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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

30 April 2021

Sailing by St Benet’s Abbey, Malcolm Guite ponders the past and the future

WE WILL be retiring to Norfolk this summer; so Maggie and I have been making a number of expeditions there to take in the lay of the land — or, in my case, the flow of the water, since I intend to spend a good deal of my time in retirement “simply messing about in boats”.

So it was that I found myself steering a little craft up from Potter Heigham along the turn of the River Thurne, to where it meets the Bure, and gazing at the beautiful and poignant ruins of St Benet’s Abbey, one of the iconic landmarks of the Broads. All that remains is a wall of the gatehouse with its beautiful Gothic arch, and, behind it, both visible through the arch and rising stoutly above it, the strong stone tower of an old windmill. There was a moment, as I approached by water, when the tower was perfectly framed within the arch, and it set me thinking.

In one sense, of course, I was looking at the relics of the past, and I had to exercise my imagination to picture the abbey in its glory days, when it was both the spiritual and the commercial powerhouse of the whole region. Indeed, the Broads themselves wouldn’t exist without the abbey; for it was the enterprising monks who made the great peat diggings, exporting the peat by wherry to London, and thus first created the wide pits and concavities that later flooded and became the Broads.

It was the monks who organised the wool trade that made Norfolk so bustling and prosperous in the Middle Ages, and the monastery that provided clergy, nurture, guidance, and patronage for so many of the churches, and, indeed, used their wealth from the wool to build and restore them.

All of that is gone, and yet the ruins still point to something, still bear some witness. When the abbey was given to the bishops of Norwich at the Reformation, they used it as a quarry and not just for churches. It was in the 18th century that the great tower of the windmill was built with stones from the abbey walls, first grinding corn and later powering a pump to keep the marshes drained and the waterways cleared; but the stones were also used, I am happy to say, to build the Chequers, a pub for the wherry men, which stood till the late 19th century.

But perhaps it is not just the past that is symbolised by the Gothic arch and the old windmill. I wondered, as I sailed by, whether the arch and the windmill might also be emblems of the future. Windmills are returning, as we all turn to renewable sources of energy, and perhaps the waterways, and sailing wherries, too, will once more become the most efficient — as well as elegant and environmentally friendly — way of moving our goods.

And what of that beautiful Gothic arch, the symbol of so much prayer and contemplation, the emblem of that wise balance of life, work, and prayer embodied in St Benedict’s Rule? Perhaps we are on the cusp of a turn and return to that wisdom, too. The lockdown has reminded us of our need for spiritual roots and chastened our over-dependence on consumption.

Many people living through this crisis have rediscovered their local churches, and the faith that they still keep, as spiritual resources and anchorholds. Perhaps the surviving arch of St Benet’s points not only upwards, but forwards as well.

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