Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The Biggening Skies

With Son the Elder deposited at the seond day of Robot Wars events, my partner and I set out for the Norfolk coast.  After all, if you are this close to the edge of the country, you might as well continue until you can go no further.  'Anyhow, I've heard East Cromer is really nice,' said my partner.  A little later on, however, he decided that he might be thinking of East Coker.  'Well, my mate Steve definitely said Cromer's worth a visit,' he persisted. 

First, though, there were a couple of churches I wanted to stop at, although things didn't go quite to plan, as when tasked with directing us to Little Witchingham, the sat nav dropped us in the middle of nowhere - in fact, I began to wonder if the witches had bewitched the village away.  In the end I had to resort to reading a signpost.  Crikey.

Then there it was - St Faith's - no longer in regular use (owing to a lack of same?) and in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust.  And open!

And what a church, covered in wall paintings dating from the middle of the 14th century.  And to think they were almost lost for ever, having been discovered only in the 1970s when the church was in a ruinous state and earmarked for demolition.  

Not all of the South Wall appears to have been painted, but Eve Baker, the art historian who discovered the murals, believes that it had been prepared for painting and that something had intervened to stop it happening, almost certainly the Black Death of 1348.   

Outside I was still keeping an eye out for one of those bigenning skies and I wasn't going to go home till I saw one.  This at least was a start ... 

and this not a bad continuation ...

BUT there was something wrong with the qualitative flatness of the place.  I'd been expecting somewhere like the Somerset Levels, where the roads are raised and called causeways, and every winter the land remembers the implications of its name and floods.  But Norfolk - or at least this part of it - is quite bumpy, with hillocks and rises.  Not really flat at all.

Then I realised what was bothering me.  In Somerset your eye runs over the terrain until it hits a range of hills - the Mendips, the Poldens, the Quantocks, the Brendons, the Blackdowns - which accentuate the flatness of the low-lying land, whilst in Norfolk there are no ranges of hills.  It is a different sort of flat, and therein, I'd wager, lie the bigenning skies.  

Relieved, I drove on to Thurgarton, our next stop which boasts a towerless thatched church.  All Saints did once have a tower which fell in the 1880s.  The church was eventually abandoned altogether and only rescued in the 1980s, again thanks to the Churches Conservation Trust. 

Outside there was a pleasingly chubby cherub flanked by two toothsome skulls ... 
and inside a series of carved mediaeval bench ends.  Here's a man (a huntsman or wild man?) creeping up on two dogs fighting ... 

... a liony creature and a man playing the bagpipe, though the bag bit has been lost ... 

... a creature - possibly a gryphon? - holding a man's head in his paws and a dragon ...

... a rather more convincing elephant and castle, than the one I saw in the Choir at Chester Cathedral ... 

There were also some fragmentary Elizabethan texts on the walls.  (Not everyone was impressed by the litany that is the Ten Commandments.)

My favourite things were the sense of space you get - always a feature of Conservation Trust Churches which are stripped of all clutter - and the amazing hammerbeam chancel roof, which put me in mind of the final section of Seamus Heaney's sequence, Lightenings.
The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.

The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,

A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
'This man can't bear our life here and will drown,'

The abbot said, 'unless we help him.' So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.


Outside big skies were filled with sea gulls as a tractor ploughed the stubble.  We headed on to Cromer.  

Apparently the artist Algernon Swinburne visited Cromer in 1880 and said that it was 'an esplanady sort of place' ... 

... and in 1892 Oscar Wilde claimed he found Cromer 'excellent for writing, golf better'.  We struggled to find a decent pub. 

The colours, however, were gorgeous ... 


... and the skies, yes, the skies were very big indeed.  


  1. What is a bigenning sky? will now find myself looking out for one!

    1. Biggen is a lovely old verb I came across in a West Country context (although I think it was in general parlance). It was used to describe the belly of a pregnant woman, and simply means 'to get bigger'.

      I love old words and think they should be used where practical.