Norfolk on a stick: The saint who gave up riches for rags
- Credit: Archant
He gave up his riches for a life of labour and became the patron saint of farms and those who toil on them. St Walstan is still remembered in two Norfolk villages, as Dr Anderw Tullett explains.
St Walstan, the patron saint of farms and farm labourers, died on May 30, 1016. His feast day is celebrated on the anniversary of his death.
In Bawburgh and Taverham, however, the saint is remembered every day by residents who pass by his image on their respective village signs. St Walstan had a close association with both settlements.
Walstan was born in Bawburgh to parents who were both of noble birth.
Despite this, Walstan decided to forsake all riches in pursuit of his faith at a very young age. Walstan is said to have been inspired by the biblical quote, "So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:33).
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At the age of just twelve he left his family in Bawburgh and set out on his own.
At Costessey, Walstan met two beggars. At this first opportunity he gave up his rich attire and swapped clothes with the paupers. Later, arriving at Taverham dressed in rags, he met a farmer called Nalga.
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He offered Walstan shelter and employment as a farm labourer.
Walstan spent the rest of his life working on the farm at Taverham.
Nalga and his wife treated St Walstan as an adopted son. One story relates that they became angry after Walstan gave away his shoes, so they gave him a task of loading brambles and nettles onto a cart.
Walstan carried out the job barefoot as if the spines and stings were nothing but petals.
Walstan remained avowedly celibate throughout his life although he was not a monk. Through prayer he was said to be able to heal people and animals that were brought before him. He chose a meagre existence, even refusing an offer from Nalga to inherit the farm.
Walstan died three days after receiving a vision that foretold his death.
His final wish was that his body should be placed on a cart pulled by two oxen and buried wherever they stopped. A spring appeared in Taverham as he was given the last rights and another spontaneously appeared in Costessey when the bulls paused there.
When the bulls finally reached Bawburgh they settled and a third and final spring arose. Walstan's body was removed from the cart and was buried.
St Walstan's Well at Bawburgh, constructed on the site of the third spring, became a site of pilgrimage. A shrine to the saint was later destroyed during the reformation.
The first village sign at Taverham was erected in 1970 with funds raised by the Women's Institute.
It was made by Harry Carter of Swaffham.
It depicted St Walstan wearing a crown and holding a scythe in one hand and a cross in the other.
His oxen are also depicted.
The River Wensum flowed in the background with four trees representing those which once lined Beech Avenue.
Planted to celebrate victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 the trees, like the original sign, have since been removed.
Taverham's sign was replaced on June 8, 2012 by Taverham Parish Council.
The new sign was made by James Spedding, a blacksmith at Holkham Forge. The supporting post depicts a twisted railway track to represent the old railway line, now open to pedestrians, cyclists and horse riders as the Marriott's Way.
The village sign at Bawburgh was erected to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II in 1977. It was originally carved by Alex Whammond and was renovated in 2002. St Walstan is depicted attending to two lambs.
His oxen and cart can also be seen.
Shown in the background is Bawburgh's round-towered church, dedicated to St Mary and St Walstan. A special service is held here each year on the Sunday closest to St Walstan's Day.
In 2019 the service was held on Sunday, June 2. It was followed by a short procession to St Walstan's Well.
-Dr Tullett, from Lakenham, researched just about all of Norfolk's 500-plus town and village signs as part of his Signs of a Norfolk Summer project. He now gives presentations on the topic, and anyone looking for a speaker can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more details of that and Norfolk's other signs, visit the Signs of a Norfolk Summer page on Facebook, or search for "Norfolk on a stick" on www.edp24.co.uk