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Saturday, 27 October 2012

Bixley: the unloved St Wandregesilius

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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.

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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. 080

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.

4 comments:

  1. Hello Steve, I just came across your blog post now and share your sense that Bixley is a hallowed and special place. You may be interested to learn, however, that our church has established a clear historical link with this ancient shrine, and that just over a year ago we commissioned a new ikon of St Wandregesilius, translated the life from the French edition as well as composing a canon (series of hymns) in his honour. You can read more about this here:

    http://www.joyofallwhosorrow.org.uk/media/files/The_Vita_Prima_of_St_Wandregesilius.pdf

    Holy Father Wandregesilius pray to God for us!

    Mark Tattum-Smith
    http://www.joyofallwhosorrow.org.uk/

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    Replies
    1. Hi Mark,

      I'm afraid your comment got lost in some other spam comments which I have only just removed. Thanks so much for replying. I've now written a new post in the light of your fascinating new info.

      Best wishes

      Steve

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  2. Very sad to visit the church of St Wandregesilious uncared for and forgotten. Once part of the community it could be restored and become museum and be part of the community again

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  3. I was using Google Maps to find some interesting woods to explore and noticed Bixley church was 'marked out' as a ruin. Being interested in old ruins I clicked the mouse to learn more as it is just off the main road as I enter Norwich from south of the border.
    The name 'Wandregesilious' is a bit fanciful methinks, but even if the chap really existed, we can be sure anything attributed to him can be taken with a pinch of salt, the same as a certain 'King Edmund' who seemingly, had no army to defend him, so hid under a bridge, was quickly found by the invaders after asking the locals of the whereabouts of their supposed leader ("Hiding under the bridge last time I looked"!) and was used for target practice whilst shouting out to his god to help him. Hmmmmm ... ...

    Despite being a 'realist', I still like to visit old churches just to see how gullible people were in those days, so in that sense I hope none of this fascinating 'history' was lost but as for Jane's suggestion of turning it into a museum ... no thanks, just tidy up the gravestones (to respect the dead) and leave everything else to nature.

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