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St Nicholas, Gasthorpe
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If I had told Jimmy, aged 12, and Martha, aged 8, that we were going to visit a church, it would have been unlikely to set their little hearts beating; but when I said we were going to explore a ruin they were well up for it. Gasthorpe has the added attractions of being fairly dramatic, difficult of access and everso slightly dangerous - how could they resist?
You can see St Nicholas from the busy Diss to Thetford road, about a half mile off in the fields, and a bridleway leads down to it; but it would be impossible to park on the road. Instead, take the turn for Gasthorpe village, and after about a mile there is a private road signed off to the left. Don't be tempted to drive down it in the hope of parking at the end, as we did; it stops after half a mile at a padlocked gate.
At the gate, a bridleway leads up over the hill, through a large copse and then out into open fields. We could see St Nicholas ahead of us, its former graveyard a long mound surrounded by copses; but as we got closer I remembered that late May is the very worst time of the year to go exploring ruins. The whole site was boiling with nettles, absolutely heaving with them. Later in the year they will die back, but for now it was beautiful but deadly.
We didn't give up. There were places where the nettles were thinner, suggesting the sites of paths, and eventually we found a place just to the west of the tower where some brave soul had boldly gone before us. So up we climbed, into the ghost of a churchyard.
We walked with our arms in the air to protect them from the nettles, and a convoluted route through trees led us eventually to the west window of the tower. One by one, we climbed in, and stood beneath the great broken tooth that is the tower of St Nicholas, Gasthorpe. Jackdaw squabs scolded furiously from their nests in the put-log holes. A beautiful brick lined arch window above the way we climbed in suggested more ghosts.
We headed on eastwards from the tower, stepping down into more nettles. Jimmy took the lead, and I had warned him of the danger of a crypt. But there were no big drops. St Nicholas was a tiny church, and much of the north walls to nave and chancel survive, except for a stretch of about three metres near the tower. The east wall of the chancel is also standing to a height of about two metres, the broken arch above indicating that this was not a tall church either. All the south walls are gone, but unless the tower was hard against the north end of the west of the nave, this must have been an extraordinarily narrow church. The shape of the site to the north suggested that there had once been a south aisle.
The sound of jackdaws, the occasional pheasant, a cuckoo off in the distance. No sound from the village, a mile off. Utter timelessness. We sat and listened to it for a while, and then wandered back to the car.
Simon Knott, May 2005
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