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.
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