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

Abbey church of St Mary, North Creake

Creake Abbey: broken fleshless bones

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looking east north transept south wall of chancel from east end piscina in a north transept chapel 

  Abbey church of St Mary, North Creake
in the north transept   When you look at 18th century engravings of abbey ruins, they are either hauntingly wild evocations, full of stormy drama, or else they are simple domestic scenes, everyday agricultural life being played out among the broken fleshless bones of a past completely beyond the comprehension of those who inhabit the picture. In the 20th century we have, I am afraid, not only understood these ruins, but tamed them and made them safe.

Never mind. For what remains will always attract the casual visitor in a way that a working abbey never would, allowing us to wander and wonder, replaying in our heads what might have happened here, a sense of the glory that once was ours.

Creake Abbey is on the southern edge of the Burnhams, a mile or so from Burnham Thorpe, and heading here from there was a little like crossing a boundary, as if this was the real Norfolk at last.

What we have here is a great church, enough of its walls remaining to interpret it and imagine the rest. It was built towards the end of the 1300s for an Augustinian Priory which had inhabited this spot since the 1220s, becoming an Abbey shortly afterwards. You enter the ruins through the west door, and ahead are the massive piers of the crossing, the transepts leading into chapels facing east, all entirely discernible. Generally, the further east you go the more complete the walls are, and even the piscinas survive in the chapels. The springing to arches hangs crazily above, the supporting piers gone.

Creake Abbey is unusual, because although it survived into the16th century, it never suffered the effects of the Reformation or the dissolution of the monasteries. In 1508, an outbreak of plague killed virtually all the inhabitants, and it was abandoned. In time, the buildings and land were given to Christ's College, Cambridge.

south transept hanging vaulting triforium above a doorway

Creake Abbey was the first place that I encountered two young cyclists, and we crossed each others' paths as the day went on. I rather feared they might think I was stalking them, until one of the women pointed out that they might just as well have been following me, which was sweet. I felt rather sorry for them, because the bright sunshine of the day was punctuated by thunderous downpours of hail, one of which set in as I was exploring the ruins. Jacquie and I headed up to the farm centre above the ruins, which must be a very busy place in summer with its art galleries and designer clothes shops. There is also a cafe, and the menu was very enticing; but the service was so pitiful that, after sitting at a table for twenty minutes without even being spoken to, we left, and, in brilliant sunshine, headed on to North Creake church.

Simon Knott, May 2005

 

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