St. Mary, Houghton-on-the Hill, Norfolk

Cornerstones

St. Mary, Houghton-on-the Hill, Norfolk

By Simon Cotton

Two English villages, nearly 100 miles apart, share the same name. The village of Houghton-on-the-Hill in Leicestershire is a thriving place, with a population of around 1,500. The A47 trunk road passes through Houghton — drive 90 miles along this road, heading east, and you find the Norfolk village of the same name down a side turning. This Houghton has a population close to zero; it is a deserted medieval village.

One thousand years ago, Norfolk was one of the most populous parts of England, containing hundreds of small parishes, each with its own little church. Houghton-on-the-Hill was one of these, close by Peddar’s Way, a road the Romans developed; the community built a sizable flint church during the 11th century, reusing some Roman brick. Its simple chancel arch was flanked by alcoves for side altars.

The building continued to develop, with a south aisle added in the 12th century and a square 14th-century west tower. From then on the settlement and its church declined. In 1760, the diocese gave permission to reduce the size of the chancel, the aisle had already been demolished. Farms got smaller and people moved away; during World War I a passing German Zeppelin discarded bombs over the churchyard, damaging the tower. The last wedding was celebrated in 1925 and the last baptism in 1933; around the end of World War II the church was left to decay (though still consecrated), becoming the ivy-clad ruin that I first saw in the mid-1970s.

And there things would have rested, but for one person. Bob Davey had spent his life working as an engineer. When he retired in 1987, he and his wife, Gloria, moved from Sussex to the village of North Pickenham, in whose parish Houghton-on-the-Hill now fell. Both were faithful Christians, and Bob soon became churchwarden of North Pickenham.

One summer day in 1992, Gloria Davey spotted the church when she was on a ramble with the local branch of the Women’s Institute, which she led as president. More persistent than I had been, she got inside the church and found a lot of evidence of satanic activity, with a pagan altar and inscriptions in blood, including 666, on the walls.

Rescued from satanists

The satanists had profaned the grave of a former rector, stealing his bones. Her horrified husband arranged a purification service that year. Houghton-on-the Hill Church became Bob Davey’s life’s mission. The satanists, clad in black, came back. Bob Davey arranged solitary all-night vigils, especially around the full moon. A young satanist arrived on Davey’s doorstep and issued a death threat. Bob survived an attempt to run him down. After two years of his single-handed vigils, local Territorial Army soldiers provided him with backup. In the end, the satanists gave up.

Bob Davey started to organize repairs and cleared vegetation from the church and churchyard. The church was put on the Buildings at Risk register and new roofs were constructed, making the church weatherproof. Hoping to restore the church for worship, he trawled the neighborhood for the church’s original furnishings — the bell, font, and holy water stoup, the last two from their temporary use as a flowerpot and birdbath. He found substitutes for vanished artifacts like the pulpit and altar rails.

With his own hands he built a new access road to the church nearly a mile long. Davey then turned his attention to the interior. And then a piece of plaster fell off the wall.

“The first thing I saw was the head of an angel,” Davey said.

When experts were called to conserve the art in 1996, they found layers of paintings, from Elizabethan scriptural texts though Gothic murals down to Romanesque paintings of the Holy Trinity, Noah’s Ark; a Wheel of Fortune; the Last Judgment; the Creation; and angels, saints, and martyrs.

Dating to the 11th century, these are the oldest medieval wall paintings in England, and are of international significance. Funding arrived from government bodies, including the Heritage Lottery Fund. Houghton-on-the-Hill church shared the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors’ building conservation award with Windsor Castle in 1998, the year in which Holy Communion was celebrated at Houghton for the first time in 60 years.

Brought back from the dead, Houghton church now has a future, looked after by a group of volunteers, the Friends of St Mary’s. Gloria Davey died in 2006, and Bob died on March 4 this year, at 91.

One day, just over 800 years ago, Francis Bernardone stood in the Church of St. Damian just outside Assisi, praying before the figure of Our Lord on the crucifix above the altar. The old church — old even in 1200 — was falling apart and presented a sad, neglected sight.

Francis heard the voice of God speaking to him: “Francis, restore my church, which is falling down.” Francis took God at his word. He ended up restoring St. Damian’s, then when that work was done he moved to St. Peter’s Near the Gates, and on its completion to the Church of St. Mary of the Angels.

When he had spent three years restoring those three churches, in 1209 he founded what became the Franciscan order and worked tirelessly to help it grow, until that day of October 3, 1226, when Francis, whom we now know as St. Francis of Assisi, returned to God.

But I remember, and ask you, dear reader, to remember that Francis began his great mission to the church by paying due honor to the house of God, as Bob Davey did.

Dr. Simon Cotton is honorary senior lecturer in chemistry at the University of Birmingham in the UK and a former churchwarden of St. Giles, Norwich, and St. Jude, Peterborough. He is a member of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.