Monday, July 26, 2010
I’d come to North Elmham pursuing a mystery. Did the Bishops of Elmham from Bedwinus in the 7th century to Herfast in the 11th have their cathedral in Norfolk or Suffolk? North or South Elmham?
I’d followed a circular walk I’d found in the Norfolk Health Heritage and Conservations Walks leaflet (You can get hold of one from Norfolk County Council or on-line at www.countrysideaccess.norfolk.gov.uk .) It took me through parkland, along quiet lanes and ended up at the parish church (Well worth a visit in its own right!)
My final destination was indicated by a brown tourist sign. Uncompromisingly it asserts “Saxon Cathedral”! But when you get to the ruins and read English Heritage’s helpful interpretation boards there’s no certainty at all. What you see are earthworks and ruins of a castle built by Henry Despencer, the fighting Bishop of Norwich. He was famous for putting down the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381. A man not without enemies, Henry had obviously felt the need of protection! To make his castle he converted a church built by Herbert de Losingia the first Bishop of Norwich. Herbert’s 11th century church may have been built on the site of the former cathedral.
Now here the mystery deepens, Herbert’s church had an unusual floor plan. It is the twin of a church he built at South Elmham! Whatever the explanation, it’s a fair bet that North Elmham was an important Christian centre in the early days of the conversion of East Anglia. It is next door to the largest known Early Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Spong Hill! Dr. Sam Newton ( see the Wuffings website) argues for both Elmhams being mission stations established by St. Felix. Maybe both were cathedrals.
Cathedrals or not, the Herbert’s churches in North and South Elmham lie in ruins today. Birds sing where once monks chanted psalm and prayer. Standing amidst Cow Parlsley and listening to the Blackbird’s song I found myself singing the Te Deum. “All creation worships you the father everlasting”!
How different were these three bishops - St. Felix, Herbert and Henry - an evangelist, an empire builder and a war lord! And today’s bishops? More like Felix than the others I hoped. The conversion of East Anglia started long ago has yet to be achieved! The descendants of Spong Hill Man need to hear the gospel!
This is South Elmham. I had walked to the glade on way marked paths from a car park at South Elmham Hall where I’d called into the café to pick up a leaflet.
The parishes of the Ferding of Elmham form a block of land which might have been given to St. Felix by King Sigbert in the 7th Century.
“Of Elmham” Bishops were designated from the time of Beaduwine in the 7th Century to Herfast in the 11th with a break of a hundred years when Vikings disturbed the peace. “Yes, but!” I hear Norfolk voices objecting, “North Elmham in Norfolk.! Not South Elmham is Suffolk!” Here in a nutshell you have the “Elmham Question”. Were the bishops Bishop of North or South Elmham. I offer no solution here. Where the bishop’s had his official seat - his cathedra - doesn’t seem all that important. Whatever the answer South Elmham is a place where prayer has been valid and Bishops of Elmham had oversight of churches on both sides of the Wensum.
My first stop in Suffolk had been to Flixton Church a rebuilt in the 19th Century. Architecturally it is a Victorian homage to the Saxon past and like the church it replaced it is set on a hill overlooking the valley. The churchyard is a nature reserve full of birdsong and flowers. Both the church dedication and the name of the village link it to St. Felix. The name Flix –ton is Felix’s – farm! It proves nothing of course still and well I prayed for the continuing conversion of East Anglia
Before crossing back into Norfolk I went on to St. Peter’s. It’s the home of St. Peter’s Brewery – another sort of pilgrimage I suppose! Their beer and good food are served in the moated hall an amazing 16th century building incorporating ecclesiastical material from the dissolved Flixton Priory.
I walked down the lane at the height of spring enjoying the sun . The air was as heady as chilled champagne and I was following my nose. There was a new whiff of pig on the air. I set off to investigate passing down Horstead’s Primrose Lane but for all my searching I couldn’t find even one! Stitchwort and early Bluebells? Yes. Primroses? No. Yet there must have been lots of them once upon a time. Did thieves plunder them ? There are lots of wild Primroses in local gardens, but my guess is that a change of maintenance of the verges will have played largest part. In days gone by they made as much hay as they could. Now the verges are cut and left. Un-raked grass soon becomes rank and humpy and can strangle plants. Primroses are especially vulnerable.
Saddened by the loss of Primroses I found two places where rubbish had been dumped by the roadside. Doesn’t fly tipping make you cross!? We talk about dirty pigs. What about dirty humans? I eventually found the porkers I’d been looking for recently moved into their new quarters. They were spread out across a wide rolling field, their housing giving the appearance of a well scattered shanty town. I like pigs! They reminded me of two Gospel stories .
In one swine possessed by evil spirits had run madly downhill and to drown in the sea. I wondered if the fly tipping and loss of wildflowers were signs that our 21st century consumer culture is stampeding us downhill to certain destruction? Does our careless living and lack of concern for what we are doing to the natural world -from Global Warming to Fly Tipping - put us on “the Primrose path that leads to the everlasting bonfire” ?
More hopefully, I also remembered the story of the Prodigal Son. It was among the pigs that he came to his senses.
A few days later I noticed the rubbish has been cleared away ! Well done Broadland District Council! And there’s more rejoice over on the wildflower front. Norfolk County Council has over 15 kilometers of verges designated as Roadside Nature Reserves and they add more each year. The latest, number 101, is at Binham Priory where care is being exercised to preserve Wall Bedstraw.
The Norwich Diocese Environmental Policy, a booklet on Climate Change and Covenant by Bishop David Atkinson and other resources are available on-line at the the Diocesan Website at http://www.norwich.anglican.org or by application to Diocesan House.