Beatrice Groves – Round Tower Churches and Rowling’s New Twitter Header

On the 21st January J. K. Rowling changed her Twitter header to give us another clue about the upcoming Strike instalment The Running Grave. Beatrice Groves, Research Lecturer and tutor at Trinity College, Oxford, and author of  Literary Allusion in Harry Potter, has written a Hogwarts Professor Guest Post: Round Tower Churches and Rowling’s New Twitter Header. Join Prof Groves as she delves into the history and myth of the distinctive Round Tower Churches of East Anglia, and that of Aylmerton in particular, after the jump:

Round Tower Churches and Rowling’s new Twitter Header

J. K. Rowling has returned to teasing the plot and locations of her Strike novels via the medium of Twitter headers. For Lethal White and Troubled Blood there were numerous twitter header clues but for Ink Black Heart Rowling only posted two images of Highgate cemetery. It seems, however, that she is again enjoying communicating with fans via these oblique hints and so far for The Running Grave we’ve had two headers of Cromer pier, one of the I Ching and on January 21st Rowling changed her Twitter header again, this time to an image of St John the Baptist Church, Aylmerton (a church which is situated close to Cromer, a location she has referenced twice before).

East Anglia is an area I know well, so I immediately recognised this church as one of the round tower churches which are a distinctive – and almost unique – feature of this part of the UK. The Round Tower Churches Society states that of the 186 surviving examples in the UK the vast majority are in Norfolk (131) with 41 of the remaining towers to be found in Suffolk. There are a number of interesting aspects to these unusual churches, which have several folk explanations as to their unique shape. W.J. Goode wrote the first substantial survey of them – East Anglian Round Towers and their Churches (1982) – followed by an updated version with photos: Round Tower Churches of South East England (1994). And most of the salient theories about these churches are likewise to be found in his more recent pamphlet: East Anglian Round Tower Churches (1998) (which might, I suspect, be available to purchase in churches such as Aylmerton – if anyone has visited it do let me know in the comments below!).

The earliest explanation given for these distinctively shaped towers, and why they occur almost exclusively in East Anglia, was by Samuel Woodward in 1829 who ‘came to the conclusion that they were built of flints because this area was without any building stone that could be shaped… the reason he gave for building them round was the difficulty of building the strong corners without the larger blocks of dressed stone’ (Goode, 1998, p.4). This seems to be the correct interpretation, but more exciting – although probably spurious! – theories have likewise been advanced. One of these is that the round towers are linked with Vikings. It was thought that as East Anglia was particularly vulnerable to Viking raiders such towers were built as defensive bastions to which churches became attached: ‘many points seem to support this theory; the upper doorways in all the earlier towers are the same as those used in the defence towers of Ireland and the Scottish borders. The slit type windows follows this up. The positions of many are on hilltops overlooking rivers in what could rightly be called strategic positions’ (Goode, 1998, p.5). The romance of the Viking connection remains popular – might it be raised by Robin or dismissed by Strike? – and it has also been argued from the other side, by those who think they are Viking-built. For in the late 9th century East Anglia was ruled by a Viking (Guthrum) who was known by his baptismal name of Æthelstan (not to be confused with King Athelstan, Alfred the Great’s grandson, who became the first King of England in the 920s).[1] (But none of the towers are quite old enough for either theory to be correct.) A third theory, which Goode notes may likewise be ‘quickly disposed of’ – but which is intriguing given the Norfolk commune perspective – is that the round towers are related ‘to the circles of ancient pagan cults’ (1994, p.25)

Perhaps the wildest suggestion for the origins of round towered churches may also have caught Rowling’s eye. The extraordinary, but pleasingly wacky theory, that ‘either a flood or a land subsidence had left many well cases standing above ground level. Churches were then built onto these wells which were used as church towers’ (Goode, 1998, p.4). Goode mentions that this theory was popular 150 years ago and that it is true that well-cases are sometimes all that is left of an eroded village (1994, p.25). (For the reason that this theory might interest Rowling, see John Granger’s investigations of the well in Troubled Blood) This well-case theory, startling as it is, does capture a flavour of something distinct about the area – those readers unfamiliar with East Anglia might like to look at some of the disappeared towns and villages there (one of the most famous is Dunwich, where it is said you can hear the lost church bells chiming underneath the sea). The crumbling cliffs of the East Anglian coastline play a major role in P.D. James’s novel Death in Holy Orders (2001) and The Running Grave may, likewise, make use of this evocative feature of the area.

Goode notes that St John the Baptist, Aylmerton has a 49ft high tower dating from the middle Saxon period, and that the location of the church is such as to give grist to the mill of those who wish to believe that it originated as a Viking watch towers: ‘this lofty church stands on a steep knoll over 200ft above sea level and only two miles from the coast. Messent refers to this position as fulfilling the romantic theory of ‘Defence Towers’’ (1994, p.78). For our purposes its nearness to the sea is likewise evocative given Rowling’s earlier use of Cromer pier headers – we seem to be homing in on a small patch of Norfolk: the location of the commune of Strike’s childhood or of the murder case of The Running Grave? Or both? Another book about these churches – Jack Sterry’s Round Tower Churches: Hidden Treasures of North Norfolk (2003) – gives a detailed entry on the church at Aylmerton, including a number of photos of the church furniture – such as a beautiful 1876 Communion table with a star of David in the centre, flanked by Annunciation lilies and a 15th century rood screen.

But what I think what would particularly have caught Rowling’s eye is the old parish boundary cross (of which Sterry also includes an image). This is an early medieval wayside cross about a mile away from Aylmerton (on the road towards Gresham) and known as the Aylmerton or Gresham Cross. It appears at a crossroads of three roads and an old path, which is said to be an old pilgrimage route, and the cross itself a marker on the Walsingham Way – the pilgrim route to what was once (along with Canterbury) the greatest shrine in England. Walsingham was founded in 1061 and known as ‘England’s Nazareth,’ and it has an interesting modern history likewise (and is, indeed, another evocative Norfolk location, although we’ve no evidence as yet we’ll be straying that far from Cromer). The Aylmerton cross is a strange relic – with a long, banded stem and (currently) no cross atop it. To the base of this medieval ‘stump cross’ a Victorian cross was added in 1875, but it has now been removed, after the column was hit by a vehicle in the early 2000s. This restoration work removed the Victorian smoothing of the column likewise, so it is now a strangely banded column.

Searching on the internet for more images of this strange boundary cross (because I thought it likely to have caught Rowling’s attention – as a stump cross emptied of and haunted by its past form) I found that the cross itself has a surprising number of stories attached to it. And a number of these feel rather suitable for a novel entitled The Running Grave. Strike 7’s title is taken from a Dylan Thomas poem and while the poem is not easy to interpret, the connectively of its phrasing is clearly about the idea of death-in-life: ‘when, like a running grave, time tracks you down…’. The running grave is one that will not stay put in an ‘otherworld’ of the dead, but which seeps into, infects and infuses into, the life of the living.

Behind this boundary cross are just some such ‘running graves:’ holes in the ground known as the ‘shrieking pits.’ These pits (in reality hollows created by medieval iron works) are reputedly the site of a murder and haunted by a ‘phantom lady dressed in white’ who was murdered by her husband. The story is told in this helpful video from ‘Haunted and Abandoned Norfolk’ which tells likewise a rather more enjoyable story linked to the cross: ‘a tunnel is said to link Aylmerton Cross to Beeston Regis Priory.  Folklore says within with legendary tunnel a “golden calf” is hidden’ The tale is that this golden calf dates from the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries – though it does not make quite clear why the local Priory should have owned a golden calf! However, the suggestion of both outrageous wealth and idolatry are both accusations levelled at monks during the Dissolution. So, perhaps this local myth dates from that time? Beeston Regis Priory was mentioned in the Doomesday book and its substantial ruins still remain.

The video tells of how the ancient site of Beeston Regis Priory was ‘reportedly haunted by a grey hooded spectre. There is also a famous ghost story here where a local farmer had encounters with a spirit’ – a certain Mr Reynolds, who died in 1941. Mr Reynolds would encounter a spirit who popped up from behind two granite boulders in the priory. He asked for one of the boulders to be laid upon his grave – to lay the spirit to rest and the other is ‘now laying against the north wall of the nearby churchyard.’ This legend feels like an inverse of the mobility implied in the ‘running grave’ (a watery grave? Will the corpse be found in the sea?) – Reynold’s idea that placing something very heavy on his grave would lay the spirit (and, according to local legend, it seems to have worked too).

Another story is that the secret tunnel under the Aylmerton Cross leads to Gresham Castle – now an overgrown square of moated woodland, but once home to one of Norfolk’s most historically important families: the PastonsGresham Castle was a medieval manor house, fortified in 1318 by Sir Edmund Bacon, and purchased by William Paston in 1427. The Pastons were evicted by Lord Muleyns in 1448 (who had a rival claim to the property) but who let it fall into disrepair so that, when the Pastons took repossession a year later, it was allowed to fall into ruin and was abandoned. This place is now an evocative palimpsest – a castle overwritten by forest, but the sharp angles of the wood, and the moat itself, trace the underlying structure of the habitation it once was. (This video of walking through the wood in the sunshine and birdsong is a lovely watch!). Gresham Castle is a vivid example of the passage of time – recalling another line from Dylan’s poem: ‘Everything ends, the tower ending’ (‘When, like a running grave’) – and likewise one of Dylan’s most famous lines: ‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.’

Walsingham and Viking towers, well-cases and Beeston Priory’s haunted ruins, medieval pilgrimage crosses, the Shrieking Pits, Gresham Castle and the buried golden calf – Aylmerton has a wealth of fascinating stories and locations (and both the white lady and the grey spirit carry a certain something of the ghosts of Hogwarts about them!). While we don’t know if any of these stories, or the history of round towered churches more generally, have caught Rowling’s attention, we do know that she has been thinking about – and buying books on – this area. This latter information comes from @bridgetjanejone who kindly shared back in May 2022 that Rowling had been into a museum shop in Cromer and bought a book on Norfolk dialect (expect to see this turning up in at least one character’s speech in The Running Grave!) and a book on Cromer. The Round Tower Churches Society publishes quite a number of pamphlets on the history of these unique churches and I wonder if Rowling may have picked up one of these likewise in her location scouting trips round Norfolk – or perhaps something on the folklore of the area?

Looking forward to finding out in the not-too-distant future!

[1] Jack Sterry, Round Tower Churches: Hidden Treasures of North Norfolk (2003), p.2.


  1. “The running grave is one that will not stay put in an ‘otherworld’ of the dead, but which seeps into, infects and infuses into, the life of the living.”

    I like your framing of a running grave as a sort of haunting, by death itself or people we’ve known. It feels sinister, but JKR also wrote that the people who love us never really leave us, so maybe we’ll get both sides of that ghostly coin, comfort and distress.

  2. Another wonderful post, Prof Groves, one I think that is simultaneously rich in background information effectively unavailable to Rowling-Galbraith readers, in references to Rowling’s history and previous writings (as well as Dylan Thomas!), and in thoughtful speculation from these sources about what it may mean for Strike7. I don’t doubt that we will be linking back to this post in the run up to and well after the publication of The Running Grave.

    Having said that, it remains true that in your post we have just scratched the surface of potential meaning of these round towers.

    The tower, for instance, has important alchemical significance (see Abraham’s ‘Dictionary,’ pp 203-204). Potter readers also recognize the significance of the tower in cartomancy, specifically, the Lightning Struck Tower in the tarot and its significance as a scene in ‘Half-Blood Prince.’

    At least as important, is the symbolism of the circle and of the cross that pervades Rowling’s work, both of which are revelations of the metaphysical origin, the Center. That’s not to mention the turtle-back story scaffolding which has the same referent. The connection you have discovered linking these church towers with wells, which have a chthonic equivalent symbolism to the tower’s celestial representation of that point is very exciting, at least to this reader,

    And the ghosts! Rowling’s core belief, as she has told several reporters (see Cruz, deRek) is in the immortality of the soul. Ghosts haunt her work, from the comic, visible ones at Hogwarts to the just out of sight presences in the Strike series, and make up a good part of her “mortality and morality” messaging that there is a life after death, a fate connected to the circle and cross revelations.

    Thank you for building this excellent foundation for all those future conversations and for our much more thoughtful reading of ‘The Running Grave’!

    Post: I was startled that you mentioned the P. D. James novel you did rather than ‘The Lighthouse,’ a novel whose defining structure so obviously resembles the round towers of Norfolk.

  3. Louise Freeman says

    All this is making me wonder if we’llsee a murder victim pushed off the tower, which would be a ring connection to Lula Landry’s death in CC.

    And doesn’t Madeline’s name mean “high tower?” Maybe we haven’t seen the last of her (though I hope we have!)

  4. Thank you very much Karol, John and Louise – glad you enjoyed! Karol – I like your idea. In the Dylan Thomas poem I find a morbid and uncanny haunting – and I fear that is what Norfolk will mean for Strike. But agreed, in Rowling’s works it certainly does not have to be this way and I, like you, am hoping for a more hopeful rewrite of Thomas (as we had, for example, in her rewriting of Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale)!

    John – thank you for your kind words – and certainly there is more to say on circles, towers and ghosts in Rowling’s work! Re: PD James there is also of course the haunting presence of the Black Tower – another real world circular tower – and if it is the church (not the pier) which is the murder scene in The Running Grave that could echo James’s Taste for Death or Sayers’s Nine Tailors? And yes Louise – along with the Lightening-Struck Tower, the Lula Landry death would indeed be an interesting return for Strike 7. But rather than falling from a height, I think we’re more likely to be seeing an echo of P.D. James’s first East Anglian novel (Unnatural Causes), which has a body washed ashore from the sea…

  5. Prof. Groves,
    May I just say it’s good to hear your own take on Thomas poem, at last. The idea of the poetic image as a metaphor of what might be called an “active past” exerting an influence on the present is perhaps one of the best illustrations of a very pervasive trope in the history of Gothic fiction. It will be interesting to see Rowling’s latest use of it.

    Also, thank you for pointing out D.L. Sayers “Nine Tailors”, as your mention of it in connection with the essay reminds that it is yet another text with a specific, more or less circular structure to it. The entire mystery is structured around the ceremonial pattern involved in bell ringing during the course of Church service. In fact, as one of its reviewers claimed, “It is probably, indeed, the only novel based on a study of campanology. Its very title and chapter-headings pay tribute to the peculiar vocabulary of the art”.

    Coupled with your observations about Rowling paying close attention to Norfolk Churches and their architecture, what it all says to me is that there might be at least a thematic linkage between that book and Rowling’s own artistry. So it does leave me curious if we should maybe keep an eye peeled for the author to make, at the very least, a wink, or nod at the earlier “Wimsey Mystery” while Strike and Robin tour the area.

    Speaking of the supernatural, ghostly aspects of Rowling’s sources. There is at least one more tucked away in among one of her previous “Running Grave” headers. As Sir Christopher Frayling recounts, “It all began in Cromer, Norfolk, on the North Coast of England (in March, 1901, seven years, and three months after (Sherlock Holmes’) “death”), when Arthur Conan Doyle was on a short golfing holiday with his friend, a young journalist named Bertram (or “Bobbles”) Fletcher-Robinson. One tea time, when the wind from the North Sea was blowing too strongly for the usual round of golf, the two men repaired to the sitting room of their hotel, the Royal Links. Inside, they began to talk of the myths and magic of Norfolk. In the course of a long tea time conversation, Robinson told Doyle of the legend of a phantom Black Dog, which haunted the countryside. Now the folklore of the British Isles is littered with stories of Black Dogs, whole packs of them. And there are Black Dog lanes in villages all over the country, still.

    “But they are, usually, fairly friendly creatures, who warn of some impending disaster, or haunt some location where a terrible accident has happened. The one big exception is Black Shuck, or Old Shuck of Norfolk. Shuck, or Skukker (did I print that right? – ed), meaning “the demon” in Anglo Saxon. Old Shuck was said to come out at dusk. A huge, shaggy creature, the size of a calf. Easily recognizable because of his saucer shaped eyes weeping red fire. No one who caught sight of Black Shuck, or felt his breath on the neck, would survive to daybreak. Black Shuck is one of the most ferocious dogs in the whole of English folklore, and it’s likely that Fletcher-Robinson brought him up in the course of the conversation. Conan Doyle, who to judge by his stories detested dogs of all descriptions, and was always fascinated by the spirit world, immediately had his imagination fired up by the idea, and the two men began to plot a story based upon it (web video, 10:14 – 12:21)”.

    I bring this up for at least two good reasons. The first is the shared real life setting of Cromer, and the fact that Rowling has already put the Shuck legend to good use in her own fiction. It’s probably asking too much for the dynamic duo of Denmark to run across the famous “Hound” itself. However, it would be interesting if another nod to Norfolk’s most famous literary pooch were to be given an honorable allusion. Say in the form of a “Wonder Dog of the Week”, who again winds up pointing the detectives in the right direction to search and dig for clues. For all we know, the Victim of the Week could turn up in a sand trap on the Royal Links, and yet the death occurred elsewhere, whether in tower or sea. All of which is to leave off by saying thanks again for a lot of interesting food for thought and speculation.

  6. Brilliant ChrisC!

    I wrote about the Black Shuck/Sherlock Holmes links with Azkaban in one of my very first ever blogs back in 2017 – – and while I knew that the legend itself had East Anglian connections (Blythburgh Church where Black Shuck is said to left his scorch marks on the door after a visit in 1577 is one of my favourite churches!), I had no idea about this specific Cromer link! That is great.
    Likewise the circular form – and epigraphs! – of Nine Tailors. I never read it, but I had it on audio book as a teenager (when I was completely outraged by the solution of the mystery!) so I did not know it had epigraphs. These look to be quite similar to those of Casual Vacancy – sections of a specialist text. We know Rowling likes Sayers, so yes a link to look out for I think – though I am confident that (unlike both Conan Doyle and Sayers) we can be confident that Galbraith will never cheat us with a non-human ‘murderer’!

  7. Prof. Groves,

    Delighted to be of service. Another reason for bringing up the video link above was exactly as you say. It presents the reader with an entry point to Norfolk, thus retroactively becoming an unintended, yet valuable and related study source for “Strike 7”. It’s a phenomenon that seems natural enough, and what’s really to like about it is the way it establishes all these fascinating thematic links between works of literature both past and present. The fact that most of it is always unintentional, more often than not, just somehow adds to the sense of enchantment in the way that good art sort of has in adding to it’s overall richness in the course of time.

    As for the solution to the crime in Sayers’ novel, perhaps it might help things if a distinction is made between the murderer and “murder weapon”. This might prove useful in the sense that the first one is a subject with both means and motive. The second is more along the lines of a mere instrument or artistic “device”. In which case, the real point to note is the goal towards which the story’s crime aims at, whether this be the nature of human folly (Sayers), or else vice coupled with superstition (Doyle), though perhaps in the latter case, a better choice of phrase could be the abuses against nature and the folklore attached to it. Which is an interesting topic in and of itself. It would be interesting, for instance, if the culprit(s?) at the hear “Running Grave” turn out to be abusing the local historical sites around Norfolk, and are using the lore and traditions attached to it all for their own selfish advantages. Anyway, I hope that helps in terms of “fair play” in the genre.

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