Although Paston is a coastal village, there is no road access to the sea between the cliffs at Mundesley and the sand dunes at Bacton. Driving along the B1159 towards Bacton gas terminal the coast is out of sight and you would not guess how close you are to the sea. There is not even a footpath to the cliffs, and consequently there are no seaside facilities of any kind at Paston. Instead the village is namely for its tithe barn.
This building is home to very rare colony of barbastelle bats and a lease has been granted to English Nature to benefit these creatures for the next 50 years. [Query; what will happened to the bats when the thatch needs renewing?] When this picture was taken on June 26th 1971 we knew nothing of any bats, and nor did anybody else. The barn was still being used for agriculture, and the bats were left to their own devices. It was not until 1976 than the presence of bats was revealed by their droppings on the table cloths laid out below, for a dinner given by the East Anglian Real Estate Company, the owners of the barn at the time. Later the barn was owned by Chell Instruments who intended to relocate their business there, but these plans were dropped in 1995. Chell Instruments is now based in North Walsham, where they specialise in instruments for the energy industry.
The Paston tithe barn was built in 1581 by Sir William Paston, who also built the North Walsham Grammar School. This is better known as the Paston School, where Nelson was its most famous pupil. The Paston College is still a feature of North Walsham, although now it is a sixth form college in the state sector and is on a different site.
Sir William maintained his connection with the original Hall at Paston, which gave the family its name. He lived in Paston or sometimes in Caister Castle all his life. Towards the end of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign he had inherited Oxnead Hall, which had been built by his uncle Clement Paston, but he did not live there himself. For later generations of the Paston family Oxnead became their main residence. Robert Paston became Viscount Yarmouth in 1660 at the Restoration of Charles II. The family fell upon hard times and he title disappeared in 1731 through not having an heir.
The hammer-beam roof of the tithe barn is one of the glories of agricultural architecture, now lost to public view and reserved for the bats. It was put in merely for show, according the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner. The roof could equally well have been spanned by ordinary beams. It can scarcely be referred to merely as a barn; with a little more finish its roof would surely grace any church.
The tithes were a tenth part of the produce of the farms in the parish and given to (or rather demanded by) the church. As you may imagine tithes caused a good deal of friction between the local vicar and the farming community, especially in cases where the farmers were not members of the Church of England. The tithes were converted into cash sums in the 19th century and were finally abolished as recently as 1977. As far as I am aware nothing was substituted to fill the church coffers.
Tithe barns were used to store and then to thresh the corn that had been given to the church as tithes. Parson Woodforde has a passage in his diary recording the grand suppers he provided for the local farmers once the tenth part of the harvest that formed the tithes was gathered in.
Tithe barns still exist across the country; there is a fine example a few miles round the coast at Waxham, and it is even larger than that at Paston. In fact it is said to be the largest barn in the county. It was built by the Woodhouse family at about the same time that Paston barn was being built, and both used material from Bromholm Priory at Bacton, an ecclesiastical building made redundant by the Dissolution of the Monasteries earlier in the sixteenth century. It has a slightly less impressive roof, in not having hammer beams. It is not home to any rare bats however, and on Sundays in July and August the thatched barn is open to the public.
Although no longer called a tithe barn, the barn alongside Taverham church (now converted to residential use) would have fulfilled this function in the past. There is an old wooden barn at church farm next to the church in Costessey, and this too was obviously the village tithe barn. This pattern is repeated in innumerable villages across northern Europe, where the Catholic Church gathered its tithes from the farms. As the wealth of the people was transferred from agricultural production to manufacturing (which did not pay tithes), the cost of supporting the church fell disproportionately on farmers; no wonder they were upset.
THE BLOG FOR MEMORIES OF EAST ANGLIAN LIFE