How Peter is proving that every Norfolk village is a small wonder

Peter Tolhurst is bringing out a new book this month called Norfolk Parish Treasures: North and West

Peter Tolhurst is bringing out a new book this month called Norfolk Parish Treasures: North and West NorfolkPicture by SIMON FINLAY. - Credit: Archant Norfolk

Writer and publisher Peter Tolhurst has spent ten years putting togethera new series of books featuring every single Norfolk village. TREVOR HEATON talks to the creator of a work destined to become a local classic.

The Wave Garden at Pensthorpe

The Wave Garden at Pensthorpe - Credit: Archant

Every picture tells a story, they say - and so does every Norfolk village.

And to prove it, Peter Tolhurst - the driving force behind the much-acclaimed Black Dog imprint - has spent ten years visiting, researching, gathering and writing Norfolk Parish Treasures, which is being launched this week.

It's a 310-page tour-de-force, a satisfyingly weighty tome which manages the difficult trick of being lively, readable and authoritative at the same time.

And comprehensive, so comprehensive. You may have seen guide books to Norfolk before - 'Billa' Harrod's classic Shell Guide to the county springs immediately to mind - but, admit it, have you ever seen one which covered such tiny and often-overlooked places as Egmere, Quarles, Choseley and Waterden?

This is only the first part (North and West Norfolk) of Peter's epic survey, but it couldn't be further from the dry academic tome that the word implies. 'It's very much aimed at the general reader and not the specialist,' Peter explained. 'I wanted to create a popular, readable format.'

The roots of the project go back to the 1980s, when Peter was a conservation officer for Breckland Council. He was working on a scheme inspired by the national campaign known as 'Common Ground'.

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'When I was working for the council I ran a programme with unemployed people to create parish heritage maps,' he said. 'We would go into an area and look at the listed buildings, nature reserves, that sort of thing and produce an Ordnance Survey-based map to be displayed in the village hall, church and school.'

The idea was to make local people much more aware of the architectural, natural and archaeological heritage on their own doorsteps. The hope was that they would become more interested in looking after it - and kick up a fuss if they saw any of it under threat.

And that idea of bringing together all these different strands is very much the backbone of Norfolk Parish Treasures. 'I wanted to go beyond just the physical buildings and bring in folklore, literary associations, origins of village names, stories of roads and lanes... a whole rag-bag of stuff,' Peter said.

He is passionate that the story of our villages shouldn't just be that of our churches and the big houses (wonderful though they are) but also the small things - the milestones, the post boxes, that tiny but beautiful little cottage round the corner, the medieval pilgrim's badge found in a field.

That passion comes through in his prose. Praising the very wonderful Blakeney Neighbourhood Housing Association - which gives ordinary local folk the chance to live in this second-home hotspot - he says: 'If St Nicholas is the patron saint of fishermen then Nora Clugstoun, who saved a group of their condemned cottages just after the war, is the patron saint of social housing.'

Again and again it's the scale of the book project which impresses. But that shouldn't be a suprise, for since taking early retirement from the council, Peter has created a series of beautifully produced and much acclaimed books in his Norwich-based imprint.

His own East Anglia: A Literary Pilgrimage (1996) was one of the best local books of that decade, and was followed by other works as publisher, including Water Marks: Art In East Anglia, by Ian Collins, and several volumes of short stories.

It should come as no surprise, then, that complementing the text are hundreds of lovely illustrations, from his own photographs to the art of John Piper, and the classic images of Edwin Smith (from the 1960s) and Christopher Dalton. The archaeological finds are illustrated superbly by Sue Walker White.

His research has ranged far and wide, from travelling umpteen miles round the villages to combing learned and specialist journals to pick out nuggets which would otherwise be missed by the general reader.

He has also written about treasures which are no longer in their village of origin. Take West Dereham, for instance. The village, tucked away near Downham Market, could comfortably tucked into a tiny corner of its mid-Norfolk 'sister'.

But back in the Middle Ages it was a different story, with the village dominated by a prosperous abbey. Then came Thomas Cromwell and his henchmen under orders of Henry VIII to sweep it away, and apart from some re-used stone and some lumps and bumps in the fields that's all that remains now. But not quite: in the library of Trinity College Dublin of all places, there still exists part of a magnificent 12th-century bible once owned by the monks.

Peter has included one of its beautiful illuminated letters to help the story - 'It's a bit of a salvage operation' - and so, after hundreds of years, village and medieval treasure are reunited, at least on the page.

The legacy of Norfolk's position as one of England's richest counties for centuries can be seen in the fact that we still have hundreds of villages today - and the best set of medieval churches in the world - so there's plenty of stories yet to tell.

This first volume will surely be one of the big sellers of the autumn (and winter, spring and summer too come to that) and a wonderful addition to Norfolk's rich literary heritage. Peter will be issuing 'Breckland and South Norfolk' next year, with 'The Broads and Mid Norfolk' scheduled for 2016. Both, I predict, will be eagerly anticipated.

In carrying out his research, Peter has been made very aware of the constant changes in our countryside, from the loss of so many of our lovely red phone boxes to the over-tidying of wildlife-rich verges. He is full of praise for the likes of Nigel Ford, who has been leading a team restoring our beautiful milestones, but is worried that so much of our heritage remains under threat.

'There are encouraging signs about our wildlife, but I'm not so sure about our architectural heritage,' he said. 'It seems safe in places such as North Norfolk, but I not sure about South Norfolk and Breckland.'

So going back full circle to that Common Ground scheme from years back, it's up to us all to be on our guard to protect our villages.

That's the thing about Norfolk: it's a big and beautiful county made up of lots and lots of small wonders. And you know what? They're all precious.

Norfolk Parish Treasures: North and West Norfolk, published by Black Dog Books, is available for £20 from Jarrold and other local bookshops. It's in the shops now but Peter will also be formally launching it next Saturday at the Holt Bookshop with a signing session from 11am to 1pm.

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