Horning History Walk:St Benedict’s Church to the Chapel of St James’ Hospital

On Wednesday 6th November 2013 Annie and I were joined by the Horning Walkers and others to walk between two historic sites . Dr Sarah Spooner and Dr John Gregory joined us as well as  Caroline Davidson  and Penny Wrout from the St Benet’s project. We met at the car park of St Benedict’s Church Horning  to walk some of the paths which would have been used by visitors to St Benet’s Abbey.
The weather was drizzly and grey but did not mar the views too much as we set off along footpath 15  noting the area of a former dyke aligned southwest-northeast with the ditch on the northwest side. This runs from a small cliff-like slope leading down towards marshy land near to the River Ant to another slope  that marks the northern edge of the River Bure floodplain. At one time the Ant flowed into the River Thurne and this would have made the Horning peninsula twice the size it is today (Pestell 2008). In Carrodus’ book “Life in a Norfolk Village”(1949) it states that the line of the dyke used to be quite clear when viewed from the top of St Benedict’s Church tower, and a gravedigger stated that he had to dig through a layer of ashes when digging graves there. Aerial photographs taken in 1996 and 2007 have accurately shown the full extent of this dyke. It is not contiguous with the parish boundary and it is now impossible to assess its height due to ploughing.  In fact the church graveyard section might be the best preserved area. The dyke may have been a defence of an early a royal site, possibly granted to the Abbey by an earlier monarch or it could be a much older earthwork which was incorporated into the Abbey’s defences.
Looking to the south across the valley towards Ranworth, there is beneath the soil a probable Bronze Age ring ditch and burial pit which can be seen on aerial photographs.  A bronze age metalworker’s hoard has also been found (Megan Davis and Dave Gurney, 2006, 2008 respectively).
We then walked along a Byway Open to All Traffic: Waterworks Lane to Horning Old Staithe. Many trees down this lane create a tunnel effect and it appears sunken. It has recently had tarmac laid on the wheel track area of the route. Many of the trees have been coppiced, including ash and field maple, and the banks are six feet high either side in places, woven with rabbit tunnels. The waterworks pumping station is no longer in use, but the building will have reached its hundredth anniversary next year. The path traverses an area which widens out into a reeded expanse, beside Horning Old Staithe, possibly one of the oldest landing areas along this stretch of the River Bure. An elderly resident of Upper Street remembers a small beach area here where families would come to picnic on special local holidays so that the children could enjoy the water.No mooring or disembarkation is allowed here now, but the staithe remains an important access to the views across the river, and anglers enjoy the spot for fishing. The 1822 Map: Land of Parish of Horning shows this area listed as two parcels of land, one as Surveyors Staithe and one as Charles Grymes’ Staithe. The Horning enclosure notice for Mr Charles Grimes refers to public staithes ’ …. and access ‘ for ever here after’. Mr Grymes owned considerable areas of land in and around Horning and occupied the old farmhouse now known as “Cedar Lodge” on Lower Street, Horning.
Returning along the Old Staithe track, we then progressed along Restricted Byway 18 towards Hall Farm Cottages and St James’ Hospital in the grounds of Horning Hall. This path gives good views along its length as it travels along the spine of the “Horn of Horning”.  This must surely have been the start of the final leg of the journey for pilgrims all those centuries ago and they would have seen the vast structure of the Abbey in the midst of the marshes below them.  Most of the hedging and trees along this stretch do not seem to be of a great age. Both Annie and I thought we had come across an oak tree that we thought might register as being older and more significant.  While Dr Spooner looked on, we measured the trunk, which was nearly five metres in circumference, but our hopes were dashed when she informed us that its date was probably not much earlier than Enclosure, possibly 1750. some trees appear to grow faster than others! As the path has probably been in existence for nearly 1000 years it was obvious that very old trees would have died and been replaced over time. Most looked to have been planted later than the Enclosure date of around 1818. Suffice to say, unlike our walks along this path in the summer, there was not so much wildlife to see, although the rooks were flocking together near the oaks and I did hear a pheasant! And someone noticed a solitary Speckled Wood butterfly – a late summer treat.

We then had the privilege of viewing the interior of the chapel of St James’ Hospital thanks to the kind permission of Mr Ted Brewster of Horning Hall.  This site has been sympathetically restored with help from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Mr Brewster. Some of the original fire damage it suffered circa 1400 can still be seen at the base of  the flint walls. There was evidence of overwintering Peacock and Small Tortoiseshell butterflies in significant numbers. Earlier access for barn owls has been closed off  but the provision of owl boxes nearby has led to the successful rearing of two offspring this year.
We had our tea break at Hall Farm Cottages www.hallfarmcottages.co.uk. Thanks to Hannah for the excellent hospitality. We had organised a display of the significant maps that we had been researching at the Norfolk Records Office, which enhanced the walkers’ knowledge of the history of the footpaths and surrounding landscape.
We had hoped to walk the footpaths to the Poors’ Allotments, but we had run out of time, so that will be a walk for another time! We would like to thank Dr Sarah Spooner and Dr John Gregory for taking the time to walk the paths with us and help us with interpretation of what we saw. Thanks also to Caroline Davidson and Penny Wrout from the St Benet’s project for helping us understand more about the Chapel of St James’s Hospital.