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St George, Hardingham


Hardingham Hardingham Hardingham

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St George, Hardingham

I remember it now: it was the summer of 2007. The previous year had been the hottest of the century so far, but this summer was one of the wettest. And when it wasn't raining the day after day of low, miserable cloud was enough to make the spirit heavy. And then, at last, the day came when the clouds boiled and parted, and my heart was lifted by the brilliance of the blue and the heat of the sun on my face. Looking back, I'm sure that I appreciated it all th emore for having to wait for it. That heat, along with all the water, conspired to make East Anglia the greenest I had ever seen it. And the churchyards! 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 had come here first thing, just after eight o'clock in the morning on a day that could have gone either way at that point. But this wouldn't have mattered, because in any weather St George is magnificent, a great church on a hill, with only the old rectory for company. And despite the weeks of bad weather, despite the lonely setting, the churchyard here was immaculate, just coming out of its spring tidy-up and beginning to burgeon again. The large sloping verge below the graveyard wall was trimmed like a bowling green.

We had come to St George not expecting to get in, but there was now a keyholder notice, and a charming keyholder. The key was 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 LP Hartley novel. It could have been any time.

I came back to Hardingham on my own some six years later. Now, it was late October, but the approach to the church still appeared trim and tidy, though the churchyard itself was now frayed and tussocky as the world began to put itself to bed for another winter. St George is one of nine Norfolk churches with a tower on the south side instead of at the west end. Most of them are in this part of the county. 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. You step into what is a strikingly large nave. There is a transept off on the north side, and the weeping chancel is nearly as long again as the nave. In the silence there is 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. The first one I looked at was to John Thomas Abel. he was the son of Henry and Annie Elizabeth Abel, of the Old Bird in Hand public house here in Hardingham. The pub has long since closed of course, though the building survives. John Abel was a Lance Corporal in the 4th Battalion Machine Gun Guards, and he died of his wounds on the 27th March 1918. He was just 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. The other field crosses are to Private Wilfrid Fox of the 4th Bedfordshires who died on the 30th September 1918, Private Harry Arthur Egle of the 8th Norfolks, who died on the 1st of March 1917, and lastly to Lieutenant Geoffrey Stephen Walley of the 2nd Kings Royal Rifles who was killed on 20th August 1916.

Cpl J Abel 37570 Pte A M Fox 30-9-18 Pte H A Egle 8th Batt Norfolk Regt 1.3.1917 Lieut. B S Walley 2/Kings Royal Rifles 20/8/16
Cpl J Abel 37570 Pte A M Fox 30-9-18 Pte H A Egle 8th Batt Norfolk Regt 1.3.1917 Lieut. B S Walley 2/Kings Royal Rifles 20/8/16

Below the memorial board is a brass shell case converted into a vase and home to four 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. 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 before I first visited Hardingham. 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. More than a century later it is still there.

war memorial from High Wood from High Wood Aug 1916

It struck me then that this great silent, empty space was still resonant with the grief of those days. As with any medieval church there are older survivals, of course: the elaborate piscina lodged in the south-east corner of the sanctuary, its arch intersected by two other arches, typical of the 13th Century. There are other 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 of that time also survives, though only just, 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 and 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 left its heavy mark on this small community. Presumably, he would have know the young Geoffrey Stephen Walley.

Below Geeoffrey Stephen Walley's memorial plaque is the one for his father, Stephen Cawley Walley, who 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 this church, and that house, and of those memorials, I imagine the years before the Great War which changed the face of rural England forever, and I can see them.

Simon Knott, November 2020

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looking east St George font
piscina his ingenuous and manly spirit, a spirit superior to the illiberal arts of ambition and self-interest all that's left is books
Hardingham M U St George of England he that shewed mercy Annunciation
Gentleman, Landowner died a prisoner-of-war at Frankfort-on-Main fell in action at High Wood in the Battle of the Somme
Maria the daughter of Thomas Gordon Major William Mordaunt Marsh Edwards VC
Stephen Cawley Walley

the heroic dead

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