Search

Norfolk on the stick: The bewildering tale of the bishop beaver of Babingley

PUBLISHED: 08:36 04 February 2019 | UPDATED: 08:54 07 February 2019

Beavers depicted on the current sign at Babingley. Picture: ANDREW TULLETT

Beavers depicted on the current sign at Babingley. Picture: ANDREW TULLETT

Archant

ANDREW TULLETT recounts the story of a west Norfolk hamlet's sign, which pays tribute to a beaver who rescued a saint and was ordained for his troubles.

The current, unpainted Babingley sign. It shows Saint Felix and his ship, as well as the beaver he ordained in thanks for guiding him to safe harbour. Picture: STEPHEN TULLETTThe current, unpainted Babingley sign. It shows Saint Felix and his ship, as well as the beaver he ordained in thanks for guiding him to safe harbour. Picture: STEPHEN TULLETT

The Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, is by no means the first person to have had a miraculous escape at Babingley.

According to legend, a ship carrying Saint Felix was nearly wrecked here during a storm in 631AD.

The vessel was saved by a family of beavers who helped guide it to safe harbour.

In gratitude, St Felix ordained the head of the family.

He is dressed in his bishop’s garb on the top of the sign holding a crosier over two other beavers.

Saint Felix of Burgundy is credited with introducing Christianity to East Anglia.

He remained Bishop of East Anglia for 17 years until his death.

The ruined church of Saint Felix at Babingley dates from the 1300s was reputedly built over the site of the first Christian church in Norfolk.

A 1588 map showing an estuary of the Wash, which once reached as far inland as Babingley, which is represented by the church on the map. The village in the centre of the map is Castle Rising, and King's Lynn, labelled Lynne Regis, can be seen in the lower left.  The blue area depicts the Chase of Rising, which was used for hunting deer by Norman royalty. Image: SUPPLIED BY ANDERW TULLETTA 1588 map showing an estuary of the Wash, which once reached as far inland as Babingley, which is represented by the church on the map. The village in the centre of the map is Castle Rising, and King's Lynn, labelled Lynne Regis, can be seen in the lower left. The blue area depicts the Chase of Rising, which was used for hunting deer by Norman royalty. Image: SUPPLIED BY ANDERW TULLETT

At Saint Peter and Saint Paul’s Church in neighbouring West Newton, the legacy of Saint Felix is celebrated in stained glass.

Saint Felix and his ship also appear on another village sign, at nearby Flitcham, which according to a local tale is where Saint Felix lived and explains how the village got its name.

Babingley and Flitcham are both villages on the Sandringham Estate.

It was here in the early 1900s that the very first village signs in Britain were erected with support from the royal family.

A stained glass window  Saint Felix at Saint Peter and Saint Paul’s Church in neighbouring West Newton also depicts Saint Felix. Picture: ANDREW TULLETTA stained glass window Saint Felix at Saint Peter and Saint Paul’s Church in neighbouring West Newton also depicts Saint Felix. Picture: ANDREW TULLETT

The first sign at Babingley was carved at the Princess Alexandra Carving School and would have been one of those referred to by Prince Albert, the future King George VI, in a talk he gave to the Royal Academy in 1920 in which he promoted the idea of decorative village signs.

He told the audience: “The name of many a village would offer scope for the wit and humour of the artist. In the neighbourhood of Sandringham village signs have been introduced with considerable success.”

MORE: Norfolk on a stick: The tale behind a town’s tribute to Viking raids and revolutionary writing

The sign at Babingley has a colourful past.

The Flitcham village sign, showing the ship that carried Saint Felix. Picture: ANDREW TULLETTThe Flitcham village sign, showing the ship that carried Saint Felix. Picture: ANDREW TULLETT

The original sign was replaced by a painted version made by Harry Carter of Swaffham.

The current sign, in plain wood, borrows from Harry Carter’s design.

The Latin inscription is similar on both and tells of how Saint Felix preached to the beavers who prevented his ship from being wrecked.

How far can we stretch a tall tale?

The Flitcham village sign, showing the ship that carried Saint Felix. Picture: ANDREW TULLETTThe Flitcham village sign, showing the ship that carried Saint Felix. Picture: ANDREW TULLETT

Early maps show that an estuary of the Wash once reached as far inland as Babingley.

The land was reclaimed sometime before the 1600s.

Today Babingley River is a much narrower waterway and is no longer navigable.

The last wild beaver in the British Isles was shot and killed in Scotland in 1526 before becoming extinct, but prior to this they were common across the country.

The former, painted Babingley sign. It shows Saint Felix and his ship, as well as the beaver he ordained in thanks for guiding him to safe harbour. Picture: STEPHEN TULLETTThe former, painted Babingley sign. It shows Saint Felix and his ship, as well as the beaver he ordained in thanks for guiding him to safe harbour. Picture: STEPHEN TULLETT

Almost 500 years later they are now being reintroduced into some areas.

Factfile: Babingley

The manor of Babingley is recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086.

The medieval village was located in fields to the west of the current settlement, around the ruins of St. Felix’s parish church. It is now regarded as one of Norfolk’s two hundred or so ‘lost’ settlements.

The ruin of St Felix's parish church at Babingley. Picture: Ian BurtThe ruin of St Felix's parish church at Babingley. Picture: Ian Burt

Modern Babingley is a quiet place consisting of just a few homes and farms on the A149 between King’s Lynn and Hunstanton.

St Felix’s Church was used for worship from the 1300s. In 1845 the tower was said to be in ‘tolerable’ repair, but the chancel ‘in ruins’. It has been Grade I scheduled monument since 1951 and is located on private land.

It was replaced in 1880 by St. Mary and St. Felix Chapel, a corrugated iron building. It is an unusual ‘tin tabernacle’ in that it is also thatched.

*Dr Tullett, from Lakenham, researched just about all of Norfolk’s 500-plus town and village signs as part of his Signs of a Norfolk Summer project.

Andrew Tullett. Image: SONYA DUNCANAndrew Tullett. Image: SONYA DUNCAN

He is giving a public talk on the subject called ‘The History of Norfolk on a Stick - Researching Village Signs’ at the Norfolk Record Office, next to County Hall in Norwich, on Wednesday, February 6 at 1pm. For more details of that and Norfolk’s other signs, visit the Signs of a Norfolk Summer page on Facebook, or search for “Norfolk on a stick” on www.edp24.co.uk

Norfolk on a stick logoNorfolk on a stick logo



Most Read

Most Read

Latest from the Eastern Daily Press

Hot Jobs

Show Job Lists