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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

27 August 2021

Malcolm Guite takes a walk through the green lanes of the Norfolk countryside


I HAVE been walking on the Paston Way, a won­derful footpath that runs for 20 miles or so from North Walsham to Cromer. Not that I have hero­ic­ally walked it all, but, as it starts, officially, out­side the parish church, as all good paths should start and end, its first few miles are all in easy reach. It takes its name from the vil­lage of Paston and the lands in these parts for­merly owned by the Paston family, through most of which it wanders.

They, of course, are famous for The Paston Letters, an astonishing collection of family letters over many generations stretching from the late 14th to the early 16th century. They give us us a glimpse of the fortunes of one family through many a crisis, including more than one round of plague.

Indeed, a letter, in 1479, from John the younger, stuck in London, to his mother, stuck in Norfolk, and desperate to get her son home again, can be read, in our age, with renewed sympathy: “Right worshipful Mother . . . please it you to understand that whereas ye willed me by pains to hasten out of the foul air that I am in, I must put my faith in God, for here I must remain for a season. And in good faith, I shall never while God sends me life, dread more death than shame. But thanks be to God, the sickness is well ceased here. . .”

“Here I must remain for a season” could be a motto for our own travel-restricted days, and “I must put my faith in God” should certainly be a motto for all in these uncertain times.

So, as I wander on beautiful green lanes through the former Paston estates, these glimpses of other lives come to mind, and I sense what Eliot called “the present moment of the past”. But, more than that, maybe there is a glimpse of the future.

Once it comes to the edge of North Walsham, the Paston Way follows an old railway line, but so long disused that it is utterly transformed into an enchanted, tree-lined greenway. On both sides, as it makes its way through Pigney’s Wood, the old forest maintained by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, trees that would once have been kept well clear of the track have, in succeeding self-seeded generations, come close again — so close that they raise their beautiful branches over the track in a kind of arboreal blessing, and interlacing boughs form cathedral-like arches and beautiful vistas for the Paston pilgrim.

No one, I think, has planned this; it is nature’s beauty, not ours, this natural re-wilding, this gracious re-greening.

Of course, the old railways were themselves a relatively green mode of transport, compared with private cars, and there is much to regret in the passing of those little rural lines; but, walk­ing the Paston Way, I wondered what, in some greener future, might become of our unsightly motorways. I dared to imagine a distant (or not so distant) time in which a chastened but re­­newed humanity returns to kindlier and lighter ways of living on the earth, carbon-free, and less consumer-driven, in which the mad rush of motorway traffic has become an unspeakable thing of the past.

What might become of the motorways them­selves? Might they, too, be wide green lanes and bridleways, connecting, at a slower and more human pace, our humbler habitations, clustered around the one building that has survived every vicissitude in history, and will, pray God, be our natural centre once again: the never redundant parish church?

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