brambles, buttress, sky

A Sunday morning at the turn of the year. Across an East-facing field, corn is shifting through the palette, moving from chartreuse to gold. The path takes me through the very edges of the crop and for a while the waxy stems and priapic ears click and thud against my boots and trousers. Each step throws a Skylark or two into the air. They are startlingly close, I’m almost stamping on them before they react. Until, over just a few yards, I seem to have put up a cloud of them, dipping and flashing their white vents as they scoot into the brambles and brush that makes up the border with the railway line.

The old Abbey grounds are in front of me, somewhere, just over a mile away according to the map in my head, but I cannot pick the site out from this distance. I have an idea where it might be, but the mist of the morning and the dark brambly border melting into the edge of the corn are confusing in their loveliness. Just bands of dark and darker green. There are no buildings, for one thing. Sawtry Judith, a tiny community that vanished in the first violent flurries of the Dissolution, was a Cistercian order founded in the middle of the Twelfth Century, but which lasted less than four hundred years. It was almost always in debt, and returned less than £150 to the Crown when it was pulled apart. The Cromwells lapped up the land and over the next few years what buildings there were – a gatehouse, a church, a belltower, some other remnants of conventual order and administration – were demolished and taken away, the masonry most likely re-appropriated for other projects. From the air, of course from the air, it is bold and compelling, a cruciform space, possibly pillars within it, and elsewhere, scattered around the field in which it lies, further square shapes and ditches. But that is my impression foolishly gathered and embedded and embellished with internet assistance. My mind has raced ahead, vaulted the hurdles and grown expectant. On the ground, disappointment.

A path opens up and the way becomes a little clearer, but not much. Over a ditch and the location is for a moment obvious, a big bumpy field on my right, but from my approach barred by brambles and hedgerow, and at the last it is unreachable. Although the footpath skirts the edge of the site, it is all efficiently fenced off and obviously private property. As the undergrowth breaks down here and there, the extent of the area is obvious, it is a sizeable space, four or five acres, and the ridges of ancient use are there, but from this angle they’re indecipherable.

It is also a working space; a cow field, a grazing meadow. I cannot gain access. I lean over the fence as much as I can and take some pictures. Just before the First World War the whole site was extensively surveyed and excavated; English Heritage report the discovery of monastic dwellings, a pond, a barn, cloisters, a kitchen. I sense it, but it’s impossible to get closer. Sawtry Judith’s residents lift their heads and look back at me, lowing at my pointless endeavours.

Along the irrigation ditch, a dozen fledged Swallows sit grumpily on an iron pole, as if confused by the prescriptions of their nature. A hundred yards beyond, unnoticed, a Kestrel flutters and wavers above the field margin.

A mile or so North of here, the track takes me back under the railway, and along the side of the line are the Five Arches Pits, water-filled craters that were quarried as borrow pits for the excavation of the embankment. In the chaotic greenery, birds scatter and butterflies, a colony of Ringlets, squall into the heavy air. A train whispers past above me. No-one has been along here in some time, it is rather casually managed, but all I need to do is raise my arms above the giant nettles, Large Whites and hoverflies scattering as I push through.

Into another field, and more corn, but straight lanes are cut into it, not just helpful tractor tracks. These are wide paths. Proper paths. Obvious, and established. Ways that have been here for centuries. I can see other dark lines through the crop, heading toward and past me. They are determined and bold, etched into the fabric of the field. Into the fabric. The fabric unfolds, the field pressed flat such that the razor folds point in one direction and converge.

St Andrew’s Wood Walton, the church lost in the fields. Abandoned, it seems; a word that’s often used. Left, abandoned in the fields. A quarter of a mile away it rises, rough and primitive, barely an ornate flourish upon it, from the corn. It is the most extraordinary approach. There are, in fact, a very few dwellings nearby, but they’re hidden behind a screen of trees. The church is your focus, and you walk up these broad earthen alleys to it silently; almost, yes, astonished, that it is here. The church lost in the fields.

I stood still. Wanting to make the moment last, thinking, realising as I did this, that these tracks would have been made by local farmers and workers and residents as they walked toward the bell tolling for service, or following more personal and private timetables to the graveyard. Centuries of walking, of obligation and faith, stamped into each footstep of this path. And although it is abandoned, redundant in the Church’s parlance, the tracks to and from St Andrew’s are still here.

But people used the tracks less and less. The churchyard now is silent and still. It is tended, and there is a bench with a fine North Easterly view for the occasional visitor to get an early good impression. But there are only one or two services a year; the foundations are moving, the tower is unsafe. The bells have been silent for four years. It is locked now, of course, too remote to trust people with access. As early as the 1540s thefts have been reported here. In more recent years it has been emptied and lead taken from the roof and aisles. The interior has been damaged, too, sometimes so badly, with the windows broken, that it became open to the elements and suffered a steady decline.

The graveyard seems sparse and neat, although I imagine the lack of a fence contributes to this slightly odd, dislocated feeling, that you are not really within the church grounds until you’re right up against it, the whole thing part of the fields again, not separate or distinct, but conspiring to be here, just grown from the land. I read later that there are many infant burials unmarked. And also, the bodies of young men who had been killed as the railway was built.

The trains hiss by. You barely notice them although, had you a mind to, you’re probably close enough to wave and see someone, similarly minded, wave back. It must be remarked upon, this place. It must be noticed daily by hundreds of people. But their curiosity, at the first opportunity to turn their head, is left, abandoned in the fields. Lost in the fields. Thirty seconds of thought and evaporated enquiry. All that work and toil, those countless lives, wrapped up and tidied away in a neat little parcel, or plot. Left behind. The enterprise and struggles, these mouldering modest essays on little victories and bigger losses, unread. The legitimate pace of sorrow and grief trod into the ground. Meaning in each step. Here are the voices of others, another culture almost, a quiet accumulation of the lost. Lost in the fields.

The crucifix above the chancel is broken. The windows are boarded and the doors, all but the South porch, filled in and blankly closed.

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