Over the last one thousand years this church, St Walstan, has been the goal of pilgrims who visit to see the final resting place of the man it was named after – Walstan – and hopefully to experience the miraculous healing power of the well that stands next to it.
The story of Walstan is not as well-known as it used to be but, as a Norfolk saint, patron of farm labourers and animals, his tale is certainly familiar to many of us.
According to legend Walstan was born in Bawburgh (although there is some argument over this) of East Anglian Royal Blood in around 970AD. Prone to visions he was told to give up his worldly possessions and work as a farm labourer. At the age of 13 he began the journey from Bawburgh to Taverham passing through Costessey. As he walked he donated his noble garments to the poor he met on the way. He worked hard on the farm in Taverham, taking only enough money for his keep and giving away everything else to the needy. His employees were worried for him and wanted him to become their heir but he refused; only accepting from them two white calves.
Walstan continued to have visions and after his final one, a vision of his imminent death, he found a priest to perform the last rites. He knelt in prayer and a spring swelled up on the dry farm land allowing the priest to perform the final sacrament. After he had died, according to his instructions, his body was returned to Bawburgh, carried on a cart drawn by the two white oxen. The oxen, left to their own devices, rested in Costessey, where a second spring appeared in a place known as The Roundwell, and at its final stop in Bawburgh a third spring also appeared.
St Walstan’s body was placed in the Church (which was renamed after him many years later) and became the site of pilgrimage for the next ten centuries. Miracles after miracle was reported there until the reformation when this shrine was destroyed, his relics burned and the village fell into poverty.
A nineteenth century revival of Walstan’s (and Bawburgh’s) fortunes saw more miracles being claimed associated with the water in the well of St Walstan. In 1818 a Francis Bunn was cured of leg ulcers and other stories survive, reported in both the local and national newspapers. As late as 1913 the Eastern Daily Press dubbed it the Lourdes of Norfolk and reported the cure of a London catholic who had suffered eye problems.
But this centuries old tradition was turned on its head in 1928 when the Rev Gabriel Young, vicar of Bawburgh, broke the news that the water in the well was less miraculous and more scientific. Talking to the Daily Mail he claimed that the curative power of the well could only be explained because the water contained radium. He had proof – he had had it analysed – he told the reporters.
Radium, first discovered in 1898 was a fashionable and much sought after element throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Its properties and seemingly miraculous curative powers were much reported in the newspapers and utilised within medicine where reports claimed it could cure (amongst others) blindness, cancer, diabetes and wife beating. It also found its way into scores of products from cosmetics to supercharged fertiliser and glow in the dark clocks which were available in large shops and chemists up and down Britain.
So whether you believe in the radioactive properties of a small well in Norfolk or whether you believe that miracles can happen. It is quite worth the visit.
Daily Mail 4th August 1928