third of the panels is carved with the letters IHS, a monogram symbolizing Jesus Christ. From the Greek, it is an abbreviation of the name ΙΗΣΟΥΣ (Jesus).
Behind the pulpit is a piscina, a shallow basin used for washing the communion vessels, and here can be found a lead panel bearing the names of the church wardens in 1724. This panel has been saved when repairs were being done elsewhere in the church.
A beautifully carved wooden lectern in the shape of an Eagle was given in 1882, sadly this lectern was stolen many years ago. The pews are a complete set made as part of the 1876 enlargement of the church. There is even a short pew at the back for the Parish Clerk.
The large stained glass east window in the Chancel is beautifully decorated and one of the highlights of the church. The four large lower panels either side of the centre panel were erected by local farmer Mr William Peacock in memory of his wife Nancy (1900-1982), and his daughter Elizabeth (1930-1992). The quatrefoil traceries above were given by different people.
The south facing windows are interesting. One window shows Saint Anna teaching her daughter Mary to read, and Saint Francis preaching to the birds. In the other window, one panel shows Pope Gregory while the second panel shows Saint Cecilia with her organ. It’s interesting to compare the style of glazing of the windows in the chancel with the window portraying King David in the north aisle chapel which was made in 1898 at the height of the Victorian extravagance. Also in the north aisle chapel is a marble topped altar with the date 1638 carved on one end
Between the chancel and the vestry, the stonework of an original Decorated period window survives as a reminder of over 650 years of continuous worship here. The chancel contains many memorials to the Hare family of Docking Hall, and the vestry is built over a crypt containing tombs of this family.
There is a very fine monument of 1837, showing in bas-relief a mother and child gracefully leaving earth for heaven. Unfortunately, one of the crocketed pinnacles is broken.
Finally, we come to the organ. Housed in an organ chamber between the chancel and the north, or Lady chapel, it was built by G M Holdich and dates from about 1858. It’s believed to have stood in a west gallery, and had gilded pipes. It was extended by Lloyds of Nottingham in 1875 when it was moved to its present position, and further modified by Norman and Beard in 1914. More recently the organ was given a complete strip down, repair and rebuild in 2007. It was originally powered by bellows, usually operated by one of the children from the village. This ended when electricity came to the church in 1937 and the bellows were replaced with an electric motor and pump.
Visit the church
The church is open for visitors and private prayer during the daytime, and for services as part of the Benefice of Docking, the Birchams, Fring, Stanhoe and Sedgeford on Sundays. As you can see from the description above it is most definitely worth a visit if you are in the area.
Much of the text used here has been taken from a leaflet which was compiled in 1984 for Church Tours by Richard Butler-Stony, copies of which can usually be found in the church, or you can download a copy here.