Norfolk village signs

Dr Andrew Tullett
Tuesday 20 April 2021

[Right: Martham's village signs
Photo: Andrew Tullett]

Martham signs

Village Signs  -  The History of Norfolk on a Stick

Dr Andrew Tullett  -  Tuesday, April 20th, 2021

Around 30 members attended our 2nd zoom meeting. It was headed, “The History of Norfolk on a Stick”. This could be thought about in two ways, the first is the sight of a village sign high up on a ‘stick’, or all the information held on what is known as a ‘memory stick’, very much smaller but with much more information.

Andrew started by telling us a little about himself and how his father started photographing village signs.  Andrew took up the reins in 2017 with his project called “Signs of a Norfolk Summer” which continues through to today.  There are estimated to be 513 listed village signs.  The history of ‘ornamental village signs’ as they used to be known is believed to have its origins in Norfolk.

Edward VII, who was crowned following Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, decided that village signs would assist motorists as points of interest on the Sandringham estate. During WW1 all signs were removed.  Prince Albert in 1920 gave a speech at the Royal Academy promoting village signs. The Daily Mail held a nationwide village sign competition there were 617 entries.  The winning designs were displayed in Australia House, London in October 1920. Sadly, Martham was not among them.

Entering Andrew’s ‘time machine’ we journeyed through time from the Palaeolithic period to the present.  Our first stop shows the village sign at West Runton and the Steppe Mammoth who after a stormy night in 1990 revealed bones. These enormous animals lived in the Cromerion period between 866,000 and 478,000 years ago and is depicted as part of their village sign.   85% of this enormous mammal has been recovered.

In our time machine we passed through neolithic times to Weeting and the miner shown digging flint, perhaps from Grimes Graves, through to the Bronze Age and Necton, where the sign sits in the middle of the village and depicts a burial mound at Mona Hill which is said to have a Bronze Age Warrior buried beneath. The sign also depicts a round house which he may have lived in perhaps with his family.

We headed to North Norfolk to Snettisham to the Iron Age where the village sign displays a gold torque.  The Snettisham Hoard includes 180 golden torques 75 being complete found between the years 1948-1973.  As we left the treasure behind we travelled 52 miles south to the village of Quidenham synonymous with Boudicca  ‘Queen of the Iceni’. In a bid to avenge the Roman invaders, Boudicca and her armies fought three main battles but was finally defeated.  The village sign shows Boudicca, her long red hair flowing in the wind, in her chariot with galloping horses.

Travelling to Burgh Castle to the great Roman Saxon Shore fort [picture: right]. In the 3rd century Saxon Shore forts were constructed along the East coast as part of an important defensive system, they were also main trading centres. The village sign shows one of three walls which still stand to it’s full height. This fort once enclosed six acres. Jump out of the time machine and admire the panoramic view across Breydon water which was once part of a great estuary between Burgh Castle and Caister on Sea.

On to the Anglo Saxon village of Babingley situated a mile from Castle Rising. This sign tells the legend of St Felix, Apostle to the East Angles. Landing in AD615, shipwrecked, St Felix was said to be rescued by beavers in the river where he was sheltering from the storm.  St. Felix consecrated the chief beaver and the sign shows the beaver in a bishop’s mitre ministering to his beaver friends.

The Middle Ages and the village sign at Walpole Cross Keys tells the story of bad King John whose treasures were lost in the Wash of East Anglia. King John died of dysentery in 1216 after he reneged on Magna Carta signed in 1215.

In seconds we arrive in Wymondham in 1549. The village sign shows Robert Kett camped at Mousehold Heath with 16,000 men. Robert Kett a Yeoman farmer joined the rebels rising up against land enclosures.  The Kett’s Rebellion was defeated at the battle of Dussindale in August 1549.  Robert Kett was tried for treason and hanged at Norwich Castle in December 1549.  Wyndham Abbey is depicted on top of the sign.

We travelled through the Tudors and Stuarts to the Georgian period to Burnham Thorpe, birth place of Horatio Nelson.  This sign indicates the birth of Nelson on 29th of September 1758 and signals the battles of the Nile, Copenhagen and Trafalgar where he lost his life in 1805.  Horatio joined the Navy at 12 years old and soon  became a competent sailor, by the age of 20 he was one of the youngest captains in the Royal Navy.

In 1845 Great Yarmouth suffered it’s greatest disaster and the village sign at Runham Vauxhall shows a sailing Wherry and the suspension bridge.  Arthur Nelson a circus performer, sailed up the river in a tub pulled by 4 geese as part of the travelling circus. Approximately 300 people were on the suspension bridge with many more along the banks,. As he came into sight the shout went up. As everyone moved to watch the performance a chain snapped and catapulted hundreds into the river.  79 people lost their lives, 58 under 13 years of age. In 2013 a permanent memorial was erected in memory of those lost.

Our time machine is slowing as we arrive in Swardeston. The village sign shows Edith Cavell, 1865-1915.  Edith was a nurse working in Belgium during WW1, said to have helped 200 allied soldiers to escape.  Edith was tried for treason and sentenced to death. Having been brought back to England for a Memorial at Westminster Abbey Edith now lies at peace in Life’s Green on the East side of Norwich Cathedral.

Our last look at village signs has to be Martham.  In 1973 the Parish Magazine first published the idea for an ornamental sign.  Various designs were submitted and in November 1974 the final version which incorporated ideas from local residents was accepted.  Harry Carter, an Arts & Crafts Master at Hammonds Grammar School in Swaffham, carved many signs including one for Martham.  The background of the first side is St Mary’s church. In front we see a knight defending a fair maiden from the Vikings who landed in the galley ship behind.  The second side shows a trading wherry with its black sail and a wind pump.  Erected on a concrete and flint base amidst much ceremony on 16th October 1975.  There are also four welcoming signs made from cast iron reflecting country life which were erected in 2007 [photo: top right].

Our Journey’s end: I hope you enjoyed our peek through history, at the village signs which say so much about the people and their stories.

Our next meeting is on Zoom, Tuesday 19th May, “Treasures and Curiosities in Norfolk Churches” by David Berwick.

Janet Edwards

April 2021

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[Below: Necton village sign. Photo: Janet Edwards]

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