Thursford Castle: from ruined chapel to fairytale home
This romantic ruined chapel in a little triangle of idyllic Norfolk countryside has been lovingly restored and its history saved
A tumble down chapel, hidden under a mass of undergrowth was all that remained of the old Walsingham workhouse site – known affectionately as Thursford Castle.
But despite its state of disrepair, this fairytale location captured the hearts of Sally and Mark Hickling who dreamed of transforming the historic site into a family home.
“We very first came across it about 15 years ago when we were cycling past. We saw the plaque on the gate saying Thursford Castle and it piqued our curiosity, it looked like a magical place. It wasn’t until a few years later, in 2013, when we saw it was for sale that we took a proper look. We were just enchanted by the atmosphere of the whole site, the ruined walls, the magical chapel, the woodland. It was so overgrown you could barely see a metre in front of you but we completely fell in love with it,” says Sally.
The Walsingham Union Workhouse and Chapel opened in 1837, finally closing in the 1930s. After that it was used first as a hospital and then by the military. The main building was finally demolished in the 1960s and all that remained on the site were the ruined red brick walls of the Victorian chapel, which was built in a gothic revival style, and the perimeter walls, which had their own guard posts which were once used to stop peasants storming the workhouse in times of famine.
Mark and Sally were keen to restore what remained of the site and worked closely with LSI Architects in Norwich and North Norfolk District Council to ensure its story could live on for future generations.
“Initially we thought the chapel could form part of the property as a big living space or kitchen, but it needed an extraordinary amount of work and such would have been the level of rebuilding, we felt it would sanitise that history and potentially leave the chapel unrecognisable.”
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Instead, the couple, who run independent property development company Venturemark, worked with the team at LSI architects to create a clever design which would see the ruined walls of the chapel form the entrance to a single storey contemporary-designed house nestled behind.
“Allowing it to remain a ruin retained that connection with the original perimeter wall and the footprint of the workhouse. Now, we walk through it every day to get into the house and it is like a magical garden.”
The couple bought the land in December 2013, finally moving in to their new house in November 2016. There were many challenges along the way, from the planning and design to the overgrown state of the land and the fact it had no electricity or water. But the hard work did lead to some fascinating discoveries.
“Although there is a tree preservation order on the whole site, we had to clear all the trees that had grown in the rubble of the old workhouse as they had no real roots and were unstable. When we finally cleared it and got down to the bones of the place, we uncovered the original footings and footprint of the workhouse. It felt like we had to somehow mark it, so we created pathways on that footprint which will form the pattern of the garden within the original fortified walls which surrounded the workhouse and which still remain. We want people to be able to walk through this history and reflect on it in an uplifting and respectful way.”
Sally says they spent a lot of time researching the story of the site and because the workhouse was built out of public funds, the historical documents and plans have been kept as a matter of public record.
“We have been able to discover so much about the buildings, including the original plans and drawings, even down to what furniture they used and the pews in the chapel. Those who came to the workhouse are all recorded as well. We regularly have people turning up telling us their grandfather was born in the workhouse or their grandmother was sent there. These stories and personal family connections show how important restoring old buildings is and why that heritage should be respected and maintained.”