A vicar once described the St Mary the Virgin parish church in Great Bircham as “the coldest church in Norfolk.”
But visitors to the church’s fifth French Fair, which was held on Saturday, received a warm Gallic welcome into a world of continental wines and foods accompanied by Mediterranean music which filled the church.
Colourful tents adorned the grounds outdoors and the sun shone on a venture to help raise badly needed funds for restoration work to the church.
One French-style competition which replaced the traditional counting the number of sweets in a jar was a barrel filled with wine bottle corks.
The lemonade on sale was made in the French style, a boulangerie sold French baguettes and the vicar, Rev. Peter Cook, looked resplendent as a French Monsignor.
Even the lunchtime refreshments took on a French flavour and there was much more to enjoy for the constant stream of visitors who sampled the many delights on offer.
Inside the church local artist, Les Cowley, created a representative painting capturing the flavour of the event whilst nearby Bulgarian accordionist, Svetla, provided a constant flow of traditional Mediterranean music.
Wine by the glass slipped easily down thirsty throats and for the sporting there was boules, a game of skill that required little physical effort.
The money raised will go towards a fund to carry out essential repairs to the church and its sister church, All Saints, at Bircham Newton. The present work at St Mary’s is almost completed thanks to the efforts of the church’s fund-raisers.
Three years ago £250,000 was needed, but church warden, Mike Lancefield was able to announce that the target had been met thanks largely to grants from English Heritage, the Norfolk Churches Trust and the Geoffrey Watling charity.
The fabric of the church had been largely neglected for 50 years and, during the Second World War, repairs were carried out with modern materials, which were out of keeping with a 13th century church and needed replacing with traditional materials.
“We’ve had to waterproof and repair the whole church,” said Mr Lancefield. “The tower has had to be renovated and the lead on the windows was badly corroded. Currently two windows on the south side are out being re-leaded.”
But, like so many churches these days, the work of renovation and improvement is never ending.
Mr Lancefield said: “Ideally we’d now like to improve the heating and lighting. It could be our next project because we would like to use the church for events twelve months of the year.”
Currently St Mary’s is only used for worship in the winter months and Mr Lancefield said: “It’s perishing cold in the church in the winter. A previous vicar said he thought it was the coldest church in Norfolk.”
Rev Cook said: “This year has been fantastic. It’s bigger than last year and we’ve had huge numbers coming through the gates. It’s been such a success we are already planning our sixth fair for August next year.”