Monday 25 July 2016

In Search of Some Saints (C#25)
Monday 25 July, 104 Miles

After yesterday’s outing I felt the urge to repeat the experience. In fact, quite literally because for part of today’s ride I rode along a stretch of yesterday’s Sportive course – which I had also ridden twice yesterday. Still with me? Well it doesn’t really matter if you are or not.

Today’s objective was to explore the South Elmham villages which lie south west of Bungay and above the Waveney valley. Well I say “above” but altitude is a notional concept in Suffolk. The River Waveney lies at an altitude of about 20 feet hereabouts and the highest of the villages is at 145 feet. This part of Suffolk is often called ‘Saints Country’ as there are several villages each named after a saint, that of their parish church. There are twelve saintly villages: All Saints, St Andrew, St Cross, St James, St John, St Lawrence, St Margaret (South Elmham), St Margaret (Ilketshall), St Mary, St Michael, St Nicholas and St Peter.

Here’s what the Suffolk Churches website has to say about them:

“The churches of the Saints have a subtle charm, one that is not at all apparent to some people. Here, there are no famous monuments, no historic rood screens and few other medieval survivals. Fragments are scattered; an Easter Sepulchre and dado panels at St Margaret, the castellated roof brace that must have been part of the canopy of honour at St John, the bells at St Peter. There is also the ruin of what is usually referred to as South Elmham Minster, a church in the woods in the parish of St Cross, half a mile from the nearest road. It is an amazing place, set in the middle of an ancient, possibly Roman, fortification. It was probably not a Minster, but its origins are shrouded in mystery.

Apart from the churches, there are only two buildings of note; these are South Elmham Hall in the parish of St Cross, part of the former summer retreat of the Bishops of Norwich, and St Peter's Hall, former home of the Tasburghs, a local landed family, in the parish of St Peter. The beauty of the Saints is in their bleakness, their remoteness. There are no shops, no pubs. Only three of them have proper villages at all. Instead, we find scatterings of modest farmsteads, 19th century cottages, farmworkers' council houses. And entirely rural village churches, of which only one, incredibly, has been made redundant. There is something trainspotterish about visiting them all.

By my reckoning I managed to ride past or at least see in the distance seven of the churches. So I’ll have to return to bag the set though that might involve a sport of walking.

One thing that did strike me about this area is that it has seemed to encapsulate almost every type of countryside that Suffolk has to offer, with the exception of the Breckland heaths and the manicured horsiculture of Newmarket. The Suffolk Churches website refers to the area as wide, remote, scattered and traditionally lawless. I could certainly appreciate the first three descriptions. As to the lawlessness I can only assume that with so many churches in such a relatively small area there must have been a lot of sinners looking to repent.

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