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The Annunciation, Little Walsingham

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The Annunciation, Little Walsingham

They say that things come full circle, and that is certainly true here at Little Walsingham, where the great circle of the liturgical year is the counterpoint to the life of the Anglican and Catholic shrines. The saying is truer in a deeper sense, too. Before the Reformation, Walsingham was one of the most famous Catholic shrines in Europe. During the long penal years, when Catholicism was illegal in England, and the practice of the Faith punishable by death, probably there were few visitors to this remote corner of north-west Norfolk, and most of those outsiders who did find their way here were antiquarians and historians, intrigued by a long-dead past. In the 19th Century when the Catholic church legally and officially returned to England, it still did not make its presence much felt in East Anglia. Frederick Hibgame, in his A Great Gothic Fane: a Retrospective of Catholicity in Norwich, 1913, observed that for the ordinary Norfolker, the idea that his ancestors had been Catholics was as remote as the idea that dinosaurs had once roamed the land.

After the restoration of the English hierarchy in 1851, Walsingham found itself in the parish of King's Lynn, but in the 1890s a Catholic presence was re-established in the immediate area when Charlotte Boyd, a convert, gave the so-called Slipper Chapel at Houghton St Giles on the outskirts of Walsingham to the Diocese of Northampton, in which Norfolk found itself at the time, intending it for liturgical use. But this was certainly not evidence of a lively Catholic community in Walsingham. Indeed, the Kings Lynn parish records of the time recorded just one Catholic inhabitant of the place, and she was a resident of the Workhouse. Not surprisingly, the Catholic shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham remained at the Kings Lynn church. However, the Anglicans established a shrine at Walsingham in the 1930s, and this seems to have been the impetus for the Diocese of Northampton rapidly translated the Kings Lynn shrine to the Slipper Chapel . As a consequence, Little Walsingham was made a Catholic parish in its own right, and a church needed to be built in the village itself. Before the Reformation, Catholic priests had ministered at the magnificent church of St Mary, a short walk from here. But in the second half of the 20th Century, it was to a little brick-faced hut that the Catholic sacraments returned, a temporary church erected in the Friday Market in 1950. It was intended to be replaced as soon as possible, but it remained in use for more than fifty years. Throughout this time, the replacement of the temporary structure with a 'proper' parish church was discussed, but it was not until 1996, under the guidance of Bishop Peter Smith, that the first plans were drawn up.

Work commenced in 2005 to the designs of local architect Anthony Rossi. The cost of the building was well over a million pounds. In no small way this was due to the influence of Bishop Peter, a noted aesthete, who ensured that there would be no half-measures, only the best would be good enough in terms of materials and design. The new Catholic parish church of Little Walsingham was consecrated by his successor, Bishop Michael Evans, on the 22nd October 2006. The year is picked out in red brick and flint on the front of the church, beneath that memorable evocation of old Norfolk, a round tower. This rises above the sanctuary within, and it contains a bell donated by the Parish of Sudbury. In front of the building is an open forecourt, tying the new church into a relationship with the Friday Market and the Pilgrim Bureau beside it (and, it must be said, the pub next door). The cross is the one survival from the earlier church.

You enter the building through wooden doors into a narthex. One of the first things you see on entering is a reminder that this structure is not merely traditional. A solar energy unit displays how much electricity is being generated by the panels on the roof, how much is being used, and how much stored. The Annunciation was designed to be Britain's first carbon-neutral church. The interior you step into beyond is wide, open and fan-shaped, focused on the narrow window behind the altar, as if echoing a Norman lancet. The other focus is the font, with the holy oils displayed behind it in containers of coloured glass. The overall sense is of simplicity and beauty.

Perhaps the interior is not entirely successful. The exposed girders of the roof make it feel lower than it needs to be, and it cries out for a central lantern light. I think also would have preferred a semi circle of chairs to the long benches, which are a bit too strong in their lines. And yet, this building is defiantly of its period, without any cloying traditionalisms. Virtually everything is new and all of a piece, the first important East Anglian church of the 21st Century. And so, the full circle has been joined. In the 1550s, when the Catholic Church left Little Walsingham, people could not possibly have imagined the modern, beautiful building to which it would one day return.

Simon Knott, May 2022

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looking east sanctuary tabernacle
font Blessed Virgin St Joseph
looking north from the door

   
   
               
                 

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