Writer and photographer Simon Knott has been chronicling East Anglian churches for over twenty years. His hugely popular websites cover every parish in Cambridge, Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk and he is now extending his work to survey London’s city churches. Besides chronicling thousands of sites and villages, often revisiting them, his writing betrays an inquiring Christian mind eager to share discoveries and indeed wonders and allow the reader in to this silent English inheritance that reaches back to the early Christian world and travels through so much history, from Viking Danelaw, to the birth of England, the Reformation, the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the transformation of our Roman Catholic heritage into a new Anglican world.
Whether it be cycling miles of hot East Anglian summer lanes or driving through flat, sparse winter landscapes, Simon always had his trusty Nikon D5300 ready to photograph a new church, often touring a dozen in a day – a practice, indeed a love, he has successfully handed on to thousands of church visitors across the East of England, both secular and religious.
However, Simon’s websites do not merely document architectural features, they are the record of a deeply human fascination with a living Christian history and a love of the numinous. They make up a unique pilgrimage of our times, of what we make of our extraordinary Christian inheritance and the cultural treasure of our buildings.
Simon, welcome to the Shrine Shop blog, part of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham – a place you have visited and, indeed, documented in your travels. Perhaps we could start this interview with where your love of churches began and how on Earth you find the time to visit them all?
Simon Knott: I’ve loved old churches since I was a child, but I only started exploring the churches of East Anglia seriously about thirty years ago. I’ve been photographing them since about 1995, so a quarter of a century is plenty of time to visit them all!
The Shrine Shop: I’m know you have many churches that hold a deeper significance for you, could you tell us about the sites that have affected you most?
Simon: I suppose that most church explorers have places that are significant to them, and I think that a test of this is that you can revisit them again and again and they are still special. For me, it is these places that speak of their communities down the long generations, and the churches are often the rough and ready ones with a patina of age. I love Blythburgh in Suffolk above all others, I think. After dozens of visits it still affects me.
In a different way, the small churches of north Norfolk, which Betjeman compared to the pearls of a necklace – each one on its own is relatively insignificant, but taken as a whole or as part of a day’s exploring they have a special numinous quality, almost like a sequence of prayer. The relatively little-known smaller churches of Essex are like this too, many of them are small and unspoilt. I think I like Mundon best of all of them.
Outside of East Anglia I love Stoke Dry in Rutland, Blatherwycke in Northamptonshire and especially Old Romney in Kent, which all fit the criteria mentioned above. But grand churches can lift the heart too of course, so I have a special fondness for Salle in Norfolk and Thaxted in Essex.
Shrine Shop: If you had to list five churches in each East Anglian county that you felt everyone ought to see, which would they be and why?
Simon: Taking East Anglia to be Norfolk, Suffolk, Essex outside of the M25 and Cambridgeshire I’d say:
Suffolk: Blythburgh, Westhall, Thornham Parva, Badley and Denston
Norfolk: Salle, Walpole St Peter, Suffield, Barton Turf and Worstead
Essex: Thaxted, Mundon, Little Sampford, Salcott-cum-Virley and Fingringhoe
Cambridgeshire: Castor, Barnack, Ickleton, Little Gidding and Coveney
Shrine Shop: I know you’re also an avid reader of church history and a particular fan of Mortlock and Robert’s work The Guide to Norfolk Churches. Could you share a few other favourites?
Simon: The Pevsner Buildings of England guides, of course – James Bettley has brilliantly revised the Suffolk and Essex volumes in the last ten years. Sam Mortlock’s Guide to Suffolk Churches is a better book than the Norfolk volume, and in general I think that in recent years Norfolk churches have been ill-served for guides, really. The revision of the Norfolk Buildings of England volumes was early and wasn’t a patch on the later ones.
I love Birkin Haward’s books about Norfolk and Suffolk stained glass, and Paul Sharpling’s books on the same subject for Northamptonshire and Rutland. But there are thousands of books about specific aspects of churches – fonts, bells, bench ends, screens, brasses and so on – and also about churches in general of course. I think that Roy Strong’s recent book A Little History of the English Country Church should be essential reading for anyone interested in exploring old churches.
Shrine Shop: As you know, for over a thousand years, the village Walsingham has been a place of pilgrimage, for the Romans, but especially for Christians (founded in 1061 when England was still dominated by Danish interests and ruled by the last Anglo-Saxon king) – almost a hundred years later, the medieval construction of the Priory brought many thousands of pilgrims from across Europe to our shores. What do you think the contemporary Anglican and Roman Catholic Shrines offer visitors today?
Simon: They are both intensely special places, magical even, and I love visiting both. As a Catholic I know that pilgrimages to the National Shrine are an important part of the life of all East Anglian parishes, the place itself a mystical touchstone for them. The Anglican shrine is thrilling, and I expect that many Anglicans find it a more exotic worship space than they are used to!
Shrine Shop: If you were to recommend a route to Walsingham (on foot, by bike, or in a car), across the county of Norfolk – a very beautiful place I know you agree – which route would you choose and what churches would you take in during your journey?
Simon: That’s really difficult, because Norfolk has more than a thousand churches of all denominations, and many of them are special. But if I could choose any direction from which to approach Walsingham, it would be from the south. I don’t drive, so I’d be on my bike. I’d make sure to stop off at Cranwich, South Pickenham, Houghton on the Hill, Newton-by-Castle-Acre, Beeston-next-Mileham, East Lexham, West Lexham, Wellingham, Gateley and East Barsham – all lovely little churches!
Thank you on behalf of the Shrine, Simon. It’s been lovely to share your passion and insights here.
You can follow Simon on Twitter at @last_of_england and on Flickr at norfolkodyssey. His key websites are:
And his extraordinary survey of his own family, Distant Voices. Still Lives. can be found at