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.
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.
Walking 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.
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.
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.
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.
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”..
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.
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.