Hospitals and Hospitality

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


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!”


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!


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.


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?


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.


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!




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!


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.


Simon of Sudbury

I decided to treat myself to a bus trip to Sudbury to see the silk shops at Vanners and Stephen Walters. I was hoping to find out more having recently learnt to weave braids . The finest braids were made of silk, but the yarn needs to be strong, judging from my early efforts with wool. No known braids from Edmund’s time have been found in East Anglia, but there are braids from Denmark and Norway, which have survived in anaerobic conditions, and whose designs are straightforward to reconstruct. This one is from the Oseberg burial site in Norway from 834ad:


My mission failed – not only were both shops closed on Mondays but there was a staff shortage and there was no bus back to Bury until mid-afternoon. Perhaps I should have walked back, but just for once I was not in the mood. Instead I set out to investigate Sudbury.

St Gregory’s Church was visible from Vanner’s Mill Shop, and I wandered in to a large medieval space. I was admiring the huge C15 font cover when I heard a soft squeaking noise behind the door. I wondered if someone was having a problem with the heavy handle and went to open it. Behind the door was a man trying to oil it! He explained he was the organist and was most happy to tell me all about the church and its many interesting features. Before long he asked me if I would like to see a skull.. and of course I  accepted immediately.  We went into a small anteroom beyond the chancel and there, in a small cupboard, was the severed head of Simon of Sudbury. The squeamish should look away now…


Skulls in the anatomy department are usually cleaned of soft tissue, but this one had not been prepared and there is mummified skin over part of the face.  The skull was of a large, heavy-looking man.  Sudbury’s career was impressive- not only was he appointed Bishop of London in 1361, but went on to be Archbishop of Canterbury in 1375 and then Lord Chancellor of England in 1380, an odd combination by modern standards.  My companion explained that things went wrong for him when a poll tax was introduced and a populist mob dragged him to Tower Hill where he was beheaded with eight blows to his neck.

I turned around, and my companion showed me something else: in 2011 the head had been examined and a facial reconstruction made by forensic experts at the University of Dundee- this is what he would have looked like!


What a very human face. We both agreed it was a most suitable story for the political times in which we live, and I can only feel relieved that populist execution is not yet current practice in the UK.

As we returned to the chancel I admired the carving on the misericords- noting that decorative braids in the clothing and hair of the women: perhaps we weren’t so very different after all.




Dreams and Metamorphosis

Having established a route from Norwich to St Benets’ the rest of the route back to Bury St Edmunds needed to be considered. It is suggested the monks originally went by boat to Bungay, by-passing Norwich altogether. Bury St Edmunds Ramblers have had previous experience of walking from Bury to Norwich by walking East to Diss and joining the Boudicca Way  via Saxlingham Nethergate  and Pulham Market. 

But should we consider the point of it all? Was it to follow exactly in the monks footsteps or to promote Bury St Edmunds as a Pilgrimage Centre once again? If Pilgrimage is part of the purpose, then it might be worth considering what is meant by that, and its implications.  Much has been written on pilgrimage already, reflecting new interest, and also a concern for the impact of so many people on the environment and precious places. Statistics for pilgrims to Santiago are kept  through the system of Compostela- records of the journey which are presented to the pilgrims’ office on arrival. Last year, 2018, there were 327,378 pilgrims recorded, a huge increase since statistics were recorded from 1986:


Mindful of the impact of pilgrimage, the Green Pilgrimage Network was launched in 2011, of which Norwich is now a part. Should Bury be part of this, too? The network describes Seven Stages of Pilgrimage which individuals might experience-  but how to nurture these? The list sounds rather prescriptive, but could be used as a framework for planning. The most tantalising  “stage” on the list is the last one: metamorphosis/transformation/transfiguration/ascendance/transcendence- where change occurs. As a doctor I spent a career pondering on how to change people’s “health” behaviour, and came up with few answers. Individuals (pilgrims in this world) must be receptive to change and be able to see things anew. Art has the capacity to support this process, as does reading, writing and learning generally. And yet the change must occur in the brain. In The Master and his Emissary, Iain McGilchrist argues that the two sides of the brain have different functions (left- detail/language/logic; right- insight/instinct) and that Western Society has valued one over the other too far. Can the physical process of walking address this imbalance? Speaking recently on Radio 4, Richard Long made the obvious but profound observation that walking uses both sides of the body, and therefore the brain.  Is this just my personal experience, but he did not mention the    dreamworld which accompanies walking- the speeding up of thought, the evoking of memory, and the dreams at night. It is as if the extra exercise heats things up and stirs them about. This, surely, must help the capacity for change and redress any imbalance from our nit-picking left hemisphere. What an interesting area to explore as a neurophysiologist!

Thinking about these matters, and how to design a pilgrimage from the Bury St Edmunds end, I set out with a friend to walk to Bardwell. Once again we were lucky with the weather, and the companionship provided for a good sharing of ideas and memories. We set off Northwards along the St Edmunds Way as far as Culford, when we turned East to Ingham. Spring was all around with abundant sloe blossom and flowering birch. It was easy to feel immersed in the scene.



Outside the porch at Ampton Church there were large bunches of pussy willow, but sadly it was not open.

IMG_4921The track across from Ampton to Great Livermere reminded me of the sweeps of road along to Santiago, but without the thousands of other pilgrims:


And unlike the Caminos, the churches at Great Livermere, Troston and Bardwell were all open. Great Livermere contained several interesting features, including a memorial to M.R.James , who grew up as the rector’s son, and wall paintings where detail was long lost: IMG_4930The wall paintings at Troston were in better condition and easier to interpret: There was St George and the Dragon, St Christopher holding the Christ child, and a barely clothed St Edmund surrounded by coarse-featured Vikings!

There were also some tantalising geometric patterns, some of which were partly obscured by the Victorian panelling:

We reached Bardwell mid-afternoon to find further lovely details in the church of St Peter and St Paul . There was a wall painting recognisable as Christ being taken down from the cross:

IMG_4934.JPGThe scene was interrupted by a party of bellringers who had travelled from Reading! We enjoyed the peels as we sat in our friend Tom Hoblyn’s garden waiting for a lift home.

And how does this walk fit in with my thoughts about pilgrimage? It would certainly provide an enjoyable entry back to Bury from St Benet’s.  Ideas around “Green Pilgrimage” make me think it is so much easier to step out of your own door than bother with flights abroad to places already filled with travellers. From goodwill it is possible to construct a local network which more than fulfills the criteria for pilgrimage. There is enough beautiful landscape and fabulous art within a day’s walk, let alone a week, although I think this could be worked on with good stewardship. And Metamorphosis? The images played on my dreams and incorporated themselves into my own art-works: here a tiny “walk”, an icon.


To Norwich!

A pilgrimage from St Benet’s back to Bury St Edmunds is proposed for 2020, and work must be done to plan for it. What are the obstacles? An inspection of the map confirmed that St Benet’s is on the far side of the river Bure with no near way to walk across. Further, there was no obvious footpath back to our first proposed stop at Norwich.

I started by contacting the ferry man at Horning. He was more than helpful, but needed to fix his engine, and then sort out insurance and river tolls. He has assured us that all will be well for 2020, but we could not rely on it for now.

Then how to get there? I went with Canon Philip Banks from Bury St Edmunds, using  two cars and leaving one in Norwich Cathedral.   The main issue was whether roads were acceptable for walkers if there was no foot-path. We were strongly advised that the obvious route, the Salhouse Road, was no longer suitable for pilgrims, with photos sent across from Norwich to demonstrate the problem:

IMG_0987.jpgPhilip studied the map carefully and came up with other possibilities, but these were also  rejected by the team in Norwich, who knew the terrain.

IMG_1014.jpgIn the end we agreed to start walking from the South side of the river at Ranworth, opposite St Benet’s, and followed the route advised by Richard Woodham from the East Anglian Pilgrimage Network.  Many thanks to Richard for his patience.

The day was sunny, and we met up with Sarah Friswell and her husband at Ranworth church to head back to Norwich. Reaching the top of Ranworth church tower involves a narrow spiral staircase and a couple of ladders, but the view across the Broads was well worth it, including a distant view of St Benet’s across the water. The interior was pretty amazing, too, with St George (rather than St Edmund) to send us on our way in the company of angels:

IMG_4949.JPGThere were very few footpaths, but the lanes were so quiet it scarcely mattered. I wondered if this would be the same during the summer? We passed by a few trees, but mainly it was open countryside, dry for the time of year.

IMG_4953.JPGAnd there was no need to worry about facilities! Woodforde’s Brewery soon came into view with a malty slurry being excreted from a pipe into a green tank at the back.

IMG_4955.JPGAlso, the thing which many pilgrims privately worry about, a set of public toilets!


We turned off the road after that and crossed over a railway track only to find the footpath had  disappeared under a freshly ploughed field. Whilst we were puzzling this out a man in a tractor appeared and advised we just walk across ..


We ate our lunch in the churchyard of All Saints, Rackheath, off the main track: standing alone on a hill and redundant.  There were building works going on and the place was covered in scaffolding, but there was no-one about.

We had been advised to continue to Spixworth, but took the chance to turn South at the North Waltham Road- a mistake as it turned out to be busy and without a pavement. Crossing the A1270 things improved quite quickly as we turned down Church Lane, reaching the delightful church of St Mary and St Margaret, Sprowston. This was full of interesting details, and a welcoming feel.


IMG_4965.JPGAfter that the walk was easy, with suburban roads and pavements until Mousehold Heath , now a nature reserve, and full of woodland paths which took us over the hill and down into the centre of Norwich over the Bishops’ Bridge. Walking up from there to the precinct of the Cathedral we passed The Great Hospital , which looked very much like a former pilgrim hostel. Entering the Cathedral precinct from this direction gave a very “pilgrimy” feel to the experience- as if repeating the views taken by pilgrims centuries before. And coming through the cloisters how lovely to find the refractory still open for tea!

IMG_5014IMG_4975What did we learn? Overall we were pleased that such a pleasant walk was possible. We should have listened more exactly to the advice given and will need to return to check the route by Spixworth again- there is no substitute for local knowledge: Thank You, Norwich!  I am also reminded of the impact the motor car has had over such a short time in our history: less than 100 years ago a direct route would have been easy to walk, but equally we would have found it more difficult to get to Norwich in the first place.