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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

12 April 2024

Malcolm Guite steps back on to his boat for the first sail of the season

ALTHOUGH the first week of April has been cold and overcast, I was nevertheless able to slip down to Ranworth Rose, the little boat I keep on the Broads, take off her worn and spider-webbed canopy, and get out on to the water for a few hours.

The first sail of the season is always special: the pleasure deepened by a long winter’s expectation, and, of course, by the multi-layered memory of all the other times, over the seasons, I have stepped aboard, felt the heft and sway of my boat, like a living thing, loosened her mooring ropes, and left the land, with all its long cares, behind. There was hardly a breath of wind; so, rather than hoisting sail, I just nudged her along with the blessedly silent electric outboard and gave myself up to all that the broads have to offer.

A pair of crested grebes, still courting, I think, were billing and making little heart shapes between them with their long beaks and sinuously curved necks, while, behind them, perched on a low branch, a grey heron gazed at the water with a contemplative concentration that would be the envy of a zen master. We slipped through the water making no sound and no wash, scarcely a ripple.

I headed out from the haven of the broad, out on to the River Bure, and decided to head east down the river and pay my respects, on this first trip of the season, to the ruins of St Benet’s Abbey. I wish I could have seen it in its heyday, with the great abbey church and its busy wharves where reeds and turves would be loaded on to barges and wherries — the days when the work, as well as the prayers of the abbey were sustaining so many.

All that remains now is a tall arch framing the tower of what was once a windmill, and, a little further off, a great wooden cross set up where the high altar would have been. Every year, there is a service there, and the Bishop of Norwich, who, by one of those quirks of history is still, formally speaking, the Abbot of St Benet’s, arrives by wherry and leads us into the mysteries. It seemed a good place to recite a prayer about sailing, which I composed for a book, Every Moment Holy. It’s quite a long prayer, but it begins like this:


O God of my beginnings whose Spirit breathed upon the face of the deep
I thank you that your breath still moves upon these waters as I begin this day.
O God who rested after his creation
I thank you that I have this day free of labour
To sail my little boat,
To delight in your creation for my re-creation.
O God who gathered all on board an ark,
Bless my little boat and all who board her.
O Christ who stood with Peter in his boat
And said ‘Launch out into the deep’,
Now come on board with me
That I too may launch out into the deep
And know I always float upon the surface of your mystery.

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