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

St Benedict, Horning

Horning: conventionally East Anglian

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    St Benedict, Horning
north side   We didn't go away in the summer of 2005. We'd normally be heading off to some obscure part of France, preferably the Jura, or at a pinch a Greek island; but we had the house done up, and any lingering hopes of continental sunshine disappeared when, at very short notice, we needed to buy a new car. The camshaft of the old one had suddenly thrown itself up through the engine and destroyed it; the RAC man actually had to stifle a gasp when he saw what had happened.

I didn't mind. I said we could go for days out. When I was a child, my family were too poor to go on holiday, and we didn't own a car, so being able to go anywhere at all still seems a wonderful thing to me.

But Jacquie remembered a few family holidays in her childhood, and the words 'days out' struck fear in her heart; it was what her parents said when they were planning to spend the summer decorating. I assured her that I had no plans for this, and was actually quite looking forward to days out, especially if a fair number of them happened to be in Norfolk.

Our two children, Jimmy (12) and Martha (8) were also quite excited at the prospect of going out for the day lots of times; and besides, being Catholics who have been encouraged throughout their school days to martyr themselves wherever possible, they were willing to give up their suntans if they could get suffering credits for it. In any case, Jimmy had a scout camp in prospect; as it turned out, this would be the sunniest week of the summer, and so it was that he set off for the Elveden forest, and Jacquie and I and his little sister headed off for a day on the Broads.

I love the Norfolk Broads. There's something so old-fashioned about them. They still have tea shops called 'tea shoppes', and you can still buy souvenirs like thermometers set in china dogs and miniature brass gongs embossed with a map of the Bure. There are still technicolor postcards of Potter Heigham bridge printed in the 1960s, the prices marked in old pennies. Everyone tells you that the Broads are insufferably overcrowded, but they aren't really. Wroxham and Hoveton shopping centres are pretty full, mainly with fortnighters from the north of England, and some of the main waterways have snarl-ups like the Ipswich rush hour, but most of the lanes and backwaters are almost completely empty. We headed to the south bank of the Bure, and bearing in mind that it was the middle week of August we passed hardly another car once we got north of South Walsham.   arcade set in the north wall

We climbed Ranworth tower, and Martha had the frisson of seeing her father get told off by another visitor for using a flash to photograph the Ranworth screen, against the official rules as printed on the very large sign (well, for goodness sake - why don't they just say please don't take photographs, buy our postcards instead? It would be more honest), and then we went and had lunch at the Woodbastwick brewery. I was very conscious that we were only a couple of miles from one of the few Broadland churches I hadn't visited. I suggested that, you know, why didn't we just stroll down to the river and take the foot ferry across to Horning?

Because the ferry is shown on the Ordnance Survey map, I had assumed that it would be some kind of major operation with a ticket booth and possibly a bar; as it turned out, there was a fading photocopied A4 sheet of paper stapled to a stick, giving a mobile phone number to call if you wanted to discuss the possibility of crossing. I was all for giving up at this point, but Jacquie rang up and the man said he'd be there in ten minutes.

13th century priest door   And he was. A little launch with an outboard motor headed down the Bure from the direction of Potter Heigham and reversed into the cutting. Another family had joined us on the bank, and we all piled in. Once seated, we headed back out downriver, and then up to the boat yard at the top of Horning creek. It was a lovely trip, bobbing around in the wide, lazy river; it took no more than ten minutes, and the nice man charged us just a pound a head - and he charged Martha nothing at all, saying she hadn't taken up enough space.

Having made sure that the ferry would be going back in about an hour's time, we walked through sunny, blackberry-flanked lanes up to Horning church, which is about a mile outside the village. An English summer is always tentative, but this day felt like it really meant it, a bright, airy light beating down, bringing out the smell of the blackberries, and the tarmac, and high birdsong in the fields around.

The first sight of St Benedict is from the north, and it is a curious one. Having explored Suffolk, I am used to big old churches that have been made smaller by having their aisles demolished, and new walls built into the arcade. But this is less common in Norfolk, and so when I saw the bones of the arcade in the rendered north wall of the church, it was like greeting an old friend. It is especially fetching here with the clerestory outlined in the rendering above, the rendering itself being offset nicely by the flint of the tower and the chancel.

We headed round west of the tower to the south side, and here the view was much more conventionally East Anglian, with an aisle as well as a clerestory. Both have militantly Tudor windows, those in the clerestory being set in render, so there must have been a big project on here right on the eve of the Reformation.

I knew that the church would be open, because this is the Broads, and virtually all Broadland churches are open (and thus serve as a lesson to more neanderthal parts of the county like the Yarmouth area and the Waveney valley). We stepped inside, out of the brightness of the day into a long, dim tunnel of a church, leavened by the clerestory and the south aisle, but nonetheless rather gloomy.

The north arcade survives more fully on the inside, the capitals and columns all still in place. The tiling, carpets and darkly varnished woodwork are exactly as the Victorians intended; a scale model of nearby St Bene't's abbey reminds us that this place had a medieval life as well.

  view east

The tower arch soars, another reminder of medieval glories, as is the font. A 1598 brass inscription has been set on the back of the wall, and is bizarrely decorated with a union flag. But the chancel is again broodingly Victorian, full of dark wood, tiles and carpet. And yet... I was struck by the stalls, which are carved in ogee-arched niches on the ends with all manner of wonderful things. The devil pushes a man down into hell, another man fights with a dragon - can these things really be medieval, or are they 19th century conceits? In a way, it was fun not knowing.

Outside again, we wondered at the 13th century dog-toothed arch to the priest door, which must be part of the earlier church. And then we wandered back down the lanes, gorging ourselves on Norfolk blackberries, in time to cross the Bure and head to the hell of the souvenir shops in Wroxham, to squeeze the last ounce of pleasure out of the day.

Simon Knott, October 2005


font  arcade in the north wall chancel brass inscription
the view west a man fights a dragon a devil pushes a man into the jaws of hell arms of St Bene't's abbey St Bene't's abbey banner 

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