'Keep your eyes open' - Discovering north Norfolk's rich history

A North Norfolk u£a group explores the ruins of Beeston Priory. 

A North Norfolk u£a group explores the ruins of Beeston Priory. - Credit: Supplied by David Riddle

In his latest column, David Riddle from the North Norfolk University of the Third Age (USA) delves into the district's rich history.

In North Norfolk you are never far away from evidence of the proud history of this county and its people. It still surrounds us. All you need to do is keep your eyes open.

All Saints Church at Beeston Regis.

All Saints Church at Beeston Regis. - Credit: Supplied by David Riddle

Within 30 minutes’ drive along the coast, you can experience the grandeur of Holkham Hall and the modest glory of one of our many small ancient churches such as All Saints, Beeston Regis.

Recently the North Norfolk U3A Local History Group paid a visit to Beeston Regis, just next to Sheringham, to see Beeston Priory and All Saints Church.

Our very well-informed guide was Roy Beckley – a leading local character who is vice-chair of the parish council, a churchwarden, and trustee of the Hooke Charities.

Roy Beckley, leading a tour of  All Saints Church at Beeston Regis for the North Norfolk U3A. 

Roy Beckley, leading a tour of All Saints Church at Beeston Regis for the North Norfolk U3A. - Credit: Supplied by David Riddle


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Beeston Priory was founded in 1216 with four priests from a somewhat mysterious Norfolk-based religious order called the Order of Peterstone.

They lived rather well, served as parish priests in nearby churches and ran a school for both boarding and day schoolboys.

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Originally, they had 40 acres of land, and the rights to wrecks and flotsam and jetsam – valuable rights for a priory next to a busy sea trading coast.

North Norfolk U3A chairman David Riddle.

David Riddle from the North Norfolk u3A. - Credit: Supplied by David Riddle

Despite ups and downs in their relationships with the local bishops, the priory thrived.

At the reformation under Henry VIII, they accepted the King’s supremacy over the church, in order to avoid conflict.

Despite that, in 1539 the priory was dissolved after a visit by Richard Rich.  

Afterwards, the building served as a limestone quarry and much of its facing and stone walls were removed by locals for building works nearby. Ownership passed through several families until the ruins were purchased by Norfolk County Council in 1983.

The council carried out extensive repairs and the ruins are now protected as a scheduled monument, free to visit all year round. You might even discover the tunnel that is said to exist from the priory to the Dunstable Arms.

A short journey from the priory, the church of All Saints, Beeston Regis stands in isolation near the cliff tops - a landmark for visible from sea and land.

It is one of the most impressive locations of any church in Norfolk, although now it has a holiday park as its near neighbour.

The tower dates from the 11th or early 12th century and much of the nave comes from the 13th century. Tardis like, apparently small exterior opens into a spacious interior, full of light.

The great treasure of this church is the rood screen dating from the 15th century with its original paintings of the apostles.

Only recently, part of a brass tomb cover dating from the middle ages was found in a paper envelope in the church office.

There is a memorial in the church is for Edmund Hooke. This wealthy and important man was twice mayor of King's Lynn, 1684 and 1695, when King's Lynn was an important centre of trade with northern Europe.

He traded in wool and was one of the merchants who ran the town’s commerce. He owned land across North Norfolk. He died in 1723 aged 89, a good age for that period.

In his will, he left £100 for land for the poor of Beeston Regis. Skillfully managed and invested over the years by local trustees, the value of his legacy has grown to over £150,000. The annual income is used by the trustees including Roy Beckley to support local families in need of financial help. A wonderful example of a community caring.

St Mary’s is one of nearly 1,000 churches in Norfolk, some ruined or preserved but out of use, and hundreds still in use. Roger Mundy, a U3A member who is a retired priest, told me of his worry that the current policies of the Church of England could undermine the importance of church buildings.

Bob Wilkinson, a local historian with the North Norfolk u3A,

Bob Wilkinson, a local historian with the North Norfolk u3A, with part of a brass tomb cover dating from the middle ages which was found in a paper envelope in Beeston Regis Church office. - Credit: Supplied by David Riddle

Roger said: “They were built as a place in which to have God’s presence seen to be in our communities, in which we would hear about God, his love of us and for us, and of our need to listen to him and seek to follow his precepts.

"The parish churches belong to each community and are a symbol of humanity recognising God. Our churches are not relics of the past, they are the essential part of being human and how we can live today with joy, thanksgiving, and certainty.”

North Norfolk U3A welcomes people of all faiths and none. We are not religious, but we can and do treasure the history that resides in our church buildings. Several interest groups in u3a - Architecture, Looking at Churches, and Local History – take a keen interest in this facet of Norfolk life. Find out more at www.northnorfolku3a.org.uk.

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