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

St Benedict, Horning


Horning filled-in arcade, Horning (2005)

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St Benedict, Horning

Freewheeling down the high-hedged lane that leads from the busy village to the lonely churchyard, I was put in mind of my only previous visit to Horning church which, as I discovered when I checked my notes later, had been exactly sixteen years to the day previously. That was also a beautiful day in late summer, which is perhaps why it recalled itself to my mind, the bowering trees and the ripening blackberries in the hedgerow instantly familiar.

On that previous occasion I hadn't actually set out that day with a visit to Horning church in mind. I was out with my wife Jacqueline and my daughter Martha, then eight years old. Her big brother James was at some scout camp or other in the wilds of Norfolk, and after dropping him off there we decided to spend the rest of the day on the Broads. I love the Norfolk Broads. There's something reassuringly old-fashioned about them. They still have tea shops called 'tea shoppes', and in those days you could still buy souvenirs like thermometers set in china dogs and miniature brass gongs embossed with a map of the Bure. Perhaps you still can. There were technicolor postcards of Potter Heigham Bridge printed in the 1970s, the prices in single figures. Everyone tells you that the Broads are insufferably overcrowded, but they aren't really. Wroxham and its adjacent Hoveton shopping centre are pretty full, mainly with fortnighters from the Midlands and the North of England, and some of the main waterways have snarl-ups like the Ipswich rush hour, but most of the lanes and backwaters are almost completely empty. We headed to the south bank of the Bure, and bearing in mind that it was the middle week of August we passed hardly another car once we got north of South Walsham.

We climbed Ranworth tower, and Martha had the frisson of hearing her father get told off by another visitor for using a flash to photograph the Ranworth screen, against the official rules as printed on a Very Large Sign in those days. Well, for goodness sake, why didn't they just say please don't take photographs, buy our postcards instead? I must say that I was a bit disappointed to return to Ranworth in later years to find that the sign was no longer in existence. We had lunch at the Woodbastwick brewery, and while we sat there it occured to me that we were only a couple of miles from one of the few Broadland churches I hadn't visited yet. I suggested that, you know, why didn't we just stroll down to the river and take the foot ferry across to Horning?

Because the ferry is shown on the Ordnance Survey map, I had assumed that it would be some kind of major operation with a ticket booth and possibly a bar. As it turned out, there was a fading photocopied A4 sheet of paper stapled to a stick, giving a mobile phone number to call if you wanted to discuss the possibility of crossing. I was all for giving up at this point, but Jacqueline rang up and the man said he'd be there in ten minutes.

And he was. A little launch with an outboard motor headed down the Bure from the direction of Potter Heigham and reversed into the cutting. Another family had joined us on the bank, and we all piled in. Once seated, we headed back out downriver, and then up to the boat yard at the top of Horning creek. It was a lovely trip, bobbing around in the wide, lazy river. It took no more than ten minutes, and the nice man charged us just a pound a head - and he charged Martha nothing at all, saying she hadn't taken up enough space.

Having made sure that the ferry would be going back in about an hour's time, we walked through the sunny lanes up to Horning church, which is about a mile outside the village. An English summer is always tentative, but this day felt like it really meant it, a bright, airy light beating down, bringing out the smell of the blackberries, and the tarmac, and high birdsong in the fields around.

And so I was here again, and as before the first sight of the church is from the north, and it is a curious one. The window tracery tells the story of a church which was essentially slowly constructed in the half century or so before the Black Death, say from about 1280 onwards, and then the tower was built about fifty years after that, presumably replacing a still earlier one. The chancel underwent an overhaul in the early 15th Century. However, in 1721 the north aisle was demolished. The arcade was filled in and the old windows were moved back from the aisle into the new wall of the nave. This stark vista with the surviving clerestory above creates an illusion, just for a moment, that this might be a two-storey church. It isn't of course, but the height of the wall and the size of the nave windows means that you step down into an interior which can feel quite enclosed and even a little dim.

The north arcade survives more fully on the inside. The tower arch soars, and as so often the font below it is exactly contemporary with it. A curiosity is the set of stalls in the chancel, which are carved in ogee-arched niches on the ends with all manner of wonderful things. The devil pushes a man down into hell, another man fights with two serpents. On the bench ends, a Chinese dragon, a man apparently feeding a serpent although presumably he is actually fighting with it, and a fat little pelican, all carved in a cheerfully amateurish style. Presumably they date from the 1870s restoration or soon afterwards.

I was pleased to find the church open, because 2021 was the second summer of the Church of England's Great Covid Panic, when it had hastily locked the doors of its churches against the people of God, and I had found that some churches had been slow to reopen even eighteen months on. But not only was Horning church open every day, pretty much all of the Broadland churches seemed to be, on this side of the Broads at least. I got back on my bike to head on to Ludham, overtaking myself in 2005, when we had wandered back down the lanes, gorging ourselves on Norfolk blackberries, in time to cross the Bure and head to the hell of the pleasure boat trips and souvenir shops of Hoveton and Wroxham, to squeeze the last ounce of pleasure out of the day.

Simon Knott, September 2021

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looking east chancel
font rood loft stairs filled-in arcade
The Abbot of St Benet's a devil forces a figure down into the jaws of Hell two serpents attack a man in a hat Horning MU
a man feeding a serpent? fat pelican fat pelican


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