YOU can blame City Bookshop in Norwich for this one. Because as well as shelf upon shelf of local books, they sell all manner of leaflets and magazines. Nothing is too obscure or too humble. Which is why I found myself paying 75p for a single sheet of folded paper containing a short typewriter-era history of “The Parish Church of St Wandregesilius, Bixley”. And once you’ve got that, you’ve simply got to visit the building.
It’s quite the saddest place I think I’ve ever been to in Norfolk. Not because it’s deserted, I normally love the sense of history that reeks from ruined churches. More because even a cursory glance tells you that while it fell victim to arsonists in 2004, it’s continued to be unloved ever since. Indeed in eight and a half years, virtually nothing has been done, save install some scaffolding here and a token tidy-up there.
A pew end lies charred and slowly rotting. The gas cylinder that presumably fuelled the fire lies discarded in the middle of the nave. While nothing of value remains, various chunks of church detritus lie abandoned and uncleared. Visiting by accident at dusk on a full moon, the church couldn’t have screamed “No One Cares” to me more loudly.
It’s the only church in the country dedicated to St Wandregesilius. My wonderful sheet of paper tells me that he was the Abbot of Fontanelle in Normandy in the 7th century. Wikipedia adds that he’s more commonly known as St Wandrille and that Fontanelle has produced “an unusually large number of saints and the blessed” over the centuries.
The church lies down a peaceful green lane lined with ash and oak, perhaps a quarter of a mile off the busy Norwich to Bungay Road, not far from Arminghall. Knowing that the church had been a place of pilgrimage in the middle ages I was quite enjoying the sense of stepping in the same footsteps as the pious and the pompous all those centuries ago. …until I re-read the leaflet back home and learnt that
“originally the site was not as lonely as it is now because, until 1800, the main Norwich to Bungay Road ran past the church gate. Its course can still be seen along the western side of the churchyard and down the narrow field with many oak trees.”
Is that still the case? I wasn’t paying attention. But it is a truly ancient setting. There could well have been a church here in Saxon times. Most of what we see now dates to a Victorian restoration, but the tower goes back to the 14th century. The pilgrims venerated a statue which was destroyed in 1538 as part of the iconoclasm of the Reformation.
And so to the more recent iconoclasm. The reason I even picked up the sheet of paper in the first place was that I’ve sort-of had St Wandregesilius in my sights ever since that date in May 2004. Working for Look East, we got news that the arsonists had struck late one afternoon and I remember trying and failing to find anyone who could pronounce the saint’s name correctly. We bottled it and went for “Bixley Church” then. Can anyone enlighten me now?
* There’s a great drawing of St W in its prime on Picture Norfolk.