Norfolk church organist Nick overcomes life-long health challenges to mark 50 years of music

Nick Walmsley has just completed an impressive 50 years of service as the organist at St Helen’s, Hoveton and Our Lady and St Walstan, Costessey, using the talent he believes God has given him, despite health challenges.

There is something uniquely multi-faceted about music, and for Nick, organist and Director of Music at St Helen’s Hoveton and Our Lady and St Walstan, Costessey in Norfolk, it is much more than just playing notes. Born in Hoveton in April 1960, opposite the then-new St Helen’s Catholic church, Nick’s spiritual and musical paths have been entwined ever since he was the second baby baptised at that church and, at the extraordinarily young age of 12, when he became the first organist of the church, a role he has held continuously ever since.

Nick honed his skills at the Paston School in North Walsham, and first played at Belaugh St Peter, an Anglican church close to home, in September 1972. His musical talent encouraged the clergy at St Helen’s to start sung Masses, accompanied by Nick and an old reed organ. It was a small but significant start to what would be a lifelong dedication to church music.

In 1979, a new pipe organ, built in the Baroque style, was installed at St Helen’s. This was the first of its kind in the UK, marking another milestone in Nick’s journey as a church musician. “My dedication is two-fold: I’ve been given a specific talent and that talent should be used in the service of God, whether leading congregations in singing, or trying to the best of my ability to lift their emotions with the solo music in the Mass. It sounds glib, but it is what any church musician must do,” says Nick.

His association with the organ is not merely about duty or devotion, he says it has also served as a healing force amidst his personal struggles with poor health. He reflects: “Having had a life-long chronic illness, I find playing the organ has a relaxing and healing effect – I’ve not missed many Sundays in 50 years, despite frequent hospitalisation and operations in the early days. It is the one thing that has kept me going.”

Nick’s musical journey extends beyond the borders of East Anglia. He has been a guest artist at the Valletta Festival of History and Elegance in Malta and has performed live on Radio Malta. His international performances include playing the famous ‘Bamboo Organ’ at Las Piñas, and the 18th-century organ at San Agustin in Intramuros, Manila, in the Philippines.

Not just a player, but also a composer, Nick is known for his skill in improvisation. His work has been broadcast on the BBC and he was awarded the Diocesan Medal for Services to Music and the Liturgy in 2019.

The ability to convey feelings through his music, as he describes, is a unique part of his performances. “There are times when you feel like a lightning conductor – on those occasions the Spirit moves – and he does! – and something takes over, so you merely channel it, like a form of prayer. What I’d find hard to express in words, I can in music,” he explains.

Nick’s story is an inspiring one of a journey of resilience and devotion. His life is a testament to the power of music in uplifting the spirit, serving a higher purpose and overcoming personal trials. From a church opposite his birthplace to the far corners of the world, he has carried the message of harmony and hope through his talent, faith and dedication.

Pic: Nick Walmsley on the organ at St Walstan’s earlier this year. Picture by Henry Bedingfield.