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
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 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.
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.
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.”
The sign at Babingley has a colourful past.
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?
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.
Almost 500 years later they are now being reintroduced into some areas.
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.
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.
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