The Norfolk Broads is Britain’s largest protected wetland and one of Europe’s most popular inland waterways. The area is managed as a national park and it is claimed that it attracts more than a million visitors each year from all over the World. Before the ‘Broads’ were known as such, its waterways made up an essential transport network for peat, thatching reed and marsh hay. Today, the ‘Broads’ is used for recreation, including such activities as sailing, motor cruising, fishing and enjoying the wildlife. Then there are the opportunities to visit the lovely villages that find themselves embraced by the Norfolk Broads, along with their medieval country churches.
Ranworth is just one such place with its Staithe, which is run by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, fronting Malthouse Broad and aptly named after nearby malt houses. There are great waterside views around Ranworth and within the village with its pretty thatched cottages which makes for ‘chocolate box’ opportunities for photographers and painters.
Nearby, on higher ground, stands St Helens Church below which is a large nature reserve winding its way through woodland to the Norfolk Wildlife Conservation Centre; a floating thatched building right on the edge of what is Ranworth Broad . This is the information centre for the Broads and its history, including models of local scenes depicting peat digging, thatching and duck shooting. On the upper floor of the building there are facilities, including binoculars and telescopes, for bird watching.
This church, set on high ground and overlooking the village and the broads beyond, is well worth a visit for its furnishings, views from its tower, its history and its myths. There have been previous churches on the site but the present one on view was completed as far back as about 1450. Furnished by prosperous wool merchants, its walls were painted with biblical stories, its windows rich in stained glass and a great cross suspended above an elaborate rood screen.
Unfortunately, many of the church’s medieval treasures were damaged or destroyed during the Reformation, although a surprising amount did survive. The building itself also fell into a long period of decline and disrepair and it was only in the late 1890s that the church was restored to what can be seen today. Much of the original rood screen with its medieval paintings still survives, along with its stylized white roses of York painted on the back of the screen, one of the finest in England. The church also has a 15th century illuminated manuscript, the Ranworth Antiphoner kept in a steel case and on view to visitors.
The Church Tower
The tower dominates the Ranworth skyline and it would seem that visitors love to climb the eighty-nine spiral steps and two ladders to the top of the flint-lined tower for the wonderful views over the landscape. It is easy to understand why when from its heights, on clear days, one can see five Norfolk Broads and the impressive wind turbines of the wind farm at West Somerton.
In fact, much of the Norfolk Broads river system is visible, interlaced with boats that weave their way in a constantly changing pattern of light through farmland and marshes that grow traditional Norfolk thatching reed. A recent survey using a calibrated telescope listed nearly two hundred sites in the Cromer–Norwich–Great Yarmouth area, including 116 churches, numerous windmills and wind drainage pumps, Happisburgh lighthouse and even the top of Norwich Cathedral.
They say that, when conditions and timings are right, Brother Pacificus may be seen rowing either towards, or away from, the Church. For those who master the climb up 89 steps and two ladders to the roof of the the tower but fail to see Pacificus on the water below – just turn around and look up to the weathervain!
Ranworth Church and Patron Saints
Early Christians used the word ‘saint’ for all the faithful. In time though, a saint came to be a person of outstanding devotion. The earliest saints acclaimed by common consent were the apostles, John the Baptist, the Holy family and the first martyrs. As the Christian church became more structured, bishops took control of canonisations within their own dioceses. It was not until 1170 though that Pope Alexander III insisted that only the Pope could canonise.
Portrayals of saints dominated Christian art until the Reformation when many icons were destroyed. It is miraculous that so much of the rood screens in Ranworth and any of the lovely Upton screen survived the ravages of the 1500s when reformers believed that portrayals of human beings might tempt congregations to treat them as idols. The reformers’ passion led them to daub all bare flesh, feet, hands and faces with tar.
Ranworth Church is dedicated to St Helen, a popular patron of ancient English churches with perhaps 135 dedicated to her throughout the country. Some accounts say that she was a princess, the daughter of King Coel, King of the Britons and was born in Colchester where she is the patron saint of the City. Others say that she was born in York although most historians have it that she was born in 242 AD in Bithynia, an area of Asia Minor near the Bosporus Sea. She married a Roman general, Constantius Chlorus, and became the mother of Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor of Rome. Despite her status as empress, she helped the poor and distressed and was known for her charitable acts. Helen had a great influence on her son Constantine.
Helen became a Christian late in her life and it wasn’t until she was an old lady that she made her famous pilgrimage from Rome to Jerusalem to find the cross on which Christ was crucified. The story is that she uncovered three crosses under a temple on Mount Calvary that she had ordered to be torn down on seeing smoke issuing from the ground. Helen recognised the one True Cross when it touched a dead man that miraculously resurrected. Helen built a basilica on Mount Calvary for the sacred relic and later, built two other famous churches in Palestine that celebrate the nativity and the ascension. She returned from the Holy Land in her 80s and died in Rome in 328.
Saint Helen, known also as Helena, is celebrated on August 18th and is the patron saint of treasure hunters, nail-makers and is invoked against theft and fire. She is usually shown holding a cross, just as she is outside Ranworth Church.
The Ranworth Antiphoner, the Church’s Illuminated Manuscript:
Those who do visit Ranworth Church should not leave before heading over to the cabinet just to the side of the main door; usually it has a cloth protecting its ancient contents – it is the Ranworth Antiphoner.
In medieval times, services were held 7 times a day and these would consist of prayers said or sung from a book of psalms. Lines were read alternately, ‘antiphonally’, between the priest and the choir. Ranworth Church still has one of its two Medieval Latin ‘antiphonies’; the other earlier and smaller one is in the British Library. The book dates from the 1400s and has 285 vellum (animal skin) pages illustrated with gleaming colour pictures and gold leaf edging.
In 1549, when services were first published in English in the Book of Common Prayer, antiphoners were banned. Ranworth’s somehow survived, reappearing in the reign of Mary Tudor when changes were made to its calendar (e.g. the feast of Thomas a Becket, which had been scratched out during Henry VIII’s time, was reinstated). The Holdych family whose family dates appear in the margins of the calendar probably hid the book during Elizabethan times. The Antiphoner eventually became part of a collection offered for sale at the beginning of the 20th century. Its link to Ranworth was soon traced and the Parish raised the money to buy it. The book is now on show inside a unique security case made by the inmates of Norwich Prison. Unfortunately maybe for some but the case cannot be opened to meet requests, but the pages are turned occasionally to display the illuminations and the plainchant music that the church choir sometimes sings.
The Rood Screen
The painted rood screen in St Helen’s Ranworth dates from the early 1400s. The Great Rood that was once above the screen was destroyed in the Reformation.
The Rood (from the Anglo-Saxon for cross) is a large crucifix usually placed above the entrance to the choir in medieval churches. Some were very large, carved richly in wood and painted or gilded. By the 13th or 14th centuries, the great rood had become a feature of almost every church. The rood, however, was often eclipsed by the screen over which it was placed. Paintings of apostles and saints including St George and St Michael both slaying dragons, survive on the screen in St Helen’s Ranworth.
LOCAL MYTHS 1 (Brother Pacificus):
Ranworth and Ranworth Broad are said to be haunted by a friendly ghost named Brother Pacificus. The early bird may be in the best position to catch a glimpse of the monk, though he may also be sighted on quiet summer evenings. Wearing his habit, he may be seen rowing a small boat across the Broad with a small dog standing in the prow.
The story goes that during the 1530’s the brothers at nearby St Benets Abbey undertook the work of restoring the rood screen of St Helen’s Church, Ranworth. Brother Pacificus was entrusted with the task so early each morning that he would row his boat across the Broad from the Abbey to the church in order to carry out the restoration work on the screen. He was always accompanied by his little dog. At the end of the day he would return by the same route.
One evening upon his return the Abbey, Brother Pacificus found to his horror that his brother monks had been murdered by the King’s Troops as part of the dissolution of the monasteries, ordered by Henry VIII. Devastated, Pacificus was to linger for years amidst the blackened ruins where he eventually died. The local villagers who knew of his devotion to Ranworth took his body across the Bure and lovingly laid it to rest in the shadow of St Helen’s, a church that he clearly loved and for which he had worked so hard.
To some, he still returns to carry out his work, accompanied by his little dog. They say that he also comes back to pray. Sometimes in the early hours of morning, when it is just light, his little boat may be seen moored up to the bank and sometimes his little dog asleep in it, just waiting. Inside, the aged monk will be kneeling in an attitude of prayer before the centre opening of the rood-screen, but with the approach of anyone he will simply fade into nothingness. On the other hand and if left alone, he may be seen returning at nightfall to his boat and rowing back to St Benet’s with his little dog sitting up perkily in the stern.
It is best not to laugh at such happenings as that which confronted Pacificus and his journeys to and from Ranworth centuries ago. For note, it is on record that a certain Reverend James Brewster, D.D. of Baliol, whilst on holiday in 1930 and about to enter a narrow waterway leading to Ranworth Broad, saw a boat being rowed towards him. Pulling into the side to make room, the visitor waited for it to pass by; as he did so he noticed that the rower was a monk in a black habit and although clearly aged, had the kindest face he had not previously seen on any man. The Benedictine smiled his thanks as he passed and before dissolving into nothing just a short distance on. Dr Brewster thought that there had been a small white dog in the boat, but he couldn’t be sure. Apparently, he was so moved by this experience that he felt he had to make enquiries hereabouts. At Horning he was simply laughed at whilst in Ranworth he was to learn:
‘That what he saw was our monastic friend, Brother Pacificus, going home after his labours and there is no real or known reason why it should not have been.’
LOCAL MYTHS 2 (Colonel Sydney and the Devil):
Summer visitors to the lovely Ranworth Broad may find it hard to imagine this beautiful spot being the scene of one of Norfolk’s spookiest legends, but so it is. In July the nights are warm and balmy, but the scene of this story is a wintry one, December 31 1770 to be precise. This tale is worth telling to children on the boats that chug the Broads there – they won’t forget it easily, and it may well keep them from venturing on deck in the dark. Ranworth then as now was an out of the way place, the church tower dominating the landscape. The east wind of the winter blows across the marshes and broads with seemingly little in its way from the cold North Sea.
In 1770 Colonel Thomas Sydney resided in Ranworth Old Hall. The former soldier was such a foul character that in spite of his wealth and position he was struck from the list of JPs. Sydney was a rake-hell: a drunkard whose already evil temper got worse when he was in his cups; a gambler; and perhaps worst of all for the English, a bad loser. Not that he got much practice at losing, for he was a noted sportsman, and his neighbours were wary of getting on his wrong side by besting him in a contest.
At the New Year’s Eve hunt meeting that year Sydney challenged a neighbour to a race, matching their horses over the fields. But much to the Colonel’s surprise his neighbour outpaced him, heading it seemed for an easy win. Not so damn likely thinks the Colonel, who draws his pistol and shoots the neighbour’s horse from under him. The frightened animal rears and sends its rider flying, his neck cracking just as the beast’s hooves trample the body. The evil owner of the Old Hall wins, and devil take the hindmost – though here he can claim the winner too.
With his neighbours too scared to act against him Sydney has no compunction about appearing at the hunt ball he is holding that very night, dressed in his finery, his brain still more befuddled by continued drinking. He roars at the top of his voice, totally without shame.
Crash go the doors to the Old Hall. At the threshold stands a tall and slender figure, dressed all black that merges his shape with the night behind him. No features of the face beneath the elegant black hat are visible. Sydney’s mouth gapes, for once he is silenced. The figure approaches and throws the helpless Colonel across his shoulder, marches him outside, and throws the frozen figure across his saddle. The head of the Wild Hunt has come to claim his own. With studied ease the devil mounts his black steed, and in a second he, the horse, and the terrified captive are racing across Ranworth Broad, steam rising from the water wherever a hellish hoof touches. Sydney finds his voice now, screams, begs, curses, but not a jot of difference will it make to his awful fate. He is bound for the pit. Colonel Sydney was never seen again, at least not alive. But every year on New Year’s Eve, or so it is said, the devil rides across Ranworth Broad, Colonel Sydney held across his saddle.
Sleep well children, sleep well!