The Priory Church of St Mary and the Holy Cross, Binham

The Priory Church of St Mary and the Holy Cross, Binham was only a mile or so away from where we were staying so the first historical place we visited. The ruins of the 11th century Benedictine monastery are impressive, especially the nave which is now the parish church. The Reformation in 1539 saw the closure of the monastery and the buildings were dismantled. In fact the original building of Hindringham Hall where we stayed (in a cottage, not the actual hall) was built from stone from the monastery!

The most striking feature of the church at Binham Priory is the oddly blocked-up west front and windows which were bricked up between 1738 and 1780. It is an impressive building due to its size and the contrasting brick and stone work. It is also important from a historical aspect as an example of Early English gothic architecture in the 13th century. The west window (top) is thought to be an early example of ‘bar tracery’ in England. It certainly is very beautiful. In the spandrels and heads of the arches a variety of patterns are pierced into the stonework: quatrefoils, cinquefoils, trefoils and sexfoils,  culminating in the octofoil at the head of the west window.

Foil = Lobe or leaf shape formed by joining of curved shapes in tracery: trefoil  (three), quatrefoil (four), cinquefoil (five), sexfoil (six),  octofoil (eight)

Inside the church is light and bright. The font is perpendicular – 15th century – and has eight sides. It is known as a Seven Sacrament font because of the carvings around the bowl, each one of which illustrates one of the sacraments of the church. This is a particularly East Anglian design and none are known elsewhere; there are 16 in Norfolk and 12 in Suffolk remaining. It would have been brightly painted.

The Poppy Head Pews are another interesting feature of this church. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the benchends became more elaborately carved, with panelling and figures of people or animals, often humorous and frequently decidedly secular. Not all benches had backs to them (as in Cawston Church, Norfolk) and those which did had simple designs, some of which were added at a later date.

There are two misericord benches at the east end of the church decorated with a bearded head and foliage and the remains of the former rood screen which was painted over after the Reformation. The original medieval painted saints are now showing through.

In a beautiful quiet corner of the North Norfolk countryside, only a few miles from the coast, this former priory and church are well worth a visit and I was very impressed by the small museum inside and the information panels.

Norfolk: Castle Acre Priory and Castle

The village of Castle Acre lies further south of the county, only 4 miles north  of Swaffham and 15 miles east of King’s Lynn. It is well worth the drive to see such a lovely medieval planned settlement with the broad tree-lined Stocks Green where you can find a café and a pub. The town was entered in the 12th century by the Bailey Gate, now the only remaining gate of the town. Many of the houses in the town have been built from blocks of stone from the priory.

We stopped here on our way to Oxburgh Hall which is south of Swaffham mainly to see the Priory, but we were quite taken by the charming village and the castle too.

Castle Acre Priory, which is under the care of English Heritage, is a beautiful and peaceful place with some of the most intact Cluniac priory buildings in England. For 450 years it was the home and workplace of monks and their servants, a refuge for pilgrims and a stopping point for royalty, clergy and nobility. While rooted in the economy and society of Norfolk it was also part of a vast monastic network centred on the great abbey of Cluny in France. Walking around this site you get a feeling of the size and serenity of this place and if you use the audio tour provided then you can listen to the monks tales and walk in their footsteps.

Whilst in Castle Acre we also visited the Norman ‘motte and bailey’ castle which was abandoned in the middle ages, and although what little of the building left is in ruins, there are impressive earthworks.

A great day out except for the weather which was a little damp!

North Norfolk Churches: Hindringham St Martin

Hindringham St Martin dates from the 14th century and is typical of the churches in the region  having a tall west tower, a tall nave with north and south aisles and large Perpendicular windows. This building has five clerestory windows above to provide even more light to the inner space and consequently, like many of the Norfolk churches that we visited, the interior is surprisingly light and airy. There are two interesting windows, one at the east end of the south aisle containing some 15th century glass remnants and the other a Decorated window with five main lights and reticulated tracery.

The clock on the tower was given in 1867 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.

The 15th century octagonal font is expertly carved with beasts representing the saints – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and four different shields.

The east window of the south aisle contains some medieval glass and two distinctive angels formed from the fragments. You can tell that they depict 15th century angels by the wonderful feathery tights they are wearing. The other interesting piece is a baby on the corner surrounded by golden rays, which could be the ‘Christ Child in Glory’.

At the east end of the nave is a Victorian wooden eagle lectern.

eagleThe impressive East window glass was made by Ward & Hughes in 1862 and shows several scenes from Christ’s Life and Death. Above these five main lights are representations from the Old Testament, including Noah’s Ark, the selling of Joseph and the Ten Commandments.

(sources of information: Church Tours in 2012 leaflet by Lyn Stilgoe; and the British Listed Buildings Website)

North Norfolk Churches: St Peter’s of Great Walsingham

St Peter’s of Great Walsingham is one of the finest examples of an unspoilt Decorated Church built between 1330 – 1340 with a square tower. The noticeable clerestory, made out of quadrefoil windows above the wide aisles, add lots of light to the interior of the church which has an almost square footprint due to the chancel being destroyed. The chancel arch has been bricked in with a couple of windows added. The font is original but has a strongly painted canopy that is probably Jacobean.

The 15th century Poppy Head pews, which depict floral designs, animals, saints, angels and townsfolk are well worth careful study. These benches are one of the finest complete sets in Norfolk.

back of pews

poppy head 1

North Norfolk: Walsingham

Walsingham is an unusual village in a remote part of the North Norfolk countryside tucked into a valley of the river Stiffkey. Unusual because it had been an important place of pilgrimage in Europe before the Reformation and, along with a good Farm Shop, restaurant and fish and chip shop, you can find tourist ‘pilgrim’ shops. I really didn’t know what to expect.

We first drove to the village on a Saturday afternoon and found it to be quite busy with several coaches parked on the outskirts. After a gentle stroll along the High Street viewing some lovely looking half-timbered jettied buildings and noticing interesting street signs such as Friday Market and Swan Entry we returned to Common Place with its 16th century pump-house and the former Shirehall, the entrance into the Abbey grounds. Unfortunately we’d left it too late as the grounds closed at 5 p.m. and it was now 4:30 p.m. So we had another wander around the village before heading for the Farm Shop and buying some good steaks for dinner. (There is a good chocolate shop on site too, but I managed to resist that one).

Walsingham  grew, along with the increasing numbers of pilgrims, with the founding of the Priory in 1153 and every English monarch from Henry III in 1226 to Henry VIII visited the Priory until its destruction and the destruction of its shrine in 1538. This was followed by a period of abrupt decline. Today the Anglican Shrine in Walsingham and the RC Shrine at the Slipper Chapel in Houghton St Giles are still visited by thousands of pilgrims.

After the dissolution the land was sold and passed down until in 1720 a house was built in the grounds of the former priory and it became referred to as ‘The Abbey’. It is the grounds of the Abbey and the remains of the priory church and buildings that we wanted to see, although apparently the best time to view the grounds is in early spring when the 20 acres of woodland are carpeted by snowdrops.

We returned to Little Walsingham on the following Monday when the village was much quieter and the grounds open for exploration. Despite being too late for the snowdrops and the wild-flower meadow the grounds are lovely and tranquil and you are allowed to picnic within them, so my advice would be to pop into the Farm Shop beforehand and make up a picnic lunch, although you can leave the Abbey grounds and return if you so wish. Entrance is a very reasonable £4.

Although most visitors to Walsingham come, like us, to view the Abbey grounds it would be a shame not to walk the few hundred yards along the High Street and left into Church Lane to see St Mary’s Church. It is a large sprawling church and noticeable by its green roofs and tall spire. It can seen from the Abbey grounds whilst walking around the Turnstile and Park View or glimpsed from the River Walk.

The church has a medieval exterior, but a light and modern interior as it was almost completely destroyed in 1961 by fire. The long nave has long, wide aisles and large clerestory creating an extremely light and spacious interior which is richly decorated . The magnificent Seven Sacrament octagonal font is its crowning glory with beautiful detailed carvings, though it was slightly damaged in the fire, and the original tomb of Sir Henry and Lady Jane Sydney had to be replaced with an alabaster cast. The East window was designed by John Hayward in 1964 and portrays Walsingham’s history.

Other churches in Walsingham include two other Anglican churches, St Peter’s of Great Walsingham and St Giles of Houghton and the Anglican Shrine built in 1931. There is a new RC church in the centre of Little Walsingham, a Methodist chapel in Friday Market and two Orthodox churches, the Church of the Holy Transfiguration in a former Methodist chapel in Great Walsingham and the Chapel of St Seraphim with a miniature onion dome in the former railway station.

It is as I said at the beginning of this blog, a very unusual village and even if you are not interested in the religious attractions it is definitely a place to visit if you have the chance for it simply oozes history and, when all the pilgrims have disappeared, peace.