Interview by Aaron Brooks
Where did your interest in churches first come from?
It sounds trite to say that I’ve always been
interested in churches. I was a choirboy as a child in a medieval church in the
northern suburbs of Cambridge, and the long hours I spent there over the
years mean that medieval churches always feel like home. As a Catholic, I am intrigued that these medieval
churches, all built as Catholic churches but now in the use of the Church of
England, can still offer up survivals of their Catholic past. And I do
find the Church of England fascinating too! As far as a love of history goes, I went to a
prominent grammar school, where it was decided on the whim of a teacher’s pen
who should do Arts subjects and who should do Science. I was chosen for
Science, meaning I was disallowed from taking either History or English
Literature. Inevitably, they have been my two main passions since.
Your site explains
that 'nobody has been mad enough' to document Norfolk's churches before. How important is it that someone
Well, I receive hundreds of e-mails telling me how
grateful people are for the site, and so I suppose it has been worth doing. If
no one was interested, then I probably would have done it anyway,
for the purely selfish motive of keeping a record of my travels. But
I’m glad people like it. I don’t think it is important at all. Norfolk’s
churches are pretty well documented in books. What is more important is that
someone takes on Lincolnshire, which is second only to Norfolk in its
number of medieval churches. But how many of the general public know
anything about Lincolnshire churches?
In your opinion,
what makes Norfolk's churches stand out?
Norfolk, along with Suffolk, is defined by its
churches. The number of settlements without a medieval church can be counted
on the fingers of one hand in either county. It isn’t the individual
churches so much as the fact that there is this vast network. In the forward
to Billa Harrod’s seminal ‘Norfolk Country Churches and the Future’,
published by the Norfolk Society in 1972, John Betjeman likens the
churches of Norfolk to a necklace of jewels. If only a single one is lost then
the whole piece is diminished. I think the churches of all counties have their own
characters. Norfolk has more medieval churches than any other county in
England – something like 1 in 18 of all churches in England are in Norfolk
– and so there is a great variety. If you made a list of the fifty best
churches in England, I doubt that more than 2 or 3 of them would be in
Norfolk, but the sheer volume of Norfolk churches means that they can’t be
The Norfolk site has
a section dedicated to round tower churches. Why are there so many round tower churches in Norfolk?
There are many theories, some learned, some quite
ridiculous. I have come to think that its was simply a local fashion in the
early Medieval period. There is no historical, architectural or theological
reason why a tower should be round rather than square. In fact, round
towers are no easier to build than square ones. The great majority of other
round towered churches in Europe are also in areas bordering the North Sea.
There were once many more of them, I think, but most were rebuilt square
according to fashion in the 13th and 14th centuries. At this time, east
Norfolk in particular was very poor, and so in many cases the churches here
were not rebuilt.
famously said: "Lovers of Norfolk churches can never
agree which is the best and I think one is either a Salle or
a Cawston man." Where do you stand on this one? Or do you have another
Betjeman did say that, but he also said that his
favourite Norfolk church was Walpole St Peter. The difference between Salle and Cawston is
between the hauntingly magnificent and the technically
brilliant. Of the two I’d go for Salle, though one can of course like both. Like Betjeman, I would say that Walpole St Peter is the best church in
Norfolk, but my real favourites tend to be the small churches. I love to
find a little church in narrow lanes away from civilisation. I think I like Hardley best of all the little churches.
You dedicate the
Norfolk site to your grandfather, Vincent Helgia Knott. How far has he inspired your project?
Well, not at all really, I doubt my grandfather ever
set foot in a church, other than to see his children married off! But in the
sense that the site is a personal quest, trying to recapture something of
what has been lost, then my relationship with my grandfather is inevitable
a part of that.
You say that the
Norfolk site generates more e-mails than the Suffolk site. Why do you think this is?
It is mainly because of genealogists. There are more
churches in Norfolk, and they are generally better known. Suffolk is
different to Norfolk in that it has more smaller churches, but, I think, fewer
dull ones. Suffolk is, of course, generally more beautiful than Norfolk,
but people tend to know the northern county better. This means, of
course, that for anyone who doesn’t know Suffolk, there are wonderful things
to be discovered. Conversely, people already have plenty of opinions
about many Norfolk churches, and aren’t afraid to share them!
When you go out
visiting churches, how many do you visit at any one
If I am on my bike, it is usually between ten and
twelve. If by car, it could reach fifteen or sixteen on a summer day. It
really depends on how many are open. In a sticky area, like Lowestoft and
Yarmouth, it takes a lot longer because of the time taken to get the keys.
The photographs on
the site are often stunning. Do you take them yourself or do you have a photographer? For camera geeks out
there, which type of camera do you use?
You are very kind. I take them myself, although I do
sometimes call upon the assistance of a couple of friends for interior
shots if I have not been able to get inside. For Norfolk, I have always
used digital cameras, and the ones I have used most are by Fuji. Up until
April 2007 they were taken with an S5500, which took 45,000 photos before
dying of exhaustion. Since then I have had an S9600, which has already just
passed the 10,000 photo mark.
How long does it
take you to write up each church that you visit?
Writing doesn’t take long, but the page has to be set,
the images have to be post-processed. To save my bandwidth, I offload the
hosting of the large images to flickr. If I am feeling keen, and
don’t have too many other commitments, a church can appear on the site
within a week of me visiting it. An ordinary small church probably needs
about thirty minutes to write about.
You estimate that
you're a third of the way through the Norfolk project. Are there any plans as to what you'll do when you
finish. Cambridgeshire churches?
Well, I think I am now about three quarters of the way
through Norfolk, but maintaining and revisiting Suffolk, which I
originally did first, has already taken over a lot of the time, and so when
Norfolk is finished I think it will be time to start all over again.
Cambridgeshire has already been ably completed by somebody else, and I think the
Cambridgeshire Churches site is the best other English county church
site I know. Someone needs to do Lincolnshire, but it won’t be me
The sites obviously
mean a lot to you. Are there many frustrations along the way - days when you'd rather have nothing to do
Well, I sometimes do have nothing to do with it for
weeks at a time. Fortunately, any deadlines on the site are set by
myself. Most often, I drop it for a while because I don’t feel inspired to
write, rather than for any other reason. When I first started back in
1999, there was something rather startling about a writer baring his
soul on the internet. That was in the days before blogs, of course. These
days, everybody has a presence on the web, it seems. The only real frustration is when I build up a
backlog, and the muse doesn’t seem particularly keen to help me reduce it. I could
never be a journalist. The only time I’d really rather have
nothing to do with it is when the e-mails build up – there’s nothing more
likely to put me off replying to e-mails than having several dozen waiting
for an answer! I love visiting churches, and I love cycling around
the East Anglian lanes, whatever the weather. That has never frustrated
Do you often find
churches are locked when you arrive? How frustrating is this? Do you have problems tracking down key holders?
It is actually quite unusual to find a locked church.
In Norfolk, perhaps 70% are open every day. Most of the rest have keyholder notices, and even the ones that don’t are usually easily found. But if a
church doesn’t welcome visitors I’d probably rather write about how
unfriendly they are, rather than go hunting for a key. Bill Bryson says
somewhere that he never minds bad service in a restaurant – it makes him feel
better about not leaving a tip. Similarly, churches which are kept
locked without keyholders have me reaching for my barbed and
sharpened pencil. Thankfully, there are not many of them.
You mention, on the
Suffolk site, some controversy over your project - including the threat of legal action. What happened
The Church of England is a funny thing. Each
individual parish is almost completely independent, and among the hundreds of
marvellous people running them there are one or two loose canons who
have taken exception to something. I think I am now up to three threats of
libel action. None of them had a case at all, but I am always wary of
someone contacting my webspace provider and shouting ‘libel’, because I fear
they might take the site down and ask questions later. Most angry writers are ameliorated when they receive a
personal reply. One of the threats came from a solicitor who was a member
of the congregation at a church on the outskirts of Kings Lynn. I actually
thought that what I had written was not libellous, but I was prepared to
rewrite it, if only as an act of kindness. I think what happened on the
occasion of my visit there still comes across, though. Another threat came from a Historic Churches trust
which I had accused of being well-meaning but incompetent – not one of the
two county Trusts, I hasten to add. Unfortunately for them, I think all the
evidence was on my side, but I did let them put their point of view
across. An attempt was made on the life of the site in its
early days by the churchwardens of an important
Suffolk church, which claimed to have lost a large bequest because a rich American donor didn’t
like what I’d said about them. But that was a long time ago, and I have
revisited and rewritten the entry completely since. It does remain
the only occasion on which I have heard a clergyman of the Church of
England use the phrase “the shit has hit the fan”.
I know that you're a
big Smiths fan. Do you think Morrissey has looked at your sites?
I would hope that he would have better things to do
than surf the internet.
For those looking
for a good reference book about Norfolk churches - what would you recommend?
Sam Mortlock’s books are absolute treasures, and they
are the ones I would recommend to anyone who has nothing. They have
recently (October 2007) been republished in a single volume. Because of Norfolk’s size, the county is covered by
two Pevsner volumes, meaning an outlay of £70 if you pay full price for
them, but the revised editions by Bill Wilson are absolutely essential for
anyone interested in the county’s buildings. I’d also add Ann Eljenhom Nichol’s extraordinary and
magnificent ‘Early Art of Norfolk’, which is the only book to
comprehensively catalogue every medieval survival in Norfolk’s churches – and, indeed,
many that were noted in previous centuries but which have since
disappeared. There is also Neil Batcock’s ‘Ruined and Disused Churches of
Norfolk’ published in 1992, but now long out of print. Worth looking out
Finally, your site
recently won the accolade of being in the Sunday Times top ten list of cultural sites on the internet. I bet you were
I was certainly chuffed to be sharing the list with Banksy. I’ve no idea what he thought, of course.
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