We went for a ride on the Wells and Walsingham Railway. It was built in 1982 by Lt Cmd Roy Francis, a veteran of the Arctic convoys. It is 10¼ inch gauge, and runs about 4 miles. We hadn’t visited since the children were young, and had a good ride today. However it feels as it needs a lot of work on the track, and it is all looking a bit shabby. They were friendly, but I hope it has someone dynamic who can find new sources of finance and give the line the renovation and new lease of life that it needs.
One of the churches I photoed from the train was All Saints church Wighton – TF 941399 – so we drove home that way.
The Diocese of Norwich has a dedicated web address for church visiting, which redirects you here. Unless you know this visiting page exists you won’t easily find it if you look at the Diocese’s website. The section “Who we are” says “Throughout the Diocese are hundreds of stunning, historic church buildings – around 650 in all – which are actively used for worship. We provide support to those caring for them and creating welcoming spaces, and preserving each one for future generations.” If you click on “publications” you will find “Exploring Norfolk Churches: Your free guide” and various church trail leaflets – but would you think to look at “publications”? I have emailed the Communications department to suggest a link to “visiting” would be a good idea – and they have replied agreeing with me. (They also have a new website under construction).
The church has a lovely guidebook, and reminds us that these are not just small Norfolk villages. In Domesday Wighton was a wealthy manor which had been seized by William the Conqueror, bringing him revenues from rents sand other assets of £24 a year. For the next 300 years it was the centre of the local hundred, an area of 18 villages, and was led out to a series of noble families. The locals seem to have prospered. In summer 1349 it was hit by the Black Death and 40% of the population died. In the early C15 the villagers decided to rebuild the church. As the guide says, this was “scarcely necessary” as the existing church must have been more than big enough. The villagers paid for the nave, and they persuaded Norwich cathedral priory to rebuild the chancel. We know the names of some of the village families, most of whom were probably donors, and the Lord of the Manor from 1397 until his death at the end of 1414 was John Winter, Henry VI’s Receiver General and controller of his household.
The porch is rather splendid – I wonder if we will ever get back to the time when someone lives in the room above it. I rather fancy retiring to a Vicar’s flat above the porch (and Julie can fill the inside of the church with books).
The interior of the church is so spacious – so much space they have filled the side aisles with old farm equipment (but it would be sensible to have some labels explaining what is there) and a coffin trolley.
They have done some research into the Masons’ Marks – there are 200 examples of 14 different devices. We know that two teams of masons worked (one on the north side, one on the south), and that many of the masons also worked on nearby churches. There are matching marks at St Nicholas Chapel, King’s Lynn, which was one of the most high profile building projects in Europe at the time – that’s another church to visit. More research says Wighton was under construction from about 1417. The building of the Chancel appears in the accounts of Norwich Cathedral – it cost £20 to demolish the old one in 1440, the new roof cost £16 in 1449, and the glazing of chancel windows (1455) cost £4 10s 0d. The project was overseen by James Woderove, head mason at the Cathedral, and one of the elite mason-architects of C15 England. He was later recruited by Henry VI to work on the chapel at Eton. Work was still continuing on the porch between 1494 and 1497.
The octagonal font also dates from the C15. Among the heraldic devices chiselled into it, are the instruments of the cross – the nails, ladder, hammer, spear and sponge. Most of the rest, and lots of other images, were lost in the Reformation. You can imagine a huge rood screen.
There is a little medieval glass. Apparently John Wighton, the glassmaker who was also known as John Harrowe, was born in the village in the 1380s. His workshop in Norwich produced some of the most important stained glass of the C15 including “the spectacular east window at East Harling”, so that’s another one to visit.
There are tombs and graves of the Bacon and Bedingfield families, the resident village gentry at the time. The coat of arms is that of George IV (reigned 1820-30), painted on board and signed by R. Goodman (I like the idea of “Goodman – painter, decorator and illustrator of Royal Arms”).
At the height of a storm in November 1965 the tower collapsed. No one was hurt, but there was no money to rebuild. In the 1970s a Canadian businessman, Leeds Richardson, visited Wighton while researching his family tree. He offered to pay for it – and rebuilding was completed during the long hot summer of 1976. Our thanks to him. The external tower door remained in situ, and five of the heraldic shields which had fallen from the crenelations were reset above it.
They have now finished repairing and restoring the nave roof – so the building is probably in better state now than it has been for most of its 600 years. It is used for worship about once a fortnight – I doubt they ever fill the church (and that probably doesn’t matter), but I hope there is enough of a worshipping community to keep the church alive for another 600 years.