Flintspiration: Celebrating Norwich’s spectacular medieval churches

St Giles Church, Norwich

St Giles Church, Norwich - Credit: Rowan Mantell

Anywhere else, just one of these buildings would be a wonder, but with more than 30 in the city centre alone, Norwich has a host of reasons to celebrate its first Flintspiration festival

The 31 medieval churches of Norwich are a modern miracle.

And this spring they will star in a celebration of their astonishing beauty, survival and significance.

Nowhere else in northern Europe has such a treasury of churches – from tiny flint buildings hunched into the streetscape to the soaring majesty of Norwich Cathedral.

Flintspiration will be a festival of this remarkable inheritance of churches, with tours, trails, talks, processions, displays, exhibitions, craft demonstrations, street theatre, music guided walks, children's games and activities – and beer and dancing too.

The festival will run from Saturday, April 29 to Monday, May 1, with as many as possible of the 31 remaining medieval churches open and taking part in the festival.

Flintspiration: Norwich Medieval Churches Weekend is being organised by Norwich Historic Churches Trust and will include activities inside churches, outside churches, and across a city centre shaped by churches.

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'Trying to encourage the public to view the city through its churches is a new thing,' said Flintspiration project officer Heather Guthrie.

'We are hoping it's going to bring in both church beginners and church addicts, and people from far afield and nearby.'

St Peter Mancroft will be a hub for activities throughout the weekend, and the programme will stretch right across the city, with many of the churches, and organisations housed in them, putting on special displays for visitors.

St Clement is now a workshop training stone masons and its plans include a procession through the city, reminiscent of the ancient guild parades and including the performance of medieval mystery plays.

Church trails are being developed to help people find out more about the buildings, with some focusing on particular areas of Norwich, or the connections between a group of churches, and others aimed at children, with goodie bags on completion. There will be a trail of churchyards, downloadable trails, trails connecting characters from history and trails focusing on neighbouring churches.

'We want to encourage people into these buildings, and to feel that there is something for them,' said Heather.

And although the initial funding, from the Heritage Lottery Fund, is just for one festival, parts of Flintspiration could become an annual fixture in the Norfolk calendar.

It was exactly 50 years ago that the Diocese of Norwich carried out a major review of its city centre churches, and with falling city centre populations and church congregations, no longer needed most of its churches.

Alternative uses had to found for the rest. Six years later the Norwich Historic Churches Trust was launched. Today it cares for 18 Grade I-listed medieval churches in Norwich which are no longer used for worship and have been deconsecrated.

It is responsible both for the maintenance of many of the beautiful buildings, and finding new uses for them. Today they are landlords to art galleries and workshops, bookshops, dance and drama schools, theatres and cafes.

Neil Blunt, vice chairman and trustee of the Norwich Historic Churches Trust, said: 'We have concentrated, for most of the past 40-plus years, on conservation and we have kept them intact by letting them out to various groups and using the revenue to keep them repaired.

'They are still very much thought of as part of the city. We are the biggest host to cultural organisations in the city.

'These buildings have always been important. They continue to be important because they have been put to excellent uses.'

For Flintspiration, Norwich Historic Churches Trust is working alongside a project led by the University of East Anglia.

The UEA's Medieval Churches of Norwich team are recording details of every medieval church in Norwich, including the ruins and the lost, or ghost, churches which have been destroyed by fire, war, demolition, disaster and the dissolution of the monasteries over the past millennium and more.

The diocese of Norwich, Norwich Cathedral and the national Churches Conservation Trust, which looks after three of the city's churches, are also involved in Flintspiration.

Sandy Heslop of the University of East Anglia's The Medieval Churches of Norwich Research Project said: 'Redundant churches aren't something to be frightened of. They are something to be celebrated. They are an important aspect of the cityscape, the streetscape, and they are still important to the parishes, of use to the public. Okay it's not the use they used to have, but it's a public-facing use.

'What's important is to show what can be done with these churches.'

Flintspiration, from April 29 to May 1, is a chance to celebrate the churches which have been at the centre of our history for centuries.

It will include those still used for worship and still at the heart of parish and community life and those which now draw people in to enjoy entertainment, browse stalls, or learn new skills.

While Flintspiration has been planned and funded as a single weekend, it could be the start of longer-running initiatives, including annual events and a possible permanent visitor centre.

'If Norwich has got this unique position then why are we not shouting about it?' asked Heather. Well, this spring, we will.

Flintspiration: Norwich Medieval Churches Weekend, will run from Saturday, April 29 to Bank Holiday Monday, May 1.

For full details of Flintspiration, as the festival takes shape, visit www.flintspiration.org

Anyone interested in helping, as a volunteer host in a church, or as an advisor helping people enjoy the festival, can contact Stella Eglinton stella.eglinton@norwich-churches.org