home I index I latest I glossary I introductions I e-mail I about this site

The Norfolk Churches Site: an occasional sideways glance at the churches of Norfolk

St Wandregesilius, Bixley

Bixley

east end and north transept porch transept door

Follow these journeys as they happen at Last Of England Twitter.

    St Wandregesilius, Bixley

The popular writer Arthur Mee came this way in the first summer of the Second World War, or at least one of his contributors did. A shady lane brings us to the church on the edge of a field of oaks, he recorded in his King's England volume for Norfolk, and gives us a sight of the cathedral spire three miles away. The churchyard is brightened by clumps of gold in daffodil time, and it has a ring of firs growing taller than the tower. You can still recognise the lane and the churchyard from his description today, although County Hall is now a more prominent landmark on the horizon than the cathedral spire. And if anything Bixley church is even more remote than it was in Mee's time, for so many shady lanes have disappeared under tarmac or the plough during these last eighty years. But the track up to St Wandregesilius survives, and the locked gate at the road end stops motor vehicles from making it rutted and muddy.

Munro Cautley, visiting a couple of years earlier than Mee, thought the church nearly re-built except for the small 14c tower with its octagonal turret stairs and no belfry windows. He also recorded that on the outside of the church there was an old stone inscribed 'orate pro anima Wilelmi de Donewico fundatoris hus ecclesie propicietur de' showing that William of Denmark was the founder of the old church, which may have been a printer's error or even the usually reliable Cautley's misreading of his own notes, because Donewico was Dunwich, not Denmark.

The dedication of the church is memorable. St Wandregesilius is a Latinised form of the French St Wandrille, and is a unique dedication in England, one of three such unique dedications in Norfolk. You expect such things to be the result of an enthusiastic 19th Century Anglo-Catholic rector, and perhaps it was, but it seems that there really was a shrine to this saint here at Bixley in the late Middle Ages, and so the modern dedication is perhaps not entirely spurious. When Mee and Cautley came this way they were closer in time to the 1868 rebuilding of the church than they were to today. Pevsner thought he saw the hand of Samuel Teulon in the cruciform design, which is unusual for East Anglia. A striking late 16th Century memorial to Edward Ward, his wife and their nine children was moved into the north transept as part of the restoration, along with several fine 18th Century Ward memorials. A brass inscription was left in the middle of the nave, which would prove to be its salvation, as we will see.

On the night of Thursday 3rd May 2004 this little church was completely destroyed by fire, probably started deliberately with one of the gas canisters used for heating. Some of these canisters exacerbated the inferno by exploding at its peak, and the locked gate at the bottom of the lane slowed the response of the emergency services. Everything inside was destroyed except for the Ward memorials and the brass, which would have melted if it had been removed to a wall.

A few months later I came with the church historian and photographer Cameron Newham to explore St Wandregesilius. We stepped through the fallen door of the north transept into a charred forest of carbonised benches and calcified stone, shadows and ghosts of what had once been there, beneath the canopy of a vast black skeleton.

font and north doorway looking east north transept and memorials
looking west charred roof timbers font sanctuary

Above us, the carbonised beams swayed dangerously in the wind, the remaining ridge and roof tiles teetering and occasionally falling to smash below. The entire church was filled with thousands of these little fragments. I walked through the debris towards the chancel, through the remains of benches, the lectern, and what appeared to have been a candelabra. In the north transept, brick outlines on the wall showed where the Ward monuments had once been before being removed for security, along with the brass, soon after the fire. Looking back to the west, the font suffered intense heat from the burning of the wooden floors of the belfry, which fell when the tower became a chimney in the inferno. It had completely calcified and was now breaking up in the frosty winter air. Some other visitor had thrown a singed bible into the bowl.

Nearby, the parish chest was still intact, but completely incinerated. The blackened board on the wall above it had been the parish war memorial. At the east end, melted glass sagged in the bottoms of the windows like cheese oozing off of toast. And yet, the thick wooden doors into vestry and porch had held back the blaze. The vestry, in the north-west corner, was still home to undamaged books and cleaning equipment. The notice boards in the south porch were similarly undamaged. But everything within was lost, and fifteen years on this burnt out church still lies forlornly, surrounded by a rusting security fence.

At the time of our visit I was sure that St Wandregesilius would never be restored to use as a parish church again, and so it has proved. The insurance company paid out half a million pounds for the damage, but it was decided to plough this money back into other churches in the Norwich Diocese. It was decided to preserve just the tower, which after all was the only old part of the structure, and reduce the walls to ground level. However, the cost of this proved prohibitive, and so planning permission was sought from, and granted by, South Norfolk District Council for conversion of the ruin into a domestic dwelling. This was granted, and so the site will be put up for sale.

In a way it seems a shame that it can't just be left as a ruin. As the late Tom Muckley observed of Bixley, such things were once a traditional aspect of the English landscape, and if nothing was done it would return slowly to earth over the years. But of course the safety of visitors had to be the primary concern, and so either the walls must be taken down or the site must be rebuilt.

Back in the winter of 2005, it was time to go. In the south transept a tiny image bracket on the wall supported a pathetic stump of what had once been a statue of the Blessed Virgin. I sorted through the rubble, and found another length of the statue, calcifying, crumbling in my hand as I picked it up. Carefully, I propped it back up in its place. Just for a second, it was as if something resonated, something eternal began to beat again.

Simon Knott, February 2021

Follow these journeys as they happen at Last Of England Twitter.

   

looking north-west from the south transept view across the transepts chest
looking west south side of sanctuary south transept Blessed Virgin
charred roof timbers Bixley charred roof timbers
melted glass trefoil window view from the north transept doorway
benches decalogue board? vestry door benches
lady chapel up the tower font lectern

Bixley

Amazon commission helps cover the running costs of this site.

home I index I latest I introductions I e-mail I about this site I glossary
Norwich I ruined churches I desktop backgrounds I round tower churches
links I small print I www.simonknott.co.uk I www.suffolkchurches.co.uk

The Norfolk Churches Site: an occasional sideways glance at the churches of Norfolk