5 church towers which have protected Norfolk sailors

PUBLISHED: 11:09 29 July 2020 | UPDATED: 17:01 14 August 2020

Blakeney towers. Photo: Marion Welham

Blakeney towers. Photo: Marion Welham

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How historic Norfolk churches helped to save sailors around Norfolk’s dangerous coast

Cromer church's lofty tower. Photo: Marion WelhamCromer church's lofty tower. Photo: Marion Welham

Squinting through a squall in the Wash while heading to King’s Lynn, Snettisham church in the distance must have been a welcome sight for early seafarers. The soaring tower and spire of St Mary’s has guided mariners through the dangerous tides and shifting sandbanks of the Wash for centuries. It is just one of a series of lofty medieval churches strung out along the Norfolk coast from Yarmouth to Lynn that still appear on modern nautical charts.

The 15th century mariner rarely had charts, relying mainly on an early compass, the sun and stars, and observation. With newly-completed church towers as reference points, navigating in sight of land would been preferable to the open sea. But rocks and shoals could be treacherous closer to land.

The dangers of the Norfolk coast were highlighted by the traveller and writer Daniel Defoe in 1724 who described seeing “wrecks of ships, and ruins of mariners’ and merchants’ fortunes” on his way round the coast to Cromer. His words are reflected in coastal churchyards where too many tombstones tell desperately sad tales of those lost at sea, of which there were thousands down the centuries.

We shall never know how many lives our coastal church towers might have saved but Trinity House records that a number of ecclesiastical lights were exhibited round the coast in medieval times as a guide to shipping. Navigation notes from 1846 show that no fewer than 10 Norfolk coastal churches were used for taking bearings, not least Blakeney St Nicholas from which a flag would be hoisted at high tide “as a signal when you may run for it.”

The seafarers' memorial at Happisburgh church. Photo: Marion WelhamThe seafarers' memorial at Happisburgh church. Photo: Marion Welham

Church towers were primarily to house bells – telling the time before clocks, as a call to the faithful, or to sound warning of danger. Heavier bells required sturdier towers and the wealth of 15th century Norfolk, based on wool and later herring, enabled them to soar skyward. They may not have been designed as seamarks but they were certainly built to be seen whether on land or sea. And today they have another role in supplying faster wireless broadband to Norfolk communities.

Here we focus on five great seamark churches on the Norfolk coast.

Winterton Holy Trinity and All Saints has a 127ft tower often described as a landmark for sailors. This windswept coastal village has a long history of fishing, mainly for herring. Tragically, not all made it back safely and the names of lost fishermen are written in the church where there is a dedicated Fisherman’s Corner.

The elegant spire of Snettisham's church. Photo: Marion WelhamThe elegant spire of Snettisham's church. Photo: Marion Welham

Walking across the sand dunes from the beach, you’ll have a view of the 14th century church tower, flanked by 21st century wind turbines. On closer inspection the church tower has no fewer than seven levels, rather charmingly sprouts self-seeded wallflowers, and is crowned by a remarkable parapet.

Happisburgh St Mary stands on a high point with sweeping views over the sea to the east. When the 110ft tower went up 600 years ago, there would have been plenty of ships under sail.

From the rocky and eroding shore, you can view the famous stripy lighthouse and the church tower simultaneously. A large wooden cross is said to have been erected on the tower in 1822, replacing an earlier one but it was struck by lightning, taking down part of the south east buttress with it and the exercise wasn’t repeated.

The church tower at Winterton. Photo: Marion WelhamThe church tower at Winterton. Photo: Marion Welham

The churchyard is a resting place for many who tragically lost their lives at sea including from the HMS Invincible, wrecked on the notorious Hammond’s Knoll on her way to join Nelson’s fleet at Copenhagen in 1801. A memorial stone in the churchyard bears witness to the loss of some 400 lives with 119 of the ship’s company buried there.

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Many churches can be seen from the top of the tower on a clear day, perhaps up to 16 though no-one can agree quite how many.

Cromer St Peter and St Paul is a vast church at the heart of this seaside town. At 160ft, its tower is the tallest in Norfolk and walking the narrow streets, you constantly glimpse it between the houses and over the rooftops.

Before the installation of a lighthouse on the cliff at Foulness in 1669, a light was shone from the top of the church tower to act as a guide to shipping, according to Trinity House.

Memorials in modern glass to Cromer’s seafarers can be found inside the church. Among them is Henry Blogg, the most decorated lifeboatman in RNLI history, who served for 53 years and saved 873 lives with the help of his brave crew before retiring in 1947. His many awards included the George cross in 1941.

Blakeney St Nicholas is a distinctive landmark with its two towers, the west at 104 feet and to the east a 93ft turret believed to have been lit as a beacon for guiding sailors into Blakeney’s bustling harbour during the Middle Ages.

In the churchyard are many graves of those lost at sea. The storm of 1861 took a terrible toll when eight local fishermen went to the aid of two ships in distress off Blakeney. They saved both crews but lost their own lives, as poignantly described on John Easter’s tombstone. Brothers Thomas and John Johnson also died and were buried on the same day, while a third brother Samuel was assumed lost at sea.

Memorials inside the church include plaques for Blakeney lifeboat crews and pre-Reformation graffiti depicting ships, perhaps created by the seafaring inhabitants of Blakeney.

Snettisham St Mary is a complete surprise when arriving from the village for the sheer grandeur of its west face. There are few stone spires in East Anglia and this is a whopper, soaring 175 feet into the sky.

The church was built almost 700 years ago but looks Victorian due to the rebuilding of the spire in 1895. Targeted by Zeppelin bombers in the First World War, which thankfully missed, it crowns the 14th century church handsomely.

For those trying to navigate the shifting sands of the Wash, the Snettisham spire has, for centuries, been a conspicuous landmark. Today cargo ships heading for King’s Lynn on one of the two commercial shipping lanes have the benefit of a marine pilot to guide them safely in.

The Ven. Karen Hutchinson, Archdeacon of Norwich, says:

“Churches are sacred and special places - places of peace and witnesses to faith. They are there for everyone and are often treasure troves of memory for generations of people. It is a great joy that government restrictions have begun to be lifted so that they can be places of welcome and prayer once again. Buildings that can safely be opened are being made available for prayer, though opening times will vary. In the meantime, do take a look at exploringnorfolkchurches.org and enjoy exploring our buildings virtually or from the outside!”

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