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Blessing the Nets, Norfolk

To this day Great Yarmouth preserves the custom of blessing the nets, an event which has a considerable heritage behind it. Herring was one of the great staple foods of medieval Europe, and Great Yarmouth one of the major centres for fishing for the ‘silver darlings’. For centuries the town had a Herring Fair held over 40 days from Michaelmas (September 29), something of huge economic and even political significance, as the town had to fight for the right to control its very profitable herring trade. In the 13th century Yarmouth even sent raiding parties to the South Coast to defend this power. No wonder - it made Great Yarmouth the fourth richest settlement in the land at one time.
These days the custom is observed in a ceremony and service at St Nicholas Church in the town (fittingly given St Nicholas is the patron saint of fishermen), a lovingly restored Norman building claimed to be the largest parish church in England. In earlier days the blessing took place by the sea on the South Denes shore, and included the symbolic Wetting of the Nets as well as the religious blessing. Great Yarmouth, with the town’s crest showing three herring tails attached to lions’ torsos, and the bloater the culinary king of the place, retains a small fishing industry, though sadly the days when it was possible to walk across the Yare from Gorleston to Yarmouth on the decks of trawlers are long gone. But the October blessing of the nets service at the church of St Nicholas is an important reminder of and link with that glorious past.

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