A record 900 churches in five years for grandfather
PUBLISHED: 14:13 14 August 2019 | UPDATED: 15:07 14 August 2019
It's an achievement that Graeme Johnston believes may never be repeated.
He has walked to all 900 churches in Norfolk including the redundant and ruined ones, clocking up more than 3,500 miles, in rain and shine.
And his walks are not finished yet, as he plans to retrace all the railway lines in use in Norfolk at the start of the Second World War.
It all started for the 75-year-old, from Unicorn Yard, Aylsham, when he retired from his accountancy business five years ago, and was thinking about keeping fit.
And the idea really took hold when he had a poignant experience visiting his first Norfolk church.
He said: "I had played competitive sport all my life and I wanted to do something that would maintain my fitness and my interests.
"I decided on walking and started doing speed-walking, 10 miles in two hours. But I got bored walking the paths around here, so I ventured out into the county.
"I decided to drive out somewhere, and then walk between 15 and 18 miles in a day.
"I went to the little village of Bittering Parva, near Gressenhall. I came to this very small old church. A lady there said she tended her daughter's grave, and that she had promised to look after the church.
"It fired my imagination, and I decided to base my walks on churches. I only had my Ordnance Survey map to go on.
"I took the churches from Simon Knott's Norfolk Churches website, which lists all the parish churches in Norfolk. Some of the churches were just a pile of stones when I got to them.
"I would only do these trips on a Sunday and it almost became an obsession. I also wanted to appreciate the countryside as well.
"I would drive to an area, and average three to four churches on each trip. In the city I would obviously do more.
"My last church trip was to Welney last Sunday, which is one of the remotest locations in the county."
If the churches were open, he would go inside and sign the visitors' book.
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He added: "I picked up leaflets from each church so I've now got hundreds of them. I like the aesthetic side of it most, the feel of the place, not so much the architectural side.
"I would vary the routes and do different parts of Norfolk, maybe spend a couple of months doing Waveney valley.
"Over the time I've jumped over gates, squeezed through hedges, been along country lanes, through woods and plantations, disused rail tracks, and met a lot of interesting people."
There were only a handful of churches he struggled to visit. These included those in the Battle Area of Breckland, which is a live firing range.
He said: "There are four villages there and the people were all moved out in 1940, and never returned. The churches are in states of disrepair.
"I took the advantage to go with the Norfolk Churches' Trust, of which I'm a member, when they visited them. They are Tottington, Stanford, Langford and West Tofts."
The Rotarian said his favourite churches included Waterden, near the Creakes.
"It's a tiny village church now undergoing repair work.
"I also like St Mary's at Houghton on the Hill, where wall paintings of European repute were found."
He also picked out Babingley church, near the Royal Estate, the Godwick ruined church tower, from where you can see the remains of a medieval village, and Broome.
"I had a moving experience at Broome. There was no road up to it and I could hear the congregation singing, wonderfully," he added.
"I also love the stained glass in churches. There's a lovely small panel of a female artist in a brilliant red dress at Horsey church.
"I have enjoyed sampling the Norfolk countryside and nature. There's too much noise in the world and I've loved the amazing tranquillity. But I have one gripe, and that's when churches are locked on Sundays. I don't think that should be the case."
Mr Johnston was born in Luton and moved to Aylsham 49 years ago, because he was then working in London, and wanted to get out.
He said his wife Mary had borne his hobby with good grace and added: "She had to suffer the fact that I was not going to do many chores on a Sunday."
They have three children and six grandchildren.