Surely no Norfolk village had a more colourful character than ‘The Prostitutes’ Padre’ who died after being mauled by a lion?
PUBLISHED: 15:11 26 April 2019 | UPDATED: 16:12 26 April 2019
Keith Skipper says good old ‘Stewkey’ takes the biscuit when it comes to outrageous Norfolk characters. Do you know a village that can top it?
A Norfolk day preaching resurrection to any gloomy soul weighed down by political ineptitude and global catastrophe had to find time for a coastal saunter from Cromer to Wells.
Proper sunshine set the marshes humming an overture to summer. Birdsong and buds spangled hedge and hollow. Stiffkey, basking gently either side of a narrow, winding street, issued its customary challenge to slowing traffic and quickening minds.
“Come on, then, name a village of comparable size with as strong a whiff of history and so big a cast of colourful characters”. As you ponder that offer, just take on board the kind of glowing credentials any suggested rivals are up against.
Stiffkey is noted for much more than tasty cockles and holiday homes. A lengthy cavalcade invariably begins with diminutive Harold Davidson, the “Prostitutes' Padre”, defrocked for what the Consistory Court deemed to be immorality in the 1930s.
Well-worn jokes about saving fallen women followed me to the white cross standing over his resting place on the north side of the graveyard. He died after being mauled by a lion while speaking to a passing public from inside a cage at a Skegness amusement park, a suitably biblical climax to a sensational saga.
They kept faith with their eccentric rector here and believed him when he declared: “I am innocent. There is not a single deed that I shall not do again, with the help of God, a little more discreetly maybe”.
A snatch from a pop song I first heard in the 1960s ruffled the morning peace: “Please don't let me be misunderstood”. Perhaps that line was meant also for Henry Williamson, the dreamer who came face to face with reality in 1937 when he stopped writing romantic novels about Devon and invested his entire capital in a small run-down farm at Stiffkey.
His adventures are told in The Story of a Norfolk Farm, first published in 1941 and dedicated “to all who have worked and suffered for the land and the people of Great Britain”.
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Williamson became disenchanted with some locals who spread rumours about him being in league with Germany and even suggested skylights in his studio were arranged so he could signal to Luftwaffe navigators. He returned to Devon and wrote 17 more books.
Allan Smethurst, destined to make an unlikely assault on the pop music charts as the Singing Postman, spent 1930s summer holidays with Great Granny Polly in this north Norfolk village and tucked away potent images of moody marsh and horse-led harvest.
He later wrote and warbled wistfully about a fast-fading rural canvas and recalled vast crowds at Harold Davidson's funeral.
Davidson's successor as Rector of Stiffkey and Morston was a man whose theatrical instincts must have seemed rather tame to flocks fed on juicy scandals and outrageous headlines. Even so, Charles Harold Fitch, formerly in charge at Marsham and Sheringham, could make an entertaining show out of his passion for Norfolk dialect.
He held court as an authoritative writer and lecturer on the subject and it was his voice contributing the Norfolk record to a series on dialect prepared for the British Drama League. I often wonder if a young Allan Smethurst encountered this dialect-loving parson and picked up a few tips for compositions to come.
Strange and tragic events finished the career of another Stiffkey incumbent towards the end of the 18th century.
The Rev Lord Frederick Townshend apparently shot his brother dead on a coach journey to London. Lord Charles Townshend had served as MP for Yarmouth for just two days.
The Bacons also demand leading roles in this fascinating parish history, their names ringing out over the grand restoration and reconstruction programme uplifting Stiffkey Old Hall next door to the church.
It is based on the original building begun by Sir Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper to Queen Elizabeth 1, and completed by his son Nathaniel, knighted in 1604 and whose memorial is in the chancel at St John the Baptist.
A partly ruined tower in flint and brick, a key feature of the original Elizabethan layout, asks for a place on the cover of a PD James novel. That sort of fanciful thought on a primrose-decked day sits perfectly alongside naïve parson, melancholy postman, benevolent noble, dialect preacher, insane brother and DIY farmer.
The good, the bad, the sad and the misunderstood still singing those old Stewkey Blues across a picturesque valley.
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