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Our Lady and St Edmund, Hunstanton
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and St Edmund, Hunstanton
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.
Simon Knott, February 2010
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