Norfolk has never quite forgiven Noel Coward for his jibe about the county: “Very flat, Norfolk.” Locals will insist it’s simply not true. Now, if he had said “Very round, Norfolk church towers” they would have had no argument with him.
Norfolk is a treasure house of churches, and the round church tower - so rare as to be almost non-existent outside East Anglia - is a particular local feature. Of 175 surviving examples, 124 are in Norfolk, 38 in Suffolk, six in Essex, three in Sussex and two each in Cambridgeshire and Berkshire.
Round towers, with their heavy flint construction, often with battlements and tiny windows placed high out of reach, make the churches they adorn feel like places of physical as well as spiritual sanctuary.
The Reverend Lawrence Campbell has two round towers among the six Church of England parish churches he is rector of on an idyllic 15-mile stretch of ash-blonde sandbanks and moss-green salt marsh between Old Hunstanton and Burnham Deepdale.
St Mary’s at Titchwell has a tower topped with a charming spirelet pointing elegantly heavenwards from a churchyard that grows daisies and mole hills. Inside, children from the local Brancaster C of E Primary School have left a scrapbook of their researches into the church’s history.
At Burnham Deepdale the tower is one of a trio of treasures. The second is a Norman font carved with representations of the farmer’s year – including weeding in June, threshing in September and feasting in December. The third is a rich and varied collection of medieval glass. While the Victorians were throwing it out, the then vicar here was collecting it, grouping fragments as best he could. The window in the round tower shows Mary Magdalene holding a scroll and above her an angel pulling the chains of a censur. In the porch is a delightful medieval face of the moon; the sun that would have been its counterpoint substituted by the face of a cherub.
The many memorial plaques, and the plants for sale in the porch, are testament to the fact that this is a church well-loved and tended by its parishioners. Such love is evident in all of Mr Campbell’s churches, nowhere more so than at St Mary the Virgin in Old Hunstanton; a great, soaring lead-roofed ark of a place across the duck pond from the rectory. Hand-embroidered kneelers dot the pews with bright patches of colour, and there is one for the rector, in shades of green, boldly embroidered “VICAR”.
All six of his churches are wonderful, historic, and, says Mr Campbell: “extremely expensive to maintain. There is a constant fund-raising effort.”
Along with Old Hunstanton, Titchwell and Burnham Deepdale the rector serves Holme-next-the-Sea, Thornham and Brancaster.
Six parishes is a challenge. “I have to spread myself more thinly than I’d like. There are things I can’t do; for instance support the many local charities, but we have a service in each of the six churches each Sunday, and keep them open. I have a retired priest who helps, plus local teams who can take morning prayers and deliver a homily.”
All the churches’ congregations are swelled by summer visitors, who come for the sailing, the bird watching and the general beauty, peace and quiet. A lot of people have second homes that they either visit themselves or rent out. There is a newsletter that goes out to all in the parish including camp sites, hotels and holiday homes where visitors will find them.
The round towers bring visitors too. But why are there round towers? There are a number of theories, some more plausible than others
The most fanciful, prevalent 150 years ago, was that they were actually the shafts of wells. A great flood washed away the soil and left the shafts standing proud, to which enterprising locals added churches.
Others have believed that the towers echo the circles of ancient pagan cults. Heathen temples were round, so was Stonehenge, hence the tower was the circle and the ceremonies took place outside it.
Some have been convinced that the round towers were used as defence or watch towers during the time of the Viking raids.
One of the more mundane, but plausible, explanations is that there was no dressed stone available in East Anglia and it was much easier to build thick round walls of flint and undressed stone, avoiding corners that would be hard to construct with such materials.
But it was not until a chap called Bill Goode undertook an exhaustive 20 year study of the churches in the final quarter of the last century that they began to give up their secrets, and were properly dated. They had long been thought of as Norman, but Mr Goode concluded they were built by the Saxons; not for defence but added to existing churches as bell towers.
And why were they built? Many, perhaps, because King Athelstan, first king of all England, decreed in 937 that a bell tower be built “on the land of every thegn [a man granted land by the king]”. Whether for religious or defence considerations is unclear, but Bill Goode dates some 97 of East Anglia's round towers to around this time.
So enamoured of the round tower churches was Bill that he wrote a book about them and, when no publisher would touch the project, used his savings to print 500 copies. They sold out and he used the funds to support the Round Tower Churches Society, of which Prince Charles is now patron.
I ask which of the theories is the rector’s favourite. “I like the idea that they were easy to build because they were round, with no corners to cut stone for, but that you could only do a few courses each year because you had to wait for the mortar to dry, so they took a long time to construct.”
Originally from the northern Irish seaside town of Portstewart in County Londonderry, Mr Campbell served as a Navy chaplain for 16 years, and has been here since 1983. He liked the idea of raising his two children in the peace of the Norfolk seaside, away from then-troubled Londonderry, and of ministering to a place where the congregation would be swelled rather than depleted each summer.
If there is a problem to contend with in the parishes it is the cost of housing in this idyllic spot, fuelled partly by the demand for second homes, which prices locals out.
One initiative -- the church is not formally part of it but the committee members are all parishioners -- was to create Deepdale and Brancaster Housing Society. “It started out helping the elderly, “says the rector. “If you worked on a farm the cottage was tied to the job, so once you retired you needed a home, but it has since expanded to build affordable housing for local families.”
Mr Campbell clearly has great affection for his parishioners. “The people here are proud and independent. In Deepdale they were traditionally farmers, in Brancaster fishermen. The two are quite distinct, and there was some rivalry between them, but we hold a Sea Service each July or August with appropriate readings and hymns that is popular with everyone.”
So far on my visit I have been neglecting the sea but, with the churches explored, I turn to the coastal footpath that links the parishes. Their shores are as distinct as their churches and traditions. Close to Burnham Deepdale I find Brancaster Staithe, a natural harbour filled with yachts, their tenders and a couple of fishing boats. The lawns of the village houses run right to the water’s edge, and the coast feels more like the Broads than the shoreline as I look out to where I know the open sea must be over the salt marsh.
A few miles on, I cross reedy dunes that feel like a dried-out seabed and reach the sandy outcrop at Brancaster Beach. Here I get the strange illusion that the land is actually lower than the sea: I seem to be looking up at the breakers rolling in over the perfect sand. But, looking back to land, I recover my perspective, helped by glimpses of the string of church towers like God’s bright beacons strung along the Norfolk shore.