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Blakeney church holds secrets of village maritime past

Updated: Aug 14, 2019

The tower of St Nicholas' Church in Blakeney stands 104 feet tall like a beacon on the ridge above the village.

The 15th century church is a unique and clear landmark to anyone walking the North Norfolk Coastal Path and mariners searching for a safe haven because it is distinctive in having two towers, one east and one west.

The smaller tower, 93 feet high, used to be lit as a beacon for sailors. It was also used for navigating into Blakeney harbour - one of the busiest links to Europe during the Middle Ages.

Sailors would line up both towers in their field of vision and this would guide them through the sand banks and keep them in the main shipping channel. A light still burns 24/7 as part of tradition and it is still used by small craft as a navigation aid.

The west tower is open to the public Monday to Friday between 9.30am and 5pm for visitors to climb 137 steps for a spectacular view over surrounding countryside and the sea.

The large and spacious church is a Grade 1 nationally important building of architectural interest and its size reflects the importance of the port which is first mentioned in the Doomsday Book of 1086.

Blakeney gained its market charter in 1222, and by the early 15th century was one of a handful of ports permitted to trade in horses, gold and silver, through merchants sworn by oath to the king. This added to the town's growing wealth.

The original church building dates to the 13th or early 14th century and is dedicated to St Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors and there are some remarkable monuments in the graveyard recording the links with the sea. St Nicholas is also the patron saint of merchants, archers and repentant thieves.

Blakeney was a lifeboat station from around 1825 to 1924. Various wall plaques commemorate the boats' rescues and crew losses from 1862, when the RNLI took over the running of the service, up to the station's closure.

Most Norfolk churches have examples of pre-Reformation graffiti on the walls, unless they have been heavily limewashed or resurfaced, and Blakeney has too. There is an extensive array of prayers, merchant's marks and other symbols, including at least 30 pictures of ships. These can be found mainly in the nave towards the eastern end of the south aisle. It is likely that the images, mostly of smaller ships, were created by the seafaring inhabitants of Blakeney and follow a tradition in ports going back to the Bronze Age right across Europe.

Blakeney church underwent a major rebuilding programme in 1434 and only the original chancel survived the makeover.

The church lost many of its early treasures and its stained glass windows were destroyed during the Reformation of the 1500s. But there are many impressive sights including a chestnut and oak hammerbeam roof with angels on the hammers and a menagerie of carved animals on the oak benches are well worth seeing.

The benefice of Blakeney was handed down the generations to various Norfolk landowners but was given to Keble College, Oxford, in the 1950s.

The church appeared in Simon Jenkins’ book, 1000 Best Churches, where it was described as ‘a rare example of what every large parish church should aspire to being, also a community centre, market place and museum’.

It also featured in the Daily Telegraph's list of 100 favourite churches, and was rated among the top ten churches in Norfolk by a Norfolk tourism website.

The church of St Nicholas in Blakeney, Norfolk
The towers of St Nicholas' Church were used by sailors to navigate into Blakeney harbour

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