To Walsingham!

I have been wanting to go to Walsingham for ages, and spent a while trying to work out how pilgrims got there from Bury St Edmunds in the Middle Ages. We had walked the Peddars Way a few years ago, but this continued West from Castle Acre. The Revd. John Merrill describes a “Walsingham Way” from Ely, which goes via Brandon- so this would be it!  Bury-Thetford, then Brandon, then Swaffham, Castle Acre, then another 28miles to Walsingham, with a short detour to Fakenham if preferred.

Unfortunately none of this seemed straightforward as my husband was recovering from eye surgery and in the end we agreed to go by car. This at least made me realise how important the walking experience is to me- the journey usually being so much a part of the arrival. However, there were opportunities to spend more time at places along the way, and there was plenty to see.

Our first stop was a picnic by the ancient church of St Mary the Virgin at Cranwich .  The graveyard was circular and the church lay at its centre on a little mound surrounded by trees.  Sadly the area behind it is so tangled with nettles it is no longer possible to see the gravestones.  The tower was narrow and circular, with a circular  knotted window. Three circles!

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Next, Castle Acre. We had been there before, but there had not been time to explore the Priory, so we needed make amends. The former Cluniac Benedictine Priory is truly beautiful lying in the gentle valley of the river Nar with the village behind it, the Parish church beside it and the castle at the other end. English Heritage have done a good job in trying to demonstrate how things were before the Dissolution, but as ever I was trying to get a sense of it without the words. I was struck by the number of squares in the design: square window frames, square tiles, square fireplaces, even a square drain-pipe cover on display at the entrance.  And the biggest square: the cloisters.

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What was the significance? I am often suspicious of meanings in symbols.  Carlota’s “Dictionary of Symbols” talks of firmness and stability, the seasons, the points of a compass and the four Elements. Whatever the intention I find this shape very satisfying and am content to believe it represents earthly matters. I had been shown how to draw a square using a compass back in Astoria using circles.

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Circles have a host of “meanings”, too, but I digress. Staying in Holt we set out for Walsingham the following day, starting near West Barsham. Gentle countryside made me wish we had walked further, as before we knew it we had arrived at the “Slipper Chapel” at Houghton St Giles,  a Catholic Shrine beautifully kept. I was distracted by the display of tiny relics in lockets- one was labelled Saint Edmundo- was it a piece of hair? or a bit of toe-nail? A tiny scrap on a disc.

Henry VIII had visited this spot on several occasions before he ordered its destruction. Along with others he had removed his slippers and walked the final mile to Walsingham bare-foot. In due fashion, therefore, this was to be repeated. My husband, not normally known for his piety, was the first to take off his shoes and set off down the “holy mile”.

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Needless to say there was much moaning along the way- presumably King Henry had not had to put up with gritted tar-mac, but we arrived in Walsingham with a small sense of achievement..

What can I say about Walsingham? It has a serious feel to it. Not enough profanity? Too many shops selling images of the Virgin Mary? I would happily have stayed longer in these- I can fully understand why people wanted toe-nails as souvenirs, but was restrained under pressure, so readers you have been saved (this time) from Mary with Baby Jesus in a snow-storm for Christmas.

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There was plenty to see. The Anglican Shrine, the Russian Orthodox church, the old court-house and the Abbey ruins in landscaped gardens. It was very quiet- not at all like Santiago.  It was as if the place was asleep amongst the fields.

On the way back along the disused railway line we passed a nun wearing a grey and white habit- she looked very elegant walking along. It reminded me of the ongoing political arguments over the veil. Back in 2007 when I was in Syria I did a small art project thinking about the veil, and wrote in my sketch-book: Reveal/conceal, mask, cover, mystery, decoration, seclusion, symbol/label, make a statement, allure, suggestive, bridal, hiding, secretive, protection, propriety, modesty, seduction, dignity, ceremony, women, shame, holiness, piety, tradition, oppression, Taking the Veil, consecration, virginity, Veil of the Temple, partition, veiled in mystery, lifting the veil, sensuality, eroticism, the Unknown, veiled beauty, Dance of the Seven Veils, a label. Public/private spaces; valuing the interior. Since then I have had more respect for veils in their various forms.

Story-telling

It is over two months since we returned from our Pilgrimage from Orviedo to Santiago, and beyond to Muxia, and I have been reflecting on the role of story-telling. My medical training advises on the importance of eye contact during consultation- I wonder now if this should be challenged. Talking to other people on a Camino comes very naturally: perhaps the exercise of walking is disinhibiting and the common goal of the Pilgrim becomes a bond. During the walk from Santiago to Muxia I found myself talking to strangers about their lives and my own, places, politics, pretty much anything. Yet while there is real intimacy there is no eye contact. Each walker needs to look where they are going and will look almost anywhere except into the eyes of the person they are talking to. Despite the advice of textbooks this seems to give a freedom to talk about things honestly and with a stream of consciousness not usually possible in most social settings. I would argue that lack of eye contact is key to this process.

IMG_2507 The last day to Muxia was a long one- about 32km. My husband, who had our food supplies, stayed back to help a fellow pilgrim. The day was hot. I started talking with a woman from Slovenia, who keep me going for sometime with tales about her family and her life.

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After we parted I caught up with another member of our pilgrim group: a retired inspector of police. He asked me if I knew any Old Testament stories to pass the time. He told me all he knew of the story of Joseph in a steady rhythm as we walked along: many sons, a loving father, ornate robes, sheaves of wheat, spices, twenty pieces of silver, betrayal, blood: the story went on and on as we trudged along, in an out of Egypt a few times and meandering into side alleys, it regained its thread in another land. There was famine; there was deception, and at last reconciliation, feasting, forgiveness. Reading this now (Genesis Ch 37-50) the story could have been stretched even further with elaborations on the many descendants and Joseph’s great age (110y) when he finally died. However, the story-telling did the trick and I had been transported. By the time we came to a reasonable end many miles had passed.

Sitting down in the evenings after a long day’s walk was another opportunity to share stories. The evenings got merry with wine and a mixed crowd not so unlike Chaucer’s group in Canterbury Tales. There was no competition to encourage us, but the companionship (with-bread) drew us together with a mutual sense of achievement and sharing of the experience.IMG_2542

 

 

The craft fair

I went to the craft fair in Clare Priory. The monastic site was taken over with stalls everywhere.  It was another hot summer day and there was lots to see with music and ice cream.  I soon started emptying my purse for small trinkets, including a small Spanish acorn made of pewter, very similar to the one in Moyse Hall. It reminded me of the descriptions of the fairs at Ely, where “tawdry-ware” was sold, after St Audrey (Etheldreda)

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I went on a tour of the church with two lay members who told the story of the new church, with all its difficulties and how they had been overcome. It is a truly beautiful space, linking the medieval infirmary building with a modern build supported by beams in a pattern of circles within squares: heaven and earth. The glass walls link to the exterior, including an enclosed  garden “room” of a lovely meditative space.

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Outside I got talking to a garden volunteer. I asked him if he had found anything interesting in his digging and we got on to the perennial subject of St Edmund’s relics.  There is a current view they may be found beneath the tennis courts to the East of the abbey. I told him of counter theories, including the one that he was placed in an existing tomb in St Mary’s. The gardener pondered this and exclaimed this was what happened to Christ, whose body was placed in the tomb intended for Joseph of Arimathæa. The tomb was new- and intended for Joseph.  (Matthew Ch 28, v.59-60)  Perhaps the tomb intended for John Reeve, the Last Abbott, who died shortly after the closure of the Abbey had already been built? The Abbott could have place the sacred body in his own new tomb.

Mary Lowndes

On that long hot day between Stoke-by-Nayland and Long Melford the church of the Holy Innocents in Lamarsh was a curious interlude. The name itself was delightful, but I was surprised to see such a small place in such a rural site so full of fabulous art. The images in the stained glass were boldly designed in strong colour, and deserve to be better known.  The Holy Innocents themselves took centre stage in the East window,  with the virgin Mary tenderly protecting her baby.  The church website , http://www.lamarshchurch.org.uk/Lamarsh.html#_Toc31807822 does not do justice to either the work or its producer. Mary Lowndes was an active member of the suffragette movement and established the Artists’ Suffrage League. She  was part of the Arts and Crafts movement; she co-founded The Glass House as a stained-glass studio and was prolific in output. This is a treasure and I am only sorry my phone was dead and I could not take any photos- I can only advise that you visit this Church for yourself .

I was pleased to learn Mary has now been recognised on the plinth of the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square.

I left the church inspired, but also saddened that women artists are still relatively ignored. Mary deserves greater recognition for her achievments.

from Manningtree

Taking the train from Bury St Edmunds to Manningtree I walked back to Bury St Edmunds over three days. The walking conditions were hot and quite exhausting- it was a relief to enter the churches along the way to cool down.

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I followed the St Edmunds Way  using Marcus Powles’ lovely book as a guide. There was so much to see. I was struck by the ordinariness of the countryside around Flatford (which was, well, flat)- no dramatic hills, but lots of sky and the meandering river Stour with swathes of rushes and a few cows sheltering beneath trees or wading in the river- very much as John Constable would have seen it.

IMG_3045.JPGWalking down hedgerows, across fields of barley and ripe wheat revealed many rural views, often with a church in the distance. Two Constable paintings are to be found: “The Ascension” in St Mary the Virgin, Dedham, and the extraordinary “Christ Blessing the Elements” at St James, Nayland. My entry into this particular church was marked by three men digging a trench across the graveyard to lay a water-pipe. “Any bones?”, I asked. “Lots!” they replied and showed me several fragments. We had a cheerful conversation until I walked in to the cool of the church to be confronted by Christ in a blood-red robe. A remarkable painting.

Memories of my first day include being almost overwhelmed by nettles leading to St Mary the Virgin, Lawford. I was rewarded with some fabulous flint work and a service with hymns drifting over a worn statue of the Virgin.IMG_3018.JPGIMG_3024.JPG

I spent the night at the Angel Inn at Stoke-by-Nayland after inspecting the truly amazing door of St Mary’s. The Tree of Jesse is a heavily carved family tree of Christ, quite extraordinary in its beauty and solemnity.

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The second day seemed to go on and on, with treasure upon treasure revealing itself. After Stoke-by-Nayland, and then Nayland I found St Mary the Virgin at Wissington, tucked away behind a horse-riding event, full of medieval wall-paintings; the most impressive being a large dragon in red ochre.

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The scale of the place, its coolness and quiet made me sorry to  leave but I had a long way to go. The heat of the day was quite extreme by this stage and I was glad of my pilgrim hat and a much-needed drink when I reached Bures. Then on to Lamarsh. The paths seemed to go on and on, with very physical experience of heat and rustling of rapeseed pale gold and crispy, ready to harvest.

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Reaching the church of the Holy Innocents in Lamarsh revealed a remarkable interior full of stained glass by Mary Lowndes. This was so intriguing I must research further for a future blog post.  Then on again to St Mary the Virgin, Great Henny, with painted demons on the ends of roof beams. This  church is deservedly part of the Small Pilgrim Places network, a remarkable space to cool down.

I was getting tired by then, but there was much further to go with no way out as my mobile phone had run down. The afternoon was then interrupted by four fire engines racing past dealing with a field fire. I then got lost trying to find the path towards Middleton, ending up in a field of goats, and then another farm where I was re-directed.  Eventually  reaching  Sudbury, there was nothing for it but to walk, and walk, and walk another six miles along the old railway line towards Long Melford. And even having got to my destination Long Melford was very long indeed, stretching on forever to arrive eventually with my kind friends Sandie and Robert Lant. There I washed and we had a large glass of red wine with an excellent meal, whilst watching the news of the resignation of Boris Johnson! What a day.

Robert had recently retired as church warden and I was privileged the following morning to go round Holy Trinity Church with him. This must be described separately, but surfice to say there was plenty to see and reflect upon as I headed for the final stretch of my journey. Boris Johnson appeared, bizarrely, in reconstructed form as a piece of flint knapping. I was beginning to hallucinate! Something to do with the overload of images and heat? The vision was sufficiently persistent I was compelled to reconstruct it when I finally got home, entitled “The Fading Dream”..

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The route back to Bury takes you across to Lavenham through a wooded stretch of old railway line now very overgrown. Once again the fabulous tower of St Peter and St Paul’s could be seen from a distance, and it was a pleasure to go in this time to cool off again.

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It was afternoon already and I had to get back. I have walked this footpath from Long Melford to Bury several times before, and seem to get lost every time. When I compare to the close sign-posting of the routes to Santiago de Compostela it is fair to say things could be improved. I spent ages with my map, but this did not seem to correspond with the reality before me!  I had to guess by the direction of the sun on occasion and wish I had brought a compass and a phone-charger along. If I had been able to summon help I would have done so, but there seemed nothing else for it but to keep going. My feet were hurting by this stage and my pace was very slow and getting slower. The sun was setting when I finally arrived home.

As I sit here and nurse my blisters I can feel privileged to have done this. Two thoughts recur: firstly the act of walking is a form of incorporation – an interaction between the pilgrim and the environment through which they travel- my blisters are from the impact of the earth beneath my feet. Secondly, not all travellers are as lucky- I cannot imagine what it is like to be forced to cross continents for fear of persecution and without good resources, friendships, language or the certainty of a welcome on arrival. And yet refugees through the ages, and still now, have endured this from necessity. A Catholic movement, Share the Journey, recognises  this and encourages prayer and support for refugees through pilgrimage.

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Ruins

IMG_2842.JPGThe ruins of the Abbey now in Bury St Edmunds are a material reminder of how things were, but also how things move on. I wonder how many people actually mourned for the building after The Reformation- they were too busy collecting the stones and re-using them around the town. This is in contrast, say, to the recent disaster in Glasgow, where Mackintosh’s School of Art was burnt down. Debate will be had about the future of that site, and leaving it as a ruin is an option discussed by  Ray McKenzie

The Bury ruins are emotive if not actually beautiful.  They are evocative of how things were, even if our ideas of the past are unrealistic; They invoke a sense of yearning, bringing forth ghosts. Physical gaps and cracksIMG_2843.JPG symbolise our lack of understanding.  They are mysterious and invite curiosity. The Unknown is often so much more interesting than the obvious.

“Heritagisation” is a dreaded word for me as re-invoking the past seems to miss the point. Visitor centres and re-enactments seem to dwell on the obvious, the superficial, and (of course) the need for money to maintain the spectacle. These places are best left as they are as testimony to Man’s achievements and ultimate fate.

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Clare

One of my favourite walks is between Clare and Bury St Edmunds, set up by the council (details onthe Long Distance Walkers’ Association site.)I take the 9am bus from Bury and start by a visit toClare Priory .This Augustinian community was revived after it was repurchased in 1953 and the infirmary was used as a church. This was extended and a modern building was consecrated in 2015. It is a truly beautiful space with a rare sense of calm.

The original church is now a ruin, but very much part of the scene.IMG_2735.JPGI wanted to stay longer, and would like to meet the Augustinians, as I realise I know nothing of either their practice or that of  the Benedictines who founded the Abbey in Bury. Their website explains the benefit of community:

“The Rule of St. Augustine emphasises the need to search for God together in order to achieve oneness of mind and heart:

“Before all else, live together in harmony, being of one mind and one heart on the way to God.”

Rule of St. Augustine Ch 1.2″
 
 I had to get on as it takes me roughly seven hours to walk back to Bury St Edmunds. I stopped by the Church of St Peter and St Paul to admire the doorway with the Ten Faces of the Green Man , rather worn but at least ignored by IMG_2747
 
William Dowsing  when he violated the place in 1643
 
The footpath is much easier during the summer when it is dry, and the countryside is a fine place for meditation. Apart from one lost cyclist (trying to find Dalham) I met no-one all day. The paths are reasonably well-kept, with  ways across the fields kept free, but not always obvious from signs if you didn’t know the way. Compared to the camino ways in Spain this could be improved. 
 
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