I was walking along a quiet lane in Norfolk this summer when I noticed something rather unusual peeping out from behind a very tall hedge. Set back a long way off the road was an eerie, abandoned church. With stinging nettles up to my chest, it almost looked as if it was sinking into the ground compared to the wildly overgrown graveyard that surrounded it.
I swear I could have easily walked that stretch of road 10 times and never even noticed the hauntingly beautiful little church that was returning to nature. The stained glass windows were no more so there was nothing to reflect the light and catch my eye. At one end, a mass of ivy that wouldn't have looked out of place in a jungle was starting to consume the building. It was a giant green monster of a plant - 60ft tall and at least as wide - which looked like it was trying to swallow the church whole.
It was a giant green monster of a plant - 60ft tall and at least as wide - which looked like it was trying to swallow the church whole.
However. the main reason it was so invisible to me was the huge hedge hiding it from view. It gave the impression that whoever owned the land clearly didn't want anyone going in there. After all, places like this are prime targets for vandals and other sorts of shady activity.
So how could we get in and explore whilst keeping on the right side of the law? Then there was the added problem of an aggressive-sounding dog barking in that vague direction, so I decided to do a bit of research and come back another time.
That evening after studying some local OS maps, as well as firing up the magical power known as Google, I realised the church was actually now, legally, part of someone's garden.
So the next day we were back, knocking on the front door of a large old house and crossing our fingers as we waited (for what seemed like an age) to find out what sort of character would greet us at the door: friend or foe?
Fortunately, we were greeted by a delightful woman who, if anything, just looked relieved that we had bothered to ask, rather than trespass on her property. She gladly welcomed us to have a look around but warned us to watch out as the structure was thought to be unsafe. After all, it had laid abandoned for over 100 years now.
I'm sorry to say this derelict place doesn't have any dramatic, spooky or thrilling history behind it. The church is very old, dating from Norman times, like many others in Norfolk. One night in 1906, the ancient tower suddenly collapsed. It was considered uneconomical to repair and there was already another church in the village so the congregation simply decamped up the road and that was that! A church that had existed for many hundreds of years and then suddenly, overnight, it was nothing.
Yet it is not quite 'nothing', because for the last 114 years it has quietly been reclaimed by nature. It is not alone in this - Norfolk has more ruined churches than anywhere else in the country. One of the several reasons for them is rural depopulation and increased secularism in the 19th and 20th centuries. As rural folk left their fields and moved to the cities, to the engine rooms of the industrial revolution, so there was less and less need for each little village or hamlet to have more than one church.
It is this reclaiming by nature that makes these places so special. In a modern, digital world, it is easy to feel disconnected from the natural environment. We have moved into an era where nature is almost something to be felt sorry for; as if it were something that we had moved beyond. For those of us in the post-industrial west, development has led us to a point where we believe we are no longer directed by mother earth. We no longer feel like we are at the mercy of the land or controlled by the whims of the weather or, indeed, by the whims of a god.
We have moved into an era where nature is almost something to be felt sorry for.
Coming to a place like this, where the building is slowly turning back into something living, makes you feel small and insignificant in a good way. As you watch the ivy curl in through the windows and imagine all the generations of people who lived out their lives here, you are drawn into a serene day dream about the unravelling of time and the ever turning circle of life. As you see the roots of healthy, living plants forcing apart the stones of a man-made building you are filled with a small, unexpected glimmer of hope. Hope that we, as humanity, aren't just destined to destroy the earth but instead are still at the mercy of nature, still dependent on it, and we will be able to come together to work towards a more harmonious future for the planet.
At a time where we are constantly barraged by armageddon news and images of humanity's impact on the earth, it is comforting to be here and to remember how nature was here before us and it will continue to be here, long after we have gone.
The ground-facing photo here is of a tomb set into the floor that has broken up, revealing a hole to the ground below. No sign of any skeletons thankfully!
Other stuff that nature is taking back
This subject extends to way more than old churches. I included this photo of a 1950s American car with the tree growing through it because visiting the church got be thinking about what other things nature was busy reclaiming (and I just really like the photo). A quick internet search can bring up the coolest images of this kind of thing - from old 'car graveyards' to abandoned disaster zones like the Chernobyl nuclear site.
I just love the juxtaposition and contrast of the natural and the man made. If it's visually compelling it helps us think more deeply about the planet.
Even if you can’t visit some of these places, you can always check out the links below. If you live in a hot, humid tropical place, you'll see nature reclaiming stuff everywhere. I've always noticed in such places how even buildings that are just a few years old can already look soulfully ancient as the humid air allows lichen, moss and plant life to colonise every nook, cranny and surface in next to no time.
Like what you see? Check out:
For a particularly well curated selection of images where nature is busy reclaiming things, take a read of this article on the bizarrely named website known as 'Bored Panda'.
Great article on nature in Chernobyl by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) "an iconic – if accidental – experiment in rewilding.'
Article in The Independent showing photos of nature recaliming buildings around Europe.
Finally, I didn’t realise this before writing this article but there’s actually a whole book about the ruined churches of Norfolk! More about it here.
Thanks for reading,