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The Norfolk Churches Site: an occasional sideways glance at the churches of Norfolk

All Saints, Alburgh


Alburgh but here my love would stay the brave Alburgh men

    All Saints, Alburgh

It was one of those intensely hot days at the start of August 2018, and the cool shade of the over-bowering trees along the narrow lanes was a blessing. You don't have to get far from the Waveney and the busy A137 taking the traffic through to Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth to find peace. Here in the folding ridges to the north are secret villages linked by lonely, jinking roads. I had just come from Denton, its church hidden in the trees in a dip and reached only by a bridge and a track through the grounds of the Hall. And now it was a short distance from there to the larger village of Alburgh, and I caught my first sight of the curiously narrow top of Alburgh church tower appearing above the trees and the barley-stubbled rises. Soon, I came down into civilisation, and there was the church, its tower towards the road.

Not a spectacular church at all, but it has a special connection for me as someone I was very fond of came from here. I was back after twelve years away, but that visit was still clear in my mind, not least because of what I had felt about it then. When I'd got home, I had written: 'Coming down Norfolk by a different road, I came out into a landscape that I knew. It was early spring, and five years before I had explored the Suffolk side of the Waveney valley at the same time of year. Here in Norfolk were the same rolling, secretive meadows, the copses that seeped and spread between the fields, the quiet, scattered parishes with mere hints of village centres. Introspective hamlets, not talking to each other, the narrow lanes that connected them veering and dipping as if trying to shake them off.

At a crossroads, an old Methodist chapel sulked under the indignity of conversion. And there were wide pig farms and ancient silage heaps and faded bottle banks outside the village hall. No commuters here, no holiday cottages or weekend homes. Everyone except me was here because they had to be. This was where they lived, where they worked. They were the modern equivalents of the blacksmith, the carter, the wheelwright. The Waveney valley is the heart of rural East Anglia, perhaps the last truly insular place in the south-east of England. I was glad to be here.

Alburgh is not a place I have ever thought of often. But now, in the crisp air, I stood in the graveyard and looked across the country at the scattered village and its setting. Beyond the houses was the ancient field pattern, the beech trees on the ridge and the rooks wheeling above them. I thought of a song of the early eighties, Pete Wylie's Story of the Blues, and his declaiming, towards the end, the words of Kerouac's Sal Paradise: the city intellectuals of the world are divorced from the folk-body blood of the land, and are just rootless fools. I had been born in a place like this, tiny and remote in the Cambridgeshire fens, a world away from now in the 1960s. But we moved to Cambridge when I was two, and I had lived in urban areas ever since. I was a city intellectual, and I stood now and looked around at the land, a rootless fool.

I first heard of Alburgh more than twenty years ago. I was living unhappily in Brighton at the time, learning to teach, finding out how little I actually knew about anything. I would cycle out to the University through the stinking traffic on the Lewes road, and often arrive cold, wet and battered by the wind from the downs. At first, I knew nobody, and I spent most evenings in my attic room listening to music and feeling sorry for myself. In the bittersweet autumn sunshine of the weekends I would cycle around the downs, searching for old churches, repopulating the hamlets and lanes of East Sussex with characters from Hardy and Trollope.

I hardly went into town at all. Everybody seems to love Brighton, and they can't understand it when I say that I don't, but perhaps I was too often miserable there. In my memory I still associate Brighton with debt, and with the transience of being a student. And then, extraordinarily, a brief, doomed relationship, a love affair, became the one vivid thing, a brief, sweet memory of my year in that brash town.

She came from Alburgh, and at first I thought she meant Aldeburgh in Suffolk, and she said it again, Ar-brer, and showed me on a map. How narrow was the single bed we shared, how intense those brief few weeks. And she loved me more than I could possibly have loved her, for I had already met the woman who would become my wife. And so it was messy, and then it ended. But Alburgh still existed, of course, and so coming here I remembered.

If that had been all there was, then I wouldn't have thought it worth mentioning, but there was also the Kerouac quote, and I had recently gone back to the village where I was born. It was a tiny hamlet, off of the Cambridge to Ely road. My mother had been born there, my parents married in the Church there. I was baptised there, and so were my brothers.

At one time there had been three farms, a shop, a railway halt, a pub, a school, a church and a chapel. I'm not looking this up in some mid-19th century White's Directory, I remember them from the 1960s and 1970s. Now, they were nearly all gone. The farms had been built over, the pub, shop and chapel converted to houses. To stand beside the railway line, you'd need a vivid imagination to guess that the halt had even existed, as the expresses screamed through at over a hundred miles an hour.

The church and the school survived, but only because this was now a commuter village. Every morning, hundreds and hundreds of white-collar workers left their identical modern houses and piled up the A10 to Cambridge and Ely. I knew nobody there any more - my grandmother was dead, and all my relatives had left, or were lying under the frozen turf of the little cemetery. It made me sad. I thought that perhaps this was what growing old was, seeing change and resenting it. And so I liked Alburgh because it appeased my sense of loss, as if something might survive after all.'

All this then, gentle reader, was in my mind as I returned to Alburgh after twelve years away. The tower I had seen from Denton churchyard, and which bobbed its head above the copses and the rolling fields as I approached it, stands tall and proud, four-square to the road, the aisleless nave and chancel disappearing into the narrowing churchyard beyond. An imposing sight, though not a huge tower, merely large in proportion. The bulk of it is probably 14th century, but the bell stage with its enormous bell windows is later, a late medieval addition. It looks awkward, because the new building technology no longer required that the buttresses should continue up the bell stage. But the effect is unfortunate, I think, like the unnaturally small head of a large man. The buttressed pinnacles on the four corners are a more recent confection, for the very top of the tower collapsed in 1895, and what we see at the top now dates from the dawn of the new century.

The west front must have been rather grand once, with large niches flanking the window, but the canopies of the niches have gone, either vandalised by protestants or more likely worn away by the passing of the centuries. In proportion with the nave, the south porch seems bigger than it is. A 1463 bequest for the porch by the Wright family is recorded, but it now looks all of its Victorian restoration. And so, I am afraid, does the inside of the church, a big 19th century barn with a lot of the anonymity you'd expect of this date. And yet, there are neat, local, rustic touches, and the pride of the early 20th Century parish in the boys who went off to war and never came back is still evident, great lists of names rather haunting in their context. Surprisingly, the roof is old, and it spreads impressively across the wide nave. A beautiful gilded rood screen dado is almost defiant in the face of all the restoration. There are pretty little gilded gesso saints in niches on the buttresses along the front, but I think the colour is wholly modern.

Echoing it, perhaps inspired by it, insipid apostles flank the altar and its simple reredos, a William Morris-style hanging. Turning back, the tower arch lifts tall and dreamily, light from the west window flooding the reset font below, the space becoming an echo of the wide chancel arch at the other end of the great roof. There's a pleasing harmony to the whole piece, and perhaps the Victorians should not be blamed for too much.

And so, that was all, my return to Alburgh. Just another church, and yet, like all medieval parish churches, a place full of stories, and memories, hopes, fears, regrets, embarrassments, delights, hungers, desires, agonies, beginnings and endings. Here, I sensed around me a building that was a touchstone down the long generations, and a beacon across miles and oceans. Just another church, but always and everywhere and forever. Think of the millions of people who can trace atoms of their being back to this place! Think of the lives touched by people who stepped out from this parish! And that's true of anywhere of course.

I went back outside and pottered around the graveyard. The heat was stifling after the coolness inside the church. A large dragonfly buzzed around my head and then veered away on the currents rising from the long grass. I sat down on a bench facing towards the newer headstones, and placed on the arm of the bench I found to my surprise a painted flintstone. It had a message painted and lacquered onto it. On one side was a pink heart, and the words 'I
heart Norfolk'. On the other side, the artist had painstakingly lettered in tiny writing 'congratulations on finding a Norfolk Rock', and asked the finder to 'either take me or rehide me'. It was extraordinary.

I slipped it into my pocket, not sure if this counted as taking it or rehiding it, possibly both, and thinking to myself that it felt like the goal of a pilgrimage. I wandered over to take a look at the more recent graves, which included a number in the last twenty years with her surname on. It is a common one in this village, but I wondered if any of them could have been her parents, who I had not known. I thought that she had probably been married in this place, if she had ever married, and so I said a silent prayer for all the people I have ever known and lost touch with, wherever they may be in the world, whether or not they remember me, or think of me, or are even reading this now. I stood for a while, thinking of the years, and then got back in the saddle, shaking off a maudlin veil which was beginning to settle over me. I kicked off into a rush of heat lifted by the sudden breeze of my movement. A long stretch lay ahead of me now through delicious rolling back lanes with melting tarmac, zigzagging down into Harleston.

Simon Knott, October 2018


looking east sanctuary
looking west as ye sow (TJ Scott for King of Norwich, 1872) as ye sow, so shall ye reap (TJ Scott for King of Norwich, 1872) so shall ye reap (TJ Scott for King of Norwich, 1872) font
fell at Braisne fighting for his king and country 5 disciples fell near Quatia in Egypt fighting for his king and country
the brave Alburgh men the brave Alburgh men the brave Alburgh men

draped urn on a tomb flanked by fronds

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The Norfolk Churches Site: an occasional sideways glance at the churches of Norfolk