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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

22 September 2023

Malcolm Guite walks along the St Edmund Way, from one ruin to another

I HAVE been making a short pilgrimage with two old friends along part of the St Edmund Way, walking together from Thetford to Bury St Edmunds, where the martyr king’s shrine once attracted thousands of pilgrims.

We began with a visit to the ruins of the priory of Our Lady of Thetford. It is moving to stand on the expanse of trimmed grass lawns, the little low walls that still survive, mapping the outlines of a vast priory complex that once stood here. The priory church itself was immense, and, had it survived, would have been one of the wonders of England. Towards the end of the long nave, you see a single column rise, holding aloft the first part of the curve of what was once a great chancel arch. That brief curve is enough to suggest the height and beauty of the arch it once supported; you almost see the whole of it shimmering for a moment in the air.

The abbey was an active community for more than 400 years, and one can still feel the centuries of prayer offered here, the hospitality, the beauty, and the learning that must have graced its scriptorium and library, all brought to an end at its dissolution in 1540, all reduced to ruin in a fraction of the time that it took to build.

It was with a mixture of awe and lament in our hearts that we set off, although the beauty of the St Edmund Way itself was restorative and heartening, and, to balance that massive fracture in English history, offered its own continuities. We walked through the woodlands of the King’s Forest, passed the reconstructed Anglo-Saxon village of West Stow, and stayed at an inn in Ingham; as we neared the end of our pilgrimage, we came to the lovely River Lark, one of England’s precious chalk streams, and walked beside its meandering banks, through the beautiful country park on the outskirts of the cathedral city.

The contrast with the busy Fornham Road, up which we walked into the city itself, was severe; and yet it was there, tucked away between a Tesco superstore and a garage called A14 Tires, that we saw a smaller but even more poignant ruin. It’s just a surviving medieval gate and a rectangle of scrubby ground, but it was once St Saviour’s Hospital. “Founded over 800 years ago,” the noticeboard told us, “St Saviour’s Hospital was able to welcome and help people on this very spot for over 350 years.”

But here it was now, as roofless and ruined as the priory that we had left at Thetford. But the scrubby little space, partly gravelled, with encroaching weeds and brambles at its sides, was not quite empty. To one side, shadowed and obscured by bramble and some fragments of wall, was a little red tent, unoccupied, but in whose entrance we could see a rubbish bag with clothes and oddments spilling out. It seemed that another traveller in need, some homeless person who had fallen through the torn and widening meshes of our social care, was camped on the edge of things in a place that was once a centre of welcome and hospitality. It was sobering to think that that person might have been better treated had he or she been born in an earlier century.

Then, at last, at the end of our pilgrimage, we came to a great house of prayer, still roofed and cared for: the fine cathedral church. My first prayer was for the present or former occupant of that little tent, and my second was for a recovery of the vision and commitment that lay behind that now-ruined place of welcome.

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