'Enter at your own risk' - Covid-driven surge sees church ruin fenced off amid safety fears

East Somerton church Picture: ANTONY KELLY

East Somerton church Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

Access has been restricted to one of the county's most atmospheric and mysterious ruins amid claims it is being overwhelmed by lockdown crowds.

The remains of St Mary's Church stand in the grounds of Lord Theodore Agnew's Burnley Hall Estate in East Somerton, near Winterton.

East Somerton Church for Weird Norfolk.
Picture: ANTONY KELLY

East Somerton Church for Weird Norfolk. Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

Tucked away in woodland the ivy-clad Medieval church is famous for its legend of a witch being buried alive there - her  wooden leg growing into a mighty oak and destroying the church in revenge.

And although on private land there has long been public access, which also allowed a wander through its woodland setting.

East Somerton church ruin fencing

New chestnut paling fencing surrounds the St Mary's Church ruin site in East Somerton. - Credit: Liz Coates

Now a chestnut paling fence is restricting access around and within the building. A sign advises it has been fenced off for safety reasons and warns access "may be withdrawn at any time."

The move, sparked by an apparent Covid-driven rush to what was one of the county's "best kept secrets" has drawn concerns from the parish council which is calling for the fence to be removed, while questions about planning permission are resolved.

St Mary's Church ruin in Somerton has been fenced off

A sign warns that people enter the Somerton church ruins 'at their own risk'. - Credit: Liz Coates


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A dog walker at the scene said the fence had spoiled the setting and taken away its "air of mystery."

Lady Agnew, of Burnley Hall, East Somerton. during her year as High Sheriff of Norfolk PICTURE: Jami

Lady Agnew, of Burnley Hall, East Somerton. during her year as High Sheriff of Norfolk PICTURE: Jamie Honeywood - Credit: Archant

However, Lady Clare Agnew said the fence was "necessary" to protect both the public and the building which had suffered from a "dramatic" increase in visitors with people clambering over the walls and loosening flints.

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"No-one wants anyone to be hurt and no-one wants the church to fall down," she said.

St Mary's Church ruin fencing

Lockable gates have sprung up at St Mary's Church ruin in East Somerton. - Credit: Liz Coates

"This is a necessary stage. The motivation (for the fence) came from a good place."

"There are more people climbing on the walls and it is just not fair on the church.

"It is for people's safety. There are definitely more flints lying around on the floor in the past year.

St Mary's Church East Somerton fencing

Fencing within St Mary's Church, East Somerton, has been tagged as necessary due to the numbers of people visiting. - Credit: Liz Coates

"It's a tricky one. It is a lovely place to go. There is no sense we are wanting to keep it to ourselves at all.

"We are lucky to have an amazing Medieval building we can visit - that said, it cannot deal with the numbers.

"It is not for us to discourage people to come, but it is the volume of people.

"With the church there is a particular safety issue. It had got sufficiently out of hand that fencing was needed."

St Mary's Church East Somerton fencing

Visitors to St Mary's Church ruins now enter through an avenue of chestnut paling fence. - Credit: Liz Coates

She said the decision to make the site more secure had been taken alongside the church's owners Winterton PCC.

Parish councillor Ivan Wright tagged the move as "disgusting" and said members had asked for the fence to be removed.

Somerton church ruins

Somerton church ruins sit in dense woodland and have been regarded as hidden gem. - Credit: Google Maps

He said the issue had been discussed over video platform Zoom by the parish council which was largely unconvinced by arguments about safety and nuisance behaviour and had asked to see a survey report, although none so far had been produced,

"It does not look any different from when we moved here 50 years ago," he said.

"We are thoroughly disgusted."

Chairman Richard Starling said he was willing to sit down with all parties and work with them, adding: "If they provide a report then fine, we will say okay."

The ruin has been described variously as one of Norfolk's "best kept secrets" and "perhaps the most dramatic in all East Anglia."

The huge oak growing in the middle of the nave makes it more unusual than most ruins, the heavy woodland shade adding to its "ghostly" appeal.

Visitors can still access the ruin through a gate which is reportedly locked at night.

East Somerton Church for Weird Norfolk.
Picture: ANTONY KELLY

East Somerton Church for Weird Norfolk. Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

East Somerton Church for Weird Norfolk (photo: Antony Kelly)

East Somerton Church for Weird Norfolk (photo: Antony Kelly) - Credit: Archant

St Mary's Church East Somerton fencing

New fencing within the ruins of St Mary's Church, East Somerton, which is Grade II listed. - Credit: Liz Coates

St Mary's Church East Somerton fencing

Visitors to St Mary's Church ruins now enter through an avenue of chestnut paling fence. - Credit: Liz Coates

Somerton church ruins fencing

A new fence has been erected around and within St Mary's Church ruins in East Somerton amid reports of lockdown crowds damaging the structure and putting themselves at risk. - Credit: Liz Coates

Somerton church ruin fencing

The walls of St Mary's Church ruin can be glimpsed through the trees from beyond a fence. - Credit: Liz Coates

East Somerton witches' church ruin fence

A fence now encircles St Mary's Church ruin, know as the witches' church. Its walls can be glimpsed through the trees. - Credit: Liz Coates

Fencing at East Somerton Church

Fencing along the site of St Mary's Church ruin within the Burnley Hall Estate. - Credit: Liz Coates

East Somerton church ruin fencing

New chestnut paling fencing surrounds the St Mary's Church ruin site in East Somerton. - Credit: Liz Coates

East Somerton church ruins St Mary's

A footpath sign points to the ruined church although access is no longer available from the wide woodland path. - Credit: Liz Coates

St Mary's Church ruin Somerton

Fencing has been put up around St Mary's Church ruin in East Somerton to protect it from an invasion of lockdown visitors. Although you can still enter there are warning signs and restrictions within the ruin. - Credit: Liz Coates


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