Norfolk’s immense medieval wealth has left a lasting legacy of fine buildings, not least its wool churches and stunning Blickling Hall.
Take the road north out of Reepham and you’ll soon catch a glimpse of St Peter and St Paul church at Salle (above). It is hard to believe anyone could build anything so big, so far from a centre of population! But it was never meant to seat a large number of people. Its size and rich ornamentation were an offering – from big, rich, important men to a more important God.
At St. Mary’s Church at Worstead, the village which gave its name to the cloth, the village church built by local weavers in the fourteenth-century towers over the small community, its tower jutting strikingly above the landscape. It is a short walk from the railway station on the Bittern Line.
Like Worstead, North Walsham had its own cloth, a lighter one for summer, and the prosperity the trade brought made Saint Nicholas the largest wool church in Norfolk.
St. Agnes’s Church at Cawston (above) is also well known as a wool church. Its fifteenth century nave and western tower were financed by Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, who had grown rich from the wool business. Typical of a wool church, St. Agnes’s scale is far grander than what the modest medieval village required.
By way of contrast, St. Michael’s at Aylsham is a busy, well attended church, in the middle of bustling market town. Monday is market day and on Mondays part of the market comes into church! Aylsham’s earlier claim to fame was fine linen. The Web of Aylsham, as it was known, graced the bed chambers and tables of royalty.
St Andrew’s church at Blofield, built on a hill above the river Yare, has one of the tallest towers in Norfolk. It has a notable font with carved panels of the life of Christ.
Created much earlier was St Benet’s Abbey (above), founded in the Anglo-Saxon period and continuing in use throughout the Middle Ages. The atmospheric site was largely abandoned after the closure of the monasteries in the 1530s because of in inaccessible location, and is still most easily visited by boat. The Bishop of Norwich remains Abbot of St Benet’s and leads a service there on the first Sunday in August.
Other churches worth visiting, but not necessarily built by wool wealth, include St Helen’s at Ranworth, ‘The Cathedral of the Broads’ where you can climb the tower (the views are worth it – see above), St Michael and All Angels at Barton Turf (it’s called All Angels for a reason!), St Catherine’s at Ludham which is known for its woodwoze (wild man) and his woodwoze wife, St Benedict’s at Horning which has its own landing stage (or staithe as they’re called in Norfolk), round-towered St Theobald’s at Hautbois, thatched St Michael’s at Irstead and St John the Baptist at Coltishall, and St Edmund’s at Thurne, dedicated to the martyred Saxon King of East Anglia killed by the pagan Viking chief Sweyne Forkbeard.
Also in Broadland is the magnificent National Trust-run Blickling Hall, ancestral home of the Boleyn family, famous for producing a Queen, although that didn’t end well. It’s said her headless ghost can be seen in the hall, but don’t let that put you off visiting. The manor of Blickling is mentioned in the Domesday Book and its owners have included Sir John Falstolf. The present red-brick mansion was built between 1616-24 for Sir Henry Hobart, Lord Chief Justice to James I.