Spending a holiday week in north Norfolk, I had no intention of doing anything cultural. But even walking into a new village to go the pub or look for a pint of milk, it was impossible to ignore the subject of church architecture. Seemingly every village, every hamlet, has a magnificent old church towering above it, giving a unique and recognisable feel to each settlement. Our nomination this week for the most church per villager was Binham, where the 200 or so inhabitants have this (pictured) three-storey, cathedral-sized Priory with extensive ruined cloisters at their spiritual disposal. It was helpfully explained to us, several times, that in former days Norfolk was a very busy county/it took one man to plough an acre/all those ploughmen and their unfeasibly large families were expected to be in church several times a week.
We found a remarkable number of churches which were open during the day, and to the superficial eye well kept up. It’s clear that many local people who would say they ‘aren’t religious’ nevertheless give a lot of love and care to these buildings. The Norfolk singers and organists I have met play a big part in keeping them lived-in by generously rushing all over the county accompanying services and bringing live music to weddings and funerals. For obvious reasons, no-one is converting these spaces into nightclubs or lofts, as has happened in cities from London to Aberdeen, with very mixed results. Instead the church buildings focus what beauty there is in the landscape, projecting humanity into what would otherwise be a rather featureless space.
Another fact of which we were constantly reminded is that Norfolk real estate is on the up, and there is now a veritable cohort of affluent people who want to own a house, or more likely a second home, in these beautiful, civilised settings. Not for the first time, I reflected on how much lowly-paid artisans (such as the original church builders) and musicians contribute to everyone’s wealth, in all senses of the word.