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St George, Hardingham
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And the graveyards! Those which had missed their late-May mowing because of the storms were now jungles, the churches like lost cities. But Hardingham wasn't like that. We came here first thing, just after eight o'clock in the morning on a day that could have gone either way. St George is magnificent, a big church on a hill, with only the vast old Rectory for company. But, despite the lonely setting, the graveyard was beautiful, just coming out of its spring tidy-up and burgeoning again. The large sloping verge below the graveyard wall was immaculate.
We had come to St George not expecting to get in, but since Peter's previous visit there is now a keyholder notice, and a charming keyholder. The key is at the Old Rectory, and as I walked along the gravel path past the croquet lawn I felt as if I was stepping into an L P Hartley novel. It could have been any time.
St George is one of quite a few churches in this part of central Norfolk that has a tower on the south side instead of at the west end. Because of this, you can clearly see from the juxtaposition between the tower arch and the south doorway that a tower was built on to what was obviously a church of the 13th century, adding a note of ruggedness to the setting.
We stepped into the big nave. There is a transept off on the north side, and the chancel is nearly as big as the nave; in the silence, there was a feeling of vastness, of emptiness. This interior is substantially the work of the Victorians, but what I will always remember at Hardingham is the work of the century after, for the west end of the nave is given up to the memory of the First World War and how it touched a remote Norfolk parish.
At the centre of the wall is one of those memorial boards which opens like a dart board, and on the wings and below the cross are some twenty names from two World Wars, sixteen of them from the First, a horrendous number for such a scattered and sparsely populated parish. Flanking the memorial are four crosses, brought back to the parish from the battlefields of Flanders and the Somme. One is to John Thomas Abel, son of Henry and Annie Elizabeth Abel, of the Old Bird in Hand public house. He was a Lance Corporal, 4th Battalion, Machine Gun Guards, and he died of his wounds on the 27th March 1918. He was 22 years old. His body is buried at the Cabaret-Rouge cemetery, Souchez, near Arras in northern France, but the cross that marked his original grave is here.
Below the memorial board is a brass shell case, now in use as a vase for Remembrance Day poppies. It is inscribed FROM HIGH WOOD AUG 1916, and I wondered if this has any particular significance. It didn't take me long to find out. One of the other crosses is to Geoffrey Stephen Walley. A stroll up to the chancel completes the story, for there, on a brass plaque is the agonising coda. Walley was the only son of Stephen Cawley Walley, Rector of this Parish, and Mercy, his wife. The boy was killed in the Battle of the Somme at High Wood on the 20th August 1916, and his body is buried in Dernancourt cemetery to the south of Albert, which I remembered driving past a few months previously. He was 24 years old. Walley senior must have been given the shell case from the battle where his son was killed, had it engraved, and set it in his church. Ninety years later, it is still there.
This great silent, empty space is still resonant with the grief of those days. As with any medieval church there are older survivals: the extraordinary piscina lodged in the south-east corner of the sanctuary, its arch intersected by two other arches, typical of the 13th century. There are piscinas in the nave, and a curious alcove which may have been a memorial, with two raised gothic crosses set inside it. This must have been a busy place in Catholic days. The elegant, venerable, broken font also survives, though only just, from those days, and the George III royal arms above the north doorway speaks of a time in between. Death, or at least the memory of it, touched this parish enthusiastically in the late 17th century, with half a dozen ledger stones in the chancel recalling those times. The inscriptions are austere, terse: Ann the Wife of Thomas Grigson died the 28th day of June 1666 reads one, and that is all. Another is ameliorated by a roccoco branch beneath an inscription partly in Latin, which is entirely secular.
I am always struck by the contrast between the terrifying simplicity of these 17th century memorials, and the more understandable and graspable sentimentality of two centuries later. In the north wall, Major William Mordaunt Marsh Edwards VC is remembered. He won the Victoria Cross at Tel-el-Kebir during the Egyptian war of 1882, and died thirty years later just before the start of the conflict which tore this small community apart. Presumably, he would have know the young Geoffrey Stephen Walley.
Below Walley's memorial plaque is the one for his father. The Rector died in 1936, after 21 years of serving this parish and 20 years of grieving for his only son. They had lived at the house where I had obtained the key a few minutes previously. Now, when I think of that house, and of those memorials, and I imagine the years before the Great War changed the face of rural England forever, I can see them.
Simon Knott, July 2007
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