Five great seamark churches on the Norfolk coast

The soaring tower and spire of St Mary’s has guided mariners through the dangerous tides and shifting sandbanks of the Wash for centuries. It is just one of a series of lofty medieval churches strung out along the Norfolk coast from Yarmouth to Lynn that still appear on modern nautical charts.

Squinting through a squall in the Wash while heading to King’s Lynn, Snettisham church in the distance must have been a welcome sight for early seafarers

The 15th century mariner rarely had charts, relying mainly on an early compass, the sun and stars, and observation. With newly-completed church towers as reference points, navigating in sight of land would been preferable to the open sea. But rocks and shoals could be treacherous closer to land.

The dangers of the Norfolk coast were highlighted by the traveller and writer Daniel Defoe in 1724 who described seeing “wrecks of ships, and ruins of mariners’ and merchants’ fortunes” on his way round the coast to Cromer. His words are reflected in coastal churchyards where too many tombstones tell desperately sad tales of those lost at sea, of which there were thousands down the centuries.

We shall never know how many lives our coastal church towers might have saved but Trinity House records that a number of ecclesiastical lights were exhibited round the coast in medieval times as a guide to shipping.

Navigation notes from 1846 show that no fewer than 10 Norfolk coastal churches were used for taking bearings, not least Blakeney St Nicholas from which a flag would be hoisted at high tide “as a signal when you may run for it”.

Church towers were primarily to house bells – telling the time before clocks, as a call to the faithful, or to sound warning of danger. Heavier bells required sturdier towers and the wealth of 15th century Norfolk, based on wool and later herring, enabled them to soar skyward. They may not have been designed as seamarks but they were certainly built to be seen whether on land or sea. And today they have another role in supplying faster wireless broadband to Norfolk communities.

Here we focus on five great seamark churches on the Norfolk coast.