The glorious front facade still stands, but quite how I do not know. The structural side walls have long since detached themselves or crumbled into the soil, yet the arches continue to soar upward and reach for the heavens. The only sound we heard that afternoon at Tivetshall St. Mary in rural Norfolk were the birds and a very distant tractor. The ruins are silent, peaceful, and not the least bit eerie.
Ruin of St. Mary's Church at Tivetshall, Norfolk, UK
How the world has transformed itself in the centuries since this structure was registered in the Domesday Book in 1086 as an already established church. It must have seemed that it would live on forever as an active parish church, but the records of 1702 indicate that there was already great concern about the amount of decay that was evident and worry about whether the church might simply fall down.
It did not fall down though and, fragile though it might have been, it stood there in a Norfolk field for over 240 more years.
East Anglia was abuzz with activity during the 1930s and 1940s as airfield after airfield was created to deal with the war in Europe. Each day, waves of military planes flew across the English Channel and then, if they were lucky, those planes returned after their bombing runs were completed. In spite of the German bombs that rained down on the East of England during World War II, the stone walls of St. Mary’s remained upright and the roof remained intact.
But a mere two years after the end of that war, a military plane flew too low over the fields one day in 1947 and pulled up at the last minute to avoid hitting the woods beyond. The staggering amount of vibration from the plane roaring overhead simply shredded the last bit of strength in the old church and the tower of the church collapsed into the nave. The roof collapsed immediately.
There were witnesses to the event who happened to be on site that day, but the military refused to take any credit for the damage or offer any compensation. The decision was made to completely abandon the church.
The tiny community of Tivetshall had long been home to two parishes and now the stained glass windows and other valuable items were stripped from St. Mary’s and moved down the road to St. Margaret’s where they were reunited with the parishioners who had already found a new home there by the late 1800s due to the safety concerns at St. Mary’s.
This is a completely serene place and well worth a stop if you are driving through the Norfolk countryside. The gravestones may be tilting from the shifting soil, the names on many of the stones have completely weathered away, and it is only when you trip over a partially sunken grave-curbstone that you realize just how many people are buried there.
An infant's or child's gravestone in St. Mary's churchyard
War memorial at Tivetshall St. Mary, Norfolk
Rather poignantly, the churchyard is strewn with a large amount of very tiny stones, most no more than 8 inches wide and 8 inches tall, for infants or children, but almost none of them are readable now.
Yet looking around at the stones of the adults, most of them lived well into their late forties, fifties, sixties — and there was the occasional tombstone indicating an eighty-plus resident.
It was a very visible testament to the fact that they were nurtured by their community and that for the most part, these people lived long and productive lives.
I am highly sensitive to such things and I can honestly say that with the single exception of the stark white war memorial for those soldiers who never came home from World War I, there was no sense of sadness, longing, regret lingering in the air of the churchyard.
There is simply an atmosphere of peace, a lovely and historic ruin, and a very sturdy bench to use whilst you sit in contemplation.
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