251: Cley & Blakeney

OS Explorer map 251, Norfolk Coast Central: Wells-next-the-Sea & Fakenham. I do not own this map, but had visited it before starting this blog. Visited again for this post 16th February 2019.

My dear friend Millicent is very interested in churches, and is rather a fount of knowledge about them, making him always a good person to go church-visiting with. I like a good church myself, and if I’m lucky might be able to spot a feature of interest or two here or there – but it’s always more interesting in Millicent’s company, who can point at countless details and put them in historical context and just, well, knows a lot of relevant and interesting things.

St Nicholas’s Church, Salthouse

A while ago Millicent and I had decided to find a weekend day when we were both free, in order to swan off from Cambridge together to go to look at some interesting churches, and tick off a map area for me at the same time. I left all the planning to him, so on a Saturday in February, we drove off, chatting as we passed through uncannily flat countryside and many pig farms for the hour-and-a-half drive to our destination, a cluster of villages in North Norfolk with particularly interesting churches and history: Salthouse, Cley-next-the-Sea, Wiveton and Blakeney.

Before any details, though, an apology – you’ll have to forgive me a little for this blog post. I’m currently heinously behind on writing up this blog, writing this entry about a February trip over 10 months later, in December. While I’m often reasonably good at remembering odd details of what happened on long-ago trips, I expect that when it comes to interesting historical details of churches I last heard nearly a year ago, my memory is going to be rather less accomplished. Do forgive me also, if as well as less extensive than it would have been, any of my information is outright inaccurate!

Our day’s route! Salthouse, then over to Cley for a pub lunch before walking to Wiveton and back, and finally Blakeney before heading bah home. (from OS Maps Online)

Now naturally, I’d left the choosing of where exactly we should go to Millicent, he being the fount of knowledge that he is in this area. In the car on the way over, he told me about the reason for our destination. These churches aren’t unusually old, nor were we visiting any of them for some specific interesting feature in one or the other. They are, though, large, visually impressive, and pretty well preserved since the late medieval period when they were built (or extensively impressive). In fact, their pretty grand scale and style is rather incongruous for the very small and fairly out-of-the-way villages where they’re located.

The reason for this is that, as out-of-the-way and very sleepy as this area is now, it was really quite important in the late middle ages. In those days, what is now a wide marshy area around the river Glaven between Wiveton, Blakeney and Cley was Blakeney Haven, a wide inlet of the sea, and a major port. The inlet and waterways silted up gradually over the following centuries, giving the area that best history for nice well-preserved medieval churches: nice and rich in the medieval area, to give the local nobility wads of money to spend on fancy churches, and pretty poor since, so that no-one later came along and demolished them to replace them with something “better”.

An atmospheric path heading westwards from Salthouse church

Our first stop was Salthouse, where we parked up and spent a good long while working out how to get up to the church. It was closed in the end, but we still walked around it, admired the view down to the sea, and looked at it from the outside before heading off again.

Looking down over the marshes to the North Sea from Salthouse church

From Salthouse, we drove to Cley, where, it being nearly 2pm, we decided to search out some lunch before going into another church. There was a pub, the Three Swallows, right outside Cley’s church, so in we went and had a very pleasant lunch. Now, Wiveton is just across the river from Cley, so after lunch we walked over to see Wiveton’s church, leaving the car by the pub.

Now here is where my memory starts to fail me. While I’m sure there was plenty of interest in Wiveton church, I don’t remember in the slightest what it was, I’m afraid. I have a few photographs of it: of the inside and outside of the church, one of a medieval painted wood panel of a lady with a too-blurred-to-read-well Latin inscription, and one of an information panel talking about a medieval stained-glass window depicting St Mark, recovered in 2000 from behind some plasterwork (and with a hole from a Civil-War musket shot through the middle of it).

The Church of St Margaret, Cley-next-the-Sea

From Wiveton, we walked back across the old harbour, and went into Cley’s church of St Margaret. As well as being generally large and impressive in many ways, delights within included some nice medieval wooden bench-ends and a font which this website – very informative about all four churches we visited on this trip, which it names the “Ships of the North” – has reminded me portrays the seven sacraments.

What we spent a very long time looking at, though, were the floor-brasses. Brasses are a late-medieval style of memorial, whereby someone’s likeness would be made out of flattish brass that was then set into the floor of the church. They were often removed in England for Reformationy reasons, so one often sees person-shaped impressions in the floor of churches where they used to be, but there aer also plenty of them still around, sometimes in their original location; sometimes moved somewhere else in the church.

Millicent inspects some floor-brasses

I’m not certain if it was this trip, but I distinctly remember somewhere reasonably recently finding some brasses with Millicent, working our way through the inscription, and Millicent exclaiming “now this really should have been destroyed in the Reformation”. The issue at hand was that there was an orate pro or something like that: “pray for”, an exhortation to pray for the deceased to ease their way into heaven, and a distinctly un-Protestant way of going about things, I am told.

After Cley we got back in the car and went over to Blakeney for our final stop. It was getting late, about 5pm when we arrived, and approaching the gate into the churchyard we passed someone going in the other direction who we realised probably had just locked the church. We couldn’t get in, but we did have a good wander around the outside, finding a tree that had burst dramatically through a memorial in the churchyard, and speculating as to the use of the church’s second narrow tower. (Later investigation found that it was probably used to place a light to guide boats.)

And that was it! From Blakeney, we headed home to Cambridge. It was a very pleasant day!

Previous visits

I have visited this map area one before, and rather a long time ago at that. The trip in question was a school trip, a Religious Studies trip to the shrines of Walsingham.

A young me, Climbing Programmer and Joystick enjoying our packed lunch on the school trip to Walsingham

Walsingham is a site of Christian pilgrimage for its shrine of Mary, having been so in the medieval period until the Reformation, and become so once again in the last two centuries. My memories of the trip are somewhat hazy, twelve years having pass, so I can’t give you a blow-by-blow account of our day.

Queuing up to receive, uh, something religious – I don’t quite remember what it was; a blessing or some holy water or something.

Something I do recall, though (other than the events pictured above – I do remember lunch, surprisingly), is walking the Holy Mile while fiddling with handheld radios. A little Wikipedia-ing solidified my memory of there being a walk we did that was something to do with the pilgrimage thing – the last mile of pilgrimage routes to Walsingham is known as the Holy Mile. Pilgrims to the shrine traditionally remove their shoes at the “Slipper Chapel“, a mile from the shrine itself, to walk the remaining distance barefoot.

This trip was organised by Mr Tickle, my school’s Religious Studies teacher (also featured in my St Neots post), who also taught History and occasionally English. (And once Latin – it was a small school. Though we didn’t offer Latin.) He also, though, ran our amateur radio club. One of my lesser-used qualifications is my advanced amateur radio license, obtained after a few years at Mr Tickle’s after-school club – I am technically licensed to operate in the amateur radio bands, build and use my own transmitting equipment, and things like that, not that I’d remember how to do most of that. [1] And so it was that, this being a Mr Tickle trip, we were on the radio bands, talking to goodness knows whom, while walking the Holy Mile!

Using the radio as we walked the Holy Mile! (I’m not pictured.)

[1] I’ll not lie to you – I’m pretty sure I never learnt how to do some of it in the first place.

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