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The Norfolk Churches Site: an occasional sideways glance at the churches of Norfolk

Holy Trinity, Caister-on-Sea

Caister: a seaside attraction

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the ground plan was laid out here as early as the start of the 14th century the south side vestry with its rather startling chimney from the east from the old cemetery

    Holy Trinity, Caister-on-Sea
up the path   beacon-like tower   And so, to Caister, part of that long ribbon of coastal development down the east coast from Winterton in Norfolk to Kessingland in Suffolk. Caister is an ancient place; its castle was home to Sir John Falstoffe, his character notoriously defamed by Shakespeare. Just to the south is Great Yarmouth, an industrial coastal town, its beaches serving as Norwich-on-sea. To the north is Hemsby, home of the caravan parks and holiday centres.

Caister has its industry and holiday centres too, but, to anyone outside of Norfolk, the town is most immediately associated with its lifeboat. Few and far between can be the working class homes in the first half of the 20th century which did not proudly display a souvenir of the Caister Lifeboat.

My granny certainly had one. A saucer, or it might have been an ashtray, with an image in the middle of the Caister lifeboat disaster memorial. She kept it on her mantlepiece. Where is it now, I wonder? After she died, all her stuff was scattered to the four winds. No doubt it now performs a kitschy role in one of those homes you see in the colour supplements, to emerge periodically into the light of day on ebay as somebody tires of it.

There is something very Edwardian about lifeboat disasters, and disasters in general, as if they were a symptom of the loss of nerve of empire in the years leading up to the First World War. In these postmodern days, of course, disasters are something to be endured as inevitable in a fragmented world, rather than celebrated as acts of heroism and divine intervention.

The Caister lifeboat disaster memorial is certainly celebratory. Nine men lost their lives while responding to a distress call in a November storm in 1901. The memorial stands to the north-east of the church, actually across the busy Ormesby road in the old cemetery. A broken pillar is bedecked in nets, lifebuoys, chains and other equipment, all intricately carved in stone. In front, and long since vandalised, is a little pillar with a slot in the top, so that people coming to look at it might make a contribution to the RNLI, as if this was just another seaside attraction. Which, in a real and intended way, it was of course.

  the Caister lifeboat disaster memorial

Just as the memorial is an echo of the imaginations of our great grandparents more than a century ago, so Holy Trinity tells us a lot of what we need to know about their parents and grandparents, for it is one of the many churches in this area virtually rebuilt by the enthusiastic Victorians. At the time, this was just about the only part of Norfolk outside of Norwich where the population was increasing, and the town was moneyed by the burgeoning holiday industry. Because of this, east Norfolk 19th century restorations tend to be democratic, rather than funded by a single patron. There are exceptions to this, but Holy Trinity is not one of them.

The beacon-like tower is full of 14th century grandeur, and apart from the south side vestry with its rather startling chimney, the ground plan was laid out here as early as the start of the 14th century; but when you get inside you see that the arcade was rebuilt by the Victorians. The corbels in the nave survive from a hammerbeam roof, but everything you see now is 18th century or later, with the exception of the quite massive 15th century font, and that was brought here from Eye in Suffolk by the Victorians, apparently. it is rather badly whitewashed, but the castellated top is interesting, and reminiscent of the smaller font at Norwich St Lawrence.

The church appears square, and rather low without a clerestory. There is no north aisle, and the narrow nave leads towards a very curious juxtaposition of two sets of organ pipes, facing each other across the chancel, creating a tunnel effect. It looks as if they are leaning towards each other, whispering. Here in the chancel is a reminder of a much earlier church, a narrow lancet window.

This part of Norfolk is remarkable for the quantity and quality of late 19th and early 20th century glass. There isn't so much here, but the east window of Christ and the Fisherman, by Paul Woodruffe, is really excellent. It commemorates the 1901 lifeboat disaster, as does the large painting above the north doorway. There's some other good glass, including a fine 1930s expressionist window in the lancet.

Holy Trinity is not short of painted wood; there are two massive 18th century commandment boards at the west end depicting Moses and Aaron, and what appears to be a hatchment turns out to be a curiously poised royal arms. It is dated 1786, so the G R commemorated, must be George III.

But look more closely. Sure, they are Hanoverian arms, but the Exurgat Deus motto is that of James I, from almost two centuries earlier, and so we have a good example of arms that have been repainted over the years. What at first sight seems to be another set on the north nave wall turns out to be a memorial to an anoymous charity donor.

  not a hatchment, but a royal arms

As is common in this part of Norfolk, Holy Trinity is liturgically very high, with stations of the cross around the walls. The aisle chapel, with its Marian statues, is the WWI memorial. But it is not stratospherically high, because in this first week of Lent the statues were already bound in purple silk. No waiting until mid-Lent to wrap them up with the Catholics down the road, then.

Simon Knott, April 2006


looking east organ cases leaning to whisper sanctuary looking west
south aisle chapel font - it came from Eye, apparently Faith, Hope and Charity expressionist window Moses
Aaron Christ and the Fisherman, by Paul Woodruffe WWI memorial plaques in the south aisle chapel
17th century brass reset on the back wall not a royal arms, but memorial of a donor memorial station the Caister lifeboat disaster memorial - detail

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The Norfolk Churches Site: an occasional sideways glance at the churches of Norfolk