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The Norfolk Churches Site: an occasional sideways glance at the churches of Norfolk

Spread Oak Chapel, Bittering
'Porta Maria, chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary'

Spread Oak Wood Chapel

Spread Oak Wood Chapel Spread Oak Wood Chapel Spread Oak Wood Chapel
iron gates Spread Oak Wood Chapel Spread Oak Wood Chapel

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Spread Oak Chapel, Bittering

The landscape to the north of Dereham is a strange one, threaded through by a tangle of lanes that seem uncertain about where they are going. The workhouse at Gressenhall was one of Norfolk's largest, and on a gloomy day its bleak bulk still broods over the copses and fields. Not far from here stood Bittering Hall, the home of the Wilberforce family. Their early 19th Century pile stood on the site of an Elizabethan manor house, but it was itself demolished in the early 1980s when the land was bought by a gravel extraction company. Today, sand and gravel quarries pockmark Bittering's small parish, and there is no village other than a memory of a lost one along the road to Beetley.

Although Bittering Hall is no more and its former Park is being progressively eaten up, the old woods and plantations that enclosed it still survive in part, and one such is the ten acre belt known as Spread Oak Wood, although I think most of the trees are birches and pines. Along the side of it runs part of an old Roman Road, but no public footpath runs through the wood, and the land is private so access is no longer possible. If you had been able to walk through it, ducking under leaning trees from a century or more of winter storms, you would eventually be rewarded with a remarkable sight, for on the far side of the wood from the lonely road sits a little brick-built chapel behind ornate if decaying gates.

It seems so out of place here that you might even wonder if it survives from some earlier incarnation, perhaps as a woodsman's hut, but in fact it is much more interesting than that. I learned from Imogen Radford that in the 1960s this stretch of woodland was bought from the Bittering Hall estate by Paul Hodác, a car worker from Leamington Spa who was on holiday with his wife in the area. Hodác had been born in Bohemia during the last months of the First World War, shortly before it became part of the new nation of Czechoslovakia. Perhaps it reminded him of the central European forests of his childhood, because it became a second home for him and his wife, their caravan set amongst the trees. And yet, even then it seems he had a plan for for his woods. In 1975 he erected a tall cross which was consecrated by one Father Rochla. Such things are common in the forests of Bohemia, and Hodác's was an act of thanksgiving for finding a home in England after the invasion of his country by the Nazis and the horrors of the Second World War which he had witnessed in Europe.

But he was not finished. He began construction of the chapel, and it was completed by 1983 when Mass was said in it for the first time. It became popularly known as Porta Maria, 'Mary's Gate', although a fading inscription above the door of the small adjoining sacristy reads 'Chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary'. He carried out all the work himself, acquiring bits and pieces from around the local area. The door appears to be 19th Century, and the dressed stone that forms the doorway is said to come from the ruin of Kempstone church a couple of miles off. There is no electricity of course, but photographs taken in the 1980s and 1990s show happy summer groups gathered for Mass, many from the local Dereham area Catholic community. It became a tradition that Mass would be celebrated on a summer evening after a picnic gathering in the woods.

Twenty years have passed since Paul Hodác's death in 2002, and in that time the chapel he built has begun to go quietly back to nature. The door opens into an intimate space that looks east towards the cross that was consecrated in 1975, set behind a small altar. Behind the door, a pretty 19th Century harmonium sits under a gaping hole in the roof. Old church benches line the two walls, again late 19th Century. The glass in the windows is broken. Unused for years now, everything is decaying, twenty years of Norfolk winters reclaiming the furnishings, and yet there are moving reminders of this place's purpose. Above a small shrine alcove on the south wall are the words Hail Virgin Mother. In 1983, an article in the Eastern Daily Press reported that Paul Hodác planned that the alcove would eventually house a statue made at Oberammergau in Germany. I wonder if it was ever in place here? On the altar lies a decayed piece of wood on which is written Holy Mass 23 August 7pm. Above the east window, a small memorial plaque reads Monica Hodác Foundress of Chapel 11.9.1924 BVM 18.10.1997.

This is undoubtedly a sad place, and there would seem little purpose in it being rescued, because Paul Hodác's wood is now owned by the quarry company, and it must be likely that they will eventually extend their extraction works into it. Indeed, most of the furnishings are too far gone for rescue, and in any case I am told that the brick walls are built on uncertain foundations. Perhaps it is better to let it simply fade away, although it would be nice if the cross could be rescued and reset somewhere. For, as the land of Bittering parish is eaten up, it would serve as a reminder of a remarkable man, and of the turmoil of the War of which he was a survivor, one of the saving remnants.

Simon Knott, February 2022

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looking east looking east altar and shrine cross
hail virgin mother harmonium Blessed Virgin and child looking out
Holy Mass 23 August 7pm Spreadoak Cross consecrated by Rev F Rochla 24-9-1975 pray for Edith Howard Santa Maria Immaculata ora pro populo

the way through the woods Spread Oak Wood


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The Norfolk Churches Site: an occasional sideways glance at the churches of Norfolk