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

St James, Bawsey

Bawsey

looking east towards the central tower looking east through the crossing looking west through the crossing

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  St James, Bawsey

A dramatic sight on an unexpected hilltop just to the east of King's Lynn, this ruin of what was perhaps an 11th Century church with a central tower looks more like a castle. The church was last recorded in use in 1771, although it was probably already ruinous by then, for Bawsey is one of three neighbouring parishes that experienced rapid depopulation in the 18th Century thanks to intensive sheep farming. All that remains at Bawsey now are this ruin and Church Farm in the vale below. Of the others, Mintlyn has entirely disappeared apart from the low-lying rubble of its former parish church, and of course the architecturally splendid modern crematorium which takes its name, and while Leziate has to some extent recovered its population there are no remains of its medieval parish church. In any case, much of this area has been lost to vast sandstone quarries.

You climb the hill from the south-west, and when you reach the top the views are spectacular. Enough survives of the church to make everything out. You still enter through the south doorway, with the north doorway opposite. Unusually for a three-cell church like this there was never a west doorway. The north and south walls of the nave survive to a greater or lesser extent. The central tower is a great jagged shape, split from top to bottom on both east and west sides. Because the lower stretches of the freestone corners have been removed, presumably for reuse as building materials, the tower looks more precipitous than it probably is. The long-and-short work in the lower surviving quoins suggested to Pevsner that this had been a pre-conquest church, although perhaps it is more likely that the builders were using older techniques. Both arches survive more or less intact, apart from the top of the easterly chancel arch. The westerly tower arch has the familiar Norman zigzag motif around it. Nothing survives of the chancel, which was probably rebuilt in the 15th Century, except one corner of the south wall.

At the time of the 1841 census there were 28 people living in Bawsey. A third of the parish was a tract of sandy heath, and White's Directory of Norfolk in 1844 noted that it formed an ancient rabbit warren, in which great quantities of grey sand are got, and sent to the glass houses in various parts of the kingdom. Although the church had been out of use for almost a century there was still a rector appointed, whose only duty would be to read a service once a year in the ruins. In the 1840s this was the Reverend WB Coulcher who received 55 a year for his trouble, about 10,000 in today's money. Coulcher is not listed in Norfolk at the 1851 Census of Religious Worship, and was presumably non-resident. In any case, by this time Bawsey had been merged into the parish of Gaywood in the Kings Lynn suburbs, where divine service on the morning of the census attracted barely one in twenty of the parish population of 1338, for this was a deeply non-conformist part of Norfolk.

Bawsey ruin is today in the care of English Heritage, and access is free at all times. To reach the ruin, take a narrow lane that runs northwards off of the Gayton road about a mile east of the A149 roundabout. This leads up to Church Farm where, if you are in a car, there is an invitation for you to park. In truth you shouldn't ignore this, because beyond here the lane quickly deteriorates into a steep, muddy track, deeply rutted and flooded in parts. Even on a bike with off-road tyres I found it heavy going. But the trudge will be worth the effort.

Simon Knott, April 2023

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from the north-west looking east in the chancel
looking south-east from the north doorway through the south doorway towards the north doorway south wall, crossing and chancel south wall fragment

 
   
               
                 

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