The Norfolk Coast Path and the Scandalous Tale of the Vicar of Stiffkey.

The Norfolk Coast Path is one of the loveliest long distance paths in England. It takes you along 46 miles of salt marshes , creeks and  long, sandy beaches.  Inspired by my daughter and her friends doing it in  less than 4 days, we thought we would have a go. The first day went quite well and the views were wonderful.

The salt marshes were a haze of sea lavender, Limonium vulgare.

The beaches were so inviting on a hot day.

Onday two our good intentions didn’t last longer than 2 miles. It was so very hot. So we decided to take a boat trip and see the seals basking on Blakeney Point.
This is the largest seal colony in England and there are both Common and Grey Seals. They are quite unconcerned by the boatfuls of nosy people .

I hope they remembered their sun cream. I felt like taking a leaf out of their book,  but we bestirred ourselves to have a crab lunch and go and have a look at some of the pretty villages with their flint- built houses.  In Stiffkey we saw the Great Hall built by Sir Nicholas Bacon in 1576 for his son. He was the The Keeper of the Great Seal for Queen Elizabeth 1 and he intended to build a hall with 10 towers. In the end only 6 towers were built and some of them are ruined.

IMG_1753 IMG_1752

The village of Stiffkey has a nice pub called the Red Lion and it was here that the Pianist suggested that we have a look at the church, and had I ever heard the story of the Vicar of Stiffkey? Looking at old churches and hearing a good story; this is a winning combination for me.


Apparently, this story was something of a cause célèbre in the 1930s, but now nobody has heard about it.  Apart from the Pianist, of course, who has a brain as big as planet and like Mr Toad of Toad Hall,  knows  ‘everything there is to be knowed.’

The Vicar of Stiffkey, Harold James Davidson was born in 1875. He spent some time as an actor before he became a vicar. The living of Stiffkey was a good one with a beautiful Georgian Rectory, 60 acres of glebe land and a stipend of £503 per annum, which was very good for  the time, 1906.  His particular obsession was saving fallen women and with a village of only 300 souls there was not much scope for this work in Stiffkey, so he took the train to London each week and  spent his time there, only rushing back in time for the Sunday service. He served as a naval chaplain during the first World War. When he came home he was upset to find his wife had fallen a bit herself and was 6 months pregnant after becoming too friendly with the lodger.  But he forgave her and they had several more children. After the war he resumed his weekly visits to London and styled himself the Prostitutes’ Padre.  He worked tirelessly with women who had fallen and pretty girls who seemed to him likely to fall. His finances suffered because he gave them money and took them for dinner or for tea at the Lyons Cafe.  He was barred from some cafes because he was a bit of a nuisance with his importunate pursuit of girls who needed saving. Sometimes, his work took him to Paris. Despite his neglect of the parish, the villagers all liked him and nicknamed him ‘Little Jimmy’ because of his small stature. They were probably entertained when as many as 20 young girls were living at the Vicarage whilst they were being saved. This went on for some years until  the gossip reached the ears of the tabloid newspapers. He was causing annoyance in some quarters because of his neglect of his parochial duties. The final straw was when he was late for an Armistice Day service. Eventually, in 1932 he was prosecuted by a church court for ‘immoral behaviour’ and he was publicly disgraced and defrocked. The case, with all its details was much enjoyed by the tabloids. Of course, he had been neglecting his parish, but some of the evidence given was rigged and although incredibly eccentric and very naive, he probably wasn’t as bad as he was made out to be. His behaviour was probably in the  weasly, modern term, more  ‘inappropriate’  than immoral.

No longer a vicar and with a family to support, Davidson went back to acting for a while. But then he had the idea that he would raise money by declaiming his innocence in public.  He decided the best place for this was on the Golden Mile in Blackpool alongside the bearded lady from Russia, the three-legged boy and the dog-face man. He sat in a barrel with a little chimney for his cigar smoke and charged people twopence a peep into his barrel. He presumably saw himself as a modern day Diogenes, although I imagine the classical reference would  have not been obvious to the frequenters of the Golden Mile.  He then tried being frozen in a glass case followed by sitting in an oven being prodded on the buttocks now and again by a mechanical demon. For his final show he moved to Skegness as he was tired of ‘the blatant vulgarities of Blackpool’. Here he would passionately assert his innocence and his appalling treatment, in front of a cage with two lions. He would then enter the lions’ cage and carry on with his rant in there. One day, possibly because he accidentally trod on the lion’s tail, or possibly because he was fed up with the rant, Freddy the Lion attacked  Davidson. He had no teeth, but he picked up Davidson and mauled him, or gave him a jolly good gumming. The crowd thought it was part of the act and cheered. The lion tamer rescued him but he died later in hospital. His funeral at Stiffkey church attracted a crowd of 3000 people, so at last he had the audience he craved. Friends and well wishers paid the funeral expenses and for this headstone.

The inscription on the cross is a Robert Louis Stevenson quote: ‘For on faith in man and genuine love of man all searching after truth must be founded’. So that is the sad tale of the gloriously eccentric vicar of Stifkey.

As as this is a gardening blog and there have been no plants, I will show you what I came home with. On the way home, we stopped at the wonderful nursery at West Acre. There are unusual plants here at very reasonable prices. The angelic Pianist sat in the car and read whilst I enjoyed myself.

Helenium 'Fuego'

Helenium ‘Fuego’

Crocosmia 'Golden Ballerina'

Crocosmia ‘Golden Ballerina’

Delphinium elatum 'Sweet Sensation'

Delphinium elatum ‘Sweet Sensation’


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41 Responses to The Norfolk Coast Path and the Scandalous Tale of the Vicar of Stiffkey.

  1. Cathy says:

    Oh I did enjoy this post Chloris! Thank you for sharing the wonderful tale of the vicar! This area is an old haunt of mine and we only knew half that story! Hopefully we will also be off to Blakeney this coming week for a day out. 🙂

    • Chloris says:

      You are going to Blakeney? How lovely. We stayed at the Blakeney Hotel. It is expensive, but it is lovely with fabulous views. Are you going to see the seals?

      • Cathy says:

        Probably not this time, but when I was a child we were often alone on the point and even swam with some curious seals once. 🙂 A walk on Wells or Holkham Beach may be on the cards though. 🙂

  2. Kris P says:

    I couldn’t help but think that, had the vicar been born just a century later, he could have made his way more safely using crowdfunding. Of course, that would have been far less entertaining! Your pianist is handy with stories – alas, my scientist is short on stories and long on complicated explanations as to why things work the way they do.

  3. Fabulous story, lovely coastline and a pretty hoard of plants. Sounds like a good trip!

  4. pbmgarden says:

    Sounds like a great trip. Those beach views are quite beautiful. Thanks for sharing the amusing story of the vicar.

  5. A wonderful story and so well told, thank you. I’d forgotten how beautiful this stretch of coastline is, especially on fine summer’s days.

    • Chloris says:

      Thank you Kate, I am glad you enjoyed it. The north Norfolk coast is very beautiful; big skies, endless creeks and marshes and huge sandy beaches.

  6. Flighty says:

    A most enjoyable post and lovely pictures. That’s a wonderful story. xx

  7. jenhumm116 says:

    Wonderful story and the photos brought back lots of memories.
    Before we had children we bought a lovely brick and flint cottage in Langham, just south of Blakeney, at auction. We spent every weekend renovating it and then sold it just before number 1 child came along.
    Interesting to note that Norfolk has become more and more desirable and upmarket ever since we left!

    • Chloris says:

      Oh yes, north Norfolk is very trendy now, which is a pity. Nevertheless, the trendies seem to stick to places like Downham Market where there are boutiquey shops. You don’t see them doing the coastal path. What a pity you sold your cottage.

  8. How boring it would be if we were all alike and every day was like the last. A good rascal or scoundrel is needed every now and again to keep our spirits up. I only wish we could keep them in the church and out of politics.

  9. Thank you, dear girl, for the flowers, but for once your flowers were overshadowed by your story. What an amazing story about the vicar!

  10. rusty duck says:

    I’m wondering what became of the long suffering vicar’s wife?

    • Chloris says:

      Her situation was quite desperate and her family applied for help from the church. Eventually she received grants from 2 church charities. She died in 1955.

  11. Liz, a tale well told, thank you – I enjoyed reading it. Thank you. What is glebe land?
    We have Sea Lavendar here! I will have to see if it is the same plant.

  12. Brian Skeys says:

    A lovely walk, boat trip, views and a crab lunch, heaven. It sounds as if the tabloid press was as bad then as today, a wonderful story.

    • Chloris says:

      Indeed it was heaven. But too hot to walk. We will have to go back to finish the walk. Yes, this story was obviously a gift for the press. But if he hadn’ t been so notorious he wouldn’t have had the crowds wanting to peep at him in his barrel. There were so many, that the police said he was creating a public nuisance and moved him on.

  13. Debra says:

    Thanks for the tour! Loved the story and the photos. And those seals …

  14. What a rascal that vicar was. Sounds like you’ve had a fun trip.

  15. snowbird says:

    Goodness, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, poor guy, what an ‘orrible way to die, if that lion had had teeth it would have been a swifter end. I pity his wife having to live with 20 fallen women, maybe her misdemeanor triggered his whole cause! A fascinating tale, I did enjoy it!
    Love your new plants and those seals, I must try that walk myself one day when I have a bionic hip!
    I have a hubs like yours….huge brain and knows everything there is to be knowed! At times I feel like shooting him!xxx

    • Chloris says:

      I don’ t know whether the 20 fallen women were all at the same time or whether they came and went. They were quite useful though, because he used them as maids whilst he saved them.
      You would have loved the seals with their big meltng eyes.

  16. Cathy says:

    Great post, as usual, and what a great relationship you and the Pianist have 😉 Nothing like a bit of eccentricity, and the Vicar certainly had it in spades (odd expression – I wonder where it comes from? I am sure the Pianist would know without googling it…)!

  17. bittster says:

    How nice to spend some time along the coast, especially with that heat! I can almost smell that clean, salty air.
    Poor vicar. I could always use a little extra income but have yet to consider bottling myself up in a barrel.

  18. The Vicar sounds more neurotic than immoral. But isn’t there a Limerick, There once was a Vicar of Stiffkey”? If not, there should be. I just had Limonium identified for me at the Lurie Garden.

  19. Chloris says:

    Well, if there isn’ t a limerick, there should be indeed. The Pianist and I entertain ourselves on long car journeys by making up limericks about the places we pass. We really missed an opportunity here. I must add that sometimes we are more refined and make up haikus or even the odd ode.

  20. Dina says:

    We went to Blakeney point the other day, the seals were lying there like a wall to wall carpet. 🙂
    Coming Thursday looks like very promising so we plan another walk from Cley to Blakeney to say goodbye to summer.
    We love the story about the vicar of Stiffkey. 🙂

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