The Church in the Forest

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.IMG_4021.JPGAs 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.

IMG_4045.JPGThe 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.

IMG_4054.JPGI 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?


Journeying back in time

I was the only one on the bus this morning from Bury to Clare, enjoying the journey from the front of a double decker. Walking back again the leaves were in brilliant autumnal colours. Field maple is a luminous yellow, dogwood a maroon, blackberry leaves bright coral crimson, and a bumper crop of purple sloes stood out against yellow hazel bushes.IMG_3854.JPG

I dawdled in the various churches to see the preparations for the forthcoming Armistice Day on the centenary of the end of the First World War. St Peter and St Paul’s in Clare looked incredibly smart with beautifully arranged poppies and a red alter cloth. At the foot of the altar were two hassocks embroidered along the side with the word PEACE.


Walking on I took a detour to St Mary’s Hawkedon. This looked beautifully kept, too, with a brush left on the alter rail hinting at recent activity. The East window was filled with an assortment of medieval pieces of stained glass and the pew ends were full of individual  detail and character. I am pleased it is a grade one listed building, but it shares with six other parishes and has a service once a fortnight. There was a wall painting of the Transfiguration above the  East window, but I couldn’t make it out and was pleased to find a copy in the West end


The main activity, however, was further on- in St Andrew’s, Brockley. When I had visited before this Grade II* listed building had been closed. This time there were lights on!

IMG_3847 I entered the church nervously as there were voices- there was a group setting up an art exhibition and lots of attention was focussed on Armistice Day. The Warden wanted to show me a display he had made for his grandfather and also his uncle who were both killed in the First World War. Five men from the village had died during that time, and a map of the village showed where they lived. It felt very personal and recalled for me the impact of that war on my own family.  I cried.

Last year we had spent a week in Northern France, exploring the battlefield and War Grave Commission graveyards. I went to find the grave of my great uncle Geoffrey, killed at Passchendaele on September 19th 1917. I went with two of my children, and when  we found the grave I wanted to talk to Geoffrey and tell him about all the things he had missed.  My grandfather survived, writing poignant memories for Geoffrey’s family. He later went on to marry Geoffrey’s younger sister, my grandmother.

IMG_1198IMG_1693My mother has kept the postcard my grandfather sent back to England on the 11th November 1918. Soldiers were allowed to send messages by ticking a box. In a moment of intense understatement he ticked “I am quite well”.

By the time I departed from the happy atmosphere in Brockley church the light was fading. I took some photos of their art show


IMG_3848.JPGand walked back across the fields in the fading light, thinking about Uncle Geoffrey and all the other young men who lost their lives in that war. Between nine and eleven million military personnel and a further 8 million civilians lost their lives.

IMG_3852It got dark by the time I reached Mickley Green. I would not have minded but for cars which dazzled me with headlights on full beam. I hope this year’s Armistice Day can help  lay ghosts at peace and ensure this never happens again.

to Rushbrooke

My cousin was staying with me from Australia, and I wanted to take her on a walk to Rushbrooke Church. Plenty has been written on this before and here, emphasising its unusual features. We had to go!

We took my Iraqi friend, Nada, and set out despite a gloomy weather forecast. I took my rain-coat just in case. Walking out of Bury St Edmunds we went along the St Edmund’s Way towards Nowton Church. By good luck it was open, and once again we were able to admire the amazing tapestry of medieval and Victorian stained glass donated by Mr Oakes.

IMG_1557.JPGBut there was something a little odd: not only was the church open but a  pair of men’s trousers was hanging over a pew! Was there anyone else there? I sat down and filled in the visitors’ book, noticing there had been about a dozen entries since my last visit in February.

Outside I noticed how beautifully kept the front garden looked, with freshly planted wallflowers and weeded beds. Then a man appeared from behind a grave with a fork, and I felt reassured that he was the owner of the clothes in the church.

After some distraction picking wool off a gate we walked on and over the fields toward Sicklesmere. Only after a while did I realise I had left my raincoat in the church! I decided to collect it later, and we walked on. Over the Sicklesmere road and up a hill between high hedges, which felt like an ancient track.

IMG_2248.JPGIMG_2255.JPGAs we entered the church we were met by a lady going the other way, and we got chatting. She had spent the morning cleaning and preparing it for the monthly service the following day. She explained she had been cleaning the church for 40 years and was the only one left to do it, with a congregation of very few left. She had arranged some flowers, which she had purchased herself. She expressed her sadness that so few people came, and her anxiety for the future as she herself was not well.  My forthright cousin asked her why she still did it. It seemed to be a sense of duty and loyalty to the Rothschild Family who once owned the estate, where she had worked, as much as to God.

IMG_2270 We admired her flowers and I set about exploring the church for all the little things which may be overlooked by official documents, but describe the effort and goodwill of the people who have contributed to both this church, and the many others like it whose future is uncertain in these secular times. There were numerous prayer mats which had been painstakingly sewn:

IMG_3694.jpgIMG_3693.JPGIMG_3692.jpgThe church is a Grade One listed building, and there are many things to see, most famously the shield of Henry VIII on the ceiling with the words “Dieu et mon Droict” (sic)


Apparently this was not present in 1840, and could possibly have been replaced by Colonel Rushbrooke if it had been hidden and then found again. It is impressive, but not as lovely as the roundels of unicorns on the North side:

IMG_3689These are Flemish and connected to the roundels inserted into the work at Nowton. They fit perfectly into their environment in this church.

The other thing I could not resist as we went back into the entrance area (baptistry ), was the bookcase of fabulous books for sale in aid of the heating. I can’t imagine this covers the cost, but I was delighted with my purchases:

IMG_3765.jpg“The Queensgate Mystery ” is a “War economy standard” for senior girls aged 12-14y, with an improving verse as introduction:

“All things are possible to the girl who believes;

They are less difficult to the girl who hopes;

They are easy to the girl who loves;

And simple to the girl who does all three.”

“Brenda’s Homecoming” is a little later, published in 1947 under “Authorised economy standards” and describing itself as suitable Sunday School material for 8-12 year olds. I can’t wait to read them!

Coming back outside the weather had deteriorated and it had started to rain heavily. My raincoat was still sitting in Nowton church. We ate some chocolate biscuits and set out back for Bury St Edmunds, being directed back along a shorter track. By the time we got back we were all wet right through. The books had been stuffed under my clothes but were, I am sorry to say, rather damp.

I drove to collect the key to Nowton Church to retrieve my raincoat and explained about the gardener and the trousers. “That was the Church Warden”! exclaimed Mrs Finn, the keeper of the key.  Two more examples of the often unsung heroes who keep things going.




The weather in September has been dry and sunny with changing colours of Autumn beginning.  There was light and colour everywhere. Walking again from Bury to Icklingham I passed by the Seventh Day Adventist Church, looking great in green corrugated iron in the sunshine:


Over the A14 on the foot-bridge there was the start of the sugar-beet “Campaign” – a seasonal sign in Bury St Edmunds.  A  plume of vapour was rising, catching the morning light:


Walking along the Lark there were definite changes in the leaves with more yellows and reds amongst the green:

IMG_3598.JPGIMG_3602.JPGReaching West Stow Church an elderly man was sitting outside enjoying the sunshine. Inside, the light filtered through the stained glass producing pools of colour in the seats.

IMG_3610.JPGThe church was full of interesting detail. There are bell-ringing plaques in the bell-tower, one of which honoured Patricia Bailey in 1979 for being the “First Lady to achieve a Peal of Plain Bob Minor 5040 Changes”

IMG_3604There was also a Table of Fees from 1891 offering a burial in a common grave for two shillings for the Rector and four shillings to the sexton. Behind it some ancient graffiti.

IMG_3605.JPGLooking about there was quite a lot of writing within the plaster done with impressive care

IMG_3608.JPGI walked on through West Stow Country Park and sat down in the sunshine on a bank to eat my lunch. I had brought some wax crayons with me to do some sketching, but alas had forgotten to bring any paper! The Brown paper bag containing my sandwich had to do:


Past the rows of Scots Pine along the Icknield Way towards Icklingham I stopped again to enjoy the character of the Scots Pines and use up the other side of the bag:

IMG_3758.JPGReaching Icklingham I spent some time enjoying All Saints Church . This has not been used as a church for over a hundred years, but there is plenty to see inside and out. The church is supported by the Churches Conservation Trust, but is in need of attention; I have reported the hole in its thatched roof. Inside the South windows are full of medieval stained glass with saints under canopies in good condition. A large funeral cart occupies the South side of the nave.

IMG_3619.JPGThe sun was getting low by this stage and lit up spiders’ webs lacing themselves between the pews- not a bad place for spiders, I suspect.

IMG_3624Things started to go wrong for me after that- I waited by the bus-stop for an hour and no bus came, despite the timetable saying it was due, then overdue. I then made the stupid decision to start walking back to Bury St Edmunds in case I was standing in the wrong place. Shortly after that not one, but two buses came past, and I knew I had missed the last one home. Fortunately I had arranged to meet friends in Bury and they very kindly came out and picked me up back at West Stow just as the light was fading.

Reflecting on this journey afterwards leaves me with a bittersweet sense of the end of summer, still so beautiful with so much colour and low sunshine; also the vulnerability of the precious places I have visited. I played with watercolours  trickling down the page and colour scales in oil paint in the manner of American abstract expressionists. Patrick Heron  took stripe paintings forward in the UK following the exhibition “Modern Art in the United States”  in the Tate Gallery in January 1956, showing Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Clifford Still, Franz Kline and others.  Writing about it for Arts(NY), in March 1956, he described  these painters as “the most vigorous movement ..since the war. If we feel that far more is suggested than is achieved, that in itself is a remarkable achievement”.

IMG_3754IMG_3756Writing later in the catalogue for his own exhibition in 1961, he concluded that “Painting has still a continent left to explore, in the direction of colour. Painting (un?)like science, cannot discover the same things twice over.”  I almost agree with him; Colour comes from light, and using colour in a synaesthetic way to describe beyond the representational invites more than one continent.

To Mildenhall

I have walked back and forth from Mildenhall several times already: the path comes out of Bury S Edmunds on a footbridge over the A14, then along the river Lark. There is a detour from West Stow to Icklingham along the Icknield way.

Usually I go to see the angels in Mildehhall at St Mary’s church- so lively with their wings outstretched in the roof. The guide explains they are part of the structure of the church, as hammer beams, not just ornamental appendages. Most have remained intact, although an inspection in 1930 revealed 2 arrow heads buried in their bodies. Sadly the more accessible angels on the South side had their wings ripped off: in 1651 the parish paid a man a shilling a day to destroy them. IMG_3248.JPG

On this occasion my purpose was quite different. I have been growing woad on my allotment, and thanks to the hot summer have had a bumper harvest. Woad thrives on neglect and seeds everywhere on my sandy patch in Nowton Road. Having extracted the dye from the leaves I followed the Anglo-Saxon recipe of fermenting it with old urine. The moment when the wool is pulled out of the bottle is truly magical as the blue appears on re-oxidisation.

IMG_3542.JPGWoad used to be an East Anglian Industry until it was overwhelmed by cheaper imports of indigo. So what should I do with it? Such special material needed an art-project. So with this in mind I set off looking for ideas.

The end of summer was notable along the river, with silver tufts of willow-herb in the air. Much of the Lark was overgrown with rushes. I am told it used to be navigable, and was indeed the preferred route for pilgrims coming to Bury St Edmunds from Mildenhall. There were shots of magenta-coloured purple-loosestrife and other pink flowers I could not identify: a form of willow-herb?

IMG_3464.JPGMany of the plants I recognised as dye-plants from my favourite dye-book: “A Dyer’s Manual” by Jill Goodwin. Tansy, yarrow, bracken, dock, dandelion, bedstraw, sloes and elderberries: all these grow in abundance round here and are easily overlooked. The elderberries in particular were ripe for picking:

IMG_3468IMG_3467.JPGWest Stow Anglo-Saxon Village uses experimental archaeology on an archaeological site to seek to understand life in the 5th-7th Century. It has two galleries displaying local artefacts- and a dye display using madder, weld and woad.  Fabric from that time is hard to come by, but I was struck by the bold and simple patterns imprinted on the pots, and also the many remnants of shields from that time. Why so many shields in times of peace? It seems that the men were buried with them, even if they were not warriors in life. Here were the ingredients for a rug/shield! The designs on the pots carried an immediacy, a boldness worthy of my woad harvest, and the repetition of pattern resonates with walking.


I bought a tiny book by local artist Kim Smith, illustrating the story of Beowulf using local pigments, and walked on full of ideas.

The Icknield Way turns off into land so different from the chalk clay South and West of Bury St Edmunds. Rows of Scots pine mark boundaries, their dark needles producing interesting shapes:


IMG_3543.JPGBreckland is recognised as special for its habitat and history, and The Breckland Society do fantastic work supporting it. Before reaching Icklingham there is a field full of flint-  I always think of the wonderful flint arrowheads and spear-heads at West Stow and Mildenhall museums. This time a harvest of onions is about ready.

The last few miles to Mildenhall are back by the river, and have become a bit of an assault course of nettles, a fallen willow branch and, worst of all, the A11. It was 4pm on a Friday before the Bank Holiday, and the traffic was solid, but still going fast. It took at least 20 minutes before I crossed the road, waving my arms about in the hope they would see me. I wonder if the council could be persuaded to put a foot-bridge there, too? I can try.

By the time I got into Mildenhall it was too late for their museum, but I had been there a few weeks ago and could remember the fabulous display of the warrior with horse and (of course) his shield.  Also the famous replica of the “Mildenhall Treasure”. But this was Roman, and not in the spirit of woad, which feels more like something Boudicca would enjoy. I will return there soon, but in the meantime will get on with the woad-work.

To Walsingham!

I have been wanting to go to Walsingham for ages, and spent a while trying to work out how pilgrims got there from Bury St Edmunds in the Middle Ages. We had walked the Peddars Way a few years ago, but this continued West from Castle Acre. The Revd. John Merrill describes a “Walsingham Way” from Ely, which goes via Brandon- so this would be it!  Bury-Thetford, then Brandon, then Swaffham, Castle Acre, then another 28miles to Walsingham, with a short detour to Fakenham if preferred.

Unfortunately none of this seemed straightforward as my husband was recovering from eye surgery and in the end we agreed to go by car. This at least made me realise how important the walking experience is to me- the journey usually being so much a part of the arrival. However, there were opportunities to spend more time at places along the way, and there was plenty to see.

Our first stop was a picnic by the ancient church of St Mary the Virgin at Cranwich .  The graveyard was circular and the church lay at its centre on a little mound surrounded by trees.  Sadly the area behind it is so tangled with nettles it is no longer possible to see the gravestones.  The tower was narrow and circular, with a circular  knotted window. Three circles!


Next, Castle Acre. We had been there before, but there had not been time to explore the Priory, so we needed make amends. The former Cluniac Benedictine Priory is truly beautiful lying in the gentle valley of the river Nar with the village behind it, the Parish church beside it and the castle at the other end. English Heritage have done a good job in trying to demonstrate how things were before the Dissolution, but as ever I was trying to get a sense of it without the words. I was struck by the number of squares in the design: square window frames, square tiles, square fireplaces, even a square drain-pipe cover on display at the entrance.  And the biggest square: the cloisters.





What was the significance? I am often suspicious of meanings in symbols.  Carlota’s “Dictionary of Symbols” talks of firmness and stability, the seasons, the points of a compass and the four Elements. Whatever the intention I find this shape very satisfying and am content to believe it represents earthly matters. I had been shown how to draw a square using a compass back in Astorga using circles.


Circles have a host of “meanings”, too, but I digress. Staying in Holt we set out for Walsingham the following day, starting near West Barsham. Gentle countryside made me wish we had walked further, as before we knew it we had arrived at the “Slipper Chapel” at Houghton St Giles,  a Catholic Shrine beautifully kept. I was distracted by the display of tiny relics in lockets- one was labelled Saint Edmundo- was it a piece of hair? or a bit of toe-nail? A tiny scrap on a disc.

Henry VIII had visited this spot on several occasions before he ordered its destruction. Along with others he had removed his slippers and walked the final mile to Walsingham bare-foot. In due fashion, therefore, this was to be repeated. My husband, not normally known for his piety, was the first to take off his shoes and set off down the “holy mile”.


Needless to say there was much moaning along the way- presumably King Henry had not had to put up with gritted tar-mac, but we arrived in Walsingham with a small sense of achievement..

What can I say about Walsingham? It has a serious feel to it. Not enough profanity? Too many shops selling images of the Virgin Mary? I would happily have stayed longer in these- I can fully understand why people wanted toe-nails as souvenirs, but was restrained under pressure, so readers you have been saved (this time) from Mary with Baby Jesus in a snow-storm for Christmas.


There was plenty to see. The Anglican Shrine, the Greek Orthodox church, the old court-house and the Abbey ruins in landscaped gardens. It was very quiet- not at all like Santiago.  It was as if the place was asleep amongst the fields.

On the way back along the disused railway line we passed a nun wearing a grey and white habit- she looked very elegant walking along. It reminded me of the ongoing political arguments over the veil. Back in 2007 when I was in Syria I did a small art project thinking about the veil, and wrote in my sketch-book: Reveal/conceal, mask, cover, mystery, decoration, seclusion, symbol/label, make a statement, allure, suggestive, bridal, hiding, secretive, protection, propriety, modesty, seduction, dignity, ceremony, women, shame, holiness, piety, tradition, oppression, Taking the Veil, consecration, virginity, Veil of the Temple, partition, veiled in mystery, lifting the veil, sensuality, eroticism, the Unknown, veiled beauty, Dance of the Seven Veils, a label. Public/private spaces; valuing the interior. Since then I have had more respect for veils in their various forms.


It is over two months since we returned from our Pilgrimage from Orviedo to Santiago, and beyond to Muxia, and I have been reflecting on the role of story-telling. My medical training advises on the importance of eye contact during consultation- I wonder now if this should be challenged. Talking to other people on a Camino comes very naturally: perhaps the exercise of walking is disinhibiting and the common goal of the Pilgrim becomes a bond. During the walk from Santiago to Muxia I found myself talking to strangers about their lives and my own, places, politics, pretty much anything. Yet while there is real intimacy there is no eye contact. Each walker needs to look where they are going and will look almost anywhere except into the eyes of the person they are talking to. Despite the advice of textbooks this seems to give a freedom to talk about things honestly and with a stream of consciousness not usually possible in most social settings. I would argue that lack of eye contact is key to this process.

IMG_2507 The last day to Muxia was a long one- about 32km. My husband, who had our food supplies, stayed back to help a fellow pilgrim. The day was hot. I started talking with a woman from Slovenia, who keep me going for sometime with tales about her family and her life.


After we parted I caught up with another member of our pilgrim group: a retired inspector of police. He asked me if I knew any Old Testament stories to pass the time. He told me all he knew of the story of Joseph in a steady rhythm as we walked along: many sons, a loving father, ornate robes, sheaves of wheat, spices, twenty pieces of silver, betrayal, blood: the story went on and on as we trudged along, in an out of Egypt a few times and meandering into side alleys, it regained its thread in another land. There was famine; there was deception, and at last reconciliation, feasting, forgiveness. Reading this now (Genesis Ch 37-50) the story could have been stretched even further with elaborations on the many descendants and Joseph’s great age (110y) when he finally died. However, the story-telling did the trick and I had been transported. By the time we came to a reasonable end many miles had passed.

Sitting down in the evenings after a long day’s walk was another opportunity to share stories. The evenings got merry with wine and a mixed crowd not so unlike Chaucer’s group in Canterbury Tales. There was no competition to encourage us, but the companionship (with-bread) drew us together with a mutual sense of achievement and sharing of the experience.IMG_2542