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

St Andrew, Honingham

Honingham: a Martian sends a postcard home

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    St Andrew, Honingham

This big, locked, Perpendicular building, the nave and chancel rebuilt by the Victorians, is surrounded by a wide graveyard. On the north side there are sparsely scattered headstones, but to the south the church is set within a wide murderous curve of the A47. To describe this church as a landmark on the road is to assume that it would be safe to look up from the wheel to spot it; the stretch of the road between here and Hockering has claimed more deaths than any other since the A47 was taken outside the villages. I'm not suggesting that the church is responsible for this, of course, just that spotting it shouldn't be one of your priorities.

If a Martian came down and landed in the graveyard of St Andrew, Honingham, what on earth he would make of it? Would he think it was an art object? A barn, or storage facility? Or would he search for an industrial purpose? Perhaps the tall pinnacles on the tower might suggest to him that he was at the site of a scientific experiment.

Friend, you have come to this church. Leave it not without a prayer.   If the Martian had any brains, and I assume that he would have if he'd made it this far, he might perceive that the road is a lot newer than the church, and perhaps he would decide that the church was a relic of the past, its function now sidelined, perhaps forgotten altogether. Indeed, he might wonder if the road had been built deliberately to speed humans past this building and the tall stones set around it.

Perhaps this was a dangerous place. Or, maybe, it was simply an embarassing reminder of past superstitions, a haunted site. An unlucky place, perhaps. The Martian might watch the traffic hurtling past, the drivers deliberately not looking, and think yes, that must be right. Whatever he decided, it would have to be based on a survey of the exterior, because St Andrew is always locked, unless the Sunday club is in session. He wouldn't even be able to look through the windows, because they are filled with frosted quarries.

Eventually, he might find the porch, and think it is some sort of antechamber (not an entrance, of course, for the doors beyond are locked) and for a moment ponder the holy water stoup, now filled with an old birds nest. What on earth would he make, I wonder, of the signboard on the wall that reads in part:

Friend, you have come to this church. Leave it not without a prayer.
No one entering a house ignores him who dwells in it.
This is the house of God, and He is here.
Pray, then, to him who loves you, and bids you welcome, and awaits your greeting.

A lovely sentiment, no doubt; but the Martian would still be left locked out of the house of God - if it is the house of God, of course, for if the locks and chains keep out the stranger and the pilgrim, how on earth can it be that God is in there to bid us welcome?

My friend Peter has been trying to see inside this church for years. We came this way most recently in early March, 2006. The day had started in bright sun, but as we headed here from Marlingford the east wind blew sheets of glacial cloud above us, which turned grey and, as we parked the car, turned to snow. Parking is difficult; there is a layby, but you need to approach from the west to park here. Otherwise, there is a drive which goes up to the east end of thechurch, but this was already occupied by a large BMW estate. We parked in the layby, and sat in the car for a moment, watching the fat flakes thicken.

What to do? We decided that we might just as well get out and go and take a look. Either, by some miracle, the church would be open and offer us shelter, or we could confirm our prejudices about the perpetual locking of St Andrew and be on our way.

The south side of the church has been cleared of headstones, and they have been placed in two perfectly straight lines, about 15 m apart. What would the Martian make of this? Some sort of sports arena, perhaps? Or a place to worship the sun at the solstice?

Our Martian couldn't possibly be expected to know about the great lawnmower enthusiasm of the 1960s and 1970s, when so many graveyards were cleared like this one. But the dead have their revenge, and this wide open space is now scattered with an acne of molehills.

We got into the porch and tried the inner door, which was locked of course; although it did feel as though one great shove with a shoulder would probably open it. And that was when the heavens opened. The snow was so thick in the air we could only just make out the suicidal cars thrashing up the main road to and from the Midlands. Peter is a careful driver, and he didn't much fancy heading on in a blizzard, and there didn't seem much point getting caked in snow just to go back and sit in the car, so we sheltered from the weather in the porch, and read the notices miserably.

  the tall pinnacles on the tower might suggest to him that he was at the site of a scientific experiment

I noticed that the presentation to the living had been suspended, which sounds drastic but simply means that the parish can't afford a Rector. The annual accounts were posted, and I noticed that the total income for the year was roughly the same as the weekly income of the church I attend in the middle of Ipswich, so this is a small parish. Eventually, I exhausted the possibilities of the noticeboard, and, feeling that I had probably squeezed the last ounce of pleasure out of the porch, I gazed out at the graveyard. This was when I noticed something rather curious. The back of the BMW estate was open, and beyond the second line of gravestones a smartly dressed man was standing in the snow bashing molehills with a spade.

At first I thought this must be an act of devotion on the part of a parishioner, or simply a Saturday morning habit. And then I wondered if it might be some kind of country lore: if in the snow you clear his stack, mister mole will not be back - perhaps this man had been waiting for it to snow for months.

an unlucky place, perhaps  

We watched him for a while, the snow blanketing the sound of his spade into silence, rendering it surreal. But the wind was vicious, and so we stepped back into the porch, and worked out where we wanted to go next. It was while we were pondering over the map that we heard footsteps, and looking up saw that the smartly dressed man had approached us. He looked at us quizzically.

"Just here out of interest?" he asked.

"Well, we'd like to be", I replied, indicating the door. "But the church is locked."

This was such a heavy hint that, once dropped, it hit the floor with a loud clang. Surely, if this man had a key, he'd give it to us, or let us in. But he just smiled sadly and nodded in agreement, as if to say yes, the church was locked, and there was nothing he could do about it. Perhaps he'd been trying to see inside for years as well. Instead, the three of us exchanged a few polite comments about the weather, and he wandered off back to the moles.

The snow gradually thinned, and at last it stopped. We stepped out, examining the sky for signs. An uneasy truce had set in. Just a thin dusting remained on the grass to show that it had ever snowed; the sun was edging to come out, the white rime on the green fading, but there were more sheets of greying clouds huddled off in the distance. It was time to go. We wanted to make a statement of some kind, and so we left the porch gates open, as if to suggest that the the doors were not barred, and that God was in His dwelling house waiting to bid a welcome.

But by the time we got back to the car and headed eastwards past the church, someone had already closed them.

  a sports arena, or a place to worship the sun at the solstice

Simon Knott, March 2006


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