What’s in a name: A dedicated guide to the rare names of local churches

St Gervase and St Protase Church, Little Plumstead.Picture: ANTONY KELLY

St Gervase and St Protase Church, Little Plumstead.Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

Saints and angels accompany every visit to a church and Rowan Mantell has discovered that Norfolk has some very unusual dedications.

St Remigius Church, Hethersett.

St Remigius Church, Hethersett. - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2011

There are innumerable astounding facts about our world-beating collection of medieval churches, each beautiful building a work of art in itself, together an unparalleled inheritance. Their architecture stretches back more than 1,000 years; the angel roofs and stained glass windows, round towers and frescos are among the finest anywhere in the world; memorials, screens, bells, organs and more are all remarkable.

And then there are the names.

Every church is dedicated to a saint, and among the multitude of Andrews, Marys and Margarets, some very unusual names appear.

There is just one church in the country dedicated to St Gervase and St Protase and it is in Little Plumstead, near Norwich.

St Gervase and St Protase were twins, killed for their faith, in Rome in the reign of Emperor Nero. They are the patron saints of Milan and haymakers and their Norfolk church has a round tower dating back around 1,000 years. Its current parishioners founded the Friends of Little Plumstead church to help maintain the ancient building.

Chairman Gerry Jarvis said he had not been able to discover how the unique name came about, despite searching through church and county records, but the people of Little Plumstead, although alone in Britain, are in fine company in continental Europe, where there were once hundreds of churches dedicated to the twin saints. In Germany they became a local version of England's St Swithin, with an old saying: 'When it rains on St Gervasius' Day, Forty days of rain will follow.'

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Just three more Norfolk parish churches have unique dedications - including in Bixley, near Norwich, where the fire-ravaged church, virtually destroyed in 2004, is named in honour of St Wandregeselius, and in Woodbastwick, on the Broads, where the church is dedicated to St Fabian and St Sebastian, early saints who share a commemoration day, and a tomb in the Roman catacombs.

Wandregisilus, also known as Wandrille and Vandrille, was a French hermit and Abbot and the church at Bixley, now the subject of a planning application to convert it into a home, is thought to have once housed a relic of the saint and welcomed pilgrims.

The parish church in Bawburgh, near Norwich, was also a pilgrimage church, dedicated to the Norfolk farmer worker and saint who died exactly 1,000 years ago. Although St Walstan's shrine was destroyed during the Reformation, his well can still be seen close to the village church of St Walstan and St Mary.

Of the six churches dedicated to St Remigius in Britain, four of them in Norfolk – at Hethersett, Dunston, near Norwich, Roydon, near Diss, and Seething, near Loddon (jointly with St Margaret.)

The saint is famous for baptising the King of France on Christmas Day 496 – leading to the conversion of the entire population. The churches at Roydon and Seething both have round towers dating back to Norman times – when William the Conqueror invaded from Normandy.

There are just three churches, nationwide, named in honour of St Cecilia, a musical second-century Christian executed in Rome – and St Cecilia's, West Bilney, is one of them.

It is looked after by the Norfolk Churches Trust, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, and hopes to raise more than £100,000 during tomorrow's annual Norfolk Churches Trust bike ride. More than 600 Norfolk churches will be open from 9am to 5pm for the sponsored ride. People can visit by car too, and many of the churches will also be participating in the Heritage Open Days weekend.

Funds raised by the annual bike ride are split between each participant's chosen church and the Trust, which looks after 13 churches in the county, and gives grants to hundreds more for repairs, restoration and conservation. The person who raises the most money will be given a certificate signed by the Trust's patron, the Prince of Wales and the 10 cyclists who visit the most churches will be honoured on the Trust's website 'wall of fame.'

• For more information on the Norfolk Churches Trust bike ride and a list of all 600-plus participating churches, visit norfolkchurchestrust.org.uk

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