The Suffolk Pilgrim’s Progress: 2
Last November I was able to spend a week in an Art Retreat in Northern Spain. The house was in a small village West of Astorga, on the Camino Frances to Santiago del Compostela. I was given wonderful hospitality by the owners, Basia and Bertrand, and had the opportunity to try out some principles of geometric art and also visit the many amazing ecclesiastical treasures in Astorga. Creating even the simplest images with a compass and rule was very absorbing, and gave me back my enthusiasm for painting. I also loved rambling around the countryside amongst the rocks and Spanish oaks
Returning to Bury St Edmunds I was left wondering about our past and how the abbey might have been. If it was anywhere near the more humble Astorga, let alone Santiago itself, then we have lost a lot of material wealth.
I visited Moyse Hall museum to see what they had- there is a collection of pilgrim badges, including ampullae- small vessels for holy water, a scallop shell and a camel, found at Dunwich and possibly lost by a pilgrim who had visited Jerusalem. I was excited by a small acorn ornament, which was probably attached to the end of a cord like a tassel- the acorn was smaller than an English one and exactly the same as the much smaller Spanish acorns I had collected on my walks! Could it be the owner had been familiar with Northern Spain?
So what happened to the ecclesiastical treasure? We all dream of buried gold, but it is more likely it was sold abroad by The Crown, or melted down. I asked the retired bursar of Trinity College Cambridge, Jeremy Fairbrother what was in their college attics: “Students”, he replied.
The Suffolk Pilgrim’s Progress: 1
Mid-January I decided to walk North from Bury St Edmunds. I had just read “The St Edmund’s Way: a Pilgrim’s Notebook” published last year by Marcus Powles (ISBN-10 1973826755). The soil is drier in that direction at this time of the year, but not by much.
I was surprised to see snowdrops in a wood just before Culford- several weeks earlier than Bury.
As I approached The church of St Mary in Culford I met the church warden Marcus King. He was busy taking measurements in the churchyard. I had wanted to see the Commonwealth War-grave Commission grave that is registered, and he was happy to show me. The memorial is rather green compared to the bone-white rows I have seen in Northern France, and remembers Lance Corporal V.Haywood of the Royal Berkshire Regiment, who died on the 16th August 1942. Marcus explained there are, in fact, two graves : The second is a family grave, including Cecil Hinsby Clarke, who fell in Action In France and died aged 24y
The CWGC was recently put up a sign on the gate, but so far the second grave has not been acknowledged. The CGCG commission website record his name is on the Menin Gate Memorial
Marcus and I talked for so long my ambition to get to Mildenhall faltered when the bus came round the corner at Icklingham- I was the only passenger all the way back to Bury
I took the St Edmund Way footpath to Lavenham, looking out for signs of Spring. At Nowton church there were lambs, and a single hare raced across a field by Skipper’s farm, but progress is slow due to the cold wind and recent snow. There was still snow lying in ditches, although the earth was drier and less muddy.
The “St Edmund Way” is a Long Distance footpath St Edmund Way. One might imagine this to be an ancient way for pilgrims to travel to Bury, but in truth this seems unlikely. The path takes a rather zig-zag way to Lavenham crossing fields to avoid the A134 and A1141- surely these would have been the more obvious routes for pilgrims, stopping at The Rushbrooke arms (formally The Waggon) or The Horseshoes Inn at Cockfield (formally Horseshoes, or Three Horseshoes). Sadly the motor car has taken any pleasure out of these roads now for walkers.
There were two moments along the walk when I had a sense of the ancient: firstly there was a short track called Mill Lane leading to Little Rockwood Farm. This climbed a small hill between two high hedges, giving a strong sense of perspective as you walked. The ground was covered in tiny heart-shaped green leaves- celandines which should burst into yellow in a few weeks. Secondly, the tower of St Peter and St Paul’s church stuck out of the fields for miles before I actually got there. If this building was trying to make a statement about the wealth of the town it certainly succeeded. Its grandeur was all the more wonderful knowing I was getting close to my journey’s end, and a bus-ride back to Bury. It can be no coincidence that the distance between the towns in East Anglia is a comfortable day’s walk. Long Melford would have been next along the route, then Sudbury, but these will have to wait a while
The Suffolk Pilgrim’s Progress: 3
I walked to Nowton Church from Bury St Edmunds. It was a gloomy February afternoon: cold, damp and grey. I collected the key from Mrs Flynn, the warden living in the Almshouses. She explained the windows contained panels purchased by Orbell Ray Oakes around 1820 from a monastery in Brussels.
The church is reached from the west side by walking across three fields. It is very prettily situated towards the top of a hill. Inside was cold and dark, but the quality of the windows was remarkable: the old panels had been set with very brightly coloured Victorian glass, which glowed in the wintry light. The hybrid of the two styles created a rich tapestry effect, like a quilt. The images danced in their setting, the curves of the panels extended in rich red and purple.
Outside again, and the light was fading. I walked across the fields to return the key, and noticed more snowdrops by a bramble hedge. In the wood below the starlings were gathering. As I walked down the lane a small group of them were startled and with an enormous noise they took off, followed by thousands more. A murmuration swooped up and over the ploughed field beside us, and round, then over the horizon. .
That night I dreamt of of brambles, snowdrops and birds in branches, and knew these things were still alive in mid-winter
Information about Nowton church may be found here: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1194745
This is a personal diary of one pilgrim. I live in Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk- a former pilgrimage centre based around the sacred shrine of St Edmunds. The Reformation suppressed pilgrimage but the locality is surrounded by ghosts of a former age. Walking provides clues to this evidence- old pathways, reasonable walking distances, medieval churches, old names.
Most pilgrims were illiterate and much evidence must be heresy or guesswork. I am intrigued by other ways of knowing, particularly from visual art.
The intention of this blog is to build up a diary of personal experience and learn more about pilgrimage as a metaphor for a journey in life, as well as a way of getting to know the locality and its rich history. The act of writing for me will, I hope, draw out some ideas
Thus, I set pen to paper with delight, And quickly had my thoughts in Black and white. John Bunyan The Pilgrim’s Progress 1678
- St Edmund