NORFOLK VILLAGE SIGNS by Ken Savage
How does one start to summarise the signs of a county that has a history of such structures which stretches back 90 years and where there are now more than 500? Well, at the beginning I suppose! The history of village signs, at least decorative ones, really began in 1912 when King Edward VII commissioned four signs to be erected in villages on the Sandringham estate. The signs are still there, those at Babingley and Flitcham depicting St.Felix, who brought Christianity to the region in the 7th-century. Legend has it that he was saved from shipwreck by beavers and, by way of gratitude, St.Felix made the beaver a bishop! The somewhat apocryphal ceremony is depicted on the top of the Babingley sign. The sign at Shernborne shows Sir Thomas de Shernborne, whose brass may be seen in the local church, astride his charger whilst that at Wolferton (missing 2002) illustrates the Norse legend of Tyr putting his hand in Fenrir the wolfs mouth, a condition which a magician imposed before making a chain to fetter the fearsome beast. The beast was tamed, but Tyr lost his hand!
The erection of signs in the county languished somewhat during the 1920s and 1930s, despite the efforts of the Royal family to encourage them (see Kent) and it was not until after World War 2 that they began to appear in numbers. The process was stimulated in many cases by local Womens Institutes who raised funds for their creation and helped by Harry Carter, a woodcarver from Swaffham, who between the 1950s and 1970s carved more than 200 signs for towns and villages in the county, as well as smaller numbers in Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Essex. Many of the signs have deteriorated over the years and have been replaced by duplicates, in wood or fibreglass, but a number of the originals are still around, carefully maintained by the villagers. Signs which he made for villages were usually semi-circular in shape, often with different scenes on the two sides. Signs were also commissioned by a number of towns in the county and these were invariably T-shaped, again usually different on the two sides. The theme of the designs was, in most cases, historical and the characters and events portrayed vary from the fairly well-known, such as the sign at Wymondham, which shows Thomas Kett who led a Peasants Revolt in 1549, to the more obscure, including the Fakenham sign which features John Garrood who manufactured cycles in the town and Sir Robert Seppings, who was born in the town and later became Surveyor to the Navy in the early 19th-century: four other one-time citizens of Fakenham are also represented. Researching the designs must have been as much fun as actually carving the signs!
Famous sons (and daughters) of Norfolk are featured on other signs in the county. Arguably the most famous was Lord Nelson, whose father was rector of Burnham Thorpe church. Horatio was born in the rectory in 1758 and the various ships he commanded and the battles he won are recorded on the village sign, which was made in the naval workshops at Gosport and presented to the village by the Royal Navy in 1975. Rather earlier warriors feature on the signs at Quidenham, in the shape of Boudicca who is supposedly buried in the mound at the entrance to Quidenham Hall, and John of Gaunt who was granted the manor of Aylsham in 1372 by his father Edward III. A victim of a more recent conflict was Nurse Edith Cavell, who was shot by the Germans as a spy in World War I. Her father was rector in the village of Swardestone, which has featured the nurse on its sign.
People associated with more peaceful pursuits were also born in, or had associations with, the county. The sign at Bradenham has a medallion of Sir Rider Haggard as its centrepiece. The family lived at Bradenham Hall for four generations and the sign also shows Wood Farm which is on the estate. The poet Thomas Cowper appears on two signs: at North Tuddenham, where he supposedly stayed for a time; and Yaxham, where Cowpers cousin was rector and where the poet spent the last few years of his life. Another writer, of sorts, is shown on the sign at Brisley. Richard Taverner translated and published a new version of the Bible in the mid-16th-century and was imprisoned in the Tower of London for his trouble! The Paston family took their name from the village of that name in the northeast of the county. They were prominent lawyers and statesmen, but achieved more lasting fame from the series of letters which the family wrote during the Wars of the Roses, in which there is much detail of day to day life of the period as it affected the family and is of great interest to historians. The family had several properties in the county and feature on the signs at Reedham and Topcroft, as well as Paston itself. Englands first Prime Minister was Sir Robert Walpole, who built Houghton Hall in rather grandiose style and is featured on the sign at Great Massingham, because he was educated in the village church. In the 17th-century the manor of Heacham belonged to the Rolfe family, of which John Rolfe married the Red Indian princess Pocahontas when he was a magistrate in the colony of Virginia. He brought her with him when he returned to his Norfolk estate and she is shown on the village sign, resplendent in ruff and feathered hat. Sadly, she died at Gravesend whilst in the course of returning, homesick, to North America, after only a short stay in the county.
Norfolk is essentially a rural county, with farming the staple industry. The majority of signs contain some reference to farming, whether it be the historical methods using oxen, as illustrated for example on the Bircham and Thorpe Market signs, horses as on the North Creake, Thuxton and Trimingham signs amongst many, or by modern mechanical methods as represented on the East Lexham, Catfield and West Lexham signs, again three amongst many examples. Farming is mostly arable and many signs reflect this by including ears of wheat or wheatsheaves. Another major crop is sugarbeet and the sign at Cantley was funded by British Sugar, which has a large processing plant in the village. The sign, not surprisingly, includes a beet in its design. Fruit growing is less widespread nowadays, but still to be found in certain areas of the county. The sign at Emneth includes apple trees and that at Ditchingham cum Pirnough features a pear, although the latter has more to do with the hamlets original name, which meant hill where pears are grown than with present day agriculture. Attleborough was, at one time, a centre for cider production and the stages in the process are demonstrated on their sign. In the Middle Ages sheep farming was an important industry which brought much prosperity to the area. Sheep are still farmed, although less prevalent nowadays. A number of signs in the county include sheep in their design, although mostly to reflect the past industry. These include Ovington and Worstead, the latter giving its name to a certain kind of woven cloth which survives to this day.
The long coastline of the county, which stretches from The Wash to the estuary of the river Yar, naturally resulted in a flourishing fishing industry in many of the coastal villages. The development of larger boats and mechanised handling facilities in modern times resulted in a decline of the industry, exacerbated more recently by a lack of fish! The old fishing craft are featured on a number of signs in villages around the coast, including Brancaster Staithe, East Runton, Mundesley and Winterton-on-Sea, whilst the dangers inherent in the industry are graphically illustrated on the signs at Caister and Palling, which show lifeboats braving the mountainous waves of the North Sea.
In earlier times, the long coastline interspersed with inlets and small harbours, was also conducive to seaborne trade and a number of small ports handled produce from the region for export and imported timber and other products, particularly from Scandinavia and Baltic Sea countries. Places such as Blakeney, Thornham and Wells-next-the-Sea flourished and their signs include reproductions of the sailing vessels that brought them prosperity in the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, from the 16th-century onwards the harbours began to silt up and as ships got larger they became unnavigable. The Thornham sign depicts the sailing vessel Jessie Mary, which was the last ship to enter the harbour in 1914. She displaced 100 tons. Wells lasted somewhat longer and small coastal vessels regularly visited until a few years ago. Perhaps intentionally reflecting the end of commercial traffic, the sign that was erected in 2002 depicts only a small fishing vessel, whereas the previous sign featured a three-masted sailing ship. Now only Kings Lynn handles large sea-going ships, although not at the old Customs House which is depicted on one of the towns two signs, this being now only a historic relic of the past.
Until the arrival of the railway in the 19th-century, traffic was transported to and from the sea ports by sailing barge or wherry, as the local design was known. Much of the county was accessible by one or other of the rivers which run through the county. This was particularly the case in the south of the county where the Broadland rivers were navigable far into the hinterland and although extensive canal building was undertaken in many parts of the country during the 18th-century in order to improve the movement of goods, only two short canals were considered necessary in the county. One of these was the Dilham Canal, which connected North Walsham to the river Ant and thence the sea at Yarmouth. The sign at Dilham depicts a bridge on the canal where tolls were collected, but it was never much of a commercial success, there being a constant shortage of water which restricted the number of barges which could traverse it at any time. The other canal connected the river Ouse and the Nene at Wisbech, illustrated on the Outwell village sign which stands on the route of the waterway, now filled in. A number of other villages include wherries on their signs, including Barton Turf, Geldeston and Stalham, whilst the Pentney sign shows a barge on the river Nar.
The relative closeness of the Norfolk coastline to Scandinavia, whilst a trading advantage, meant that the region was one of the first to be plagued by the Vikings who, from the 8th-century onward, raided coastal villages and eventually conquered and settled the whole region. The incursions resulted in many battles with the Saxon residents, one such conflict being illustrated on the sign at South Creake. Many signs in the county recall the Viking raids by including their longships in the design. Good examples are those at Aldeby, Barford, Martham and Ormesby St.Margaret, whilst other signs depict the Danish settlers themselves, including File the Dane on the sign at Filby.
Norfolk has the largest number of round towered churches in the country, nearly 200 of which are still standing. It is thought that many of these were originally built as watch towers and defensive positions, which with the regular visits of the Vikings was probably a necessity at the time. Most of the countys signs include an illustration of the parish church, many of which will be those with round towers. Examples include the tower of St.Edmunds, Acle which dates from around AD900 and that at St.Andrews, East Lexham, said to be the oldest in the country. The sign at Cockley Cley also depicts its church of All Saints as having a round tower, but sadly the illustration is purely historical as it collapsed some years ago and only the base, overgrown with weeds, remains. Another church of note is St.Mary, Burgh St Peter, the tower of which was built in 1795 as a series of brick cubes on top of each other and which doubles as the mausoleum of the Boycott family!
After the arrival of Christianity, religious houses began to appear in many places in the county and the trend increased after the Conquest, when many of the Norman lords founded monasteries and nunneries, no doubt in an attempt to increase their prospects of salvation in the afterlife! The establishments flourished, grew prosperous and even dissolute in some cases, until the party was ended by Henry VIII who dissolved the lot! Most of the buildings then gradually fell into disrepair and some have disappeared completely. Nevertheless many of them are remembered on village signs of the villages where they were situated. The sign at Bacton shows a nun from Bromholm Priory which was originally a cell of the Cluniac priory at Castle Acre. The latter has stood the test of time the better, as extensive ruins are still to be seen, whereas at Bromholm only the gateway, as shown on the sign, remains. The Castle Acre sign goes one better, showing the priory as it would have looked in its mediaeval heyday. Priories are also depicted on the signs at Binham and Hempton. Parts of the former still exist, but the latter has completely disappeared. The Cistercian nunnery at Marham, the Augustinian priory at Pentney, the priory for Gilbertian monks at Shouldham and the Saxon minster at North Elmham are all depicted on the signs of the respective villages, truly a reminder of the countys varied ecclesiastical past.
As shown above, the subject matter of the countys signs is of great variety, but in some instances the signs themselves are of similar interest. The traditional idea of a village sign is of some wooden or metal panel on top of a post, probably in the centre of the village. However, this is not always the case and village signs can, in fact, come in a variety of forms and locations. The signs at Upton with Fishley and Wramplingham, whilst of traditional design, have been erected in the centre of the village pond, perhaps not a bad idea in this age of vandalism. The sign at East Dereham is even more inaccessible as it spans the main street at first floor height! Use public transport in Beeston Regis and you can shelter beneath the village sign as you wait, as it is a metal disc set into the front of the bus shelter. The sign at Morton-on-the-Hill is in the form of a five-barred gate, the bars being fashioned in the shape of agricultural implements and with the name of the village suspended from the top bar. Burston was where, in 1914, the parents and schoolchildren boycotted the local school, in support of their teachers who had been dismissed by the school managers. With Trades Union support, an independent strike school was built and was used for a number of years. This display of worker solidarity is remembered by the village sign, which has been carved in the shape of a maypole, May Day being the traditional Labour Day. Other unusually shaped signs are to be found at Ashwellthorpe, the sign of which comprises a fibreglass obelisk on which there are 24 separate panels depicting aspects of the villages history; and at Bale, which has a wooden column fashioned in the shape of the ancient Bale Oak. The residents of Bergh Apton are nothing if not enterprising as, having organised a competition for local sculptors, the name of the village was inscribed on three of the entries and these have been erected in various parts of the village as their village signs! Enterprise or frugality has arguably also been the case at Litcham, as the sign which features Matthew Halcott, an ardent Royalist supporter during the Civil War, also doubles as the villages noticeboard. There are one or two more dual signs/noticeboards in the county, but none as attractive as the Litcham example. Finally, two unusual examples representing the countys farming industry are to be seen at Corpusty & Saxthorpe, where the sign consists of a beam plough which was manufactured locally about 1864 and has now found an alternative use; and Stibbard where the commonly-seen theme of farmer and plough has been given a unique twist by fashioning them from a variety of agricultural tools and equipment. If you cant identify them all, there is a helpful plaque fixed to the base!
So, there it is. A review of some of the many attractive and interesting signs to be seen in the county. There are many others which depict some aspect of the villages past, which space doesnt allow a mention. Seek them out! And, as new signs are still being erected no doubt there will be more to come in the future.
Postscript: Bergh Apton now has a conventional sign in
addition to the sculptures referred to in the text.