Every month without fail, Chet Contact drops on the mat. Produced by the Chet Valley Churches, the community magazine is packed with handy information about local community groups and services for believers and non-believers alike. There’s a lot going on round these parts. From bells to balls, bats to bowls, cakes to quizzes, pumping iron to eyeing up the birds, from stage to the silver screen, arts and crafts, knitting to nattering, foraging to growing your own, and much more besides – all country life is here.
I like the regular history piece in the mag. I knew Loddon has old roots – the earliest written reference to the village was around 1042 – but I was surprised to read that there’s been a pharmacy in Loddon on the same site for over 180 years. It’s now a branch of Boots. Long gone are all those jars full of potions laced with opium and mercury from the apothecary’s handbook of old wives’ tales. Maybe that’s why, back then, life expectancy was only about 57.
In Bury St Edmunds, obviously – or is he? The cute Suffolk market town might be the final resting place of St Edmund, ninth-century Christian king of East Anglia. Allegedly, he was cut down by a wild bunch of pillaging Danes doing what the Danes did back then.
Eventually those pillaging Danes saw the error of their wicked heathen ways, dropped to their knees, converted to the ‘One True Faith’ and hung up their horny helmets.
For his sins, Eddie the Martyr was canonised and an abbey founded in his honour by that great Dane, King Canute – he of holding-back-the-tide fame. Edmund even became England’s patron saint for a few hundred years until he was rudely upstaged and replaced by George in or around the fourteenth century. And Georgie boy wasn’t even English. But then, who can compete with a dragon slayer?
In Medieval times, a gravy train of pilgrims rolled in from all over Europe to visit Eddie’s shrine. It was a good little earner and the Abbey of St Edmund became one of the richest, largest and most powerful Benedictine monasteries in all of England. Then in 1539 that old letch Henry the Eighth popped along and ‘dissolved’ the abbey (i.e. pillaged like those Danes of old) and that was the end of that.
A sunny day took us across county lines for a gander around the old holy pile. Apart from two impressive medieval gatehouses, little remains of the abbey itself, though next door is Bury St Edmunds Cathedral called – wait for it – St Edmundsbury. The Abbey’s pretty grounds are lovingly tendered by the local council and a dedicated army of volunteers; many of them could well be the descendants of those pillaging Danes who cut down the saintly king. ’Tis their penance.
All is forgiven. Nowadays, we really like the Danes.
Among the roses and the ruins, there’s a World War Two memorial to the US Airforce (or the US Army Airforce as it was known back then). The USAF was, and still is, big round these parts as East Anglia is famously flat and just a short bombing raid to the continent.
But … the current whereabouts of Edmund’s sainted bones is anyone’s guess.
We have old friends in Torquay, a palm tree-lined seaside resort in Devon. We hadn’t seen them in ages because of the pandemic, so a catch-up was well overdue. All roads lead to London, and we didn’t fancy the hassle of crossing the sprawling metropolis only to come out the other side, so we flew from Norwich International airstrip to Exeter International airstrip on a little jet – like Z-listers without the paps.
Old Exeter – Roman Isca Dumnoniorum, Saxon Execeaster – has been around a while, though at first glance you’d never know it. The Luftwaffe did a great job flattening the city in the Second World War, so you have to look closely to find ancient treasures.
Mercifully, the magnificent cathedral, founded in 1050, was spared the hellfire that destroyed pretty much everything else – a little odd considering it sticks out like a bullseye at the heart of the city. Although I’m not religious in the slightest, I do so love a gander round a holy pile.
Most of what the visitor sees is thirteenth century, and what impresses first is the awe-inspiring ceiling that soars towards the heavens. At 96 metres, it’s the longest continuous medieval stone vault in the world. It surely convinced the hovel-dwelling, unwashed illiterati of old that it was made with divine intervention – and so helped keep them on their knees.
And then there are all the elaborate tombs – mostly containing the old bones of long-dead bishops.
After Exeter, we spent the next couple of days hitting the sherry and chewing the cud with our old muckers at their palatial digs in Torquay. And fantastic it was too. Our hosts are a little camera shy so, instead, here’s an elegant bust of Agatha Christie, the queen of the whodunnit and the best-selling fiction writer of all time, who was born in the town.
Our next family do since the end of lockdown was to Liam’s lot. A fun family BBQ in rural Hertfordshire, a night or two in Cambridge and a visit to Ely, a teeny-weeny city with a vast cathedral dominating the flatlands. ‘The ship of the Fens’ can be seen for miles around, demonstrating just how important He used to be to the prince, the pauper and everyone in between. There’s been a house of God on this spot since 673.
Ely sits on a small plot of high ground at the heart of the Fens, a once expansive marsh long since tamed by dykes and ditches, and drained for agriculture. The city has a quirky feel to it and, despite being only 14 miles from Cambridge and 80 miles from London, projects an air of splendid isolation and self-sufficiency, perhaps inherited from times past when it was an island, cut off for much of the year.
Obviously, the huge church is the main event. I’m not even remotely religious but its sheer scale forces you to look up to the heavens in utter astonishment.
Fleeting spring warmth, the partial easing of lockdown and the Easter break brought villagers, young and old, out onto the streets to make the most of the fine weather. And we were no exception. Downing tools for the day, we trotted off to Pyes Mill for a spot of lunch by the sparkling waters of the River Chet. The most direct route to the waterside clearing is across a boggy field which the owner has since barred after (allegedly) irresponsible dog walkers allowed Fido and Rover to trouble his cows. These are the same cows who troubled us the first time we ventured across his field forcing us to run for our lives. Just saying.
So we took the circuitous route via graves ancient and fresh, a tunnel of wild foliage, a babbling brook and a couple of country lanes. Pyes Mill was less busy than expected, though there was a swan having a good lick (and who wouldn’t if they could?), a few young families mucking about on the grass and a gang of naughty lads sharing a spliff. Liam can smell a joint at twenty paces.
We found a bench among the molehills and unpacked our picnic. When I say picnic, it was a meal deal from the Co-op. After months under house arrest, alcohol was first on the menu. Drink was drunk but rather too quickly. We regretted not picking up a second bottle when we had the chance. Lesson learned for next time.