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Birdwatchers give Cley’s rare visitor a home in one of Norfolk’s finest churches

A white-crowned sparrow sits in the window of Cley's church of St Margaret
A rare white-crowned sparrow sits in the window of Cley's church of St Margaret's

A rare white-crowned sparrow is immortalised in the stained glass windows of the early 14th century parish church at Cley-next-the-Sea in North Norfolk.

The bird, native to North America, is rarely seen in Europe. Only four have been recorded in Britain since records began.

The bird is believed to have been blown 3,000 miles off course while migrating south from the east coast of Canada. Instead of the United States, it crossed the Atlantic Ocean and landed in the garden of a retired vicar in Cley. Another theory is that it landed on a ship after becoming lost and tired and hitched a ride to the UK.

The tiny white-crowned sparrow attracted thousands of birdwatchers from all over Britain after it landed to Cley in January 2008. It is a tradition among birdwatchers to hold a charity collection when they spot a rarity to chalk up on their birding list. During the bird’s ten-week stay birdwatchers donated more than £6,000 towards the restoration of the vast west window in the cathedral-like St Margaret's Church.

The cathedral-like scale of St Margaret's reflects Cley's importance during the Middle Ages
The cathedral-like scale of St Margaret's reflects Cley's importance as a major port during the Middle Ages

Now a colourful life-size image of the famous ornithological visitor appears in a diamond panel among the plain glass of the church’s west window as a permanent record of its visit.

The picture of the bird was painted by Cley-based artist Richard Millington.

The church’s stained glass windows mainly date from the 15th century, but there are more modern windows which show local scenes including the North Norfolk landmark of Cley windmill and many of the local birds for which the Cley Nature Reserve and North Norfolk generally are rightly famed and attract ornithologists from across the world.

Fragments of medieval glass dated from 1460 are in the south aisle windows. One depicts eight martyred female saints, each indicating the way they were killed.

The windows are just one of many interesting features of St Margaret’s parish church which some say is so fascinating it should be on everyone’s ‘must see’ list.

Stained glass windows in Cley parish church - some of which date from the 15th century
Some of the stained glass dates from the 15th century

St Margaret’s is among Norfolk’s largest churches. It stands like a cathedral on a rise dominating the village green. It appears in Pevsner, the architectural guide to Britain, and is on author and journalist Simon Jenkins’ list of top churches in England.

The scale of the church building reflects Cley’s importance as one of England’s most important ports in the Middle Ages and the main link with Holland and Europe. It was at the harbour mouth of the Blakeney Haven, a wealthy conurbation of North Norfolk ports including Blakeney, Wiveton and Glandford.

The present church stands on the site of an earlier building, half a mile across the valley from Wiveton Church. Navigable water used by coastal and foreign ships separated the two churches in the Middle Ages. Some moored up against Wiveton church and seamen have left their mark with drawings of their ships etched on the pillars of both Cley and Blakeney churches.

It was this foreign trade in the Middle Ages, and the pilgrims who travelled from Europe to Norfolk to one of the world’s holiest sites at nearby Walsingham, which brought wealth to Cley and led to the size and magnificence of its parish church.

The church was at the centre of Cley’s harbour with streets thronged with wealthy merchants and seamen from across the world. Today it stands almost alone towering over the village green after 117 homes on Newgate Green were destroyed by fire in 1612. Cley overlooked the vast Glaven river estuary in the 15th and 16th centuries and boats navigated into a harbour close to the church.

The fire and the natural silting up of the river harbour saw the centre of the village drift away from the church and closer to the deeper water and the sea where new quays and Cley windmill were built. International trade declined to be replaced by coastal shipping exporting North Norfolk’s grain.

Carved stone heraldry in the south porch leads to the grandeur of the nave with its cathedral-like feel with Cley’s huge west window. Other plain windows allow light to flood into the building.

The church has many special features including a seven-sacrament font dating from the mid-15th century, several brasses of local pre-eminent families, interesting bosses and elaborate 15th century carving on bench ends and poppy heads each of which is different.

The seven-sacrament carved font dates from the 1400s
The seven-sacrament font dates from the 1400s

The simplicity of the chancel contrasts with the scale of the nave which creates the cathedral-like proportions of the building. In the choir stalls there are six misericords or mercy seats which when tipped up have a ledge for old and infirm monks or clergy to rest while they are standing. They date from the early 15th century when services were frequent and lengthy.

The font which is carved to represent the seven sacraments – extreme unction, Holy matrimony, penance, confirmation, baptism, ordination, and mass - was a new and popular fashion around 1460.

The monumental brasses in Cley, a type of engraved sepulchral memorial, are among the most common forms of memorial surviving from the Middle Ages. They began to replace the three-dimensional monuments in wood or stone in churches from the 13th century. A craze for taking rubbings of the brasses to make pictures caused much damage and many are now covered rather than being on public display.

Cley’s brasses are outstandingly good and depict local families and their children and one to a doctor of divinity in his cap and scarf who died about 1460. The first rector of Cley was Alexander de Bassingburn in 1225.

There is a level and easy two-and-a-half mile walk along the Coastal Path from Blakeney to Cley. And Cley is worth a day trip for any visitor. Not only does it have this magnificent church but there is a long-standing pottery called Made in Cley, two pubs - the George and Dragon and the Three Swallows, a quality art gallery called Pinkfoot Gallery with painting and sculpture, coffee shops and an outstanding delicatessen called Picnic Fayre.

Cley windmill dominates the coastline standing in extensive reed beds. Outside the village is Cley Nature Reserve, described by naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough as one of the best places in the country to see wildlife.

There is a rumour that statues of the 12 stone apostles and Jesus Christ were stripped from the church and thrown into Cley harbour during the English Reformation in the 1500s when the Church of England broke away from the authority of the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church. So far a geophysical survey of the harbour has not located the missing statues.

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