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

St John the Baptist, Stiffkey

Stiffkey

Stiffkey

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St John the Baptist, Stiffkey

Stiffkey is a lovely little flint-built village, though it is spoilt somewhat by the traffic between Wells and Blakeney that muscles into the bottleneck of its narrow winding high street. One of the cottages in the street bears the inscription HWW 1937 and a blue plaque remembering that the writer Henry Williamson restored the cottage and lived in it while failing to make a living from Old Hall Farm nearby. His novels A Solitary War and Lucifer Before Sunrise depict a Stiffkey in the years immediately before and during the Second World War - not, it must be said, always a flattering view of its residents, who he found hidebound and intransigent, set in the old ways of farming that Williamson saw as unprofitable and inefficient. By 1943 the farm failed and he left, returning to Devon. Another famous earlier resident was Harold Davidson, the notorious Vicar of Stiffkey, who we will come back to. There is a popular belief that the village name is pronounced stoo-key, although this seems to have no basis in truth other than that the cockles dug from the Stiffkey Sands are known as stookey blues, and I have heard the lovely little river that shares the village name, which rises near Swanton Novers and goes out to sea at Blakeney, also pronounced in this way.

I came back to Stiffkey on a beautiful day in March 2022 with fellow Norfolk enthusiast Cameron Self. It was my first visit since 2004, and I wondered if I would feel differently about the church these eighteen years on, because the original page about it on this site had been a little harsh. I had found the building dull and gloomy, mostly because of the contrast with some of its neighbours. I had been looking forward to coming back. The church is set at a bend in the road beside the former village school, both of them resplendent in flint. Behind the church is what is left of the remarkable Old Hall, built in the late 16th Century by Sir Nicholas Bacon for his son Nathaniel. Enough of it survives to see how enormous it must once have been, and the round corner towers are particularly striking. The churchyard is surrounded on all sides by an impressive flint wall, the church itself shoehorned fortress-like into the south-west corner. There are no aisles or clerestories, but this only serves to emphasise the church's bulk, its nave and tower of a 15th Century Perpendicular piece, the chancel earlier, although as Pevsner observed it was drastically restored in 1848, an early date to hope for any architectural verisimilitude. It appears quietly domestic in comparison with the rest of the structure, particularly with the octagonal rood loft stairway turret which rises dramatically in the south-east corner of the nave.

You step into an interior which has the odd effect of being neither large nor small, which is to say that it is quite different in feel from its neighbouring giants Cley and Blakeney, or from that of the little country churches to the south like Cockthorpe and the Warhams. The height is accentuated by the lack of aisles, the great Perpendicular windows with their clear glass creating a uniformity as they head eastwards. The chancel seems intimate beyond. This is a plain setting for Nathaniel Bacon's 1615 memorial, likely to his own design for it was installed before his death, as you can tell by the fact that no one ever got around to filling in the dates at the bottom - or, if they did, the dates have faded from sight.

An equally striking memorial is that at the west end of the nave, one of the finest WWI memorials in this part of the county. It would be interesting to know who the workshop was. What we do know, however, is that the rector who oversaw its placing in the church was the infamous Harold Davidson, who had been installed here in 1906 after a period of curacy at St Martin in the Fields, London where he was said to have impressed many with his energy and devotion to pastoral care. His ordination had been a reluctant one, for Davidson had experienced some success as a travelling actor, but had at last given in to his father's wishes. He would remain at Stiffkey for the rest of his priesthood, although he soon became known for his absences. As chaplain of the Actors Guild, Davidson spent much of his time in the theatres of London and even Paris. As he was also responsible for nearby Morston church this caused some difficulties, and he was soon in dispute with the churchwardens of both churches to whom fell the task of finding replacements, often at short notice.

Davidson was particularly enthusiastic about his pastoral ministry to showgirls, whose behaviour often scandalised polite society, and when he began welcoming them to stay in Stiffkey rectory it caused something of a sensation locally. He then extended his ministry, approaching girls in teashops and cafés and paying for them to move to more respectable lodgings, which inevitably caused him considerable financial difficulties which, along with being tricked by a conman into investing in non-existent stock, contributed to his bankruptcy in 1925. However, he continued to approach young girls and was soon banned from entering some of London's teashops and other establishments. By now the churchwarden of Morston, one Major Hamond, had had enough, and in 1931 he made a formal complaint to the Bishop of Norwich citing Davidson's scandalous behaviour with women in London. Davidson's other-worldliness meant that his case was poorly defended, and when photographic evidence emerged of Davidson with a semi-naked fifteen year old girl there was only one possible conclusion, and in 1932 Davidson's incumbency and priesthood were 'deposed and degraded', which is to say that he was defrocked. Davidson claimed that he had been tricked into the photograph, which was quite possibly true, but it was the straw that broke the camel's back as far as the evidence was concerned.

Desperately short of money he returned to the stage, appearing in sideshows at Blackpool variously being roasted in an oven while a mechanised devil prodded him with a pitchfork and being frozen in a barrel of ice. Bizarrely, the freezing routine saw him charged with attempted suicide, which was dismissed and he received the welcome reward of nearly £400 compensation for false imprisonment. In the summer of 1937 he moved on to Skegness where he appeared in a sideshow called Daniel in the Lions' Den, in which he preached a sermon on morality to two lions in a cage. One night one of the lions turned on him, and he died two days later. As you may imagine, the events were a sensation and filled the popular press for weeks. Cameron had previously found Davidson's grave in Stiffkey extension churchyard, a simple cross and kerbstones, and he showed it to me. It is said that three thousand people attended the burial, more than ten times the population of little Stiffkey.

Simon Knott, March 2022

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looking east, morning winter light sanctuary forsake me not in mine old age/take not thy Holy Spirit from me (Ward & Hughes, 1870s)
Harold Davidson's pulpit war memorial Nathaniel Bacon, early 17th Century (undated) tonsured cleric under a crown (photograph taken in 2004)

The Vicar of Stiffkey The Vicar of Stiffkey

   
   
               
                 

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