Wymondham Abbey marks its 900th birthday

CELIA WIGG Its famous twin towers once signified a bitter rift between townsfolk and monks that saw a wall built across the magnificent church to divide the religious and secular communities.

CELIA WIGG

Its famous twin towers once signified a bitter rift between townsfolk and monks that saw a wall built across the magnificent church to divide the religious and secular communities.

But old grievances were firmly laid to rest on Saturday as the people of Wymondham united in celebrating the 900th anniversary of their historic abbey with Benedictine monks and nuns who travelled from across the UK for their first official visit since King Henry VIII dissolved England's monasteries in 1538.

It was a joyous occasion with people of all creeds and faiths linking arms around the parish church and ruins of the former priory - founded in 1107 by William d'Albini - for an 'abbey hug' in an act of friendship that also demonstrated a love and affection for the building that has remained constant throughout the centuries.

“These two towers symbolise unity. People are having a great time and have come together to say a very happy 900th birthday to the abbey, and everyone is so enthusiastic about the building,” said town mayor Joe Mooney.

“People visiting the abbey are so impressed with what they see when they go in, they are amazed. To me it represents peace, tranquillity and bringing people together, and long may it continue.”

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The abbey church was decorated with colourful banners, made by local schoolchildren, depicting notable events over the decades such as the royal visit by Queen Elizabeth I in 1573 and the great fire of 1615 that destroyed the town's original market cross.

The vicar of Wymondham, Canon Christopher Davies, said: “It is a joyous occasion, a real celebration of 900 years of the building's life and that is why we were keen to have the churchyard fair and the children's schools involved.

“Every organisation has been invited to take part and they have all responded very positively so the whole town is here in some form or another. It is seen as a community venue as well as a glorious venue for worship. We have also got Benedictine monks and nuns because it was built by the Benedictines, and the Abbot of Downside is taking part in the service, so it will be the first time monks have officially been back to the abbey since the reformation.”

William d'Albini is buried in the churchyard on the site where the high alter of the monastic church once stood. And the service to celebrate the abbey's foundation began with a procession of clergy, led by the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Rev Graham James, who said a prayer at the graveside before laying a floral tribute.

The mayor and parish priest of D'Aubigny in France - William's birthplace - were unable to attend, but sent a message: “We send our warmest greetings to the people of Wymondham Abbey on this great occasion. It is only the matter of the French Presidential election that prevents us from being with you today.”

During the service, the abbey choir gave the first public performance of a new anthem “Can you, O God really dwell on earth”, written by Anthony Joule to celebrate the anniversary. Lessons were read by the Dean of St Albans, the Very Rev Dr Jeffrey John, vice-patron of the friends of the abbey, and Lord Lieutenant of Norfolk, Richard Jewson.

Bishop Graham gave the sermon, saying: “The abbey has already been hugged, a fitting and appropriate way I think of surrounding it with love and affection. We are delighted so many people have come to town for this happy occasion.”

The Abbot of Downside, the Rt Rev Dom Aidan Bellenger, who read from the rule of St Benedict, said: “To come back to a place that was a Benedictine foundation is something very special because it's a bit like coming home. Benedictine monks enjoy hospitality so we also like receiving it as well!”

The birthday party included the cutting of an iced cake - the celebrations continuing in coming months with a host of events, including the launch on June 9 of the Wymondham Abbey Rose bred by Attleborough rose specialists Peter Beales Roses, and a historical production by Wymondham Players in July.

A £1million appeal to extend the abbey had initially been proposed to coincide with the 900th anniversary, but the plans have been scaled down and will be reconsidered in due course, Mr Davies explained.

“We have a lot of visitors during the year as we are open every single day, and after the celebration year is finished we will be turning our minds to how we can have better facilities for the abbey. That is something we will be giving priority to,” he said.