Paston parish covers a surprisingly large area, stretching from the coast in the north to the outskirts of North Walsham in the south. It is mostly farmland, with Paston itself a small village towards the north and a couple of hamlets, Stow Hill and Edingthorpe Green.
Paston village is home to about 200 inhabitants, in a mixture of old houses and 20th century social housing. Most residents in recent years have been middle aged and elderly but the village is getting younger again with a clutch of children taking the school bus each day from the village crossroads. Some residents run businesses from their homes.
The Parish council has been seeking over recent years to bring new housing into the village, with some “affordable housing”. However, the District Council policy is not to develop small villages but rather add to large villages and towns like Mundesley and North Walsham. There has also been a shortage of suitable sites.
Most of the area of Paston Parish is farmland, farmed by the Clabon family and until very recently the Purdy family, who arrived in Paston from further west in the County in the early 19th century. The Clabons’ farm land previously belonged to the Mack family who came around the same time, and after them the Dutch-owned East Anglian Real Property Company. In the early days of WW2 the company’s l0cal management were arrested on suspicion of trying to help a German invasion because they took out the hedges to leave great fields on which it was thought aircraft could land, and their great barns like the one at Hall Farm were thought capable of doubling as aircraft hangers! They did manage to persuade the authorities of their innocence and were released.
Paston has a number of well-known landmarks around the village, including a fine church, the Great Barn and the windmill at Stow Hill and several fine houses (about all of which more later).
The Great Barn
The enormous barn was built by the second Sir William Paston in 1581. It is 164 feet long, brick and flint with a thatched roof, the reeds for which would originally have been taken from reed beds within the parish. Since timber was becoming scarce by the late 16th century, the roof is supported by alternate hammer beams and tie beams. The effect is almost like being in a wooden roofed cathedral.
The barn was used for centuries for storing grain and farm equipment and for village festivities (such as the party after the wedding of Monica Mack to Dr Noel Bardswell in 1907).
It is now home to colonies of several rare species of bats, particularly a maternity colony of barbastelle bats. Because of the importance of the bats, plans had to be abandoned to make the barn into a community resource and exhibition centre. The barn and its immediate surrounds are a biological Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) The Historic Buildings Trust, which now owns the barn, has leased it to Natural England who administer it.
The discovery that bats living in the barn foraged at the cliff top has also prompted the planting of hedges (mainly blackthorn) to replace those grubbed up by the East Anglian Real Property Company.
St Margaret’s Church
Paston church was built in the early 1300’s on the site of an earlier church associated with Bromholm Priory. It features several notable wall paintings: a large late 1300’s painting of St Christopher carrying the Christ child across the river, and “the three living and three dead” – hunting noblemen encountering three skeletons. The deterioration of the paintings has hopefully been halted by works which have reduced the damp in the church
In 2013 engineers inserting steel rods into the chancel arch discovered further paintings, believed to date from the early to mid 1400’s: an angel with corkscrew curls swinging a sensor and some symbols of the passion, which the wall painting expert Dr Andrea Kirkham advises are most unusual, possibly unique. Paston PCC are hoping to raise funds to reveal the rest of the paintings of which traces have been found and to conserve them for the future.
Around the altar are table tombs of the Paston family, though nobody knows whose is which. The altar itself is in fact one of three tombs!
In the chancel are two imposing 1600’s memorials to Lady Katherine Paston and her husband Edmund. Both were by Nicholas Stone chief mason to Charles I and Lady Katherine’s has an inscription by the metaphysical poet John Donne. This had to be partially re-built as it was found to be coming away from the wall.
The road past the south side of the church was closed by the first Sir William Paston in 1440, to reduce disturbance to his family, which is why we approach the church form the “wrong” side and round the corner by the tower. The lych gate may well have been the original entrance. The diversion caused much ill feeling locally with Paston residents regularly knocking down the wall that Sir William built to block the road and Sir William re building it. However we now have the bonus thanks to Sir William all those centuries ago that we have a sunny sheltered area away from any traffic.
Works were done in 2013/14 to hold up the south wall of the nave, which leans into the churchyard and as mentioned to reduce the damp and stabilise Lady Katherine’s memorial.
Having got a church that isn’t going to fall down the PCC are now seeking to raise funds (as mentioned) to conserve the important wall paintings. The PCC are also planning and raising funds to lay on water, install kitchen and toilet; to remove some rear pews and shorten others to create an open space in the nave, moving the font into the middle of the church and opening the North door (having removed the current vestry). This will enable the church to be used much more widely than at present for events and will hopefully ensure its survival.
The windmill on Stow Hill was built around 1825 by the Gaze family to grind corn, which it did till the 1930’s when it was converted into living space. For many years it was open to the public as a visitors’ attraction but has recently been converted back to a dwelling to serve as holiday accommodation.
Old documents show that in the middle ages there was a chapel on Stow Hill for pilgrims going to and from Bromholm Priory, probably accompanied by a hostel. A piece of medieval stone window is to be found in a garden probably from the chapel.
The exact location of the mediaeval chapel and hostel is unknown, and pits dug in 2012 for the “dig and sow” project did not reveal any signs. They did however yield various items from an earlier age identified as late Roman and early Anglo Saxon, now held by Cambridge University Archaeological faculty. Some items were even older, dating back to 500 BC, so clearly people have been living around Stow Hill for a very long time. It must have been an interesting place.
The original hall, home of the Paston family, was clearly, from descriptions, an impressive building. But after the family moved to Oxnead in the late 1500’s if gradually fell into ruin. The present Georgian house was built in the early years of the 19th century, probably by the explorer Lord Anson who had bought it from the Paston family. He sold it John Mack the elder with the land in the 1830’s.
Under a “Downton Abbey” type trust the house and land passed on the death of the younger John Mack to his nearest male relative, his cousin Rear Admiral Philip Mack, who was killed on active service in 1943 without heirs. The house and land were then sold by his widow.
The house has had a number of owners since who have been maintaining its style
The land that went with the house was farmed (as above mentioned) for a few decades by the East Anglian Real Property Co and now by the Clabon family,
These were given to the village by the second Sir William Paston, who also founded what is now the Paston sixth form college in North Walsham. They are run by trustees of an amalgamation of three Paston charities.
Other Notable Houses
In Vicarage Road are several fine old houses, in particular Abinger Cottage, which was built in the early 20th century, designed in “Arts and Crafts” style by a pupil of Lutyens.
This has also played its part in the history of Paston and has been restored by the Clabon family.
The Gas Terminal
This was built during the late 1960’s to land gas from reserves under the sea bed in the North Sea. These reserves are now largely used up, so the terminal now mainly receives gas piped from continental Europe. Something between a quarter and a half of Britain’s gas comes through Bacton. As one would expect, security is tight and MOD police patrol continuously.
The Holiday Village
Mundesley Holiday Camp was the founded in 1934, making it the first of the traditional holiday camps pre dating and followed by Butlins. During WW2 it was a military installation, when there were guns on the adjoining clifftop and on the other side of Mundesley.
The old holiday camp model with full catering and on-site entertainments has lost its appeal over the years. In 2014 the camp was bought by Tim Hay who has turned it into the present holiday village with self-catering units for sale or rental.
The Paston Family
No account of Paston is complete without a bit more about the family who lived there in the middle ages, up to the end of the 1500’s. Though that was many centuries ago, they have left their mark on today’s village.
The family rose in four generations from being peasants under the early Plantagenet kings to being holders of high office under the Tudors.
They lived in several houses but primarily in Paston Hall which they built and lived in until the early 1600’s when the family moved to Oxnead.
We know a lot about them and their lives from their letters. Most writing from that time is official documents with formal language. What makes the Paston letters unique and important is that, being family communications, they were written in colloquial English, and give an insight into how a landed family lived in those days.
Their letters describe how during the Wars of the Roses they managed to hold onto their lands and their lives, both of which were frequently under threat.
They also describe family situations which could have come from a television drama such as Marjery Paston’s determination to marry Richard Calle, the family’s bailiff, in the face of powerful family opposition.
And certain things stick in the memory, like Margaret’s letter to her husband in London asking him to bring when he came home a particular cloth from France and some crossbows. The crossbows would have been due to the way in which in the 15th century powerful lords would besiege houses belonging to rival families, turn out the inhabitants and take possession of them, which happened to the Paston family at least twice. We are lucky to live in more peaceful times!