Ancient abbey tradition sails on

Two fine Norfolk traditions merged as an ancient custom dating back more than a thousand years was celebrated.The location was the ruins of St Benet's Abbey, the cast were senior religious leaders and the mode of transport was that iconic image of the Broads - the wherry.

Two fine Norfolk traditions merged as an ancient custom dating back more than a thousand years was celebrated.

The location was the ruins of St Benet's Abbey, the cast were senior religious leaders and the mode of transport was that iconic image of the Broads - the wherry.

The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Rev Graham James, took to the waters of the Bure alongside his colleague the Rev Sandra Ellison, who bears the historic role of Prior of the Abbey, in order to attend an annual service among the remains of the abbey, which lies on the river between Horning and Thurne.

Bishop Graham himself retains the ancient title of Abbot - a peculiarity of history with its roots in the reign of Henry VIII.

There has been an abbey on the site since the ninth century and its colourful history includes mentions of how at the time of the Norman Conquest the abbot was given the responsibility of defending the coast against invasion.

After the 1066 conquest, the abbot fled to Europe and parts of the abbey estate were taken by neighbouring landowners.

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But in many ways the key moment came during Henry VIII's dissolution of the monastries. St Benet's was the only religious house not closed down during the dissolution and instead the abbot was consecrated as Bishop of Norwich.

Because there was never an official dissolution and the abbey simply fell into decay over many decades, the bishops of Norwich have continued as abbots ever since, despite the eventual abandonment of the abbey because of its failing condition around the middle of the 16th century.

"It is a very nice tradition to keep up," said Rev Ellison as the party departed for the abbey from the quay near the Swan Hotel at Horning, some three miles journey away by wherry.

"It helps people remind themselves and others that this has been a place of worship since 800AD.

"It is something unusual, being the only religious house to have experienced what it has experienced.

"I have made this trip twice before, both times from Ranworth instead of Horning - the wind is not exactly high, but we have an experienced captain who will get us there on time and a beautiful day for the trip."

The Rev Jan McFarlane, the bishop's chaplain and diocesan communications officer, said the unusual state of affairs at the abbey was a "beautiful, quirky piece of history", but she felt it had a serious message as well.

"It links us in with our ancestors of so long ago and reminds us how ancient our faith is."

Choirs from across the diocese, local people and members of the public combined to help lead the worship.

The service was preceded by a family fun day at the abbey, with regular boat trips from Ranworth and workshops including learning to use a quill pen.

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