Weird Norfolk: The haunted Victorian pipe organ at Wiggenhall
PUBLISHED: 15:32 10 March 2018 | UPDATED: 15:32 10 March 2018
In the heart of the Fens is a lonely church which, legend has it, makes its own entertainment thanks to a haunted Victorian pipe organ.
In the eerie marshland in an isolated corner of the Fens stands a church which boasts an unusual ghost watched over by little wooden saints and imposing marble noblemen. At the redundant church of St Mary the Virgin in Wiggenhall, the most regular visitors to this church close to an orchard and the meandering River Great Ouse are the screaming herring gulls and black-capped terns that wheel overhead on their journey to the mudbanks and marshes of The Wash. Inside the church, the light is as watery as the landscape outside, the green stained glass casting almost an underwater light over the interior of the building which boasts a weeping chancel, a rare collection of stained glass, four paintings from the original rood screen, 14th-century pews, a six-bell tower…and a haunted organ.
The magnificent Marshland church, one of a clutch which includes the Wiggenhalls, Walpoles, Terringtons and Tilneys, is in the tender care of the Churches Conservation Trust and can be found behind Wiggenhall House, accessed by public footpath through a yard at the side of the private residence. An article in Norfolk Fair in the summer of 1986 recalls the strange story of St Mary’s haunted Victorian organ. Built by George Maydwell Holdich, whose factory was mentioned by Charles Dickens in A Tale of Two Cities, the organ was donated to the church by the village squire, George Helsham. “Quite a different kind of ghost is said to haunt the church of St Mary the virgin at Wiggenhall,” the article reads, “Now redundant, it is no longer used for services but an atmosphere of unease was said to pervade it when it was in use. What was so astonishing was not any spectral apparition but the fact that strains of organ music would be heard, as if some outstanding performer were seated at the instrument. Upon investigation, however, no-one could be found, although the organ felt warm. In fact, the generation of heat seemed to be one of the manifestations of whatever moved within the building as it would become warm for no apparent reason. This was especially marked at a wedding at which guests became uncomfortably hot and one bridesmaid fainted, yet outside the weather was autumnal and chilly. Sometimes the organ behaved so erratically the organist had to give up playing. Yet two or three days later it would perform perfectly. On one occasion, workmen carrying out repairs to the fabric were scared out of their wits when the organ started playing of its own accord. They fled the church in panic and only with great difficulty were they persuaded to return.”Later visitors to the church have spoken of the strange atmosphere inside the church, which is only open to the public at certain times and which is world-renowned for its exceptional collection of early 16th-century wooden benches with ends carved with likenesses of saints, the detail on which is breathtaking – many believe the endearing faces may well have been based on parishioners of the time. Perhaps today they are entertained by spectral music.
The church has another story attached to it which relates to a brass monument set into the floor and is dedicated to Sir Robert Kervile who died in 1450. The Kervile family were major patrons of the church and Sir Robert’s brass, shaped like a heart, recalls a much-loved man who died while he was abroad. His heartbroken wife refused to let her husband’s body rest so far from home and sent a monk to find Sir Robert’s body and bring back his heart so it could be buried at Wiggenhall, the place he loved best. Equally heartbreaking is a nearby memorial to one of Sir Robert’s ancestors, Henry, who died in 1624.Remembered in an alabaster monument in the small chapel to the north of the aisle, the tomb is watched over by Sir Henry’s wife and their two tiny children who tragically died before either of their parents but whose memory lives on in stone.
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