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Potter Emma Bridgewater in drive to save 15th century North Norfolk church

The east end of St March's church Wiveton. It is one of Norfolks 600 medieval churches
Norfolk is famous for its 600 medieval churches. St Mary's at Wiveton is one of them

The magnificent medieval church of St Mary’s in Wiveton near Blakeney has had a catalogue of bad luck. One of its vicars was hanged for murder, another was defrocked for unbecoming conduct, and another caused outrage when it was found he wore his wife’s clothes - he said for economy. But the current bad luck came when one of the original huge roof beams crashed on to the altar in 2019 which means the church could face closure after 700 years.

Now a fund-raising campaign is being fronted by celebrity potter and Norfolk native Emma Bridgewater, and Normal for Norfolk TV star and landowner, Desmond MacCarthy from Wiveton Hall. Both are passionate about saving the church - a rich part of Norfolk history.

A broken roof beam lies next to the altar of St Mary's church where it fell in 2019
The ancient beam which fell from St Mary's chancel roof on to the altar. Photo: Friends of Wiveton Church

The church was closed for months for emergency repairs. It has now re-opened. But unless money can be found for the roof and other essential work, the church could be closed for good.

St Mary's Church is steeped in history - not only for being a jewel in the crown of North Norfolk churches, but also for its maritime links - yet today visitors will see how the church stands far inland.

But it was the Rev James Hackman who brought notoriety to the parish and added to the stories of its past.

James Hackman was a young army officer who became the rector of Wiveton in February 1779.

But within two months, on April 19, he had been hanged for murder - for shooting Martha Ray, the 33-year-old mistress of John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich.

While an army officer, James Hackman had been invited to a London ball by the Earl where he met and became infatuated with noted singer Martha Ray. James Hackman left the army and proposed to Martha - who turned down the offer. After being ordained, the Rev Hackman was presented to the living in Wiveton.

But the newly ordained vicar was besotted and continued to pursue Martha. When she refused yet another offer of marriage, he bought two pistols and followed her to a London theatre where he watched her in the audience and followed her when she left. When she got into her carriage, he shot her in the head. He used the second pistol on himself - but he missed.

Diarist James Boswell attended both the trial of Rev Hackman and his execution at Tyburn. Boswell and his friend Dr Samuel Johnson, the poet, playwright and essayist, wrote about the events. The details of the infatuation and murder were also used in the popular 1780 novel Love and Madness by English author Herbert Croft.

Fast forward to July 2019. The latest disaster for the church has been caused by deathwatch beetle and damp which resulted in a heavy 12-feet-long oak chancel roof beam crashing on to the altar. Fortunately, the beam crashed down at night when no-one was in the church.

Inspections say chancel roof repairs will cost £150,000 to make the Grade 1-listed 15th century church safe. Other essential and urgent work on the building brings the total needed to £240,000. If the parish is unable to raise the cash by the end of 2022 the 700-year-old church - one of the jewels in the crown of North Norfolk - will have to close.

The interior of St Mary's showing the oak beam roof
The interior of St Mary's

The fund-raising campaign has already raised more than £120,000 from private donors and charitable trusts including a £7,000 grant from Norfolk Churches Trust.

Anyone who gives £100 or more to the appeal will receive an exclusive Emma Bridgewater mug of Wiveton church.

Norfolk has the largest group of medieval churches in the world. They are an important historic legacy for future generations.

St Mary’s Church in Wiveton is a lovely example of this heritage with its wide range of art and craftsmanship. Plans are being made to continue the church’s broad connections to the community with information boards tracing its history over 700 years and another outlining the fauna and flora in the churchyard and how the church continues to care for the environment and nature.

The current Wiveton church was rebuilt entirely when Wiveton’s port was at its most prosperous. It faces the much grander St Margaret Church in Cley half a mile away across the River Glaven valley.

A view from Cley's St Margaret Church to St Mary's in Wiveton
A view from the churchyard of St Margaret in Cley to St Mary's in Wiveton across what used to be the estuary full of ships

Meadows and the river divide the two churches now, but when the church was built Blakeney, Cley and Wiveton formed the Blakeney Haven ports. The church sits at what in medieval times was a tidal estuary.

Ships from Europe sailed to both Cley and Wiveton and moored against the walls of Wiveton’s church. The sailors from these ships left graffiti pictures of their boats scratched on to the pillars in both churches before setting off to the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Iceland or other British ports.

A painting by Norfolk artist Godfrey Sayers of what the port at Wiveton could have looked like in the Middle Ages
A painting by Norfolk artist Godfrey Sayers of what the port at Wiveton could have looked like in the Middle Ages

The harbours and their trade were lost when the marshes around Salthouse were drained and an embankment built across the Glaven estuary where the current Blakeney to Cley road is now.

For more than 700 years St Mary's has held a commanding position in the Glaven valley. The village is working hard to keep it open as a focal point for the community for the next 700 years.

The CrowdFunding website Save Wiveton Church features a video conversation about St Mary's between Emma Bridgewater Desmond MacCarthy.

Desmond MacCarthy and Emma Bridgewater discuss the need to raise funds
Desmond MacCarthy and Emma Bridgewater discuss the need to raise funds on the CrowdFunding website

But to get a sizeable grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund the village, with a population of only 127, is expected to raise a significant amount on its own.

So, Stephen de Loynes, the church’s fabric officer and a church warden, is one of the organisers behind several major fundraising events which have been planned.

These include a recital by Edmund Aldhouse, organist from Ely Cathedral; a talk on re-wilding by Lord Somerleyton; and two concerts organised by Music in Country Churches, a fund-raising trust aimed at helping rural churches raise funds for their running costs and repairs.

For more information about these events, email Stephen de Loynes at:

Donations to the appeal can be sent to Wiveton PCC Fabric Account and sent to: Charles Killin, Treasurer, Esker House, Blakeney Road, Wiveton, Holt NR25 7TL or direct to Account name: Wiveton PCC Fabric Account, Account number: 00012135, Sort Code: 40-52-40

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