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Thursday, April 15, 2010
St Nicholas is the patron saint of fishermen and sailors, so it is appropriate that an important port should have its parish church named after him.
The harbour has long silted up, and now only small boats can find their way in and out. Although this picturesque North Norfolk spot is deservedly popular with day-trippers, it is hard to imagine it in its Middle Ages heyday when it was indeed a major place for the import and export of trade goods. Like Kings Lynn to the west, which thrived into modern times, and next-door Cley the port made its money from shipping corn and woollen goods and importing such goods as Newcastle coal. Its harbour provided an excellent haven for shipping at the end of a long channel, possibly being founded by Scandinavian traders up to 1000 years ago. Based around the estuary of the River Glaven, by the late 13th century it had attracted a Carmelite friary and the parish church had its roots in that. The southern part of the town was then known as Snitterley, and it was here that the church was built, complete with the chancel which survives today and a magnificent roof made of oak and chestnut. The church acquired its current shape some 150 years later when a major rebuilding project took place.
By the 15th century Blakeney was one of the few ports allowed to trade in horses, gold and silver. The money generated financed the rebuilding of the nave of the original friars church. By 1435 a new tower, 104ft high, had been built declaring to all comers the importance of Blakeney. For good measure they then built another one, although the smaller east tower had a utilitarian as well as ostentatious function. It seems likely it contained a light to guide shipping; certainly it acted as a navigational aid for centuries and mariners may well have been able to line up the tower at Blakeney with the one at neighbouring Cley to guide themselves in. St Nicholas is probably the only church in Norfolk with twin towers, apart from Wymondham Abbey. One of the benefactors of the church was a landowner named John Calthorp. In his will he stated that his synful body was to be buried in the myddys of the chancel and so it was in 1508; the keen-eyed can read the brass inscription on the floor. Also buried there is Sir Henry Tim Birkin, the Bentley racing driver of the 1920s, a regular visitor to Blakeney. An inscription on the buttresses shows a dolphin and three seashells; this motif has been taken in recent years to represent the town.
St Nicholas had its fair share of windows smashed and icons removed. Puritans deemed these idolatrous, and defaced many of the screens and statues. Rector Jacob Pointer and his curate were keen reformers and got in trouble with the Church of England for refusing to use the establishment prayerbook. By 1600 things were in a bad way, the chancel decayed and ye porche defiled by cattel. By the later 17th century the silting up of the harbour was finishing off Blakeney as a port. The final blow came in the 1840s when the railway failed to come to the town both it and the church fell on hard times. Nevertheless fragments of stained glass which had been buried in the churchyard were later dug up, cleaned and reset in the window of the north aisle. Much of the decoration today owes its existence to the Victorian revival of the Gothic tradition. During the late 1800s and early 1900s members of the Arts and Crafts movement added some fine examples of glasswork at Blakeney. The Victorians also added the porch.
Seafarers such as Sir Christopher Myngs, Sir John Narborough and Sir Cloudesley Shovell hailed from the Blakeney area. St Nicholas is awash with inscriptions and memorials to seafarers, particularly the lifeboatmen. On one wall is a particularly evocative passage recalling a dramatic night in January, 1918. In a northwest gale and snow and frost 30 lives were saved on two steamers by the crew of the Blakeney lifeboat Caroline, it recalls. Most striking is the fact that the average age of the crew was 55, presumably because most of the younger men were at war. The boat was coxed by George Long, then 62, whose picture above the inscription shows him to have been a man with a weathered face and determined look you would certainly have been glad of beside you in the boat. Five men in his crew bore the same surname Long, a name shared by several of the names on the war memorial outside the church. Stroll around the churchyard to read some more nautical names on the tombstones.
Major restoration work was carried out on the towers during the 1980s, and dedicated parishioners help keep things going. The church, along with the town, has benefited from the many tourists to the area (perhaps a few too many for some in the summer!) and the spectacular sight of the church with the twin towers can be seen by both sailors and people out birdwatching or walking in the area a true landmark of this popular coastline. Visitors are welcome to climb the tower for a fine view. Simon Jenkins, in his book Englands 1,000 Best Churches (2001, Penguin) described St Nicholas as a community centre, market place and museum while it was voted one of Englands 100 favourite churches in the Daily Telegraph two years ago.
St Nicholas Church, Blakeney, on the scenic A149 between Cromer and Wells, is open to the public.