ONE of the joys of living in Norfolk — whose landscapes lack the epic scale of Cumbria or Scotland, or the mythic drama of Cornwall or Wales, but are nevertheless uniquely and integrally related to its mutating shoreline — is the persistent sense that you are standing on top of history, or participating in a story whose beginnings go back many centuries.
Sometimes, however, you have to look carefully underneath the surface — to see how and where the narrative has unfolded. This is not a topography that shouts about its charms, and is perhaps the more interesting for that. It is an elusive landscape that you have to take your time to get to know; and it is only then that its secrets are gradually and grudgingly divulged.
Once the agricultural powerhouse of England, Norfolk declined in economic importance after it was bypassed by the Industrial Revolution. It is now a land of secrets, of covert places, and of communities lost after the devastation of the Black Death. One of the most remarkable memorials to the many abandoned villages of the county is St Mary’s at Houghton-on-the-Hill.
This lonely church is the last survivor of a once thriving medieval hamlet that succumbed to the plague of 1348-49. Now a solitary and abandoned outpost, standing improbably in the middle of a field, St Mary’s was at one time filled with the hubbub of the villagers, and illuminated by many candles as light flickered over the delicate red-lead and white-vermilion traceries of the church’s Norman frescoes.
IT IS no accident that one of the most significant of the remarkable images uncovered in this ancient building depicts a wheel of fortune: a popular medieval motif used to illustrate the ups and downs of day-to-day existence. This was not the expression of a religious sensibility that denied or underplayed the unfairness of fate; rather, one that tried to make sense of it. Here was no simplistic portrayal of an easy faith; rather, a brilliant artistic interpretation that acknowledged in full that life could be unpredictable, deadly, and capricious.
Uncertainty about what was to come, in this life or the next — when the worshipper might just as easily be prodded by demons towards hell as set on the road to salvation — was an essential component of the lively hubbub of village worship and conversation.
Confronted by the solemn saints, and the faces of the damned and elect that coolly return our gaze after the passing of many centuries, we are able to enter imaginatively into a system of belief which was this society’s heartbeat. It was also a belief that fully accommodated doubt.
Far from being the forlorn and forsaken outposts they resemble today, rural churches such as St Mary’s were at one time the barometers of their societies’ health. They offered sustenance at times of great hardship and — as during the Black Death — distress. But they were also gathering places for the whole community, where the realities of life and death could be represented pictorially, enabling everyone to share the essential truth of their own experience.
The people who constructed this building, who filled it with light and sympathy and lively discussion, are long gone. What they have left are echoes in the dark. But here is a concrete reminder, too, that faith in pre-Reformation England mattered because it was rooted in the very soil of the community. This was no abstract codex, existing in isolation from what was happening in the fields and streets and on the deathbed. It depicted a suffering and a loss that worshippers would have known for themselves all too keenly.
A richly decorated interior, with wall-paintings illustrating the Last Judgment, the lush flora of the Garden of Eden, and Noah’s Ark tossed on the stormy waters of a glowering sea, allowed everyone to share not only in worship, but also in the collegial coming together of everyday social concerns. This church not only served the community: in a profound and important sense it was the community.
THE long-suffering people of the Norfolk coastline have always had to practise endurance. Those whose descendants now inhabit the settlements once called Wiventona, Claia, Esnuterle, Salhus, and Guella — now Wiveton, Cley, Blakeney (or formerly “Snitterley”), Salthouse, and Wells — felt far from sentimental about villages that came to be known, thanks to the later writings of Clement Scott, as Poppyland. This was a coast that consumed whole families, and that devastated communities.
The spectral and impenetrable smoke of its drifting sea-frets seemed the sinister harbinger of far-off maritime disaster. Sailors sometimes never returned from the icy Baltic sea-roads. The storms that erased the wayfarers of the seas also ate up entire towns. Cosmopolitan and powerful Dunwich, once “the sixth greatest town of England” (Nicholas Comfort, The Lost City of Dunwich), is the best-known but by no means the only example of a settlement or port whose haunting remnants tell of a medieval society literally blown away by wave and storm.
And it is then that happiness gives way to a sense of loss and ruin; for, with an appreciation of the charms of the landscape between the Runtons, clustered around an Incleborough Hill liberally swathed in vibrant moss and heather, comes realisation that just a mile out to sea lies the submerged town of Shipden-juxta-Mare. Local folklore had it that only a fool would take to the waters if the bells of Shipden Church could be heard from beneath the waves; for it was then a thing as certain as sunrise that a storm was on the way.
IN THE 14th century, Shipden was a thriving town with a busy harbour and several manors, among them one owned by the Paston family (of eponymous letters’ fame), and another in the possession of the Crown. We know, however, that, by 1337, the sea had done considerable damage to the doomed port. Shipden’s church, St Peter’s, was abandoned by the early 1340s, while its deracinated population was forced to migrate inland to the satellite settlement of Crowsmere.
In The Lost Coast of Norfolk (2006), Neil Storey claims that all the fishermen of the area remain aware of the lost village, which stood on the seaward side of the town that we know today as Cromer. Indeed, Church Rock, just beyond the famous pier, remains a hazard to shipping.
Storey writes: “On 9 August 1888, the pleasure steamer Victoria had set out on an unwise course from the pier when her hull scraped over Church Rock and was holed on her port side. Fortunately, she did not sink, and all passengers were ferried off and sent home by train. Surely this is the only instance of a ship being stranded on top of a church tower!”
He cites in support the Directory of Norfolk, written by William White in 1890: “At very low tides there are still to be seen, nearly half a mile from the cliffs, large masses of wall, composed of square flints, which sailors call church rock”.
There is much to be gained, I feel, from reflecting on the resilience and courage of these coastal communities, whose streets and houses — whose inns, trades, and church towers — were, over time, pounded into fragments by the encroaching waves. These were individuals for whom perseverance and sufferance were their daily bread. In the end, the places they were born, the lanes they had played and lived in, were taken from them as surely and inevitably as their own short and difficult lives were subject to termination.
The Norfolk coast is now rightly popular with holidaymakers, but few visitors, thankfully, will know the terror of sailors and fishermen who had to steer their craft away from the menacing Haisbro’ Sands, known to generations of mariners as the Devil’s Throat, near Happisburgh; or fully appreciate the hardship of fishing communities who tried to eke a living from crab, lobster, whiting, cod, and salt herring.
This was a faithful community, for which Christianity and the hope of resurrection served as guiding lights in the storm. But it was also an anxious and sometimes fearful one.
Furthermore, for all the courage of heroic lifeboatmen such as the later — and rightly celebrated — Henry Blogg (1876–1954), it was not always generous. The medieval men of Wells, or Guella, had a reputation for plunder and wreck, and earned the sobriquet “bitefingers” for their unsavoury method of removing rings from the digits of drowned sailors.
If you look carefully today at the interior walls of Wiveton and Salthouse Churches you can see etched there, into the medieval stonework, the graffiti of miniature boats carved by mariners. Perhaps this was done in the earnest hope that they and their ships would be protected by the magical efficacy of ancient prayer and liturgy.
There was no guarantee of safety from either storm or wreckers; but there was hope, even in the midst of grave uncertainty about long-term survival in the tempest, and of whatever dangers lay ahead during the voyage.
This is an edited extract from Exploring Doubt by Alex Wright, published by Darton, Longman & Todd at £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70).