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The wonder of Walstan

PUBLISHED: 16:30 23 May 2016 | UPDATED: 16:30 23 May 2016

The pretty village of Bawburgh

The pretty village of Bawburgh

ARCHANT NORFOLK

Exactly 1,000 years ago a Norfolk farm worker saint was buried in Bawburgh and tales of miracles began spreading through the land, writes Rowan Mantell

St Mary and St Walstan Church in Bawburgh.St Mary and St Walstan Church in Bawburgh.

TWO WHITE cows pull a cart, laden with the dead body of a humble, holy man, through countryside just west of Norwich.

As they slow and stop in a valley close to Bawburgh church, water begins to seep from the land beneath their feet, just as it had at Breck Farm, Taverham, from where they set out, and at Costessey, where they paused to rest. A well, still full of water, marks the spot where the white cows halted at Bawburgh, exactly 1,000 years ago, at the end of the St Walstan’s final journey.

The much-loved farm worker, rumoured to be descended from royalty, is said to have renounced his wealth at the age of 12 and started working on the land at Taverham. He gained a reputation for his holiness and for healing sick animals and people. After forseeing his death in a vision, he asked for his body to be placed on a cart, pulled by two white cows he had been given in lieu of wages. They were to wander unguided, and his body was to be buried where they stopped. Some versions of the story suggest Walstan was also born in Bawburgh.

Soon people began to talk of being healed after visiting his grave. A shrine grew up and pilgrims travelled to the church of this new Norfolk saint, who became the patron of farm workers and agriculture.

St Mary and St Walstan Church in Bawburgh.
PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAYSt Mary and St Walstan Church in Bawburgh. PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY

For more than 500 years St Walstan was revered, but when Henry VIII ordered the destruction of monasteries and shrines across the nation, the chapel on the north side of the church was demolished and the holy relics scattered. However, the name and the stories of this Saxon farm labourer lived on and this month the 1,000th anniversary of his death will be marked with services, celebrations and a flower festival. Both Bishop Graham, the Anglican Bishop of Norwich, and Bishop Alan, the Roman Catholic Bishop of East Anglia, will preside over a pilgrim walk from nearby Marlingford, followed by a celebratory open-air service at St Walstan’s Well, Bawburgh.

Carol Twinch has been intrigued by the story of St Walstan since she moved to Bawburgh about 30 years ago. She and her husband farmed in the village and she says: “I was brought up in Hoxne, so I knew all about St Edmund, but I remember going into the village shop in Bawburgh and being told about this local saint. I was fascinated by the longevity of the legend, and the fact that although agriculture is so important to our lives, there are so few agricultural saints.”

She began researching St Walstan and although she now lives in Suffolk she has just written her third book about the saint, published to coincide with the 1,000th anniversary. “Every time I do something, it raises new questions,” she says. “It’s turned into a bit of an obsession!”

The artefact she would most love to discover is the 15th century story of Walstan’s life, which still existed in the 17th century, when some extracts were copied, but has since disappeared. “And if I can’t have that, then there are believed to be wall paintings of St Walstan, which might one day be uncovered, at Ashby Church, near Lowestoft,” she says.

Betty Martins who is helping organise the 1,000th anniversary celebrations at St Walstan's Well  in Bawburgh.
PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAYBetty Martins who is helping organise the 1,000th anniversary celebrations at St Walstan's Well in Bawburgh. PHOTO BY SIMON FINLAY

Facts about Norfolk’s humble holy saint might be shrouded in the thousand years of history which have passed since he farmed this landscape, but his legacy lives on in ancient pictures and prayers, in stories still told, in water flowing into Norfolk wells, and in pilgrims following in faith.

Celebrations

The 1,000th anniversary eventscelebrations include a three-day flower festival, based around the theme of St Walstan’s lLegend, in Bawburgh church from Saturday, May 28 to Monday, May 30, 10.30am to 4.30pm daily.

And on Sunday, May 29 people are invited to join a pilgrimage across the fields from Marlingford to Bawburgh. The walk begins at Marlingford Village Hall at 2.30pm and finishes with an open-air service led by the Bishop of Norwich and the Bishop of East Anglia, on the meadow beside St Walstan’s Well, Bawburgh, at 5pm.

The grounds of Church Farmhouse will be open during the flower festival so that visitors can enjoy a short circular walk between the church and well. Refreshments will be available at the farmhouse.

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