Sitting just off the High Street, on Dunkel Walk, the short road that leads up to the old Parish church of the old market town. That is where you find it.
Ancient town, more like, as ancient as the church. Which came first is a great concern for the town’s historians and amateur archaeologists. Currently the balance is on the side of the town as being the older.
Debatable, as they count the original hamlet that was raised by the Vikings and razed just a few years later by a rival clan. It seems that after a short period of destruction between the two sides they finally compromised, intermarried and set about the real enemy, the Angles. And the resultant town was started. Christianity intervened at the same time and a bespoke church was built. So the new town and new church of Burnthorpe were born.
We still have two sides of the same coin, as it were, early Viking versus later Viking and as in all old centres of population: the memory is still strong.
So, strolling up Dunkel Walk you can see the low roofed church with its cream, lime-washed walls and the stone buttresses on each corner. You can see the stumpy little tower above the hefty main doors with its wooden bell-tower atop. It may be unique, or at least rare, with its thatched roof and fully weather-boarded sides. In daylight it looks, sadly, like a small shed with its thatch and a chicken silhouette of a weathervane. Usually bell-towers are open to allow the sound of their peals to ring clearly across the town and fields, in this case the tower was muffled during the civil war and has remained so for the passing centuries.
‘The bells that toll in darkest night
May call the Royalist into sight.
If be muffled into sleep
Then safely shall the village keep.’
The village remained safe though no-one is sure for whom the verse inscribed on the porch was actually meant. One thing proven was that several Puritan militia men were boarded at the nearby inn through most of that war. The self-same inn was called ‘George and Dragon’ up to the Restoration and then, once Charles II was settled on the throne it was surprisingly renamed the ‘Jolly Puritan‘. Now, centuries later, the pub remains, unmoved, mostly unrestored and creaking with echoes of the past.
Reach the church at the top of the hill with its stone wall around it and the graveyard. The grounds slope gently downhill to the right as a narrow lane, Church Lane, leads you down to the Vicarage. The lane is also short, the graveyard wall is overhung with tall horse-chesnut trees. In the spring the verge is stuffed with ‘a host of golden daffodils’ (as one of the church-wardens insists on quoting at every opportunity) and always a plentiful supply of blackbirds that ruffle the leaves and detritus in the grass. On the other side of the lane are the backgardens of the clumps of cottages still surviving from before the Enclosures were introduced. Their picket gates interlaced with hedging of hawthorn, blackthorn, brambles and finally a small silvered line of birch behind a low stone wall closing off the end of the lane. Over the low stone wall, looking through the silver-clad copse you will often see sheep grazing safely on the greensward slopes. A view almost bucolic.
The Vicarage is on that cul-de-sac, which may have been noted as you first turned into it as the road sign pinned to the church’s graveyard wall signalled: ‘Church Lane. Dead End’
Another little sign of dispute for the Parish councillors.
Nothing for it but to return by the same route, maybe investigating the church, especially if unlocked, as inside it is simply dressed and decorated with a beautiful medieval stained-glass window behind the altar and two others, small lancet windows, each on north and south walls and designed by Alfred Smollson shortly after WWII. Once outside, back down the gentler slope, passed the pub with the large sign hanging at its eaves and the smaller, pargetted, buildings opposite, to reach the High Street again.
The sign, creaking if breezy, depicts on one side the well-known image of a black-draped Puritan with apparently awhite lace doily as a bib, implacably clasping a bible; while on the other side is a leather-clad yeomanry Puritan soldier holding a tipping, foaming tankard and obviously bibulous.
Very little moves on the Walk and Lane except the few visitors to the church and it’s surroundings or the just-mentioned houses. Owners and visitors park their cars in the so-quiet street. Once a week a brewer’s lorry comes and the drivers bump barrels off its back onto sack-bales and roll them into the half-door at path level. They use parallel lengths of towing rope to slow the roll of the barrel down the wooden slope built from the cellar floor up to path level. The reverse process is used to pull the empty barrels up and out. Of course, not forgetting the regular and casual visitors slipping through the pub door itself.
On the High Street the buildings have been modified and a very few demolished and rebuilt in more current style. Plaster covered wattle and daub nestles with brick and Georgian buildings. A couple of mid-twentieth Century constructions with their two upper mock-tudor storeys badly balanced by their modern plate glass frontages below sit near the corner. Along further and the New Road crosses the ‘T’ of the High Street and it is here the world splits into the Twentieth Century for Burnthorpe as along each side of this new thoroughfare was built ‘The New Shopping Street’ to cater for incomers. Here are the latest shops, pizza places, assorted fish and Chinese and Indian establishments; the library, the police station and the bus station. Behind that the new housing estate, the street lighting and schools. Some older inhabitants of the town still never walk this road.
At the junction of old and new roads stands the ‘Waddle Stone’ on its island, protected by a knee-high chain on heavy cast posts. Another place of interest for historians.
After a gentle stroll to inspect the Waddle Stone the best option is to turn and stroll back to the Jolly Puritan. This time, as you turn the corner, the man sitting sternly on the sign sways a little, the Bible slips in his hand and eyes follow as you push the door and enter.