Signs old t of mes the
Artist Fiona Davies has long been fascinated by Norfolk folklore and heritage – and now her work is ensuring a community’s history can live on for another generation
WHEN Fiona Davies was asked to help restore a crumbling village sign it was the start of a fascinating journey into a new world of arts, crafts and culture.
She has now worked on dozens of village and town signs across Norfolk and Suffolk, breathing new life into these much taken for granted symbols of a community’s history.
Contemporary artist Fiona, who lives in East Runton, says her influence has always been the landscape which surrounds her and that she has long had an interest in heritage and local history.
“My friend was on the parish council at Gimingham and she asked me whether I could do some work on the village sign, restoring the picture in the middle panel and some carving. It was in a pretty bad state but I really enjoyed bringing it back to life. Although I had always paid a passing interest to village signs when I was out and about, the restoration project sparked a real interest in me to find out more. I am not a wood worker as such, I am an artist, but I have done sculpture and I like to repair old things and I am also really interested in Norfolk folklore. The Gimingham sign led to me being asked to do a full refurbishment of the Edingthorpe sign and it has just continued from there. Now I get quite upset when I see them falling apart or left in disrepair. They are things of beauty.”
Her coastal studio is currently home to several village signs which she is working on and they come in all shapes, sizes and states of repair.
She is working on an exciting project for the tiny community of West Lexham near Swaffham and she says it has been her most challenging and most rewarding restoration yet.
“West Lexham is a really, really small village. It doesn’t have a parish council, they just have a parish meeting, but they have a fantastic Norman church and have received a £7000 grant from the Norfolk Churches Trust to repair the pretty round tower.
“I honestly think this little village and its church are one of Norfolk’s best kept-secrets. What is most exciting about this village sign is that it was believed lost – until it was found in the church.”
The original was made by Harry Carter – the renowned Norfolk sign maker who created more than 200 signs throughout East Anglia during the mid 1900s.
“It was taken down because it started to rot, then it went missing. So it was incredibly exciting when someone got in touch to say they had found it in the church and would I restore it, particularly as it was a Harry Carter original,” she says.
“Every time I touched it, I felt like another piece was flaking off. Most people wouldn’t even touch it but I managed to fill the missing parts and restore it to its original
shape for display. I was also asked to make a fibre glass copy which will once again take centre stage in the village as its sign.
“The picture depicts West Lexham as a countryside farming community. There is a cow and some pheasants, a horse and tractor and there is also an owl and a kestrel in either corner.”
Among other signs that Fiona has worked on are the famous fairytale style sign in Griston depicting the gruesome tale of Babes in the Wood, and the sign at Marshland St James.
“I love Norfolk folklore so the Marshland St James sign was a real joy as it shows Tom Hickathrift – the Wisbech giant. Exploring that story was fascinating. Another of my favourites is Haveringland. The original sign depicted an aircraft from RAF Swannington which crashed near the church during the Second World War, killing two men on board. When I restored it I did some research and with some help managed to find the actual aircraft number and I included it on the sign. The village really loved that detail.”
She says that although she tries to stay as close to the original sign as possible, sometimes she is able to add her own touch.
“I like to add a little ladybird somewhere on the sign – if you spot one you will know it is something I have worked on. I am a Norfolk girl, I love Norfolk and these signs are a really important part of our heritage; it is something we must protect and celebrate.”
Fiona Davies who is in the process of restoring the West Lexham village sign at her home in north Norfolk
Fiona Davies who is in the process of restoring the West Lexham village sign at her home in North Norfolk.
Official unveiling of the new village sign at Griston restored by Fiona Davies.
Martham village sign, restored by Fiona, being returned to the village green on March 14, 2015