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

Holy Trinity, Nordelph

Nordelph: Fletton brick, fleche, nothing fancy - Pevsner

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probably the most remote of all Norfolk churches Keep Out signs on the padlocked doors the east window (Excellent, by Heaton, Butler & Bayne - Pevsner) 1865 by the architect John Giles

    Holy Trinity, Nordelph
Nordelph Rectory at the start of the 20th century: note the lions   On 9th December, 1935, the poet John Betjeman wrote in his private journal Nordelph is miles away in the Norfolk fens, a village of two-storey houses most of them sloping on unsafe foundations strung about with telegraph poles and electric light poles. Had inestimable privilege of spending Sunday with the Reverend EE Bradford DD, author of Passing the Love of Women and many other volumes of verse. He has been Vicar of Nordelph since 1917 and is now 75. A modernist, but likes ritual. Last boyfriend called Edmund. Not had a boyfriend for 30 years. V happy with Nordelph. A Saint & thinks laws against sexuality wicked cruel and out of date. Said the Queen asked for one of his books.

Obviously a joke played on him poor old thing. Got his DD for proving St Paul contradicts himself on the subject of free will. Advocates birth control and says that logically Onan is a must... should be permitted in public schools. Service fairly well attended. Children get a penny for coming, kept in little boxes in a draw of his desk. Plays organ himself. Candles on red altar, black cloths. All candles lighted. Sermon v abtruse and clever on certainty of God. Talked of Julian Huxley. Cold supper at the vicarage. Felt the better for seeing such a saintly and sweet little man... Surely never did a bad thing in his life.

Holy Trinity, Nordelph, is probably the most remote of all Norfolk churches - St Mary at Welney is further from other churches in the county, but has near neighbours across the border in Cambridgeshire. It is a lonely place today, and must have seemed much more so in the 1930s. Unusually, the name is Dutch, and the settlement probably dates from the fen drainages of the 17th century. The flat fens stretch all around, with no other settlements in sight except, incongruously, Downham Market like a golden city on the hilltop miles away. Probably, Bradford's long incumbency at Nordelph constituted a kind of exile.   The Reverend Bradford standing outside the Rectory, 1930s: more lions

The large church was commissioned by the Reverend William Townley, and built in 1865 by the architect John Giles (Fletton brick, fleche, nothing fancy - Pevsner), but today it stands derelict and shrouded by the six feet high nettles of the churchyard. It is not yet a ruin. Ron Stannard's photograph, below to the right, shows the view east inside shortly before the end.

the south side, windows smashed   Some derelict churches are romantic, but this one isn't. It feels a sinister place. We fought our way through the nettles, past the Keep Out signs on the padlocked doors, to the graveyard. On the far side, the windows were all smashed, and the east window (excellent, by Heaton, Butler & Bayne - Pevsner) boarded up, the glass removed to storage. There are long cracks running through the Fletton brick. All about was a cold silence, except for wind from across the fen, rustling nettles and shaking hanging guttering.

The Diocese of Ely, in which Nordelph falls, badly wants to demolish it. As building land, the graveyard is worth a fortune. But there is one problem, and, ironically, it is a problem that many working churches would prefer not to suffer from. Holy Trinity is home to several species of bats, and bats are a protected species. And so, the church is left to fall of its own accord.

Ron Stannard's photograph of the interior, taken shortly before the church closed, shows a bright, neat 19th century high church interior, with light wood and devotional furnishings. All of this is now lost forever.

What would the Reverend EE Bradford DD make of it all, I wonder? To see him in the photograph above, standing outside the village school across the road from his church, he seems a fairly jolly, solid sort.

Back in the 1930s, Betjeman's main memory of the vicarage was that it was propped up because, like the other buildings, it was sinking into the ground. When they sat down to dinner, Bradford told Betjeman "not to worry, old boy, we shall be quite safe on this side of the house". So he was not unfamiliar with dereliction.

He would certainly seem to us to have stepped out of another age. The greater part of his life was lived in the Victorian era, and this was probably what fascinated Betjeman more than Bradford's poetry, which was generally mildly erotic verse about boys. It's unlikely he would get away with it today. However, Betjeman's friendship with him was not entirely sincere, because Bradford was the subject of numerous jokes between the future poet laureate and his friends.

the interior of Nordelph shortly before the end (c) Ron Stannard  

Betjeman's biographer Bevis Hillier calls Bradford 'the paedophile poet', which may be a little harsh, although it is true that the final demise of the Vicarage came when Bradford built a swimming pool beside the house so that he could watch the local youths sporting in it.

  Villager Chris Manning tells me that there are still people alive in Nordelph today who remember swimming in the pool. The pool was inspired by a visit the Reverend Bradford had made to Switzerland, Chris writes. On his return, he got the village boys to dig out the pond and use the soil to make "mountains". He kept goats, and the pond was surrounded by statues of lions, a few of which can be found in local gardens!

All finished with now. Bradford and his vicarage have long since returned to the earth, and no doubt this church will soon join them*. A happier sight is the former primitive methodist chapel down on the main road, now converted into a house. You can see it below.

Simon Knott, August 2005

Postscript, March 2006: Jane Crapnell writes My great aunt was housekeeper for Dr. Bradford for many years until his death. He left all his property and wonderful belongings to her. He was eccentric but well loved by the local people I understand, and elderly people in Downham Market and surrounding area remember him with affection. He was once apprehended at Denver on the river wall as being a suspect spy! My great aunt was equally eccentric and let his house and belongings rot. I have seven books of his poetry published between 1908 and 1930 with his own comments and remarks made by contemporary poets.

Jane very kindly lent the archive photos of Bradford's Rectory and the man himself standing outside the school, both above, along with the newspaper cutting on the right reporting his death.

*December 2010: In 2009, the Diocese of Ely applied for a demolition order against Nordelph church, and in the Autumn of 2010 the church was demolished.

  the death of Dr Bradford

A happier sight is the former primitive methodist chapel down on the main road


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