It was such a beautiful day for the end of November I headed for the bus station in Bury St Edmunds and took the bus for Brandon, sitting on the top of the double-decker. Towards the end of the journey I was joined by a lady and we got chatting. When I explained that I planned to walk back to Thetford through the forest she expressed concern: she never went into the forest without her husband. I wryly thought that (statistically at least) she was at greater risk of rape or murder through domestic violence then from a stranger in a forest. Nevertheless she pressed her point by reminding me of the tragic case in Norfolk last year of the murder of an 83 year old man walking his dog.
I have walked between Brandon and Thetford on my own before, and was not troubled by her concern as I set off. It was sunny and mild, with lots of colour still from oak and birch leaves, now mainly on the ground, and sun on the Scots pines.As I walked towards Santon Downham the trees closed in and I wasn’t exactly sure of the way at a couple of places, but relied on the general direction. I then heard a cough behind me and noticed a man coming up towards me. “I coughed so that you would not alarmed when I pass you!” he explained. How thoughtful.
The church of St Mary the Virgin at Santon Downham is known as The Church in the Forest, and is indeed surrounded by trees, mainly planted around 1920 with the development of the Forestry Commission .
There is lots to explore both outside and in. On the South wall is a mythical beast that appears to be sprouting a Fleur de Lys from its tail above a Romanesque arch
On the North side there is a blocked up archway and what looks like a piscina- was this bit inside at one stage, or was it actually a frame for a statue, as their pamphlet suggests?
Inside the church there was medieval and Victorian stained glass, and also a lovely image of St Francis by Harcourt Doyle from 1952. I was particularly intrigued by the rood screen with a dark printed pattern stained onto it, hard to make out in the light, and a tiny window on the right side. Curiously the pattern of this window was reflected in the glass of a memorial scroll painted with forest plants by the window opposite.
The front of the rood screen was boldly painted (more recently?) with a joyful band of briar roses.
The other thing which touched me was a (rather worn) Call to Prayer from Bishop Martin for the people of Syria and Iraq. It put into context any worries for the safety of lone women walking in a forest to think of the tragedies endured there. I remembered my own visit to Syria back in 2007 and the kindness and generosity of the people I met there. Could prayer possibly work for them?
I left the church and continued into the forest thinking about various issues to do with safety. What would make me feel more or less safe? Getting lost would worry me, particularly if it got dark- signage could be improved. Would I be afraid in the dark? I remembered childhood fears of owls hooting, and, bizarrely, a dread of the noise of vacuum cleaners.
Suddenly there was a hideous noise overhead; a roaring sound which made the birds cry out. It sounded like jets but I could not see them. I actually felt pleased to be in the forest as I felt protected. The noise came again, this time very loud and I spotted four fighter jets in close synchrony flash across. Friend or Foe? They were probably from the local American Airbase, but they did not make me feel safe at all.
I reached the Little Ouse and enjoyed a board walk and a wooden bridge with beautiful views. thinking about the limitations imposed by a sense of safety and risk. Being too cautious can be very limiting and boring. There is a frisson associated with risk, and thrills to be had from wild places, heights, dangerous liaisons.. Risk is inevitable in most encounters and in creative acts of art and writing, with a risk of criticism.
I was now on the North bank of the Little Ouse, and in Norfolk. There were two more dangers ahead: the first was a swan on the bank with her rather large cygnets. She hissed at me briefly whilst I did my best to ignore her. The second was the oncoming roar of the A11. I haven’t recovered from the stress of crossing over this to get to Mildenhall and was very relieved that here was an underpass with some splendid graffiti, including “Sexy Mary” to make the experience truly delightful. I knew I must be getting to Thetford, but there was one thing missing. No litter! I was impressed. Surely the place isn’t becoming gentrified?