Elm Hill Monastery
Updated: Jun 21, 2022
I haphazardly pick my way across the cobble stones of Elm Hill, conscious of their tendency to twist my ankles sideways whether I’m taking a sober stroll or hobbling home giddy and intoxicated. Everything is dowsed in early spring sunlight, narrow paths and their leering houses appearing all shades of copper and yellow. A neurotic ginger cat with a little silver star hanging from his collar darts around in the shade of some steps (he, rather affronted, dodges my imposing hand when I crouch down to stroke him). I’m looking for the old monastery.
I’d recently read of a sect of controversial 19th century Benedictine monks, led by a one Father Ignatius, who quite briefly resided on this medieval street. Ignatius had founded a monastic chapel in 1864, much to the disdain of Norwich’s Protestant community, and was known to sit at his front door asking passers-by to pray with him and, if they refused, to angrily curse them. Apparently, those cursed promptly dropped dead.
I think about this hooded Benedictine monk lurking in a doorway as I stumble on, eventually spotting a little blue plaque affixed to the front of a building, which (sometimes) signifies exciting quirky things have happened nearby. It doesn’t look like the eerie black-and-white exposed brick photo I’ve seen, which is disappointing; instead, its a flat faced cream building, leaning with the comical slope of the pavement. It does, however, have its original door, large, black and imposing when compared to the rest of the street, which would not look out of place in an illustrated story about tiny anthropomorphised mice wearing clothes and living in cosy little houses. This door, however, is certainly fit for lurking monks.
I look up at the site from which a rather intense gay love letter came - written to a young singing boy in the monastery by a Father Augustine - and think about my own position standing here on the very same pavement, outside the very same looming door.
When we go out seeking little snippets of things since past, we often frame what we’re looking for as history; as something that has existed, albeit often in the same dusty buildings we now occupy, but nonetheless as something separate, a passing ghost that once briefly brushed over these same stones. But sometimes, things begin to blur. Everything suddenly seems a little overwhelming. You’re conscious of your own existence on a plain shared by others who were once very much more than passing ghosts brushing over stones. They were tangible people.
It was only 155 years ago that the monks were pushed out of Elm Hill by a thoroughly riled and religiously charged Protestant public, by a society still in the throes of intense Christian divide and a profound fear of disorder. And here I now stood on Norwich’s oldest street. An unapologetically queer, autistic trans-person, with his feet on those very same cobble stones which pave a world radically different yet also frighteningly the same. It’s almost impossible to describe how it feels when you bridge this elusive gap between past and present, but out of nowhere there comes a feeling that can be best described as us standing on top of each other. Bodies crowding in the finite amount of space we occupy on Earth, some visible, like myself, some translucent traversing paths in the background. Societies run on a monotonous hamster wheel which recycles fear and division in its endless forms. The other-worldly romanticism of a 19th century monastery accused of all sorts of debauchery begins to cower in the light when you consider its ceaseless repetition around you, as if history follows a perfect cutout template, printing itself over and over on the same muddy canvas.
That’s how I feel standing outside Elm Hill monastery, and that’s often how I feel navigating the unique medieval terrain of Norwich, the place where I was born. A mixture of detached, almost comical fascination, as I wander feeling like the embodiment of everything the 21st century claims to be, passing sites of mass anti-heretical burnings, of beds of lavender under which plague victims once lay, past the most ornate examples of Norman architecture. And yet, many of these things are still the same. Life goes on in a finite, recycled space. We sleepily retrace each others steps.
I continue up Elm Hill, step back out onto the bustling street and go about my day.