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

St Wandregesilius, Bixley

Well, that about wraps it up for Bixley

Read the captions by hovering over the images, and click on them to see them enlarged.
St Wandregesilius in its bosky glade, as Barmy Arfur has it Look - there's something wrong Ward monument in graveyard

    St Wandregesilius, Bixley
Chancel door kicked in, by some burly fireman no doubt   A shady lane brings us to the church on the edge of a field of oaks, 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 - Arthur Mee, 1940

Well, Barmy Arthur would still recognise the lane and the graveyard, although County Hall is now rather more prominent on the horizon than the cathedral spire. If anything, the spot is more remote today; so many 'shady lanes' have disappeared under either tarmac or the plough these last sixty-five years, but the lane up to St Wandregesilius remains a farm track, and the locked gate at the road end stops vehicles from making it too rutted.

The dedication is rather striking. St Wandregesilius, a Latinised form of the French St Wandrille, is unique in England. You expect such dedications to be the result of enthusiastic 19th century Anglo-catholic Rectors, but there really was a shrine to this Saint here at Bixley in the middle ages, and so the dedication is not wholly spurious.

When Mee and Cautley came this way, they were closer in time to the rebuilding of the church than they are to today. In 1868, all except the 14th century tower was completely replaced - Pevsner thought he saw the hand of Teulon in the cruciform design. Only the famous Ward monuments survived the restoration, collected together in the north transept, along with a single medieval brass and a rare dedication stone of 1272.

On the night of Thursday 3rd May 2004, the church was completely destroyed by fire, probably started deliberately with one of the gas canisters used for heating. These canisters exacerbated the inferno by exploding at its peak. Everything inside was destroyed, except for the brass (it was set in the floor, not on the wall) and the monuments. All else became a charred forest of carbonised benches and calcified stone, shadows and ghosts of what was once there, inside a vast black skeleton.

St Wandregesilius now sits within a high security fence of bonded steel to prevent people from risking their lives in the ruins. It faces an uncertain future, except to say that it is unlikely ever to be restored to use as a parish church again. No doubt the walls are solid enough, and it could perhaps be converted into use as a house or something.

  View through the east window

Many people I have spoken to would rather see it allowed to become a ruin - as Tom Muckley observed, such things are a traditional aspect of the English landscape. For myself, I wonder if something similar to what has been done at the similarly remote church of Iken in Suffolk might be possible: there, the building was reroofed, but left as an empty shell for the visits of pilgrims and travellers. Daily prayers are said, and even in winter these are regularly attended by visitors. Iken is too remote for the building there to be used for exhibitions or concerts, but that is part of its simple charm, and it remains a primitive (and cheap) form of witness. I think the same would work here as well.

If nothing is done, then no doubt the elements will do their work anyway. Already, the charred beams sway dangerously in the wind, the remaining ridge and roof tiles teetering and occasionally falling to smash below. The entire church is full of thousands of little fragments, and when you stand in the nave or under the crossing looking up, it is like being inside the fossil of an enormous mammal.

ridge tiles balance precariously Nave roof The tower through the charred roof roof at the crossing of the transepts

The font suffered intense heat from the burning of the wooden floors of the belfry, which which fell when the tower became a chimney in the inferno, and has completely calcified; it is now breaking up in the frosty air. Someone has thrown a singed bible into the bowl. Nearby, the parish chest is still intact, but completely incinerated. The board on the wall above is the former war memorial. At the east end, melted glass sags in the bottom of the windows like cheese oozing off of toast.

I was amazed by how efficient the wooden doors had been at holding in the blaze. The vestry, in the north-west corner, is still full of undamaged books and cleaning equipment. The notice boards in the south porch are similarly undamaged.

I walked through the debris towards the chancel, being careful not to step on the metal grill which appeared to have a nasty drop beneath it. I picked my way through the remains of benches, the lectern, the candelabras, and stood under the crossing.

Looking up, the meeting of the struts was crazy, like being inside the Snowdon aviary at London Zoo. In the west transept, brick outlines on the wall show where the Ward monuments were. In the south transept, a tiny image bracket on the wall supported a pathetic stump of the former image of the Blessed Virgin. I sorted through the rubble, and found another length of the statue, calcifying, crumbling in my hand. 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 2005

  "I found a pathetic fragment of the statue of Our Lady in the rubble, and replaced it on its bracket..."   Shrine of Our Lady of Bixley

The south transept site of the dedication stone altar and east window Looking west from the chancel steps The calcified font The nave
charred benches The base of the lectern Charred benches The vestry door South doorway from within Looking up into the tower - it became a chimney in the inferno
View through the chancel door rubbish in the font Former war memorial Utter devastation
View through the chancel door Church chest North-west corner of the nave From the south doorway, traditional first sight of a church
North transept window North transept Melted glass in east window Empty 'next service' board

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