Binham Cockthorpe Langham Morston Stiffkey

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

St John the Baptist, Stiffkey

Stiffkey: imposing aisles

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    St John the Baptist, Stiffkey

Stiffkey (pronounced stoo-kee) is a lovely village with flint houses and narrow streets - I have an old but vivid memory of a bus I was travelling on from Walsingham to Wells taking a wrong turning, and getting stuck here. Stiffkey is most famous, of course, for Harold Davidson, the Rector of Stiffkey from 1906 to 1932, who was defrocked by the Bishop of Norwich on account of the rather glamorous low-life company he kept. Nicknamed 'Little Jimmy' as he was only five feet tall, he became a national celebrity. He moved on from wandering in 'a confused state' around the back streets of Soho, and exhibited himself in a barrel in Blackpool, before an ill-judged career move into lion-taming resulted in him having his head bitten off. In Skegness, of all places.

At the recent Norwich launch of the new Dictionary of National Biography, I was very impressed to hear Davidson nominated alongside the likes of Horatio Nelson and George Borrow as Norfolk's all-time greatest son. Mind you, one of the candidates for the county's greatest daughter was the 1970s porn-star Mary Millington. Whatever would his parishioners have made of that?

All rather hard to imagine, standing here in the pretty little graveyard, looking up at the walls of St John the Baptist. The church is curious; the aisles are so big and grand that they seem to dwarf the rest of the building. The tracery echoes the grand perpendicular found round hereabouts, but it is all a bit lukewarm.

And, I am afraid, stepping inside does nothing to lift the spirits. Even on this bright September day, with sunlight spilling across the nave floor from the high windows, the interior was shabby and dull, a dour Victorian scouring that has not aged at all well. This is a pity, for there are features of interest: medieval heads collected in a nave window, rather curiously configured (a tonsured monk has been given a crown by the restorers), a good early 17th century memorial to Nathaniel Bacon, intriguing 14th century heads carved into the north capital of the chancel arch, and most of all a superb Art Nouveau war memorial. By one of those curious quirks of history, this was commissioned by Davidson himself. But the ambience of the building is so grim that I felt my heart sink.

This was also the only church of the day where I was treated with suspicion (how often that happens in relatively dull buildings, as if this is enough to make the guardians more defensive!). Why are you taking photographs? What are you going to use the photographs for? Is it a commercial scheme? and so on. How depressing. Well, I can promise you that if it was possible to make money out of photographing Stiffkey church, then I would gladly pass on every penny; but it ain't gonna happen. And if you think my opinion of this building was prejudiced by my treatment here, then you're damned right.

And it was hard to imagine what it would be like to spend every Sunday here. I had some sympathy with Harold Davidson. If I'd had to look out from his pulpit into the gloom of this interior every week, I think I would have been tempted to throw it all up and consort with London prostitutes. Not sure about the lion-taming, though.

Simon Knott, November 2004

You can also read: an introduction to the churches of Binham and beyond


Art Nouveau war memorial Five heads in a window Tonsured monk given a crown Bacon memorial Looking east
The sanctuary North capital to the chancel arch Heads on the capital

Binham Cockthorpe Langham Morston Stiffkey

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