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St Nicholas, Brandiston
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I had not been to Brandiston for years. The last time I was here I was seventeen years old, with my friend Chris visiting his parents at their house in the village. We had driven up from the south coast, stopping for a rest and an awful pie in Luton - a big mistake, because it was there I contracted the food poisoning which was to make my visit a somewhat arduous experience for Chris's parents. I can never hear the phrase 'projectile vomiting' without recalling those few days spent in the middle of Norfolk a quarter of a century ago.
Which is not to say that I do not have fond memories of Brandiston, for Chris's parents were absolute models of hospitality and tolerance, and probably saved my life as well. And, when I was feeling a little better, I remember the cold walk across frosted January fields into Cawston, and the silence of the Norfolk night.
And perhaps I went into this church, which may not have been redundant then, but today is in the tender care of the Churches Conservation Trust. Coming back, towards the end of a long curving, stopping bike ride down from North Walsham and Aylsham into Norwich, I remembered nothing about it.
St Nicholas is set away from the lonely lane, the former rectory beside it dwarfing it, for it is a small church, and everything about it is understated. The stumpy round tower sits at the end of the north aisle, which must have been the original nave; the one that replaced it in the late 14th century is also so low that the simple porch reaches up to the roof. The chancel is lost, a red brick buttressed wall its replacement. The rain that had set in while Jacquie and I were at Booton now intensified, and so we hurried inside.
We stepped into dusty air, a sense of melancholy. The light was thin, as if all colour had been drained from the place, the bare woodwork of seats and sanctuary beginning to silver. It was easy to imagine that the Victorians who had restored it had then abandoned it, and in the long years since it had quietly faded. The twentieth century had barely touched it, and only then in a sad way, for a memorial records the deaths of both the Rector's sons in the first world war. How bitter victory must then have seemed.
I thought about the passing of time, and wondered if there was anyone left to remember the Rector or his sons. I thought about the changes in my own life since I had last been here, and how I had lost touch with Chris, only to meet up with him twenty years later on Cambridge railway station. We'd gone for a drink, and talked about what had happened since, about how the years had scattered us. He lives in Africa now.
As my eyes became accustomed to the poor light, I explored the nooks and crannies of the church. In the early 1980s, Simon Cotton's excellent guidebook recorded a statue of St Nicholas with the three children he saved on a bracket by the sanctuary; but the bracket is empty now. There is still a good image of him in the north aisle, although it was rather difficult to photograph in the gathering gloom of the late afternoon, and tiny medieval survivals in glass in the south aisle; a fleur-de-lys and a laughing face with its tongue protruding. They probably date from the building of the nave.
I wrote our names in the visitors book, and saw that it had been signed a few weeks earlier by Chris's sister and her family. Then we buttoned up our kagouls, and stepped out into the rain.
Simon Knott, September 2005
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