Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

28 September 2018

Malcolm Guite walks through one of the oldest doors in England

I WAS sitting quietly in the ancient church of St Botolph’s, in Hadstock, Essex, when the door opened behind me and a friendly local looked in: a warden or verger, I guessed, just checking to see who was in the church.

It is wonderful that these ancient places stand open and unlocked, but quite understandable that, in the interest of the fixtures and fittings, neighbours come in to cast a friendly eye on whoever might have wandered in. Sizing me up as an unlikely purloiner of lead roofing or church plate, she took a different tack:

“I expect you’ve come for the Door,” she said

The Door? I hesitated. “I don’t know anything about the door.”

“Ah, well, you might like to know that the door you’ve just walked through is the oldest door in England, and it’s often what brings people here.”

“Goodness!” I felt a little shiver of delight at the thought of it.

“Well it’s the oldest working door,” she said, “the oldest that has been in continuous use. There’s a little door in Westminster Abbey, which was once used by Edward the Confessor, but this door was set here, we believe, by King Cnut, in 1022, when the church was built and dedicated to St Botolph, with whom this church has even older links. It’s been opening and closing for the people of Hadstock and further afield these thousand years, and more, in a way”.

“More? What do you mean?”

“Well, this stone church was built over the remains of an older one, a Saxon foundation: perhaps Botolph’s own monastery. They did some digging, and found the remains of the wooden church that stood before this one, and they also took some tiny samples from the door, and those revealed that the oak from which this door was hewn may have been alive and growing much earlier still — perhaps as early as 650.”

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I was astonished, and, after she left, I walked over and touched the door, just to feel the living root and connection with something green and growing within a generation of St Augustine’s arrival at Canterbury.

I thought of the long continuity of days and years, through the rise and fall of dynasties, the flourishing and decay of languages, the big historical swings of reformation and revolution, passing like cloud-shadows over this good ground, while day by day this door opened on the changing faces and common faith of a persistent, rooted Christian community.

It turns out, perhaps unsurprisingly, that St Botolph is the patron saint of gates and doorways; St Botolph’s, Cambridge, stands where the old wall and gate used to be, and, more remarkably, churches at four of the old gates to the City of London — Aldersgate, Bishopsgate, Aldgate, and Billingsgate — all had dedications to Botolph.

And now, here, in his old East Anglian heartland, I felt that he was holding open a door for me, although that door is even older than the one that Cnut, that penitent Viking, had hung here. For the door through which I had unwittingly passed in St Botolph’s is not only a door into a church, but also a door into the one who said: “I am the door of the sheepfold.”

The old oak door I saw still hanging on its hinges in Hadstock is itself only a shadow of the one that St John saw in Patmos, when he said, with devastating simplicity, “And I saw a door open in heaven.”

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