Weird Norfolk: A curious church which took the Devil’s fancy in West Norfolk
- Credit: Archant Library
On the very edge of Norfolk is a curious church whose bell tower, it is said, was moved away from the main building by the Devil himself.
Thirteenth century St Mary’s is a church of two halves: one, the main body, the other – around 60m away from it – the 90ft bell tower, an imposing building that looks somewhat lonely without its mate.
Just as nature abhors a vacuum, folklore abhors oddities with no obvious reason and stories began to emerge as to why tower and church were divorced.
One tale suggests that the Devil tried to remove the whole church from West Walton but found it too heavy and so removed the tower
Fenmen in the area had been so sinful, a legend claimed, that the Devil had got wind of their wrong-doing and decided to remove their church tower (quite why isn’t explained, although we know that Satan is keen on bells). He hired a diabolical army of men – not demons – to carry the church tower away.
The men hoisted the building on their shoulders and began to lug it towards the road but they were thwarted by the churchyard wall which was too tall for them to lift the tower over. Similarly, the church gate was too narrow for them to squeeze through.
After circling the church, the group gave up and dropped the tower where it remains today.
This tale is told in the Antiquities and Curiosities of the Church, published in 1896, which berates the thieves as “strong…but not intelligent”.
Another theories is that the stray tower is the work of legendary Tom Hickathrift. The story of Tom Hickathrift stretches back through English folklore to before the Puritan times when many such tales were lost – first written down in the 1631, it was passed down through generations via chapbooks, little paper pamphlets sold by travelling peddlers for a penny or sixpence.It is believed the story, shown on Marshland St James' village sign, is based in fact and that Tom may well have been a real person, possibly one who lived before the Norman invasion, when locals were arguing with new lords of the manors who were riding roughshod over the rights of the people to use common land.
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During the fight, Tom Hickifric, who was outlandishly and unusually tall, took a cart-wheel as a shield and an axle for a sword to help fight off the overlords.
Over time, the stories were embroidered: Tom became a giant and the invaders became an ogre who lived in the dangerous boggy marshland of Smeeth, the area of land between Wisbech and King's Lynn which historically belonged to the Seven Towns of the Marshland, Clenchwarton, Emneth, Terrington, Tilney, Walpole, Walsoken and West Walton.
Tom killed an ogre that had been terrorising the people of West Norfolk and he entered the folklore lexicon with deeds that included moving Walton’s tower, hurling a huge stone to choose his burial spot and sharing the ogre’s treasure with villagers.
The curious design is, in fact, a clever way to prevent a problem that the Fens is famous for.
West Norfolk is a land of soft soil and big buildings that don’t boast good foundations do not fare well on the shifting fens: nearby, at Elm, a sinking church tower dragged the west end of the nave down to the south, creating a twist that can still be seen.
Unless the Devil popped to Elm after West Walton and tried to steal that tower, too…