Norfolk on a stick: Colourful cockles, fickle flowers and a problem with pronunciation
PUBLISHED: 08:06 18 February 2019 | UPDATED: 08:38 18 February 2019
It's name may trip up a few tongues but its cockles and samphire have delighted others. DR ANDREW TULLETT recounts the stories behind Stiffkey's village signs.
The main image on the village sign at Stiffkey depicts a shell.
This is a ‘Stewkey Blue’, a cockle which can be collected from the mud and sands near here at low tide.
They can be cooked in the same way as mussels.
The shell frames a scene of three cockle gatherers at work.
The 1911 Census lists five women from Stiffkey as ‘cockle gatherers’.
In his book ‘The Norfolk Fowler’, published in 1953, Alan Savory writes: “The women cockle gatherers from Stiffkey (or Stewkey, as it is sometimes called) who have double the strength of a normal man, go right out there between the tides and get a peck of these cockles and carry them back to the village, miles across the sea and saltings.”
The shells of Stewkey Blues are stained their unique colour by the mud they live in.
Farrow & Ball claim the cockles as the inspiration for their paint ‘Stiffkey Blue No. 281’.
A second Stewkey Blue at the bottom of the sign bears the date 1975 and what appears to be a trident.
It is actually an intertwined ‘W’ and ‘I’, the initials of the Women’s Institute. The organisation donated the sign to the village, which was originally designed by Joy Schwabe and made by Harry Carter.
A selection of plants associated with the marshes also appear on the sign.
These include readily identifiable species, such as the edible samphire (also known as ‘sea asparagus’ or ‘sea pickle’) and others that do not appear in any field guide – the plant in the top right-hand corner now bears a red flower after a repaint.
It has, in the past, borne a yellow one!
The silver chalice and pig are references to the Bacon family that lived at Stiffkey Old Hall.
Construction of the building began in the reign of Elizabeth I.
It was originally intended to be the home of Sir Nicholas Bacon but he died before it was completed.
It was left to his son, Nathaniel Bacon, to finish it, which he did in 1604.
The chalice was a gift to St. John’s Church at Stiffkey from the Bacons.
The church also contains a large black marble monument to Nathaniel Bacon and his family, which was erected in 1615, seven years before his death.
Although a space was left to include it the date Nathaniel died was never added to the original inscription.
And what of the black silhouette in the top left of the sign. Could this be Black Schuck, a dog with “a great black body” and “a pair of ferocious eyes” that Christopher Marlowe encountered during a stay at Stiffkey in the late 1500s. Or is this just another dubious sighting?
Visitors to Stiffkey may not believe their eyes as they pass through the village.
Two other village signs have also been erected here. Both are constructed from metal and depict a tern on a fence. Common, Little and Sandwich Terns all nest on the sands here during the summer months. One of the metal signs also sports another Stewkey Blue.
The pronunciation of the name Stiffkey, on the North Norfolk Coast, has long been a matter of debate. The main village sign does not help clarify matters. It proudly displays both alternatives - Stewkey and Stiffkey.
MORE: Norfolk on the stick: The bewildering tale of the bishop beaver of Babingley
The Norwich born sociolinguist, Peter Trudgill, maintains that the name should be pronounced as it appears, whilst the use of the term ‘Stewkey’ should be reserved for the coloured cockles. So that clears that up then.
Factfile: Stiffkey’s ill-fated rector
One of the village’s most memorable residents was its rector, Harold Davidson, who was defrocked in the 1930s for ‘immoral behaviour’.
As well as tending to Stiffkey’s flock, the rector made regular trips to Soho, ministering to the capital’s down-and-outs and becoming known as the ‘Prostitutes’ Padre’.
But the Bishop of Norwich, incensed when the rector arrived late for a Remembrance Day service, had him investigated and then thrown out of the clergy on charges including ‘embracing a girl in a Chinese restaurant in Bloomsbury’.
The charges have since been widely discredited but Harold sadly never lived to see justice.
In an effort to raise enough funds to have the case overturned, Harold exhibited himself in a barrel in Blackpool and performed in other seaside shows.
He then joined a fair to literally preach from the lion’s den, stood on the animal’s tail, and was mauled to death.
Norfolk on a stick
-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 now gives presentations on the topic, and anyone looking for a speaker can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more details of that and Norfolk’s other signs, visit the Signs of a Norfolk Summer page on Facebook, or search for other stories in this series, called “Norfolk on a stick” on this website.