Driving slowly into the tiny Norfolk village of Edingthorpe, Siegfried Sassoon brought the car to a stop and parked by the crossroads. It was August 13th 1937. Much had happened – notably the Great War – in the forty years before that day, those days since his mother rented the Rectory for him and his brothers Hamo and Michael to spend their happy August holidays of their childhood there. Having enlisted in the Army before its outbreak, his war ranged between heroism that saw him decorated with the Military Cross and a refusal to return to the Western Front. He was near court-martial before being treated for shell-shock. His war poems captured the futility and pity of war.
After a quick call to look at the Rectory, he moved on, and walked up the long path to the little church alone in the fields, on a slight hill above the village. He reflected on those childhood days:
The church of a far-off childhood, with its single bell that called to us across the fields at sundown — for there was only an evening service while we were at Edingthorpe. All churches are alike in the eyes of our Maker, it now seemed to be saying; and it evoked in me a sense of local England and of the simple old centuries behind it — the harvests it had seen, and the pathos of those humble folk who had toiled and died and had been ‘of this parish’.
The church caught me napping. I had failed to remember that it had a thatched roof. Surely I must have been aware of that in 1897. But I could only remember an hour-glass in an iron frame on the pulpit, and how the earnest-featured young locum tenens parson had once interrupted his sermon by striding swiftly down to eject some misbehaving village boy. I would have liked to know that the hour-glass was still there — to turn it over and watch the trickling sand; but the church door was locked and I couldn’t see much of the interior through the narrow plain-glass windows. So I walked slowly round the graveyard, which was just sufficiently neglected to be pleasing, and observed for the first time that the lantern tower was octagonal. In old days I had felt a casual affection for the church, and had liked the idea of it having been built in the thirteenth century. But I realised now that it had a very special dignity and simplicity, standing there on its low hill above the harvest fields as though it were the faithful servant of the life around it.
Edingthorpe church today looks much as it must have looked a century or more ago. Like many Norfolk churches, it has a round tower with a later octagonal top. Push open the door and you are faced by a fine (if incomplete) S. Christopher, with the Christ Child at his shoulder. Further east are more wall paintings (the Works of Mercy) then there is the roodscreen, unusually from the 14th century, still bearing paintings of eight Apostles from the next century. To its left, the roodstairs, with an unusually large niche that once accommodated a statue of a saint. And the Jacobean pulpit (1632) still remains, with its wrought iron stand for an hourglass which has not survived.
Sassoon walked to the lychgate. That newcomer which had been there less than twenty years. Its carved lettering told me that it was in loving memory of a young lance –corporal of the Norfolk Regiment. The Rector’s son Lance Corporal Bernard John Muriel, who survived Mons, The Marne and the Aisne, First Ypres and Hill 60, but not the torpedoing of his troopship in the Aegean on August 13th 1915. Sassoon was struck that it was a strange coincidence that today should also be August 13th. Memories flooded through Sassoon there, for it was in the autumn of 1915 that my brother Hamo had been buried at sea after being mortally wounded on the Gallipoli peninsula. Sassoon picked a poppy and a cornflower and put them on a ledge under the lychgate.
Sassoon had another 30 years ahead of him. He became a Catholic in 1957 and ten years later was buried close by his friend Father Ronald Knox, in the churchyard of St Andrew, Mells (ND Nov. 2007).
Quotations from: Siegfried Sassoon, The Old Century: And Seven More Years, London, Faber & Faber 1938; The Flower-Show Match and Other Pieces, London, Faber & Faber 1941.