Denston

It is several weeks since I walked back to Bury St Edmunds from Stradishall- it seems a whole season away as then it was one of those late summer days rich in colour- and now there is steady drizzle. I have delayed writing due to activity to do with water meadows in Bury St Edmunds- for which I am also writing a sister blog: Wild Meadows 

The bus to Haverhill stops by the lane to Stradishall, and it was no distance before I found the church. Sadly it was locked, but there were some splendid gargoyles dealing with the drains and also embedded into the wall at the West end. They reminded me of the current milieu in the House of Commons- things don’t seem to change.

I walked along a footpath towards Denston, passing by brambles in the hedge. The berries were at various stages of ripeness, reminding me of an illustration in the Bury Bible

This wonderful book is a product of the Benedictine Abbey from around 1100- although the text was copied from existing texts it is likely the illustrations were drawn from life, and the text added afterwards. I am not sure what physicianly properties this plant was thought to possess and wish I could understand the text.

Coming into Denston I came across the unlikely scene of a woman wrestling with a large flag of the Isle of Man. By good fortune this turned out to be the Churchwarden, Fiona Evans, who was most willing to show me around the church. The first thing which struck me as we approached was its size. Denston is a tiny village, yet the church was enormous.  A population of 120 was recorded on 2005. This has declined over the past 200 years, probably due to a change in farming methods and general migration to towns and cities:

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Much has been written about Denston church already- there is so much interesting detail it is hard to know where to start. Whilst a church existed here in the 12th Century the main building was built in the latter part of the 15th Century, incorporating a “College” “To celebrate the divine offices day by day … for the souls of John Denston and Katherine Clopton his wife.. and of their heirs.. and for the souls of all the faithful departed.” The chantry priests survived the dissolution of the monasteries until Edward VI’s reign. Two beautiful brasses lay on the floor of the nave. I noticed that the woman’s cloak was decorated with scallop shells down the left border. A Pilgrim! We speculated as to whether the parts of the work left in bare stone had once been coloured in some way? And what is that man doing with another man wrapped around his head??

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IMG_5827The most unusual, probably unique, feature of the church was the beautiful Double Cadaver Tomb. Professor Julian Luxford published a paper on this for the Journal of the Richard III Society in 2016 where he writes enthusiastically on the subject. He states that 175 cadaver tombs are known from the medieval period, most of which are in brass. I am familiar with our own stone John Barrett in St Mary’s, Bury St Edmunds: John had the tomb made before his death in order to contemplate his own mortality. But a double tomb? The (very) elderly couple lie side by side, he looking more decrepit than her. Perhaps the artist- and his audience- found more difficulty in accepting the female image in a state of decomposition. It is not clear who the couple actually represent, although John and Katherine would seem most likely, given the tomb’s prominent position in the church. Their anonymity makes the art-work more universal.  I mused as to whether the couple got on well in life, and how they had felt about lying together, forever, after death.

IMG_5839Another delightful feature were the medieval finials on the pews. One tried to represent an “elephant” but the artist had trouble knowing what to do- it ended up looking more like a duck.

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The churchwarden also told me the extraordinary story of how one of the finials had been stolen, and then ended up on eBay in the USA 34 years later, complete with provenance! It was now safely reattached.

What a place. I was saddened to hear they have been without a vicar for nearly two years (along with the other 6 churches in the Bansfield Benefice). They still manage a Parish Magazine the “Parish Pump” and a service once a month thanks to its diminishing group of supporters.

Time was passing, and now I needed to walk back to Bury St Edmunds. The Clare walk lies only a couple of miles to the South East. I thought I would walk to Hawkedon and rejoin it at Somerton. The weather was lovely and I was in good spirits.

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Two unfortunate things then happened. Quite unexpectedly I fell over. I was striding forward when a lace in my right boot caught a hook in my left boot. This sent me flying onto a gravel path, knocking off my glasses and grazing my face and right arm. I sat stunned, wondering if anyone was about, but there was no sign of anyone, so I had no choice but to get up and go on. The second thing was an energetic herd of cattle which blocked my path before I reached Somerton. They seemed to know by telepathy which stile I was aiming for and huddled around it.  After trying various ways around them there seemed nothing for it but to head back to Hawkedon and follow the road to join the footpath up towards Brockley.

By the verge I noticed some saw-wort- the flowers were well over by now and had turned brown but the leaves were fresh. I picked them and put them in a dye pot when I finally got home.

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A Lost Road

According to David Addy’s St Edmundsbury Chronicle the road from Bury St Edmunds to Haverhill used to pass through Chevington. The road was called The Abbots’ Way as the Abbots had a retreat at Chevington next to the church.  The road was diverted in around 1810 when Ickworth Park was created. What remains of the retreat is now Chevington Hall, surrounded by high hedges and a moat.

I set out for Chevington with a friend on the number 15 bus from Bury St Edmunds, turning off from the Haverhill Road via Chedburgh. Stopping at The Greyhound Pub we were delighted to be met by Paul Thacker, who knew the place very well from living there.

We walked up to All Saints’ church together.  It is beautiful Grade One listed building standing now in a quiet lane (the old road). He explained that it used to be longer, but the East end had been shortened in 1697 after problems with subsidence into the moat of the Abbots’ retreat. I looked down into the moat, but could see nothing but brambles:

IMG_5733Why would the Abbots’ retreat have a moat? It is likely this is far older than even the church. Perhaps the Abbots chose the site for being prestigious in some way, now forgotten.

We entered through the lovely Norman door:

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The interior is a hybrid of a building from 1130-80 with additions in the C13th and subsequent revisions, which have continued until now, giving a sense of involvement from a community over many, many generations. The effect was surprisingly coherent and peaceful. Paul pulled back some floorboards to show me a stone coffin. This was described by Gage in 1828:

It contained a very perfect skeleton of a young ecclesiastic. The hands were found raised on the breast, and the remains of a leaden chalice, which had fallen from them, lay near the right shoulder.

Modern pews at the front had been removed, which produced a clean space. Medieval pews remained at the back with C15 carvings of musicians.

We stepped outside as a sweep of sunshine hit a black cloud behind the church:

IMG_5734.JPGPaul showed me other treasures, too- including a labyrinth cut into the grass with a log at its entrance. He insisted the cut edge of the log looked like a madonna, but I couldn’t see it myself!

IMG_5737.jpgThe walk back to Bury St Edmunds was straightforward, walking along the old road into Ickworth Park through pretty countryside. The park entrance had seen better days:

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The path led to the church of St Mary, recently restored by the Ickworth Church Conservation Trust under the current Marquis of Bristol. There is a gallery to separate and elevate the Hervey Family from the rest of the congregation. The church had previously served the village of Ickworth, also moved along with the road during the creation of Ickworth Park. There was a cheerful-looking Gabriel at the East end whose feet seemed to be on the wrong way round:

IMG_5747.JPGThe path took us though the park and up to Horringer Church, then over the A143 and road to Whepstead. We were in deep countryside, yet close to Bury St Edmunds:

IMG_5750.JPGThe old road probably went a different way back into Bury along the path of the River Linnet, but the footpath joined the St Edmunds Way. I hadn’t realised before how close Chevington was to Bury, but if you go by car the way is  further due to all the rearrangements.  Why do we have to make things so complicated!

 

 

To and from Hessett

I had been meaning to go to Hessett church for a while ever since realising there was yet another Grade one listed building I had never seen within easy walking distance. My opportunity came when I met the churchwarden – he wanted an opinion on a piece of cloth- as if I was qualified to give it!

I set off to Rushbrooke initially, taking the long route via the St Edmunds Way. As soon as the West Suffolk Hospital is passed it feels like deep countryside. Crossing a field of ripe wheat, wild flowers were in abundance in hedgerows and verges: Lady’s bedstraw, white campion, blue scabious, and flowering dock which had turned a coral-red. Passing Nowton church, it looked manicured on the outside as if they were expecting royalty:

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Rushbrooke church was its usual delightful self and I could not resist three more books in aid of their heating fund. The cover alone for “Into a far Country” (1945, reprinted 1946) had me enthralled. The flysheet reads: “Miss Snow has wisely introduced important lessons of life which will undoubtedly help to guide the thinking and mould the character of its readers” 

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The walk from Rushbrooke on to Hessett actually seemed easier than going by car, as you simply walk in a straight line between quiet lanes and footpaths. The main incident was that half way across a field I realised it was occupied by some young bullocks who started moving towards me. Fortunately a stile appeared and I crossed over while they were a good distance away.

My phone had gone dead when I reached Hessett, so I regret to say there are no pictures to share. Everything about St Ethelbert’s Church was fascinating.  Ethelbert was an C8th king of East Anglia murdered by King Offa’s men, thus predating Edmund by nearly a hundred years. There is a stone post in the front churchyard which was presumably used as a meeting place, possibly even before the church was built. It looked very old, with recesses on each side as if to take planks of wood. It is not described in official descriptions of the church, perhaps overlooked by the fantastic wall-paintings, the medieval stained glass and the many other features which make the place so special. Of the wall-paintings the seven deadly sins was particularly memorable, as well as a painting of St Barbara carrying her tower with windows to represent the Trinity.  The warden showed me the vestry, which was possibly used as an anchorage with a medieval wooden ladder leading up to a first floor- it looked quite cosy! He also explained how the Sindon- a Pyx-cloth made of medieval linen embroidery, had been found in a trunk which somehow escaped the rigours of the Reformation. Along with it was a painted Burse- in the manner of Opus Anglicanum, but painted over linen. These objects are currently in the British Museum, but good photographs were on display, and may be found on-line:

dsc01445.jpg295242127_465254be08So many treasures! I thanked him and set off back over the fields. Unfortunately the bullocks were waiting for me, this time gathered around the stile.  I talked with them for a while but they wouldn’t move. I chickened out at this point and retraced my steps to go into the neighbouring village of Rougham and headed directly back to Bury St Edmunds.

If I had been a pilgrim at the time of the Abbey I would have entered the town via Southgate St. As it was I walked along the Lark Valley footpath, offering lovely views of the fields leading up to the Abbey Gardens along with the distant roar of the A14. I am still wondering how the pyx cloth was made- such beautiful work must have had a spiritual significance : not just a demonstration of human skill but threads extending in an orderly fashion.

Hospitals and Hospitality

Hospital, hotel, hostel, host, hospitality. Latin hospes (m) a guest, visitor hospita (f) female guest.

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The six “hospitals” of medieval Bury St Edmunds described by J. Brian Milner in his book  “6 Hospitals and a Chapel: the story of the medieval hospitals of Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk” (2013) lay on the periphery of the town along the main roads. There were  two  at the edge of Southgate St coming in from Sudbury: St John’s and Saint Petronella’s. The Gatehouse to the hospital of St Saviour’s is still visible behind Tesco’s on the Mildenhall Road, although there is no visible sign of the Chapel of St Thomas, which was opposite. There were two in Eastgate St: St Nicholas and St Stephen on the road coming in from Diss, and one in Out Risbygate St coming in from Newmarket.

The position of these buildings raises interesting questions around their role in relation to the abbey and to pilgrims. The name hospital is most likely to mean a guest-house, taking all types of visitor, but perhaps some- the sick, the elderly, the homeless, needed more help and “hospitality” than others. Such an idea has a touching similarity to the principle of the National Health Service, whose premise is based on the basic problem that those most in need of healthcare (the very young, old, mentally ill, poor and ill) are those least likely to be able to afford it.

The Abbey provided for ill-health in both spiritual and physical ways: pilgrims would gain indulgence from their journey, and could hope for miraculous recovery from their chosen saint.  The monks would have been physicians with a classical training, giving particular perspectives on the psyche (breath, soul) and the hierarchy of the Creator and created.  Roy Porter, in “Flesh and the Age of Reason” (2003) discusses the dualism of body and soul assumed from the time of Pythagoras (600 B.C.). “Spiritual” and “physical” became the same thing. People’s destiny in classical Greece seemed dictated by the gods, with rival demands of individual love, duty and  desire leading to inevitable tragedy. Judaism and Christianity added to these perspectives. The Old Testament refers to Man’s misfortune stemming from the Original Sin of disobeying God. Illnesses were punishments from God (e.g Exodus 9:11, Job 2:7). Suffering in the New Testament is sanctified by Christ’s example. Corruption of the body was symptomatic of Man’s lapsed condition, but there was hope of salvation.

Such ideas continue through our use of language (heart, soul, flesh, spirit). Even the NHS refers to ways of living well, based on evidence that some behaviours (e.g. smoking) are causative of disease. And hospitality, now divorced from modern medicine, still has something to offer healthcare through its implication of kindness and nurturing.

I am left wondering what happened to needy pilgrims after the Reformation. With the closure of the Abbey the provision for healthcare would have collapsed.  “The Medieval Hospitals of Bury St Edmunds” by Joy Rowe (1958) refers to the Chantry Certificates for 1544-5 where there is a petition from the inhabitants of Bury St Edmunds:

it may please the King’s most excellent majesty of his most charitable benignity, moved with pity, in that behalf to convert the revenues and profits of the sum of the said promotions (hospitals) into some godly foundation, whereby the said poor inhabitants daily their multiplying may be relieved.

I am also left unclear how much the “hospitals” were ever used by the townspeople: I suspect they were chiefly pilgrims and elderly priests. Yet they missed them when the hospitals were gone as they inherited their occupants.

Ely 3

I walked to Ely from Cambridge by catching the 07.31 train from Bury St Edmunds. As I passed by Parker’s Piece large numbers of Muslims were celebrating- eating breakfast in the open air and embracing each other. “Ramadan is finished!”, a young man explained, adding (helpfully) that this was “the equivalent of your Lent!”

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I congratulated him and felt rather guilty. I have always admired my colleagues’ ability to manage Ramadan, particularly during summer. Any attempt to do without during Lent has been fairly feeble on my part, and never a cause for community celebration.

Fasting was a feature of pilgrimage for Margery Kempe (b.1373), who did not always get much sympathy. She describes her visit to the Holy Land to Mount Quarentyne, allegedly where Jesus had fasted for forty days. She felt too weak to get up the mountain until she was helped by Grey Friars, whilst her fellow countrymen would not acknowledge her. “And so she was ever more strengthened in the love of our lord and the more bold to suffer shame and rebukes for his sake”.. I can see why her countrymen found Margery irritating. Hardship and doing without bears an interesting relationship to holiness. Is my walking hardship or enjoyment or both, and how are they connected? There is a sense of satisfaction from arriving somewhere, and the journey is always interesting; Margery was looking for Pardon, and described a sense of grace and spiritual comfort. But she seemed to do it despite her fellow countrymen rather than as a community effort.

The river Cam looked in perfect condition, with lots of boats about. I was intrigued to watch a dredging boat, Berky, reach out and scoop a colony of watercress up and into its rollers with a pile of foliage arriving on board- we definitely need one of those on the Lark!

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Hardship started to creep in at Waterbeach. I lost my way and found a gate impossible to open. When I found the path again things were badly overgrown and it had begun to rain. There was a large herd of cows in the way, although they had at at least trampled the ground enough to see where to go. I just tried to ignore them and also the sign which warned they could be aggressive with calves about. There were several miles where the path was very overgrown until things began to improve again. Then once again the marvellous cathedral came into view and I knew things would get better. And by some miracle I arrived at the station with 90 seconds to go before the train took me back to Bury St Edmunds

IMG_5347.JPGMiracles were a feature of the Holy Saints in Medieval times, and a reason for Pilgrimage- this sounds quite competitive, as the more miracles emanate from your Holy Site the more people will visit it. This is discussed in a PhD thesis by Michael Schmalz in 2017, using data from Herman’s De Miraculis. Edmund is credited with miracles involving punishment, but also rescue and healing. In a world without modern medical intervention this would be very useful indeed.

St Etheldreda was the centre of the cult at Ely, with reports that contact with her shroud-cloths could drive away demons, and her coffin could cure blindness. To this list we can now add prompt rescue by warm trains.

 

 

Ely 2

As the walk between Ely and Brandon was long and affected by traffic I wanted to try another way. This time I took the bus from Bury to Mildenhall. The church was busy with a friendly noticeboard packed with activities- most impressive.

The path took me behind the church past an old School House:

IMG_5308.JPGI wondered if there had been a girl’s school also? Also, having checked the dates, I wonder which Henry Bunbury? The one I had heard of was a caricaturist, but he died in 1811, making it more likely to be his son.

The path to Ely from Mildenhall is, in theory, straightforward- you just keep going along the northern bank of the Lark to Prickwillow, then turn West to Ely as before. Things were not quite as easy as that, though. Once away from Mildenhall the path was overgrown and very close to the bank at one point.

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Then abruptly things improved! It was as if someone had come along with a mower and made a perfect job up to a point, then gone home again. Had I just crossed into Cambridgeshire?

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Hoping this would be the end of my difficulties I carried on, but the undergrowth fought back and at one stage  it was so tall there was no way the footpath could be seen and I wondered if it was safe to continue.  I was pleased I remembered my stick.  Towards Prickwillow things improved again and I was treated to wonderful views of both the fens and the cathedral.

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Perhaps I was in better physical shape than the first time, but I arrived at Ely in good time and with a sense of elation. If the footpaths can be made visible then this would be the easiest route back to Bury. As it was I took the train and got going with a dye-pot using plants gathered over the last few days: a “fenland mix” of weld, horsetail fern and yarrow to produce a dazzling yellow!

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Ely 1

Plans for a pilgrimage to Bury St Edmunds in 2020 are becoming more complicated. In the St Edmundsbury Chronicle David Addy presents evidence for the foundation of the Abbey by King Cnut in 1020, just three years after his establishment as king. He replaced the existing priests with Benedictine monks from St Benet’s and Ely, and paid a pilgrimage himself to Bury St Edmunds in 1020. So now there is a proposal to repeat the journey from Ely to Bury, as well as from St Benet’s. But how? An attractive possibility would be by boat. It is possible to go down the Little Ouse to Brandon from the Great Ouse, , or down (up!) the Lark as far as Jude’s Ferry near Mildenhall.

As I had never tried before I thought it would be interesting to walk along the Hereward Way between Brandon and Ely, to see if this was a suitable option for pilgrims. I decided it would be safer to head towards Ely as trains continue long after the buses stop. The earliest bus from Bury took me to Brandon by about 9.45 and soon I was heading Westwards into deep countryside. There were very few signs, but I was reassured when I spotted a recent badge for Via Beata: this amazing project has nearly completed a 400 mile route between Lowestoft and St David’s in Pembrokeshire using art projects as stations along the way- what a wonderful achievement!

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The first half of the journey was through isolated and beautiful scenery along the marshland of the Little Ouse, walking mile after mile on the top of a dyke. A cuckoo joined in with distant jet noises from US Lakenheath-

IMG_5277I felt privileged to be out in such isolated country. Things got difficult, however, when I  reached a railway track leading to a tiny station at Shippea Hill. Somehow the footpath had been forgotten at that point and I was wading through undergrowth before I climbed onto the level crossing and back onto a road! At that point any “footpath” disappeared completely and I walked along the A1101, then the B1382 into Prickwillow keeping out of the way of the cars that dashed by.  At one point a large blue tractor slowed down and moved across for me, causing road-rage from cars behind him.  Reviewing the map now there does not seem to be a better way as the land is defined by a series of ditches. A disused pumping station reminded me of the former fens-

IMG_5284.JPGIn the 11th Century it is likely that most of this part would have been underwater or impassable marshland.

As I was approaching Prickwillow a view appeared. The “Ship of the Fens”, disguised by a barn at first, and appearing much closer than it actually was due to its enormous size. The sight of it cheered me up considerably. At Prickwillow I crossed the Lark and went down a delightful track called “The Old Way”, with the Ship appearing ever larger and more Cathedral-like. I doubt I was the first pilgrim to have felt grateful when I finally arrived in the Centre of Ely. I had walked around 25 miles, and was happy to sit down.

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