NORFOLK OCTOBER 2021
Little Walsingham - St Mary - Open
Great Walsingham - St Peter - Open
It was early October 2021, in the middle of a five day Norfolk churchcrawl, which fell foul of the weather for the most part. The Thursday had promised fine weather throughout; but that forecast proved to be over optimistic, the bank of clouds over the church of St Mary, Little Walsingham looking ominous, with the rain starting soon after.
The Walsinghams, Little and Great, can be found between Wells Next The Sea and Fakenham; neighbouring villages that adjoin each other. The river Stiffkey runs close by.
It was good to be back at Little Walsingham; my third visit here in fifteen years. Walsingham in a Christian centre of great spiritual and historical importance. In 1061 a Saxon noble woman Richeldis De Faverches saw a vision of the Virgin Mary in the village. She was instructed to build a replica of the home of the holy family at Nazareth. This she did and the village was to become one of the most important centres of pilgrimage in Western Europe.
The shrine was dismantled at the time of the reformation, as was the nearby Abbey, the ruins of which stand in the centre of the village. The Anglican shrine was reintroduced in the early 1930's. The village main street is, unless there is a pilgrimage going on, normally quiet and peaceful. One of my most treasured churchcrawling memories was spending a Sunday morning some years ago in Little Walsingham, watching the village very slowly come to life; with the only people out on the streets early on being vicars, monks and nuns.
Standing in the church grounds, looking at the church of St Mary, Little Walsingham, the visitor could well find themselves thinking that something is not quite right about the exterior. The church, with the exception of the west tower and south porch, looks crisp and modern in comparison, and this is correct. In 1961 the church was burned down, with only the tower and south porch surviving! A few things inside survived as well, which I will come to in a moment. In a lovely moment of English gallows humour eccentricity, the Walsingham parish website relates that the fire finally eradicated the death watch beetle which had previously affected the church!
The church here consists of west tower with battlemented parapet and recessed spire, double decker south porch, nave with north and south aisles and clerestories, south chapel and chancel. A bench is set against the south porch looking out across what is probably my favourite Norfolk church grounds. The church was open to visitors, with entry via a door in the west face of the tower.
St Mary was re-consecrated in August 1964 and I was interested to see some consecration crosses on the walls of the nave. When the church was consecrated, 12 places on the inside and 12 on the outside of the church would be prayed over, with holy oil being sprinkled. It is quite rare to see these, but these like the exterior and very crisp and show no sign of age so I assuming that they date from the time of the re-consecration!
A statue of the crucifixion hangs over the chancel arch; with both this and the fine east window dating from the time of the re-building. The east window is modern in design, with designs formed in a mosaic style. Centre piece of the upper row of five lights is the Madonna and child, with this design being taken from the seal of Walsingham Priory. Also of note here is a depiction of St Catherine, with wheel and St Lawrence with grid iron; each portraying the means of their martyrdom.
On the lower row of five lights, Richeldis De Faverches receives her vision and is told what should be built here! She kneels beside Edward The Confessor whilst off to the side, Henry VIII is portrayed; representing the monarchs who visited here over the centuries. Henry VIII visited the shrine of more than one occasion, once staying at Barsham Manor and then walking two miles barefoot to Walsingham where he placed a "gold circlet round Our Lady's neck". The same monarch was to lead to its destruction years later!
The seven sacrament font here is considered to be one of the finest in Norfolk, and it survived the fire. There is a pinkish hue to the stone in places, which happens when some types of stone are exposed to great heat. The octagonal font has seven panels denoting the seven sacraments of the catholic faith; baptism, confirmation, eucharist, confession, matrimony, anointing of the sick (extreme unction) and ordination. There is damage to the panels, this being the marks of the reformers in the 16th century. The eighth panel is the crucifixion. It is interesting to see that the cross is bare, Jesus having been removed. John, standing to the right of the cross as we look at it is without head, but the depiction of the Virgin Mary is pretty much untouched! A fascinating historical treasure.
Another survival of the fire is a monument to Sir Henry Sidney and his wife. Both are recumbent, with hands raised in prayer. He is dressed in armour, with head resting on helmet and gauntlets. He passed away in 1612, she some 26 years later. Also surviving the fire are some brasses which survived the worst of the flames as they were at that time set in to the floor.
The church grounds are delightfully secluded, with my only company on the day being some pheasants in the trees to the south. There is an interesting selection of 18th century gravestones here, with the human skull peering out on a few reminding the onlooker that Man is mortal and will die. An angel blows a trumpet on one, this symbolising the resurrection on the final day.
Whilst in the grounds, sheltering under the trees as a brief shower passed through, I thought back to a novel that I read during the previous winter. This covered the Black Death of 1348 and mainly looked at the fears of the population of a small Suffolk village as the black death grew closer. A party of pilgrims from the village got together to march to Walsingham to pray for deliverance from the forthcoming tempest. I wonder what it must have been like; with thousands of people, in great distress all descending on this small village to pray for their lives and the lives of their loved ones! It has been estimated that around 25 million people died in Europe from the Black Death from 1347 until 1351. It had been a terrible time for us recently as covid hit, but others have had it worse through history!
The rain eased off and I headed off towards St Peter at Great Walsingham. There were few people about, which has always been the case when I have been here previously. Two men chatted in a charity shop doorway and a vicar nodded hello as we passed, and that was pretty much it! The centre of the village here has a pumphouse on it, which dates back to 1550; which has a brazier on it which is lit on special occasions. The main street has a selection of religious souvenir shops on it and there is the museum of the Blessed Mary which by all accounts has an interesting collection of medieval pilgrim badges. Heading vaguely easterly I passed by the gatehouse of the abbey ruins, which I had visited on a previous occasion, and the Anglican shrine, where a lovely old Routemaster bus passed by bedecked in ribbons, en route to a wedding. A coach party was just unloading at the shrine as I walked past. The gradually increasing sounds of children at play indicated that I was getting closer to Great Walsingham church.
The church of St Peter stands in isolation at the side of a minor road. The church here is thought to have been built around 1320 and consists of west tower, south porch, nave with north and south aisles and north vestry. There is no chancel here; this having been lost during the 16th century. A small part is left standing today.
The tower is square and buttressed with stair turret to the south east corner. The south porch has a beautiful flushwork parapet and two empty image niches which would have contained statues in pre reformation days. The clerestory windows to north and south are round, with quatrefoil designs. Looking at the church from the east, the chancel arch is bricked in with two windows being added. A fine church!
There was a real sense of peace and calm here. The distant cries of the children had stopped as lunchtime was over. A solitary woman walking her dog off in the distance saw me and waved hello. Apart from that there was not a soul around. What a pleasant place to have spent lockdown in, sitting alone with just a book while the world got on with what horrors it was inflicting...
The church here was open to visitors. There is a real feel of the age of the place here, which for obvious reasons can't be replicated at Little Walsingham. While all is 'new' and polished there, here at St Peter we see uneven tiles leading to the alter; countless thousands of feet over hundreds of years showing a continuity of worship. For me it is the same when I see wooden carvings worn away by countless hands over the years. The same can be said with the apostles symbolised in 15th century wooden bench ends here, in the same form that they were symbolised in glass in the 19th century a few miles away in Wighton later that day.
There is a consecration cross on the wall of the nave which would date back to the time that the church was originally consecrated during the first half of the 14th century. In the south chapel a reredos depicting the nativity, with a smaller depiction of the crucifixion adds a splash of colour. Over to the north, a statue of St Peter holds a Bible and the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
The wine glass pulpit has a date of 1613 on it and looks as if it might have built using some panels from a rood screen.
Within the church here is a fabulous collection of carved bench end, dating from the 15th century. The bench ends to the north are for the most part depictions of the 12 disciples, although one figure wearing a hat could be either a pilgrim or possibly a donor to the church. These show the marks of the reformers with the faces pretty much erased. Interestingly, the depiction of the pilgrim/donor points to the east, towards the holiest part of the church, with the first finger of his right hand. Could this indeed be the donor who was making a comment about where he was heading following his donation?
Included is St Andrew, depicted with saltire cross, St John who holds a chalice and St Bartholomew. The latter is depicted with skinning knife, denoting the manner of his martyrdom, and has lost half of his head. St Paul is shown with sword and St James The Less carries a club. In Christian art, he is depicted with the club but it is thought that he was crucified.
Over to the south we have a selection of mythical animals. One figure with impressive beard grips the end of the bench with impressive talons; another winged creature has lost part of its face and hands. Another beast with long hair and in need of some dental work wears a crown. A fabulous collection.
Most of the glass here is clear, but there are some very interesting medieval fragments to be seen high up in the tracery. In one, Jesus holds up his hands showing crucifixion wounds, from which blood continues to fall. Two tiny fragments contain the crowned heads of a male and female, this being a small section of what would have been a depiction of Mary being crowned Queen of heaven. Curiously, there are a couple of very small demon like heads included here!
In the south aisle, over the reredos of the nativity there are a couple of depictions of a human male head, which could well be St Peter. These are each produced in tones of brown; with a monochrome effect. Exquisite pieces of work both of them.
It was time to move on and it was very much a case of dodge the showers as I attempted to visit the remainder of the churches alongside the main Wells to Fakenham road.