In Search of St. Withburga

I wanted to honour a founding mother of the faith but even before I started I feared I was on a fool’s errand. The old books tell how the monks of Ely Abbey came to Dereham and stole St. Withburga’s body! So what relics could I hope to find?

She, a royal princess, is said to have founded a religious community in Dereham in 654AD. The town sign depicts her with deer - two does - whose milk, it is said, sustained her community in its early days.

One can’t imagine many deer in Dere- ham today! So instead of going straight to her holy well, I turned left in front of the church, into St. Withburga’s Lane and headed for what looked as if it might be country. On the right I found Rolling Pin Lane. Crossing into an open space, I followed a path downhill and turned right along a little brook. At a T-junction I went right again and approached the church from the valley.

For the first time I thought that I might catch the sight of a deer as the path passed through some Alder Carr. I was surprisingly pleased. The legend recounts that it was to a bridge crossing the stream, close by the church, that the sisters came to meet and milk the deer. I could easily imagine how it might have been.

Once up the hill and into the churchyard I went straight to the holy well. Tradition says it is a healing well that sprang up when St. Withburga’s body was snatched away! Here it was! But the sceptic in me imagines the spring has always been there! To have a church and community by a source of clean water made a lot of sense in 654 AD! In any case, it was still St. Withburga’s well!

The present day church is open during daylight hours. There are good guide books and lots to see. But if, like me, you travel as a pilgrim you will want to take some time in the Lady Chapel. As I stilled myself in that beautiful space I saw all round me evidence for the continuing work of the church and remembered it had begun 1353 years ago. As I prayed I had a sense of someone, there and then gone, like a deer passing through a glade. The Saint? I wondered! Hmmnnnn…..

©Richard Woodham 2007


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