Tuesday 14 September 2010
Striding the Nar
So we did it - our longest churches walk with the fewest gems, perhaps, but some of the loveliest and most varied west-to-central Norfolk landscapes in between: 18 and a half miles, 14 churches by virtue of including numerous ruined priories along the way.
Why so many? Because the river Nar clearly watered and powered the communities - and very rich most must have been, to judge from edifices like the Pentney gatehouse seen in the distance across the Nar in the second picture up top. My fellow walkers are mere dots in that shot, already across the bridge and heading across the field, so I'm permitted to feature them at slightly closer quarters about to enter the most substantial and airiest church we encountered, All Saints Narborough, before a familiar end reaching Castle Acre at sunset.
So - lots of pictures, hope the details will keep you occupied and help the cash to flow (cheques payable to the Norfolk Churches Trust, please, if you feel inclined to pop anything in the post). We started off in humid, low-cloud weather with a taxi ride to Wormegay, where St Michael is eventually to be found up a long track - and closed. Nothing to detain us about the late-Victorian rebuilding of the nave, so we moved on with initial vigour through Shouldham Warren, where the sandy soil and birches of central Norfolk meet the black soil of the fens, to All Saints Shouldham.
Lovely situation, this, looking down the gentle slope to the handsome if over-restored Abbey Farm. And we were able to see more here than Simon Knott, in his wonderfully eloquent survey of 848 churches to date, since we were greeted by an unoccupied table with barley water on it and an unlocked door.
The interior's rather uncared for and dark, with a Victorian chancel, but it does boast a splendid medieval hammerbeam roof with angels extending - what, tongues, trumpets? (Why does Pevsner so rarely mention the angels?)
On, then, past rich pickings of blackberries and an intriguing farm with old walls and a moat, to Marham. Thumbs down to the Anglicans, who kept us from seeing Holy Trinity's monuments by locking it and passing the buck to the Methodists down the road. Full marks to the latter, though, for serving us tea and coffee in a room cheerfully muralled by local children.We entered the chapel to find our hostess strumming on the harmonium, 'for my sins', as she put it.
We could have clocked up three more churches on the RAF base up the gentle hill, but that would have meant a detour of a mile and a half, so on we struck out along the Hogg's Drove, a reminder of last year's open fens and big skies.
And there, beginning to shimmer in a slowly-emerging sun, was the Nar, and opposite, its top just visible above treetops, the gateway of Pentney's Augustinian priory, founded before 1135. Would it be worth the detour along the river in the opposite direction to cross a bridge and see it at close quarters? I thought so. And heaven indeed it turned out to be, seeing the gate emerge alongside its adjacent farm
just before we came to a bend in the river, approached and found ourselves fixed by the gimlet eye of a lady on a lawnmower. There were various keep-out signs by the gateway entrance proper, but nothing to stop us staring at close quarters, which we did for about ten minutes
before retracing our steps and finding the perfect place for a picnic. The next stretch was the longest between buildings, but surely the most beautiful, as the open river scene
became more enclosed and the waters began to race, accounting for the disused waterwheel.
Past a copse which seemed to have been ripped up by a mini-tornado, we arrived sweating a bit at Narborough, where we were rewarded at All Saints by a human being at last and the now-necessary liquids. And the best monuments. Catching the late afternoon light opposite the porch was the first of several monuments to the local worthies. This one's for Sir John Spelman who died in 1662.
The others are in the chancel. Sir Clement Spelman and his wife recline in an alabaster monument, above them a kneeling daughter and a baby in a cot.
The baby turns out to be the younger Clement, whom we find opposite in all his worldly grandeur as Recorder of Nottingham sculpted by C J Cibber, c. 1672 - how far removed it seems from the milieu of his parents.
He should have merited an elaborate niche, and his coffin in what was originally an eight foot pedestal should have been left in peace. But in transporting the statue from a central place in the chancel to the south wall, the pedestal was cut down, the coffin chucked out and presumably Clement the Younger left to receive the trampling feet of the living over him he'd tried so ingeniously to avoid.
Narborough's medieval gem is its group of 15th century angels in the tracery of the north chancel window. Simon Knott has more information on them than any other guide I've got, including the flimsy church leaflet, so let's quote him on the orders. They are 'Thrones, a small angel in white; Powers, a blond angel vigorously birching a devil, his scroll reading Potestates presut demones ("powers put down demons"); Virtues, an angel in purple; Angels, an angel in gold; and my favourite, Cherubim, an angel in white protecting earthly citizens.' Don't know how well you can see them all here, but you can always click to enlarge.
Two cyclists who were zipping between churches told us we shouldn't miss nearby Narford Church, which we hadn't been sure would be open - but apparently it was, until 5, so briskly we crossed the busy main Lynn-Norwich road and soon found ourselves in another world. The sparsely-pined heath is part of the Narford Hall estate
and the church of St Mary now stands in the grounds with the Hall's lake just beyond. No doubt the villagers were removed by the lord of the manor, because of the original 200 houses none remains. But the situation is beautiful.
Yet despite some financial help with the roof in 2000, the church interior is in a sorry state. This is exactly the sort of building we're walking to save. Damp assails the walls, mocking the lofty coats of arms with the three jolly little elephant heads on them
and it seems surprising in such a declining interior to find a bust of proud Sir Andrew Fountaine by Roubiliac.
No refreshments here, so waxing weary now we rejoined the Nar Valley Way and headed for West Acre. The church was closed, but the sight of it standing alongside another priory gateway meant it wasn't a wasted visit.
And there are some interesting features on the exterior - a porch with a skull above it approached by a dark yew avenue, two gravestones side by side bearing the names 'Softly' and 'Everard' and the clock with its twelve-letter invocation
by which you will see it was nearly 6pm and our final destination beckoned. What a long two miles it seemed to Castle Acre, even if we approached it via further glimpses of the Nar, a shady oak wood
and water meadows nearing sunset with the church tower beckoning elusively in the far distance.
The approach took me by surprise. First the tower re-emerged at closer quarters
and then the famous priory where I'd left my camera at the start of the 2006 walk (some of you might have wished the same had happened last weekend).
An awe-inspiring walk along the fringes, and past the big barn there we were in the centre of Castle Acre, without the thronging tourists because it was already 7pm. Yet the church, amazingly, was still open, and so I went in with Cally, who hadn't seen it. A grand interior, but not anything like as pleasing as Narborough or indeed St Nicholas in King's Lynn. The angels are in the detail, three misericords including this one
a pulpit dating from 1400 with fine paintings of the four Latin fathers of the church (two featured here)
and a rood screen probably by the same artist, this time featuring the twelve apostles (again, two in the picture).
So you see that, weary though we were by then, my touristic obsession hadn't deserted me. This was because drinks and a fish supper awaited us in the classy pub by the green, The Ostrich, and after that a conveniently located car to take us back to Lynn. Relishing the prospect of both, we hobbled away from the church in the sunset.
From the length of which you may detect that I've been shirking some rather unpleasant work. One act still to hear of Michael Berkeley's turgid opera To You, with an equally stodgy libretto by Ian McEwan. Now it has to be faced. I hope I live to tell the tale.