Heart of the world

Nor­folk might be tucked away at the edge of the coun­try, but that’s far from the end of the world, writes ROWAN MANTELL.

EDP Norfolk - - Talk Of The County - Rowan Mantell

AN AU­GUST cy­cle ride, skim­ming along peace­ful poppy-lined coun­try lanes, stop­ping at drowsy, flinty, flow­ery vil­lages, might ap­pear just about the most parochial ac­tiv­ity pos­si­ble. And it is lit­er­ally parochial, go­ing from parish to parish.

But a visit to just about any Nor­folk com­mu­nity, opens up the whole world. Not just this world ei­ther. The heav­enly Nor­folk coun­try­side can seem so close to par­adise that it is of­ten not a leap of faith, but the tini­est of steps, to be­lieve in a world be­yond. (And then there is the leap of fear as a trac­tor, or in­fin­itely more an­noy­ingly, a Chelsea trac­tor, roars past.)

Our parish churches were built as por­tals to a spir­i­tual realm, al­though many also func­tioned as a way of show­ing off wealth, try­ing to curry favour with the almighty and keep­ing the peo­ple in their place. When a heavy wooden door creaks open to re­veal the shad­owy in­te­rior, cen­turies of be­lief and hope seem to glow from half-hid­den an­gels high in the roof or an­cient stone sculp­tures and stained glass win­dows.

Priests tell us that it is not the build­ings, but peo­ple, who are the church, and they might have a point. I think it is some­thing Je­sus men­tioned too. But peo­ple have been bring­ing their best to these build­ings for cen­turies, and that sings out from both the ar­chi­tec­ture and the at­mos­phere. Au­gust be­gins with Open Churches Week in Nor­folk. Many are open all year round and even the most iso­lated are wo­ven into not just vil­lage life, or Nor­folk or English life, but into world his­tory too. Push open al­most any one of those wooden doors and find your­self just a step away from coun­tries around the globe, and a wealth of world first, best or only ac­co­lades.

Just a few ex­am­ples I’ve chanced across in re­cent weeks: al­most 1,000 years ago Ing­ham church, near Stal­ham, was the English head­quar­ters of monks who raised money to ran­som cru­saders kid­napped in the Mid­dle East. Nearby Tun­stead has the world’s only be­hind-the-al­tar shrine-stage. And should you need to see a stained glass win­dow of Death win­ning a game of chess with a bishop, you would have to go to St An­drew’s Nor­wich. It’s the only one in Bri­tain, al­though the theme is big in Swe­den.

The Lord Mayor and Sher­iff of Nor­wich are reach­ing out to peo­ple from around the world this year, and have cho­sen three or­gan­i­sa­tions help­ing refugees as their civic char­ity. Dur­ing the re­cent Lord Mayor’s Cel­e­bra­tion the very won­der­ful Com­mon Lot the­atre com­pany per­formed its com­edy (with se­ri­ous bits) called Come Yew In, about how strangers had been wel­comed to Nor­folk through the cen­turies. Thank­fully there were still laughs at the ex­pense of our near­est foot­balling, trac­tor­ing neigh­bours down south. Noth­ing wrong with be­ing a tiny bit parochial.

Above: Come Yew In

per­formed by the Com­mon Lot

Be­low left:

Tun­stead Church

Be­low right:

Death play­ing chess with a bishop in St An­drew’s Church, Nor­wich

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