A little way south of Norwich, standing atop what counts for a hill in these parts, is a tiny roundtower church nestled amidst trees. All Saints Church stands above the small village of Keswick in a crumpled corduroy landscape of wintry ploughed fields. Like most of the territory of this urban fringe, the church lies within the acoustic shadow of the city’s southern bypass and the dull thrum of traffic melds with the chatter of birds in the trees and hedgerows – mostly finches, tits and blackbirds at this time of year. Across the valley, a thread of pylons leads inexorably north towards Norwich where they will deliver electricity to power the city’s PlayStations, fridge-freezers and TiVo boxes. A narrow track leads from the main road up to the church but this is impassable in a car as a collapsable central barrier has been installed. With nowhere to park, we sneak into a bus lay-by on the main road in the knowledge that, this being Sunday, there won’t be one along for at least an hour or so. Arriving on foot at the gate, the church noticeboard informs us that services are held once a month on the last Sunday of the month, an impressive boast for such a small church in this day and age. In fact, a quick look at Simon Knott’s highly commendable Norfolk Churches website tells us that this is probably the smallest working church in all the county. And, as Norfolk has the lion’s share of Europe’s roundtower churches (124 of 185 in the whole of the UK), Keswick All Saints is probably the smallest functional roundtower church in Britain, if not in Europe. Not today, though – today, the church door remains firmly locked.
Keswick Hall just across the valley was once the home of the Gurney family, a local dynasty with farming and banking interests. The mossy tombs of several family members look down from the vantage point of the graveyard towards the hall that was once their earthly domain. The original church fell into disuse in the 16th century and was later partly demolished to repare the church at nearby Intwood (also All Saints) when the two parishes were united. Nearly four hundred years later in 1893, it was the Gurney family who came to the rescue, restoring the ruin and adding a short nave to create a mortuary chapel, which eventually became a church once more when services were authorised in 1934. If the earlier church was small, the Gurney restoration is tiny, just half the size of the original. But we could not get inside this ecclesiastic doll’s house to see the stained glass window or roof angels. No matter – on a sunny and unseasonably mild February day that already bore the promise of spring it was enough to enjoy the snowdrops in the copse and watch a pair of buzzards circle overhead on the thermals that rose from the sun-warmed fields.