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.

Connections 2

For the past three years The Bishops of Suffolk: Bishop Mike Harrison and Bishop Martin Seeley,  have carried out pilgrimages during Lent across the county. In 2017 this was from Dunwich and in 2018 from Bures to Bury St Edmunds.

This year they set off from Southwold on Ash Wednesday to arrive in Stowmarket 11 days later. In the East Anglian Daily Times Bishop Martin is quoted:

‘‘The one thing I always try to do after trekking across our beautiful county is to help connect the gifts of one person, with the needs of another of those I meet. To make connections between people, and to make a real difference in these uncertain times.’’

I joined the bishops on their eighth day at the church of St Mary, Rickinghall . We stood wondering if this was the correct church (this was Rickinghall Inferior, and there is another called Superior, but this is currently redundant) A shaft of sunlight filled the porch and a cheery lady arrived to confirm we were in the right place.

IMG_4748The bishops arrived wearing purple high-vis jackets printed with “Walking Together” on the back, and after a short service we set off  in  the company of the Vicar’s brother. The weather looked a bit better than the downpours they had endured the day before, but was windy, with occasional shafts of sunshine fleeting across the fields.


Making connections seemed very much a priority of the walk. At Walsham-le-Willows we joined a primary school where they gave an assembly, then a pottery, where the potter patiently taught them both how to make a pot. The moment when this was decorated was impressive and the bishops seemed justly pleased with their efforts:

IMG_4756Lunchtime in the pub was briefly interrupted for an update with the local radio before we set off again to Wyken Hall , where they were treated in style by the Carlisles. I bought a lovely blue jug from their shop.

Any association with hardship, indulgences, hair shirts or endurance rather deteriorated after that. The Carlisles very kindly gave us all a lift to the next village, Ixworth, and on the way Carla drove some of us up to the vineyards, which she described as looking like gravestones: row upon row of black sticks reaching down the slopes.

The final event for me was a short service at  All Saints, Ixworth Thorpe.  This is a tiny thatched church on a hill, with a Norman Door- yet another Grade one listed building I had never seen before. IMG_4761.JPGThe main thing which I witnessed was the amount of goodwill shown. There was a cheery group to meet them there and people felt privileged and pleased. The whole scene seemed strangely out of time, particularly now with a political scene  in turmoil. Connections were providing mutual support and encouragement.  How counter-cultural, at a time when we are threatened with barriers to education, research, industry and international connection, to simply walk out and meet people.   The bishops’ next appointment was a Darts’ Match- I hope they won, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Connections 1

Generally speaking, this pilgrim prefers to travel alone. I walk at my own (rather slow) pace and let my mind wander. But there is much to be said  for walking in other people’s company, and this has happened recently.

I returned to St Benet’s Abbey  with a friend, specifically to meet members of the Friends of St Benet’s. (FoSBA). There is a proposal for  a pilgrimage  from St Benet’s to Bury St Edmunds to celebrate Bury’s Abbey Millennium in 2020. The FoSBA are busy getting ready to celebrate their own millennium of their foundation.  We wanted to talk to them more around how monks from St Benet’s might have travelled to Bury st Edmunds, and how it could be achieved now.  We met at the beautiful church in Ludham, where a fifteenth century rood screen showed an image of Saint Edmund next to Henry 6th:

IMG_4661I also enjoyed a tapestry on display of the local landscape- stitches make delightful ploughed fields:


A group of around eight of us, led by the vicar of Ludham, Deborah Hamilton-Gray, set off after a short reading from the Rule of St Benedict toward the Abbey site. This gave us the opportunity to make friends and hear about their plans.  This led us to think about how we could contribute to the Millennium of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds, due to take place in 2020. They have worked hard to produce their excellent website, and other things already in place at their Abbey site: a large cross with the word PEACE has been erected at the former altar, visible for some way across the Norfolk Broads.

IMG_4679There was also a “singing bench”, which not only provided a comfortable seat, but Benedictine chanting fuelled by solar energy! It was surprisingly enjoyable.

IMG_4681.JPGAnd there were connections with the past:  the abbey site is a ruin with a ruined mill within the gatehouse. Graffiti from centuries is scratched within:

IMG_4674.JPGThe FoSBA were full of local knowledge about the past and possible routes now . It is likely the geography has changed since then, partly due to the use of peat, but a boat would be a good way to start the journey. They suggested a path to Horning, then Woodbastwick, and then on to Norwich via Salhouse and Mousehold Heath.

Making connections here was so important to us: gathering information, making friends, sharing and forming ideas. And the Benedictines?  Maybe some connection was made there, too. The Rule addresses the monastic world of the 6th Century, but is still relevant. In her book A Life-Giving Way, Esther De Waal discusses the central precept of Christ in the Benedictine view of hospitality. Chapter 53  of The Rule advises that “Great care and concern are to be shown in receiving poor people and pilgrims, because in them more particularly Christ is received.”  The final paragraph lends a note of caution, however: “no-one is to speak or associate with guests unless he is bidden” de Waal interprets this as a need (?mutual) of withdrawal to protect oneself.  Connections have their place, but one’s own space is important, too!

foretelling the weather

26th February-  I took the bus to Clare and walked back to Bury again. I have developed a routine of trying to sketch whilst sitting on the  top deck of the bus. This has the interesting effect of uncontrolled lurches on the page, and an ever-changing view. The curves in the ploughed fields sweep around and when you look up they are gone. A memory of a gate, a red hedge of dogwood, a few cheery daffodils, bare branches.

IMG_4630I was hoping to see signs of Spring, and there was plenty about, but the main thing was the incredible weather. The frost was still on the ground in the shade of the old church site at Clare Priory, but this quickly disappeared as I made my way along the tracks and over the fields, and as the morning went on it grew warmer and warmer. The sky was clear blue throughout the day until I could see no more.

IMG_4605There was continual birdsong; a skylark went up and up, then became invisible in front of the sun; hazel branches were overloaded with catkins, and a bumble bee was out exploring sloe blossom

IMG_4615.JPGIMG_4613.JPGYet I could not help feel this was rather odd for the time of year. A year ago there was snow on the ground and a mean Easterly wind. It turns out this was the hottest day recorded for February. And it was dry. Tracks are normally so wet at this time of year a walk from Clare results in large plates of clay attached to your boots, but not today. Tracks were cracked and fields looked parched.

IMG_4619.JPGIMG_4620.JPGHow should we respond to this? Whatever the cause there is sound evidence that the surface of the Earth has been heating up since records began:

91944-050-8CAC285DOur species has a heavy responsibility to manage this: even if it is not caused by man’s activities, (although it is highly suggestive that production of carbon dioxide combined with destruction of forests is contributing). There is an urgent need to protect  the environment  if we wish to keep, let alone enhance our biodiversity, and even our own survival. Beautiful though it may be to bathe in sunshine in February I feel conflicted, and the effects are here to see on our own doorstep.

St Benet’s Abbey

Where did the monks come from to set up the great abbey in Bury St Edmunds? Many years ago I had been told it was France. King Cnut needed literate men to act as administrators for his East Anglian kingdom when he founded the Abbey in Bury St Edmunds in 1020.  Benedictine monks were ideal as literate, self-contained, and dedicated to prayer.

Looking it up now interesting possibilities are discussed by Joseph C.W. Mason in his book St Edmund and the Vikings 869-1066, suggesting they came via Norfolk. Abbo, a Benedictine monk from the abbey at Fleury (St Benoît-sur-Loire) was invited to England in 985 by Oswald, Archbishop of York. He was appointed abbott of Ramsey, a fenland monastery. Whilst there he wrote Passio Sancti Edmundi describing in lurid detail the murder of Edmund by the Danes and the miracles that followed. It is clear that there was a cult of St Edmund developing in East Anglia with numerous churches dedicated to the saint, particularly around NE Norfolk.

David Addy describes evidence for the setting up of the Abbey in Bury St Edmunds in  1020  in the  St edmundsbury chronicle. He describes how twelve – thirteen monks came from St Benet’s Hulme, with others from Ely, making 20 in all. This is now known as St Benet’s Abbey.

I set out to visit St Benet’s on a bitterly cold Sunday in January. The sun was low when I got there and the place was deserted. The wind funnelled off the marshes and through the ruins.

IMG_4211.JPGIt is clear that people love this lonely ruin, with a combination of the abbey remains and a mill built in its centre. The friends of St Benet’s have produced a great website full of information

How did the monks get to Bury? The Norfolk broads block the direct path, unless they used a boat. Pondering on this problem, which occurred a thousand years ago, I returned  to the car with a last glance: