An artistic heritage
Where once pilgrims arrived to Walsingham by train, now you can make an artistic pilgrimage. Paul Dickson looks at the icons of St Seraphim’s Chapel.
Dr Beeching’s axe struck Walsingham on October 5, 1964, when the pilgrims’ station, on the Wells to Fakenham line closed. But the building did not lie fallow for long; phoenix-like, the station rose from the railway’s ashes in 1967 as St Seraphim’s Orthodox Chapel. Home to the lay Brotherhood of St Seraphim’s, led by priest in charge Father David, St Seraphim’s became an internationally renowned centre for traditional icon painting. Father David and Norwich-born Leon Liddament created hundreds of icons for churches and private homes throughout the UK and beyond.
Now St Seraphim’s Trust, established in 2005 to secure the future of the chapel, is developing plans for a Heritage Lottery bid for funds to interpret and present to visitors the story of St Seraphim’s, along with the building’s railway heritage.
Walsingham Railway Station opened in 1857, but it was not until 1897 when it took its bow on the national stage. The King’s Lynn Advertiser of August 27, 1897, reported the first Roman Catholic pilgrimage of modern times to the Slipper Chapel. On Friday, August 20 a group of 40 had come from King’s Lynn on the 12.08pm train, walked to the Slipper Chapel for a service, had lunch in the Black Lion Hotel, visited the priory and left on the 3.55pm train.
Imagine the scenes in 1938 when 10,000 children visited as Pilgrims of Peace. Eight special trains brought children from all over the country. The Universe noted on July 8: “Indeed, so far did one western trainload travel that it was after the High Mass when they arrived.”
Fast forward to the early 1960s and there are reports of trains breaking down or arriving late, then The Catholic Herald on June 27, 1962, foresaw the end: ‘Beeching may axe pilgrim trains’ and included a rallying call to fill a train for August 19.
The story of the Orthodox faith in Walsingham began in the 1930s when emigré Russian priests visited the Anglican Shrine. A Pan-Orthodox Chapel was established at the shrine in 1945 for pilgrims and prisoners of war. Archbishop Nikodem, of the Russian Church in Exile, used the chapel when he brought groups of Russians from London on pilgrimage in the 1950s.
In 1966, Canon Colin Stephenson, Administrator of the Anglican Shrine, feeling that the small Orthodox Chapel was rather neglected, asked Archbishop Nikodem if he could send a priest to Walsingham. This priest was Father Mark (later to be known as Father David after 1980, when he became an Orthodox monk).
Father Mark soon decided that the small chapel was not conducive to regular worship and rented the now defunct Walsingham station. Archbishop Nikodem chose St Seraphim of Sarov (1775-1833) as patron saint of the chapel. St Seraphim received thousands of pilgrims during his lifetime, so he was an appropriate choice for Walsingham.
The chapel was established in the former ticket office and gentlemen’s waiting room, opened in 1967 and has welcomed visitors and pilgrims on a daily basis ever since. Further growth in the Orthodox community saw the opening of the Holy Church of the Transfiguration, Great Walsingham in 1988.
Father David and Leon Liddament, who had originally planned to visit Walsingham for just a month in 1966, set about earning a living making icons using the traditional egg tempera method. They became well known for their icons of early British saints and local saints.
Sylvia Batchelor, project manager for St Seraphim’s Trust explained: “Unfortunately we do not have complete records of Father David’s work; his order book from 1985 until 1993, when he died, includes names, sizes and prices, but not the icons’ destinations. We would like to hear from owners of icons painted by him, who can help fill in the blanks and if possible provide a photograph.
“Leon continued painting icons after Father David died. We have Leon’s order book for this period up to his death in 2010 and are also keen to gather information about his work.”
One of the last icons they created together was the magnificent Icon of Our Lord in Glory, The Bishop Corfe Memorial at St John the Divine, London. As well as gathering information on icons, the trust is keen to gather memories of the station and arrival at Walsingham by train, to help create the full picture of the building’s heritage.
St Seraphim’s Trust is aiming to make the chapel and the rest of the building, including the surviving station platform and the large garden behind the platform, fully accessible to all visitors. Plans include an exhibition area for a collection of Father David and Leon Liddament’s icons, workshop spaces where courses and events can be held to enable people to learn about iconography and its role in the Orthodox Christian faith and a display about Walsingham’s railway heritage.
Work has already begun to develop the garden, a natural space to complement the spirituality of the chapel and provide a calming and natural reflective environment for use by pilgrims and the local community.
“The full project will cost more than £500,000,” added Sylvia Batchelor. “We are looking for other sources of funding, as well as the potential Heritage Lottery Fund grant and will be very grateful for donations from individuals and local businesses.” The Friends of St Seraphim’s was launched in April to help with fundraising and provide volunteer support. Volunteers are particularly needed to help to manage the garden.
There will be a celebration of Father David and Leon Liddament’s work in December at The Hostry, Norwich Cathedral. “We have been invited to stage an exhibition of icons in The Hostry,” said Sylvia. “This will bring Father David and Leon’s expertise to a new audience and help raise the profile of our project in Walsingham.”
For more information about the Friends of St Seraphim and volunteering opportunities, or to send railway memories and information about icons, write to: Sylvia Batchelor, St Seraphim’s Trust, Station Road, Little Walsingham NR22 6EB, email Sylvia@iconpainter.org.uk, tel: 01328 820610.
St Seraphim’s Chapel is open every day, www.iconpainter.org.uk.