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

Our Lady and St Edmund, Hunstanton

Hunstanton Catholic

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Our Lady and St Edmund Our Lady and St Edmund

    Our Lady and St Edmund, Hunstanton
St Nicholas   We'd gone up to Hunstanton to see in the New Year. Some friends in the Midlands had recently bought a flat there on the seafront, and in the middle of the hardest winter for years they were very pleased to have someone go and spend a few days warming the place up. And goodness, was it chilly. Earth stood cold as iron, water like a stone. Even during the day the temperature did not rise much above freezing, and for the first time in my life I walked along the sea shore in the snow.

There was one Hunstanton church I particularly wanted to see, and not only because it would be my last Catholic church in East Anglia. I had promised the goodly priest of Our Lady and St Edmund a couple of years before that I would get up here to poke around in his church, but I had kept putting it off. Hunstanton is a 170 mile round trip from my house, and I had already visited every other church in the area, and so it was not until this opportunity fell my way that I had been able to keep my promise.

In addition, I had got into terrible trouble a couple of years before for what I had written about the Anglican counterpart of this church, St Edmund - or, more precisely, for what I had said about the Anglican sister church at Ringstead. It wasn't exactly that I was keeping my head down, but as much as I love this brash, jaunty little town, I felt that I had probably had enough of it for a little while, and that it had probably had enough of me.

I had wandered past the Anglican parish church on my way to Our Lady and St Edmund. I'd fancied taking a quick peek at its stunningly beautiful interior, but the door was locked. I didn't think it would be a good idea to knock on the Rectory door for the key, at least not under the present incumbency, and so I set off up the Sandringham road, stepping rather carefully on the icy pavements.

In these days when the Catholic church provides the largest single body of worshippers in England, it is hard to conceive that the coast of East Anglia had not a single worshipping Catholic community at the time of the 1851 census of religious worship. Hunstanton was part of the vast parish of Kings Lynn, more than thirty miles across. At the time of the building of the church there, the Lynn Advertiser commented that the parish had less than 150 Catholics all told, and all of them poor. When the north Norfolk coast's first modern Catholic church was built at Cromer in 1886, there was such virulent opposition in the town that it had to be built out in the suburbs on the road to Overstrand. Appropriately, it was dedicated to Our Lady of Refuge. As at Cromer, the Catholic parish church here in Hunstanton was also built on the edge of town. A combination of poverty and unpopularity meant that Catholic communities were never in a position to bid for prime building sites. However, Catholics in this area had a powerful friend. A few miles down the road is Sandringham House, built by the future King Edward VII as his country retreat. At Sandringham he entertained his many foreign friends, almost all of them Catholic, and unlike his puritanical mother he was very supportive of the local Catholic parish, forking out from his own pocket to enable the church at Lynn to be rebuilt in a more worthy manner, if only so that his noble friends would have a fitting place of worship.

North-west Norfolk was one of the most desperately poor areas of England at the end of the 19th century, and it was possible for the future King to buy up vast acreages of land at a pittance, which he put under cultivation, providing jobs for local people as well as requiring many incomers. He is still treated as a bit of a hero in these parts. As the Catholic population grew, so did the demand for a Catholic church on the northern side of the estate, and in 1903 the first small chapel was opened on this site. It was extended threefold in 1958, and then augmented again in the 1990s. The church you approach now, then, is actually a combination of three buildings of different periods. The original church, turned sideways, now forms the sanctuary of the modern church.

It would be fair to say, I think, that this is not an impressive church from the outside. You enter through the most recent extension - unlike the Anglican church down in town, this one was open - and then through glass doors into an utterly charming interior, beautiful and seemly, everything on a small scale. A tremendous amount of love was lavished here, the best of which is in the form of modern stained glass. There is a simply outstanding memorial window of 2008 to a local young man who had trained as a dentist. It depicts St Nicholas, his name Saint, and St Appolonia, that much-loved and invoked Saint of medieval England who was turned to by sufferers from toothache. It is signed PB, and I would love to know who the artist is. I am afraid it puts Paul Quail's rather pedestrian 1995 window of the Blessed Virgin and St Edmund beside it into the shade.

The sanctuary was still decorated from Christmas, and it was enchanting, and I thought what a lovely place this must be to attend Mass. But, not for the first time, the renewed energy and activity of the Catholic Church in East Anglia defeated me. When I came into the church I'd asked the lady in there if she minded me taking some photographs. Of course she did not, and so I set to work on the windows; but while I was doing this, another lady came up to me and told me politely that I was welcome to stay, but that the Holy Hour was about to start. The great thing about Catholic churches is that they don't really mind people wandering around during Mass, but I think that in this particularly intimate space it would have seemed extremely rude and disrespectful of me to clamber about their sanctuary taking photographs while they knelt in the Presence of the Living God. We were heading back to Ipswich in an hour, so I couldn't have waited.

But I will go back, to Mass next time, and to photograph this beautiful church more completely afterwards.

  1995 Paul Quail

Simon Knott, February 2010

PB 2008 Stella Maris St Appolonia towards the sanctuary
St Nicholas Our Lady and St Edmund 1958

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