The story of a shared churchyard

St Lawrence Centre set up for a wedding reception

Sister Churches

Many Norfolk villages can boast two medieval churches – but only around a dozen have two places of worship in one churchyard. South Walsham is proud to be one such village, the churches of St Mary and St Lawrence have stood almost side by side since the 15th centaury.

Today, St Mary’s is the parish church, holding weekly services and other events, whilst St Lawrence’s (which is partly ruined), has been transformed into a unique and very special arts centre.

Why were two churches built so close together?

A legend has grown up around the origin of shared churchyards – a phenomenon confined to East Anglia and Lincolnshire. It concerns two wealthy sisters who inherited equal shares in their fathers estate. The sisters fell out and each decided to build her own church in the same graveyard. The story goes that one sister was a ‘bad lot’ whose church fell into disrepair, while that belonging to the ‘good sister’ remains standing.

As with many such legends, it may hold a grain of truth; but in this case historians think it is the splitting of an ancient manor that led to the creation of two separate parishes. The boundary line runs between the two churches. If you look across the road from the churches, you will see the Old Rectory on the left and the Old Vicarage to its right – the homes of the two clergymen who served the parishes, both now private residences.

It is known that an Anglo-Saxon church stood on this site around 1190; perhaps it was selected because it was then highest point in the two parishes; far from the river and any possible flooding.

What happened to St Lawrence’s Church?

Most of the Church of St Mary that we see today was built between 1290-1350, while St Lawrence’s, which was the larger of the two, was completed in the late 1400’s and early 1500’s. It was nearly twice the length of its sister church but sadly only a small portion of that original building remains today.

In 1827 a blaze broke out in a cattle yard behind the nearby Ship Inn that set fire to the thatched roof of St Lawrence’s Church. Part of the tower collapsed, smashing the walls of the nave and destroying the church. Luckily for South Walsham, the fire did not affect St Mary’s, although a barn and a village blacksmith’s shop were also destroyed.

Five years later, in 1832, the authorities repaired and extended the chancel – the part of the church where the high altar was placed. The remains of the tower (built in between 1487-1497) stood alone and separate from the newly refurbished and much smaller church.

The tower continued as a noble village landmark for more than 140 years, but luck was not on it’s side; in 1970 it was struck by lightning and the following year it crumbled almost completely after a sonic boom from a low flying aircraft.

The base of the tower and the remaining rubble have been made safe and now form part of the Sacristan’s Garden, which was established on the footprint of the original nave and tower.

On the west end of St Lawrence’s, overlooking the garden, a bell cage was erected when the tower could no longer house the traditional bells.

The sister churches today

The shared churchyard is no longer used as a burial ground, having been closed in 1998, with a new cemetery established nearby.

St Lawrence’s was used regularly for worship until 1946 and then it fell into disrepair. A restoration project in the 1990s saw it reborn as St Lawrences Centre for the Arts. It still holds occasional church services but also hosts art and Pilates classes, the village Girl guiding unit and a regular lunch club. As well as concerts, exhibitions and a popular Christmas Craft Market. It can also be booked for parties, wedding receptions and other private functions. You can also become a Friend of St Lawrence’s

St Mary’s has a thriving congregation and is well known for it’s Christmas Tree Festival and regular flower festivals. A warm welcome is extended to it’s Sunday services which are usually held at 11am.

A churchyard conservation programme has been in operation for more than two years, undertaken by volunteers Paul and Maggie Cooper, with advice from the Norfolk Wildlife Trust. An area behind St Lawrence’s was roped off in the autumn of 2023 to prevent grass cutting; from September there was an amazing display of Waxcap mushrooms

Both churches rely on generous donations to cover the substantial maintenance costs which medieval buildings naturally incur. They are run by volunteers and both are open to the public daily. If you decide to visit and make a donation, there are secure boxes in both churches and a card machine in St Mary’s.