When you drive you travel along the edges of things, where modern life has built a wall along the edge of the land, the tall banks, berms and tree lines of the A roads and motorways where the litter and pieces of spent tyre lie in the dust. The piles of scrapings screen us from cross-winds and break up and block the rushing view? I get it sometimes, in the lacklustre suburbs, the protean ganglions of thin skinned mock everything housing squeezed into tiny cost efficient blocks, the spread of light industrial and commercial spaces along the landward side of Tarmac rivers that deliver us and our product.
It’s easy to ignore what is in between, these crosshatched areas of fields and tiny settlements at junctions. No matter how much you stair at an aerial view or zoom in on Google Maps and stare at the awkward angles of these little blocks of houses, churches and farms you never really see beyond it. It’s just a mesh of fields, threads of transit slicing and compartmentalising between the dark blocks of trees, over the shadows of watercourses.
I drove a bit this week. Days off took me out to various places to look at things, catching up on it all. But as it always it’s quite often the bits in between where you’ve come from and where you’re going that are the most interesting. The pieces where you are almost lost. Those lovely fragmentary landscapes grasped on the B-roads from the shallow valleys barely wide enough for a car with overgrown banks and a Mohican of grass running down the middle like a spine. These are old ways that have barely grown beyond having some old Tarmac slung on them, never widened or deepened. The banks growing up like bocage out of the piled up field waste, the road cut down over centuries by field and cart. The Street, High Road, Low Road, Muck Lane; the everywhereness of them out here in the inbetween. Each defined by people in the past, named blandly in a smaller world where the repetition wasn’t obvious because most people didn’t pass far.
You read all you like about something. Words, paragraphs and pages of it but nothing ever really is the same as breaking a hill crest and actually seeing something. And that’s what happened at Little Snoring. I’d been through Great Snoring to go and see something specific, to gauge the connection between something old and how it sits in a community now. If you’re interested in that other story that piece of oddness is here. I finished that bit, looked at all the things I needed to see, left the cool air and the echo of a thousand years of whispers, songs and footfalls, the births, marriages and deaths. Back out into the humid air and the broken cloud to the hot breath of the oven of the car.
The road curves down and then up and as it peaks there’s a pretty thing. It’s unusual, stands out. A round tower church, St Andrews, set away from the settlement of Little Snoring. It sits on a low ridge, between two streams feeding the River Stiffkey looking down on the people it serves and served. Behind it around a slight bend the drifted village huddles. As with so many of these places, unless you live on top of them you don’t necessarily see or know the detail of the landscape. As I drive the church grows In my windscreen I’m passing the concrete remnants of the end of the East-West runway of a temporary Second World War RAF airfield, one like Swannington that played host to Mosquitos and also had a hand in the bomber raids that flattened parts of Berlin, the drone of Merlins from Lancasters would have echoed across these fields. There’s a lot of them in Norfolk, unlike most this one is still has a partial runway not housing Turkey sheds, it’s still used as an airstrip as it has since it was decommissioned in 1950.
There’s a car park set apart from the church, a patch of grass and gravel, a walk along the road then the path slopes up. A sign outside on a sloping gate warns of a bull, inside the church yard the usual slaking slabs lean tiredly teetering like busted teeth. The Great War memorial tips gently against the skyline, one corner sunk, stuck against the moving heads of the barley and the dog walkers braving the road before heading up a track to the next low ridge.
The church is a curiosity. There’s talk about Norfolk’s round towers being used as lookout posts watching for the Danes landing on the coast. You could imagine it here possibly, the church on its mound, this high point between the roll of the fields. The Snorings pre-date the Danes, the name is Anglo-Saxon, Snaer-ingas, the ~ingas gives it it’s age; the settlement of an Anglian incomer listed variously from Domesday as Esnaringa, Snaringa and Snarlinga. The incomers filled a void in the flinted fields left by the Romans. How much the tower owes to the Anglians is open to question if in fact it does. It has Norman doorway and peculiar little Victorian hat too.
What separates the tower from the church is the fact that it is separate from the church. It appears to have originally been attached to a different probably Anglian Chapel. Yet has a Norman doorway. At some point the church has drifted North, a new most likely Norman building.
The new church shows it’s history in the styles it contains; windows styles from the eleventh and twelfth century to Elizabethan. Once inside it opens into a very simple space. clear and clean. To the rear are the boards rescued from the officers mess at Raf Little Snoring, tallies and victories, a list of raids connects it to it’s modern history, this was the church of beth airbase. Along the Nave the church opens into the Chancel, it feels almost like something from America, a wide vaulted angled wooden roof, brilliant light unbroken by stained glass, effortlessly simple. You can almost imagine the ranks of the ranks sitting in the pews, hoping, praying for a safe return.
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