Crooked Naves

Exactly 250 years ago the Baconsthorpe Parish Rate was increased to pay for costly repairs to the then dilapidated St. Mary’s church. Several times since, lead-thieving crooks have struck. Now who pays?

Tessa McCosh isn’t really complaining when she blurts out, “I’m getting too old for this!” She is simply saying that at 80 years old her fundraising days should be over. When the lead was stripped and stolen from the roof of Baconsthorpe St. Mary’s village church some years ago she and her husband David, now 87, spearheaded the campaign to raise over £100,000 for its replacement.

This year the roof has again been butchered by thieves. In March and again in April crooks stripped up to six tons of lead which was flashed away through the quiet Norfolk night en route for Felixstowe and China. One of the thefts occurred just hours before a funeral service was due to take place, leaving no time for a temporary covering to be put in place. The culprits have been tracked down and imprisoned, their run of similar thefts finished for now,[1] but for Tessa and the Baconsthorpe villagers the cycle of fundraising begins again.

Tessa is an inspirational woman, one of those characters you never forget. I could have listened to her for hours, on gardens, on grandchildren, on art, on Norfolk, on the joust with ageing. But the next day was a big one for her with hordes of family arriving so a mug of tea and a few gingernuts later I bid farewell and took the short stroll from her kitchen over to St. Mary’s.

Cobwebs. Dried leaves piled up from last autumn in the doorway. Damp, curling paperbacks for sale at 50p each. Despite all these things the church retains a mature almost feisty dignity. Handwritten labels on notable features and comments on the capture of the lead-thieves are a welcome sight, antidote to the mass-produced heritage and interpretation signage riddling our historic built environment these days.

At Domesday there was a church here but few of its earliest parts remain. The parish chest was bought in 1547 for ten shillings with cash raised from the sale of some of the church plate. The tower collapsed in 1739, damaging the leaded nave roof. Armstrong noted that two of the five bells were sold to help pay towards repairs and rebuild the tower. He described the 1767 state of the church as ‘very ruinous and deplorable’. [2]

St. Mary’s trumps the Bible’s sole Zurishaddai[3] with at least two of its own. Zurishaddai Lang and Zurishaddai Girdlestone senior are memorialised in St. Mary’s with Tournai marble ledger slabs.[4] Girdlestone senior, son of grazier John Girdlestone of Kelling, was Rector of St. Mary’s from 1746 – 1767. The letters on his memorial spell out Zurishaddai in biblical Hebrew צורי־שדי or צורישדי . His slab features a rabbit standing on a rock. He inherited a large property covering parts of Kelling, Baconsthorpe and elsewhere from his uncle, John Lang, Lord of the Manor of Kelling.[5]

girdlestone slab baconsthorpe

Rectors of Baconsthorpe lived for many years in a ‘humble cottage of thatch’ which was twice destroyed in a 62-year period, first in 1692 after a lightning strike and again on 1st April 1754 after a chimney fire.[6] Girdlestone died at Mattishall in 1767,[7] not quite seeing the completion of his fine, substantial new Rectory built with his own and parish money at a time when there was little to spare for renovations to the church itself. After 1767 it was agreed to increase the Parish Rate to raise money for church repairs which were largely completed by 1779 at a cost of £600.[8]  The tower was not fully restored until 1788.

The Heydon family heraldic glass was originally at nearby Baconsthorpe Hall (now known as Baconsthorpe Castle), and was placed in the C15th south aisle windows of St. Mary’s after bomb damage in 1941.[9] A WW2 bomb also demolished one side of Zurishaddai Girdlestone’s Rectory.

Perhaps a cruel karma nips at the heels of Tessa and  David McCosh. They have lived in the Rectory for the last 25 years, both are Churchwardens and driven to find funds to renovate St. Mary’s when Zurishaddai Girdlestone, more than 250 years ago, did not succeed in that task and was more inclined to finance his own relatively grand house.

[1] [accessed 23rd July 2017]

[2] Armstrong, Mostyn John History and antiquities of the county of Norfolk. Vol. 1 Norwich 1781 p. 46

[3] The Holy Bible, Book of Numbers 1:6

[4]National Heritage List for England (NHLE) [accessed 8th July 2017]

[5] Venn, J. Biographical History of Gonville and Caius College 1349-1897 Vol 2 Cambridge 1898 p. 44

[6] Armstrong, M. J. History and antiquities of the county of Norfolk. Vol. 1 Norwich 1781 p. 45

[7] Venn, J. Biographical History of Gonville and Caius College 1349-1897 Vol 2 Cambridge 1898 p. 44

[8] Youngs, R. St. Mary’s Church Baconsthorpe History and Guide 1972, updated 1996

[9] Correspondence regarding the restoration of war-damaged churches, including Baconsthorpe, can be seen at Norfolk Record Office, Catalogue Ref. KNG 2/2/11/58 Records of G. King and Son (Lead Glaziers) Ltd of Norwich.