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.
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.
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.