UNDER the wide skies of southern Norfolk there are two villages called Tivetshall – two twins only recently united as one civil parish. Two villages produced two churches and, as is often the case with pairs of churches, they are of unequal popularity. While the church at Tivetshall St Margaret is well used and admired for its sixteenth-century tympanum and rood screen, its sister church at Tivetshall St Mary is now a ruin – even before its final abandonment in the 1940s, it was, according to Henry Munro Cautley, “an extraordinarily plain building”, long bereft of an active congregation. I can imagine the place: white-washed walls, flaking and crumbling in places, growing greener through damp, as cobwebs and dust blanch the once deep-russet wood of the pews, pulpit and unadorned altar, with the faded arms of George IV looking down from on high – altogether no embellishment beyond the liturgical and national necessities.
The origins of the Tivetshall twins, Mary and Margaret, may date back to before the Norman Conquest, since the Domesday Book records two churches under ‘Teueteshala’, a place name etymologically divisible into the comfortably familiar healh ‘a nook of land’ and the more mysterious ‘teuetes-‘; Mills suggests an origin in ‘tewhit’, a dialectal word for lapwings, itself an onomatopoeic creation based on the sound of their call. It’s a reasonable derivation; East Anglia in fact has the similar ‘peewit’, which today remains a popular variant of the bird’s name, and is a word my grandfather taught me to insist on.
However, what remains of the church at Tivetshall St Mary is younger than this, the village’s small introduction into history. The walls of the nave and chancel have been largely dated to around the year 1300, though parts may be as old as the twelfth century. The church stands apart and adrift from the village; nearly all the houses sit beside the Street and Rectory Road, which turns off from the A140, a modern route that follows the course of the Romans’ Pye Road between Venta Icenorum and Camulodunum. St Mary’s, however, lies on the Gissing Road, one field west of the houses – and indeed it is only when heading westwards that its old east window is at all noticeable to the traveller. Like an optical illusion, the elegant branching tracery of the window, somehow still in situ, merges with the surrounding trees and vanishes easily unless approached from the right direction.
Wood and stone are becoming one in Tivetshall; the boundary between nature and human effort is blurred as flintstones fall back down to the earth and trees push up through their rubble. This process of decay is mostly too slow for appreciation, though time was on one occasion aided by artificial intervention when in 1947 a jet aircraft broke the sound barrier overhead and caused the the fourteenth-century tower to collapse into the nave. This, a rare episode of rapidity, provides us with an appealing border in time between unloved church and romantic ruin, which we should remember are two very different types of place. We tend to be much more at ease with the definitely dead than with the decaying and dying; a skull is always preferable to a corpse. Thus, in 1947, St Mary’s entered into a new type of existence: ruination, or delightful death.
And what a ruin it is too! As you arrive, you are struck by the perfection of the place, with its tall, glassless east window looking out no less imposingly, though now blindly. You may even feel that, though you had never considered it before, that St Mary’s is how a ruined church should look, as if the archetype for all the others. It is certainly ideal for both the historian’s sleuthing mind and the melancholic soul in search of the sense of time that ruins offer. It is complete enough to engage even the amateur church-crawler; with a little guesswork and a rummage in the foliage, paving slabs, a piscina, a stoup and a couple of crested and cursive-lettered memorials begin to emerge, and with them the lost life of a valued, hallowed space.
Entering by the south porch, passing the box that contains, of course, a visitors book, you find yourself within the shell of the church proper. If you are able, I would recommend climbing the rubble of the tower to view the ruins from higher up, from which point you come to see how, though devoid of human furnishing, St Mary’s is by no means empty; a soft blanket of grasses and flowers completely covers the hard stone floor, having crept in through the doorways, like seawaters reclaiming loaned land. It is peaceful and open to the windsong and all the daylight; it is also heavy with time. Do the trees outnumber the gravestones? It is so hard to tell; ivy and moss have made memorials of life into trees of stone, while all the names, mostly still legible, slowly form in the mind the feeling that, in fact, you are far from alone, but rather standing amongst a whole host of the time-taken dead, whose only difference to you is a few fleeting years.
When you finally turn to drive, walk or cycle away, you may well feel a quiet but sincere reluctance to leave and return to the present day, with all its garish vitality. I go as far as to say that we need places like this – places that kindly interrupt the present with the past. Better still, St Mary’s Church, if you make the effort to find it, which I hope you will, will be yours alone to enjoy, such is its seclusion and lack of renown. An oasis it is, and an immersive refuge for those who need it – which is all of us, I believe, whether we know it or not.
Danny Bate 2019
Cautley, H. M. (1949). Norfolk Churches. 256. Norman Adlard & Co.
Mills, A. D. (2011). A Dictionary of British Place Names. 462. Oxford University Press.
Many thanks to @broadsgirl for taking the photos.