Not all of England's heritage and history is well-known, well-publicised and commercialised. Some things are quiet, hidden, unobtrusive and largely ignored. Lets go and search one out.
We're in the Breckland, close to Santon Downham. There's a good wide path along here which co-incides with the route of two modern-day long-distance paths, The Hereward Way and St Edmund's Way. But this site is older than either Hereward the Wake (1035-1072 AD) or St Edmund (841 - 870 AD).
And here it is! Not too impressive I know, but this is the site of a lost church known as St Helen's Oratory. The church has been abandoned since the mid fourteenth century and the stones taken for other buildings. In its day it must have been an impressive sight as the foundations suggest a church measuring 90 ft long by 25 ft wide (27.5 metres x 8 metres) and there was probably a tower at the west end.
Moreover it occupied a commanding site above the river valley in what was then open country. The church only dates from the Norman period but other artefacts were found that suggest continuous occupation through the Bronze Age, Iron Age as well as Roman, Viking and Saxon periods.
Even at the time of the Domesday Book there were not many people around here; it lists only one villager and a plough. That probably means one family owning a farm but even so it seems strange that what was a very impressive church for its time would be built in this remote place.
Now I know I have some readers who have an interest in Celtic mythology and folklore, and perhaps they are already on the scent of the reason why this site had significance for early peoples. The clue is in the dedication of the old church to St Helen.
We need to make our way down into a thickly wooded dell beside the church site. You see, the place had even more ancient significance as the site of a holy well. These pre-Christian sites were supposed to be helpful in curing all kinds of ailments and as a result they were still important well into the Christian era - and still are important to many modern pagans.
The early Christian church tried to take over these earlier holy sites and the name St Helen may be a nod to Elen, the Celtic water spirit. Many wells across the country are associated with Helen's and Ellen's. One belief is that pieces of rag or cloth should be tied to nearby trees and when these rot away any disease will die too. These are known as "cloutie trees" and can be found near many wells. Here there was a single strip of yellow cloth and a plastic sunflower - even New Age Celts seem to have largely ignored this site.
There are a couple reasons why the well is so forgotten. In summer when most people visit it can become hidden by an impenetrable tangle of briars and bushes. Also the original well was largely destroyed by later flint quarrying which took place to supply flints for flintlock guns for the army, though the waters of the spring still run pure.
Time to climb the steep path, thick with decaying oak leaves, back up to the church site, then make our way through the trees, across the railway line and back to the twenty-first century.