Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:31 am
David and Marilyn had just been touring Norfolk and told us about St Benet’s. “It’s exactly the sort of place to be featured on ABAB,” Marilyn enthused. I had never heard of it; so of course, whilst making a progress through East Anglia, we decided to drop in.
The once great fortified abbey of St Benet-at-Holm is an ideal place to visit for those that can cope with a brief absence of facilities, including kitsch gift-shop and heaving canteen. There is also a serene lack of feral children. Indeed, it is just perfect for the want of most things, except atmosphere, which it has in abundance, alongside a certain raw beauty. The single-track road to St Benet’s takes you deep into the Norfolk Broads, worryingly peters out past some farm buildings and then gives up totally. Just as you’re nervously thinking you will have to reverse miles back up a narrow bridleway, a small car park for abbey visitors wondrously appears on your left. A short walk then takes you under big skies to the remains of an intricate 14th century gatehouse, through which incongruously pokes the unmistakeable brick shell of a long-abandoned windmill. Disconcertingly, boats on the nearby River Bure drift along the horizon, seeming to float on top of long grass and rushes. Because this is one of the flattest, lowest, parts of Britain, when the vegetation is high the horizon is roughly at eye-level and the river cannot be seen until you’re almost in it.
A path through the foliage past the gatehouse mill leads to the river and a small quay, where a couple of pleasure-craft are moored up. Others chug up and downstream, their rippling wakes lap-lapping the riverbank, their inhabitants happily slurping tea or beer another world away.
Close by the old gatehouse, a useful information board illustrates the sheer size of the old abbey complex. It was huge. Defensive walls and ditch on three sides and the Bure to the south once enclosed an area of some 38 acres. In the distance, on higher ground – a relative term in these parts – are the few visible remains of the enormous abbey church. St Benet’s had extensive fishponds, apparently, and at one time owned 28 churches in Norfolk, property in 76 parishes and the right to dig peat in 12 of them. According to Historic England, before the Reformation, over 700 monasteries were founded in England alone. Not for the first time, I wondered at the energy and drive that created and sustained these astonishing places. They were the power-houses of medieval Britain, possessing disproportionately immense wealth and power, but also often providing local employment, education, healthcare and social support.
Tradition is that, perhaps as early as 816AD, a small company of Saxon monks arrived at a solitary spot among the marshes at the junction of the Rivers Bure and Thurne. Here, under the leadership of an erstwhile hermit, Suneman, they erected a chapel dedicated to St Benedict. The holm part of the name means ‘island’. But the district was devastated by the Great Heathen Army of the Danes in 870, the community’s buildings were destroyed, the brothers cruelly slaughtered or scattered. Another holy man, Wolfric, re-established the monastery with seven companions in the year 955. And this reclusive fraternity existed peacefully for the next sixty years until, by miraculous intervention in 1019, the illustrious King Cnut endowed it with the manors of Horning, Ludham and Neatishead. Further endowments followed. The abbot in 1020 was Elsin (or maybe Aelfsige) and there were 26 monks. It is said that twelve of these, with half the abbey’s books and furniture, were dispatched by Cnut to form the nucleus of the abbey at Bury St Edmunds. Under Aelfsige (or Elsin) the church, which had previously been of timber and mud, was reconstructed in stone.
And so, for the next five hundred years, the black-cowled monks of St Benedict at Holm developed their property and went about their work, prayer and spiritual study. Their number varied between about 22 and 26, supported by lay brothers and servants who undertook many of the manual chores. Like all religious houses, their fortunes waxed and waned. In the winter of 1287-88, they suffered terrible flooding. Astonishingly, the abbey survived the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, the only religious house in England to do so. However, in practical terms, this was meaningless. In 1536 the King appointed William Reppes, Bishop of Norwich as abbot, granting to him all of the abbey properties in return for those of the bishopric. Reppes stripped the abbey estate and by c1540 the last monk had gone. The land was let out for agricultural use, the buildings plundered for building materials and, a mere short century later, the site was in ruins. By the 1700s little remained. The windmill was erected in c1780, utilising the strength of the old gatehouse, and fell out of use in the 1860s. One possible remnant of the abbey was a cottage, known as the Chequers Inn, which stood on the riverbank serving the wherrymen up to the late 19th century. Apparently, it boasted a 14th century arched Gothic doorway; but the place was badly damaged by a fire and demolished early in the 20th century.
As an interesting footnote, the Bishop of Norwich remains to this day technically the Abbot of St Benet’s, and leads an annual open-air service at the site on the first Sunday of August.
Though there is little to see, it seemed rude not to explore the site in the direction of the abbey church while we were about it. The stroll gives a further sense of ancient scale. On the spot where the high altar once stood is an oak cross, fashioned from wood donated in 1987 by HM Queen Elizabeth from the royal estate at Sandringham. Cows graze among the modest remains of thick flint and rubble walls. I have walked among cattle for decades and it never used to bother me, or them; but I have experienced several unpleasant encounters of the bovine kind in recent years. To my knowledge, at least two people have been killed in the UK this year alone, so I’m wary. And before anyone pipes up that it’s something to do with cows protecting their calves, or being curious, I’m afraid my first-hand experience is that they can simply be gratuitously aggressive, farmland yobs on a night out. On this occasion, the creatures were not interested in us and peaceably ambled away. We stood and watched a sailing boat tacking up the Bure. It’s a lovely spot. I’d like to visit when there’s a mist on the water, or when a sharp frost decorates the ground. Just over a mile away as the crow flies, the sails of Thurne Mill stand out on the skyline. It is hard to imagine the great enterprise that would have surrounded us five centuries ago. Near where the north transept would have been is a bench with, surprisingly, an audio post. We pressed a button and listened as the sound of monks singing drifted eerily over the few remaining bits of their once great church.
I think Marilyn was right, don’t you? I know she’ll be pleased to hear that. St Benet’s is looked after by the Norfolk Archaeological Trust. The site has never been excavated; you can’t help wondering what would be uncovered if it was decided to undertake that task.