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From Fakenham to Westhall and back to where it all started

In his weekly Wensum column, Jim Harding visits the church where he was married...

It may not have been an outstanding anniversary but we determined to mark it anyway. Back in 1975 my wife and I were married in the tiny Suffolk hamlet of Westhall, a few miles from the better-known town of Halesworth.

St.Andrews Church did the honours and quite a few of our family and former college friends managed to find Westhall and join in the proceedings. Since the distance between Fakenham and Westhall can be managed in just over an hour’s driving, we have often headed down there on anniversaries to remind ourselves of that special October day.

The font at St Andrew's Church
The font at St Andrew's Church

Anyway, without too much trouble and in good weather despite the forecast, we repeated the exercise, which included lunch at the Horse and Hounds pub en route. I suspected that our church might be locked but its ancient north door opened with a bit of a push and inside it was pleasing to see that local people were caring for its appearance by flower arrangements around the font and elsewhere.

For us it was a very special moment to treasure. We had the place to ourselves and not that much seemed to have changed since we were last down that way. As someone who cherishes the fact that East Anglia plays host to a large number of medieval churches, this was good to know.

One particular relic of a former era held me spellbound. Below what had been the rood screen were 16 panels depicting in colour – much diminished – a selection of saints. My favourite was the one of St James the Great wearing the scallop shell badge of a pilgrim.

Conkers from outside St Andrews Church in Westhall
Conkers from outside St Andrews Church in Westhall

A brief history of the church reminded me of the importance of pilgrimages to places such as Santiago de Compostella in Spain, the Holy Land and, much closer to home, the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham. I’ve yet to make it to the Holy Land but did spend one summer vacation cycling across northern Spain from the Pyrenees to the cathedral at Santiago, following a trail travelled by thousands of pilgrims on foot centuries back.

In fact, many continue to do so to this day. It was much simpler to acknowledge Walsingham but I have certainly biked there and back more than once. So to bring my experiences together on discovering such an ancient panel in our marriage church was indeed something which helped to elevate the whole day.

We completed the visit by walking around the outside of the church, reading some of the tombstones with their names, dates and messages. One minor bit of fun was to collect handfuls of shining conkers to take home. Do others indulge in this sort of frippery? We love to, given the chance.

Altar cross made from roof timber
Altar cross made from roof timber

At my old school ‘playing conkers’ was serious stuff, not to be dismissed lightly. It seems to have fallen by the wayside now and I can’t recall seeing anyone skewering a conker and threading some string through it to engage in hand-to-hand combat. It’s probably been outlawed long since. Still, we continue to find these shining items very attractive and now have a number to slip beneath a pillow or decorate some neglected corner.

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