Norfolk’s village signs: one man’s quest to discover them all
PUBLISHED: 13:22 28 November 2017 | UPDATED: 13:22 28 November 2017
From ornate metalwork symbolising industry and agriculture to cartoon-like carvings depicting gruesome folklore – Norfolk’s hundreds of village signs tell fascinating tales and one man, Andrew Tullett, is on a mission to discover them all
From our sprawling, bustling well known villages to the tiny, secret hamlets hidden away largely unheard of in the depths of the countryside – they all have their own histories, mysteries and tales to tell.
And there is one thing that symbolises these communities’ stories like no other, the humble village sign.
For the past six months, Andrew Tullett has embarked on his Signs of a Norfolk Summer project, covering hundreds of miles by foot, cycle and car to photograph, log and investigate the rich heritage and folklore of Norfolk’s fascinating village signs.
“Our village signs represent the largest free art exhibition in Norfolk and collectively the signs depict the history of almost all the settlements in the county. These are very local histories and many of the stories depicted are not described in any of the main historical texts written about Norfolk,” he says.
He set out on his quest to photograph every village and town sign in Norfolk – believed to number around 520 – during British Summer Time.
“There is no official list so nobody knows for sure. The only thing that everyone agrees on is that Norfolk has far more village signs than any other county. Some of them are really hard to find, some have been taken down, some are in a real state of disrepair.
“These signs cost several thousands of pounds and are often rich in history, yet often there are no records of them with the local authorities. There is a mass of history behind them and some of the signs are just plain bonkers with the most incredible stories.”
Andrew, who is a former teacher and lives in Norwich, says he got the idea for the project from his father, who had started to do something similar 20 years ago.
“I have no idea why dad started photographing village signs. I think initially I thought he was a bit nuts, but then when I saw the photographs again I became interested and thought I would like to continue his work. Now my children think I am mad, but I just say I collect village sign photographs and they collect football cards, it’s no different. I have revisited all the ones my dad did and it is surprising as many have changed even in the last two decades. We have had jubilees and the Millennium celebrations and either a new village sign, or adding some sort of plaque to an existing one are good ways to commemorate these things. Often it is also a time when community funding is available to do it.”
It has been a challenging project due to the distances involved but, says Andrew, he has discovered places in Norfolk he never even knew existed.
“I have had to cover a considerable distance to get to some of the signs. I live in Norwich, so the ones in the far west of the county have been the most challenging. The commute there and back takes a while, finding them can be tricky, and I need to be back in time for the school run! I have travelled over 2,700 miles in search of signs so far, cycling just over 520 miles and driving most of the rest. I would have liked to have done more of them on my bike, but the distances you need to cover in Norfolk are ridiculous – doing this has been a real reminder of the sheer size of our county.”
Andrew is hoping to put all the photographs, descriptions and stories together in a book and his adventures have been shared on a Facebook page throughout the summer, with people helping solve some of the mysteries surrounding some of the signs.
“I have been particularly keen to research the images depicted on each sign. I think it is a real shame that most do not come with an explanation of what they show. Village signs are expensive to produce and usually take a community a long time to organise. They usually look fantastic but visitors could appreciate them even more if it was immediately apparent what they were representing.”
Follow Andrew’s quest at www.facebook.com/signsofanorfolksummer
Six of Andrew’s favourite signs:
Signs with surprising stories – Babingley, near Sandringham
When St Felix arrived in Norfolk to introduce Christianity into East Anglia his ship got into trouble on the River Babingley. It was guided to safety by a family of beavers. In gratitude, St Felix made the head beaver a Bishop. You can see him at the top of the sign attending to some of his followers.
Signs that state it simply – Crownthorpe, near Wymondham
As rustic as you like – in stark contrast to the ornate signs in the surrounding villages of Wymondham, Wicklewood, Kimberley and Carleton Forehoe, the one at Crownthorpe just displays the name. It proves that all villages could produce a sign for themselves if they wished to.
Signs that are simply spectacular: Walpole Saint Andrew, near Wisbech
Every detail in this magnificent sign represents a feature of importance to the village. A Marshall General Purpose steam engine stands in front of the tower of St Andrew’s Church to represent the steam rallies held in the village – funds collected during these paid for the sign itself. The war memorial is depicted to the right of the tower. An apple tree and strawberry plants signify the importance of these crops. The waves signify that this area once had access to the sea.
Town signs shaped like a ‘T’: Diss
Harry Carter created many of Norfolk’s village signs. His trademark for town signs was a ‘T’ shape. The image on one side shows John Skelton, Rector of Diss, tutoring a young Henry VIII. The other side represents Matilda, the daughter of the Lord of the Manor of Diss, being presented with a poisoned boiled egg. She had upset King John by refusing his advances and he sought revenge.
Signs in a surprising setting: Upton with Fishley, near Acle
Standing on its own island in the middle of the village pond the sign for this Broadland village depicts a windmill, St. Margaret’s church, a trading wherry and a ploughman at work.
Signs with a sense of occasion – Wolferton, near Sandringham
The sign at Wolferton displays two dates: 1912 and 2012. The first indicates the date the sign was first unveiled, the year after George V was crowned. The second was to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Elizabeth II. The first village signs in Britain were erected on the Sandringham estate and the sign at Wolferton is one of the oldest.