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Simon Knott


Interview by Aaron Brooks



Where did your interest in churches first come from?

It sounds trite to say that I’ve always been interested in churches. I was a choirboy as a child in a medieval church in the northern suburbs of  Cambridge, and the long hours I spent there over the years mean that  medieval churches always feel like home. As a Catholic, I am intrigued that these medieval churches, all built as Catholic churches but now in the use of the Church of England, can still offer up survivals of their Catholic past. And I do find the Church of  England fascinating too! As far as a love of history goes, I went to a prominent grammar school, where it was decided on the whim of a teacher’s pen who should do Arts subjects and who should do Science. I was chosen for Science, meaning I  was disallowed from taking either History or English Literature. Inevitably, they have been my two main passions since.

Your site explains that 'nobody has been mad enough' to document Norfolk's churches before. How important is it that someone finally has?

Well, I receive hundreds of e-mails telling me how grateful people are for  the site, and so I suppose it has been worth doing. If no one was  interested, then I probably would have done it anyway, for the purely  selfish motive of keeping a record of my travels. But I’m glad people like it. I don’t think it is important at all. Norfolk’s churches are pretty well  documented in books. What is more important is that someone takes on  Lincolnshire, which is second only to Norfolk in its number of medieval  churches. But how many of the general public know anything about  Lincolnshire churches?

In your opinion, what makes Norfolk's churches stand out?

Norfolk, along with Suffolk, is defined by its churches. The number of  settlements without a medieval church can be counted on the fingers of one  hand in either county. It isn’t the individual churches so much as the  fact that there is this vast network. In the forward to Billa Harrod’s seminal ‘Norfolk Country Churches and the Future’, published by the Norfolk Society in 1972, John Betjeman likens the churches of Norfolk to a  necklace of jewels. If only a single one is lost then the whole piece is  diminished. I think the churches of all counties have their own characters. Norfolk has more medieval churches than any other county in England – something like 1 in 18 of all churches in England are in Norfolk – and so there is a great variety. If you made a list of the fifty best churches in England, I doubt that more than 2 or 3 of them would be in Norfolk, but the sheer volume of Norfolk churches means that they can’t be ignored.

The Norfolk site has a section dedicated to round tower churches. Why are there so many round tower churches in Norfolk?

There are many theories, some learned, some quite ridiculous. I have come to think that its was simply a local fashion in the early Medieval period.  There is no historical, architectural or theological reason why a tower  should be round rather than square. In fact, round towers are no easier to  build than square ones. The great majority of other round towered churches in Europe are also in areas bordering the North Sea. There were once many more of them, I think, but most were rebuilt square according to fashion in the 13th and 14th centuries. At this time, east Norfolk in particular  was very poor, and so in many cases the churches here were not rebuilt.

John Betjeman famously said: "Lovers of Norfolk churches can never agree which is the best and I think one is either a Salle or a Cawston man."  Where do you stand on this one? Or do you have another favourite?

Betjeman did say that, but he also said that his favourite Norfolk church  was Walpole St Peter. The difference between Salle and Cawston is between the hauntingly magnificent and the technically brilliant. Of the two I’d go for Salle, though one can of course like both. Like Betjeman, I would  say that Walpole St Peter is the best church in Norfolk, but my real  favourites tend to be the small churches. I love to find a little church  in narrow lanes away from civilisation. I think I like Hardley best of all the little churches.

You dedicate the Norfolk site to your grandfather, Vincent Helgia Knott. How far has he inspired your project?

Well, not at all really, I doubt my grandfather ever set foot in a church,  other than to see his children married off! But in the sense that the site is a personal quest, trying to recapture something of what has been lost, then my relationship with my grandfather is inevitable a part of that.

You say that the Norfolk site generates more e-mails than the Suffolk  site. Why do you think this is?

It is mainly because of genealogists. There are more churches in Norfolk,  and they are generally better known. Suffolk is different to Norfolk in that it has more smaller churches, but, I think, fewer dull ones. Suffolk is, of course, generally more beautiful than Norfolk, but people tend to know the northern county better. This means, of course, that for anyone who doesn’t know Suffolk, there are wonderful things to be discovered.  Conversely, people already have plenty of opinions about many Norfolk churches, and aren’t afraid to share them!

When you go out visiting churches, how many do you visit at any one time?

If I am on my bike, it is usually between ten and twelve. If by car, it could reach fifteen or sixteen on a summer day. It really depends on how many are open. In a sticky area, like Lowestoft and Yarmouth, it takes a lot longer because of the time taken to get the keys.

The photographs on the site are often stunning. Do you take them yourself  or do you have a photographer? For camera geeks out there, which type of  camera do you use?

You are very kind. I take them myself, although I do sometimes call upon  the assistance of a couple of friends for interior shots if I have not been able to get inside. For Norfolk, I have always used digital cameras, and the ones I have used most are by Fuji. Up until April 2007 they were taken with an S5500, which took 45,000 photos before dying of exhaustion.  Since then I have had an S9600, which has already just passed the 10,000 photo mark.

How long does it take you to write up each church that you visit?

Writing doesn’t take long, but the page has to be set, the images have to  be post-processed. To save my bandwidth, I offload the hosting of the  large images to flickr. If I am feeling keen, and don’t have too many other commitments, a church can appear on the site within a week of me  visiting it. An ordinary small church probably needs about thirty minutes  to write about.

You estimate that you're a third of the way through the Norfolk project. Are there any plans as to what you'll do when you finish. Cambridgeshire  churches?

Well, I think I am now about three quarters of the way through Norfolk, but maintaining and revisiting Suffolk, which I originally did first, has already taken over a lot of the time, and so when Norfolk is finished I think it will be time to start all over again. Cambridgeshire has already been ably completed by somebody else, and I think the Cambridgeshire Churches site is the best other English county church site I know. Someone needs to do Lincolnshire, but it won’t be me

The sites obviously mean a lot to you. Are there many frustrations along the way - days when you'd rather have nothing to do with it?

Well, I sometimes do have nothing to do with it for weeks at a time.  Fortunately, any deadlines on the site are set by myself. Most often, I  drop it for a while because I don’t feel inspired to write, rather than for any other reason. When I first started back in 1999, there was something rather startling about a writer baring his soul on the internet. That was in the days before blogs, of course. These days, everybody has a presence on the web, it seems. The only real frustration is when I build up a backlog, and the muse doesn’t  seem particularly keen to help me reduce it. I could never be a  journalist. The only time I’d really rather have nothing to do with it is  when the e-mails build up – there’s nothing more likely to put me off  replying to e-mails than having several dozen waiting for an answer! I love visiting churches, and I love cycling around the East Anglian lanes, whatever the weather. That has never frustrated me yet.

Do you often find churches are locked when you arrive? How frustrating is this? Do you have problems tracking down key holders?

It is actually quite unusual to find a locked church. In Norfolk, perhaps  70% are open every day. Most of the rest have keyholder notices, and even the ones that don’t are usually easily found. But if a church doesn’t  welcome visitors I’d probably rather write about how unfriendly they are,  rather than go hunting for a key. Bill Bryson says somewhere that he never minds bad service in a restaurant – it makes him feel better about not  leaving a tip. Similarly, churches which are kept locked without keyholders have me reaching for my barbed and sharpened pencil. Thankfully, there are not many of them.

You mention, on the Suffolk site, some controversy over your project - including the threat of legal action. What happened there?

The Church of England is a funny thing. Each individual parish is almost  completely independent, and among the hundreds of marvellous people  running them there are one or two loose canons who have taken exception to  something. I think I am now up to three threats of libel action. None of  them had a case at all, but I am always wary of someone contacting my  webspace provider and shouting ‘libel’, because I fear they might take the  site down and ask questions later. Most angry writers are ameliorated when they receive a personal reply. One of the threats came from a solicitor who was a member of the congregation at a church on the outskirts of Kings Lynn. I actually thought that what I had written was not libellous, but I was prepared to rewrite it, if only as an act of kindness. I think what happened on the occasion of my visit there still comes across, though. Another threat came from a Historic Churches trust which I had accused of being well-meaning but incompetent – not one of the two county Trusts, I hasten to add. Unfortunately for them, I think all the evidence was on my side, but I did let them put their point of view across. An attempt was made on the life of the site in its early days by the  churchwardens of an important Suffolk church, which claimed to have lost a  large bequest because a rich American donor didn’t like what I’d said  about them. But that was a long time ago, and I have revisited and  rewritten the entry completely since. It does remain the only occasion on  which I have heard a clergyman of the Church of England use the phrase  “the shit has hit the fan”.

I know that you're a big Smiths fan. Do you think Morrissey has looked at your sites?

I would hope that he would have better things to do than surf the internet.

For those looking for a good reference book about Norfolk churches - what would you recommend?

Sam Mortlock’s books are absolute treasures, and they are the ones I would recommend to anyone who has nothing. They have recently (October 2007)  been republished in a single volume. Because of Norfolk’s size, the county is covered by two Pevsner volumes, meaning an outlay of £70 if you pay full price for them, but the revised editions by Bill Wilson are absolutely essential for anyone interested in the county’s buildings. I’d also add Ann Eljenhom Nichol’s extraordinary and magnificent ‘Early Art of Norfolk’, which is the only book to comprehensively catalogue every medieval survival in Norfolk’s churches – and, indeed, many that were noted in previous centuries but which have since disappeared. There is also Neil Batcock’s ‘Ruined and Disused Churches of Norfolk’ published in 1992, but now long out of print. Worth looking out for.

Finally, your site recently won the accolade of being in the Sunday Times  top ten list of cultural sites on the internet. I bet you were dead chuffed?

I was certainly chuffed to be sharing the list with Banksy. I’ve no idea what he thought, of course.

See Simon's Norfolk Churches
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