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.

Just Back From… North Norfolk

We managed a little getaway break in the windmill at Cley-next-the-sea back in January just as the snow arrived across the country. Literally snowed in we could only venture a little way along the windswept, wild north coast so promised ourselves a return in less inclement weather. The upside was that the coast was practically deserted apart from a few hardy twitchers, and we saw lots of wild geese flying overhead in formation.

We returned for two weeks in mid-August, not the period I had visualised because I feared the north coast would be over-run with families during the school holidays, but life conspired against me to sort anything out in June. At least it would give us a fair impression of what life is like there in the hustle and bustle of the summer. With the temperature and humidity soaring, sun shining and the big, blue skies you associate with Norfolk it felt like the driest county in the UK, though rivals have sprung up to dispute this. Whatever, it was dry enough whilst we were there other than one day of persistently heavy showers.

Landscapes

What is so special about North Norfolk? Well it has to be the sheer openness of the countryside – the peace and solitude found away from the major arterial roads – where you can stop and observe cornfields and church towers poking up into the wide sky. The landscapes and the seascapes are calming and you feel as though you have space to breathe under that big Norfolk sky.

Driving along those narrow roads and single lanes is not for the faint-hearted though as some idiot usually in a huge 4WD is likely to come flying around a blind bend in the middle of the road and scowl at you as if you have no right to be there. Several times I was thankful that I had practically crawled around such a bend because at least one of us could hit the brakes and stop before a collision. My rather low-slung VW Jetta however, is not really built for the off-roading that she was forced to do on so many occasions and has returned slightly worse for wear.

History

From a historical viewpoint, North Norfolk has it in spades, from lovely old stone-built churches with square or round towers to ruinous abbeys and priories torn down by the infamous Henry VIII. Don’t just admire the churches from the roadside though, step inside and you will find surprising light and airy spaces, imposing windows, interesting fonts and carved Poppy Head pews.

I will write separate blogs on some of these places that we visited as they each deserve more space than I can give them here. Staying in the countryside only a few miles from the north coast meant that we passed through several small villages each time we went out. One of them, Walsingham, is an unusual village with a long history of pilgrimage, but Little and Great Walsingham together offer much more to explore from medieval hostelries, an original Georgian courtroom at the Shirehall and a prison – the Bridewell or House of Correction dating from the 16th century to the barns at Great Walsingham where you can visit the Barns Café famous for ‘pies, puds and tarts’ and have a light lunch or afternoon tea and browse amongst some lovely galleries. Walsingham is also the start of a Narrow Gauge Railway to Wells.

Grand Homes

There are many gorgeous stately homes in the area too, the most famous of all being Sandringham which is Queen Elizabeth’s country estate. We didn’t make it to Sandringham, but Holkham Hall has lovely park walks and deer, Fellbrigg Hall has a wonderful walled garden, Blickling estate also has lovely gardens and a very interesting interior and a little further south you can find Oxburgh Hall one of the few houses with a complete moat and again a very interesting interior. We actually stayed in a cottage in the grounds of another house with a moat, Hindringham Hall, which has to be in one of the quietest spots in the county and which was originally built with some of the stone from the destruction of nearby Binham Priory. (the links will take you to separate posts about each place)

The Coast

The north coast is what struck me the most about our visit in January. Of course then we had the advantage of seeing migrant birds over-wintering on the marshes, but naturally I was drawn back to it in the summer. The coastal path from Cley to Blakeney is a lovely stroll along the flood wall with views across the Blakeney Freshes. The footpath now runs alongside the new route of the River Glaven, which was moved inland in 2006 to prevent flooding. The areas that were fresh water marsh and the old footpath route are now exposed to saltwater and tides and are quickly turning into saltmarsh.

For several centuries, Blakeney was a busy commercial port exporting corn and wool and importing a variety of goods, including coal and timber. Today, the quay is mainly used for recreational activities, such as sailing, bird-watching and walking and youngsters sitting on the quay, quietly ‘crabbbing’.

To walk along the shingle spit to Blakeney Point where you can see grey seals you need to start from Cley Eye. This is a long and challenging walk along the shingle. Though if you time it right at low tide there is a chance of sand to make it easier. Allow around 5 hours for the return walk from the car-park. Norfolk may not have hills, but just try walking on shingle! The shingle ridge runs for 8 miles (13km) from Weybourne cliffs to the end of Blakeney Point. It’s constantly being reshaped by the sea, and is growing westwards and moving inland over time. Alternatively you can take a boat from Morston Quay out to the point to view the seals.

One nice thing about the Norfolk Coastal Path is that you can do it in stages as there is a regular Coasthopper bus which will take you back to your starting point. The downside is that these buses stop running early in the evening so don’t rely on it to take you to a coastal pub and back.

The best walk has to be from Holkham beach ‘where the sky meets the sea’ over the sand-dunes and along to Wells beach where the 122 colourful beach-huts snuggle beneath the tall pines and then walk back alongside the pine woodlands to the car-park on Lady Anne’s Drive. Warning though, it gets very busy at either end of this walk on a sunny day.

Another lovely walk is within Sheringham Park – head up to the Gazebo where you get a 360º view of the surrounding landscape, including the coast. There are 192 steps to reach that position though, so it can be a bit hard on the old knees.

The Broads

One further highlight was popping over to the Norfolk Broads which are on the east coast and quite some distance from where we were staying. However, we decided to continue over there after visiting Blickling Hall as it was quite an easy route into the north broads. We stopped for an early evening meal at the Fur and Feathers in Woodbastwick, adjacent to the Woodforde Brewery, where we enjoyed local fish and chips washed down with a half pint of Bure Gold, a classic aromatic golden ale with a citrusy flavour. Afterwards we parked outside the church at Ranworth and walked down the lane to the start of a boardwalk through tall reeds and marshland out to the private Ranworth Broads, where we sat after a minor shower, to watch great-crested grebes and Egyptian geese paddle and dive in front of us and terns and swifts fly overhead as the late evening sun slithered towards the horizon. It was sublime.

Lowlights have to include the sound pollution of the RAF / USAF jets screeching overhead during the daytime – but at least they have the decency to observe Monday – Friday hours. I also wish I’d known how impossible it would be to eat out at any of the coastal pubs. Even in the middle of the week all tables are firmly reserved. But the Farm Shops at Walsingham came to the rescue with superb cuts of steak, juicy burgers and home-made pies and tarts. In truth if it wasn’t for the fact that Walsingham is just a wee bit too pious for me, I’d happily live there (and I do have the name for it). Great fish and chips from the Riddle too.

Finally I have to confess that there is something about the architecture of North Norfolk, with its square towered churches, ruins, windmills, flint and brick walls, steep pitched roofs and Dutch gable ends that appeals to me. That and the space and the country lanes criss-crossing through endless fields of corn and wheat and the big blue sky