Upgate, Poringland, NR14 7SH
Formerly the home of the artist Geoffrey Birkbeck, the White House at Poringland was given by his widow to the Diocese of Northampton in 1960. Since 1976 it has been the residence of the Bishop of East Anglia. The church alongside it is a practical modern design which has grown incrementally but incorporates as its sanctuary a small classical chapel of 1949. There are one or two furnishings of note, but regrettably an altar and baldacchino from the old Sardinian Chapel in Lincoln’s Inn Fields were destroyed in 1972.
Kelly’s Directory of 1912 (p.413) described Poringland House (now The White House) as ‘a mansion of brick, pleasantly situated on the southern slope of Poringland Hills with beautiful and extensive grounds.’ At that time it was owned by Martin Birkbeck, a member of a family of bankers associated with the Gurneys of King’s Lynn, and the owners of Stoke Hall at Stoke Holy Cross. Martin’s son Henry, who was born deaf and dumb, lived with his mother at Poringland House, while the younger brother Geoffrey (b.1875) maintained the family estate at Stoke Hall. Geoffrey had converted to Catholicism in 1901, and set up a chapel and mission at Stoke Holy Cross in 1911 (The Tablet, 1925). He was an artist, and appears to have taken little interest in estate affairs; he got into financial difficulties, and this eventually led to the break-up of the estate and demolition of the house just before the war. His brother and mother having both died in 1939, Geoffrey moved to Poringland House (hereon The White House), where in 1943 he offered his studio as a chapel for local Catholics. In 1949, he built an apsidal chapel off one corner of the house, dedicated to Our Lady of the Annunciation. It contained a ‘Sardinian altar in turquoise and gold with eight large candlesticks to match, two gilded angels, gold stars in a blue sky on the underside of the baldacchino and a handsome embroidered altar frontal’ (parish website). This came from the old Sardinian Embassy Chapel in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which had been demolished at the instigation of the London County Council in 1909 to make way for the laying out of Kingsway. It seems likely that Geoffrey Birkbeck acquired the altar at that time, setting it up at Stoke Holy Cross in 1911. When the estate got into difficulties in the early 1930s, the altar went to St John’s at Norwich; a chronology of the cathedral in the Diocesan Archives records that in 1932-3 an ‘Altar and canopy from Mr Geoffrey Birkbeck’s chapel at Stoke Holy Cross’ was temporarily positioned in its Walsingham Chapel, and that ‘The Canopy dated from penal times and used to stand over the altar at Sardinian Embassy in London’. A further note records that in April 1936 the ‘Baldachino moved from Walsingham Chapel to Precious Blood Chapel [north choir]. Pillars said to have been in Sardinian embassy chapel and may be 200 years old. Remainder made for Stoke Holy Cross Chapel and given to St John’s when that chapel closed’. It appears that this was a loan rather than a gift, since the altar was later returned to Poringland.
Birkbeck died in 1954, and in 1960 his widow gave The White House to the Diocese of Northampton, which made it the residence of the auxiliary bishop. In 1976 the house became the residence of the bishop of the newly-created Diocese of East Anglia.
In 1972, an extension was built at right angles to the east end of the north side, creating an L-shaped church (architect Anthony Whitwood ARIBA, Norwich City Architect 1981-93). A brass plaque records that the 1949 chapel was ‘remodelled with help from volunteers and consecrated on Palm Sunday 15th April 1973 by Rt Rev’d Alan Clark, Bishop of Elmham’.Regrettably the altar and baldacchino from the Sardinian Chapel were removed and destroyed, although the tabernacle is said to survive at Cathedral House in Norwich (Michael Hill, Diocesan Archivist, pers. Comm.)
By 1997, the population had grown further and plans were drawn up by Mark Kenney RIBA (Norfolk Property Services) to enlarge the church by replacing the 1972 extension with a large square nave against the whole north wall of the 1949 chapel. The latter became a large south-facing sanctuary and its original west entrance a sacristy. A new entrance narthex with WCs was formed on the east side of the new church. Built by Draper & Nichols of Norwich, it was completed in December 2002 and dedicated by Bishop Michael Evans on 7 June 2003.
Planning for a second phase was postponed during Bishop Michael Evans’ illness but was completed in 2016 by Mark Kenney RIBA (then of CBFA Ltd Norwich), adding a meeting room and priest’s sacristy (the Thirkettle Room), extending the narthex eastwards and filling the 1949 apse with a reconciliation room. The sanctuary was re-floored and other improvements made.
Also in 2016, a large decorative lead urn in the garden (probably acquired by Geoffrey Birkbeck) was presented by Bishop Alan Hopes to St John’s Cathedral, where it now sits in the garden near the Narthex (for more information, see Cathedral report).
As the building has been re-orientated, liturgical compass points are used, i.e. the altar is at the east.
The walls are of red ‘brindle’ brick with artificial slate roofs and white painted windows and doors. The three different phases can be readily made out. The 1949 chapel bricks are wire-cut Flettons, possibly indicating it was intended to render the wall. This would accord with its classical design, the nave walls being articulated with pilasters between the windows, their capitals merging into the mouldings of the wide wood eaves cornice. The roof is hipped towards the house over the original entrance with its two arched doorways. The apse has a tiny hip in front of the open timber octagonal bellcote (one bell) capped by a faceted domical roof and cross.
The twenty-first century extensions are under pitched roofs, but there is a flat roof between the 1949 chapel and 1997-2002 extension with doors at either end and dome lights in the ceiling. A steel and glass pitched roof stands in front of the narthex entry.
The congregational space is square, with small extruding window bays at the end of each wall, the northeast and southeast for devotional statues, the southwest for a prayer table, the northwest being the main double door entry. The organ console fills that at the south end of the west wall, the font with its pool the north end bay, next to the main door. There are folding doors along the whole east wall, to allow the sanctuary to be closed off when the nave is used for secular events. The former narthex of the 1949 chapel is the sacristy for the altar servers and a cleaners’ store. The narthex has WCs to the west and north; the Thirkettle Room on its north side is a meeting room with a kitchen and the priest’s sacristy.
The stone altar of 1972 was designed by Anthony Whitwood. The font is a ceramic bowl within an octagonal oak stand, made from a tree taken down for the 1997-2002 extension. It has a lip to discharge water into a small square tiled pool, below which a person could kneel for immersion baptism. The wooden Baroque paschal candle stand beside the font is the only fitting to survive from 1949, repainted and restored by a parishioner in 2002.
The four rectangular east windows of the 1949 chapel were filled with attractive semi-abstract stained glass by Norfolk artist Paul Quail in 2009 and the two apse windows with similar glass by his wife Jane Quail and assistant Lily Shaw in 2013.
Architect: Mark Whitwood and Anthony Kenney (additions)
Original Date: 1949
Conservation Area: No
Listed Grade: Not Listed