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A unique architectural heritage
Much of the charm of Walsingham lies in its outstanding architecture. Medieval timber-framed houses, Georgian buildings and facades, and atmospheric ruins create a tangible feeling of antiquity, yet modern architecture still has its place.
The earliest examples of medieval architecture are found in the grounds of the ruined Augustinian Priory founded c1153 – today known as the Abbey. Here you can see the Norman Arch with its dog-tooth carvings at the entrance to the Wishing Wells, the west window of the Refectory, and the magnificent 14th century East Window often referred to as ‘the Arch’.
The Franciscan Friary is a superb example of 14th century architecture. Long since ruined, it has a 16th century domestic house built into it.
The Roman Catholic Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham at Houghton St. Giles (a mile and a quarter outside Walsingham) is located in the 14th century Slipper Chapel.
Curious grid layout
In the 13th century, when Walsingham was attracting pilgrims from all over England and Europe, the centre of the village moved away from its Anglo Saxon origins around the parish church to be nearer the Augustinian Priory and Holy House. The new ‘planned’ village was laid out on a grid pattern and built principally to cater for the pilgrims.
Unusually, Walsingham had two markets, though neither still exists today. The Augustinian canons held their market in the Tuesday Market Place, now called Common Place, near the entrance to the Priory.
Then King Edward III gave the Franciscan Friars the right to hold a weekly market on Fridays and certain special feast days, hence the name of Friday Market which still stands today. Market day rents paid by stallholders went to the Priory and the Friary respectively and there was considerable rivalry between the two.
Dragon posts and beams
Many of the houses in or near Common Place are timber-framed buildings of the 15th and 16th centuries, either single or double jettied, some still with their dragon posts and beams. Queen Post and King Post roofs are found in many of the older buildings.
The High Street broadens out into a square called Common Place, in the middle of which is a 16th century octagonal building which today has an iron brazier on the top of its stone roof. Once a public water supply, the pump house at one time had a pinnacle (as shown in this early photograph) but this was reputedly broken off around 1900. Opinions differ as to whether this was during celebrations for the Relief of Mafeking, or a bit later on, for the coronation of Edward VII, and was apparently due to the weight of bunting which had been attached. The brazier is lit on special occasions, such as for the chain of beacons lit around the country during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in 2012.
The timbered Bull public house in Common Place was part of the outer precinct of the Augustinian Priory. The Oxford Stores on the High Street is a fine Renaissance building of the 16th century with beautiful moulded brickwork and good timber framing.
The Black Lion Hotel in Friday Market is one of the oldest houses in Walsingham. During the 17th century it became a coaching inn, and in the 18th century the Petty Sessions were held here until they were moved to the Shirehall in 1861.
Friday Market used to have a market cross and pillory but this is now replaced by a Grade II listed red telephone box.
After the Dissolution of the Augustinian Priory with its Holy House and the Franciscan Friary in 1538, Walsingham continued as a market town, legal and administrative centre. Many of the timber-framed buildings were modernised with Georgian facades. For example, the Shirehall/Court House is a Georgian Façade on a late medieval building that was originally part of the Augustinian Priory.
The High Street shows some excellent examples of architectural developments though the village’s history. The 16th century shop on the corner with Common Place is jettied on two sides and shows close studding of the oak timbers that is traditional to Norfolk. Inside you can see a fine dragon beam. The next house has a brick and flint façade with cruciform windows dateable to 1690-1700. The third house is again an earlier building with an early 18th century brick façade and Georgian windows.
Further along, the Dutch gabled house is 17th or early 18th century. Look for the firemark between the 1st and 2nd upstairs windows, which indicated that the house was insured in case of fire and which company carried the risk.
The House of Correction/Bridewell
Based on prison reformer John Howard’s plans for a Model Prison, this was built in 1787 on the site of the old leper hospital. The original prison had eight cells, a chapel and day room, but was extended in 1822 to accommodate more prisoners. Treadwheels were installed in 1823 to grind corn and provide work for the prisoners. When the prison was closed in 1861 unsuccessful attempts were made to steam-drive the treadwheels. The Chimney is still standing near the car park.
The Methodist Chapel
Built in 1781, this is the only Georgian Methodist Chapel still in use in East Anglia.
The Anglican Shrine, established by Fr. Alfred Hope Patten in 1931, has continued to be developed with excellent examples of 20th and early 21st century architecture in the modern accommodation blocks, refectory, visitors centre, gardens and chapels.
The Chapel of Reconciliation at the Roman Catholic Shrine was built in 1979/1980 to look like a barn, so that it would blend into its rural surroundings.
The Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciation, built in Friday Market in 2006/2007, is a superb example of a modern eco-friendly church. Britain’s first carbon-neutral church, it uses solar panels for electricity and the earth’s heat for heating. The Church has a modern Round Tower, and a light and airy interior, with a spectacular East Window designed by Anthony Rossi and crucifix by Mark Corith.
Walsingham Farms Shop and Great Walsingham Barns offer good examples of how farm buildings no longer suitable for modern agricultural purposes, can be successfully converted for other commercial uses.