Building » Aylsham – St John of the Cross

Aylsham – St John of the Cross

White Hart Street, Aylsham, Norfolk NR11 6HG

A functional church of 1961 incorporating an earlier small brick Gothic chapel of 1899. The unique dedication of the church is said to relate to an engraving in the possession of the Shepheard sisters, who built the original chapel.

In 1885 Philip and Maria Shepheard established a chapel in a barn at Abbot’s Hall Farm, their home outside Aylsham, served by visiting priests. Philip’s elder sisters, Charlotte and Elizabeth, lived in Abbott’s House, White Hart Street and when Bishop Arthur Riddell of Northampton paid them a visit in 1898, they told him they wished to build a chapel in their garden. This oratory was blessed and opened on 8 April 1899, dedicated to the memory of their elder brother Samuel, who had died the previous August. The unique dedication (in England) to St John of the Cross is thought to derive from an engraving the sisters had inherited from their grandfather, which now hangs on the gallery in the church. 

The Aylsham mission was included in the new Cromer mission established in 1902; the Abbot’s Hall Farm Shepheards attended that new church. However, the sisters are said to have disliked the Lancashire accent of the priest, Fr Thomas Walmesley Carter, so arranged for priests from St John the Baptist in Norwich to say Mass in their chapel. On the death of Elizabeth in 1927, the house was left to the diocese (who let it) with an endowment for a resident priest. By 1911, Fr Carter had begun to celebrate Mass in the chapel established by Frank Load in North Walsham, and in 1930 responsibility for the Aylsham mission, with its endowment, was transferred to North Walsham. By 1935 the new church there was complete, built with much financial help from Frank Loads.

In 1940, the Cromer church was struggling and responsibility for Aylsham, again with the endowment for a priest, was transferred back to Cromer. As there was a presbytery there, the Aylsham house continued to be let. Aylsham grew in population after the war and in October 1960, the Bishop of Northampton applied for planning permission to extend the Shepheard’s chapel by building a church next to it. The house was sold and the boundaries of the present site established. On 13 August 1961 Bishop Leo Parker laid the foundation stone and the church designed by Wearing & Hastings was opened in time for Christmas. Frank Load’s legacy helped to pay for it and the parish returned to North Walsham.   

In 1992 a new altar was consecrated by Luigi Barbarito, Apostolic Pro-Nuncio to Great Britain. About this time (possibly in 1999) the narthex was added and a choir gallery built.


The church lies roughly northwest to southeast to fit on its corner site, but liturgical points will be used in this report, i.e. the altar at the east.

The builder/designer of the 1899 Gothic chapel has not been established, but it is a simple red brick box with a red-tiled pitched roof on two simple collar trusses and a little sacristy at the northwest corner (now WCs). It is linked to the 1961 church by a door at the southwest corner. The interior is now furnished as a sacristy but the wooden altar beneath a large Y-tracery window at the east remains consecrated to St Theresa of Avila. There is a door to the north beside this altar (towards the sister’s house), a fireplace in the middle of the south wall and a raised floor at the west end, its step guarded by what appears to be a 1961 altar rail. As this liturgical west end actually faces compass east, this was surely the original sanctuary with its former sacristy to compass south. The switch was presumably made in 1961 when the link was added to the reoriented new church, although Bill Wilson records ‘1930s alteration, not severely’. A bench in the 1961 sanctuary, the tabernacle and possibly some other Gothic fittings (including the shelf to the 1990s kitchen hatch, perhaps the 1899 gradine) come from the chapel.

The 1961 church designed by Wearing & Hastings is similar to their church of St Helen, Hoveton (qv), built in 1959. It has a four-bay steel portal frame, with a pantiled roof, red brick walls and brown timber windows on brick cills. The end bays are recessed behind the eaves, with a window on the south and the link to the 1899 chapel on the north. The 1961 west front is rendered with a large round brick window with wooden tracery and coloured glass above the double entry doors and an attached cross rising above the roof apex. The east wall is of Fletton bricks (as is the east wall of the link) which suggests it was hoped to build an extension in the future (as intended at St Edmund, Halesworth and St Mary Magdalen, Ipswich, qqv, both by the same architects). The 1990s narthex is canted, possibly to allow for the ramp access, of red brick walls with a large flint panel on the north and a flat felt roof. There is a kitchen to the south and storage to the north.

Internally the portal frames are clad in cedar but unlike Hoveton, they rise to a high-level collar. The walls up to window cill level are bare brick with plaster above, and the roof is ceiled with plastered panels. A west choir gallery was built in the 1990s, with a dog-leg staircase to the north. The 1992 sanctuary was furnished by parishioners. The central red brick altar is by Adrian Craven, the east wall statues by Anton Wagner. The tabernacle is on a shelf to the south, the foundation stone within a wall on the north side. The 1961 font bowl is housed in a triangular wooden frame with concrete slab sides (in the sacristy).

Heritage Details

Architect: Wearing & Hastings (additions)

Original Date: 1896

Conservation Area: No

Listed Grade: Not Listed