By Haydn Brown.
The first photograph shown below is of a former Catholic shrine in Spread Oak Wood at Bittering, Norfolk. It is the work of the EDP newspaper and was first published in October 2018 in support of an article about Bittering. This shrine was built by Paul Hodác in thanks for him finding refuge from the Nazis after they invaded his native Czechoslovakia on 15 March, 1939. He discovered Norfolk whilst on holiday, spending time in Bittering from the early 1960s. His chapel was dedicated in 1975. Sadly, this shrine is, gradually, being lost to the woods.
Prior to the EDP feature in 2018, the journalist, Bruce Robinson, wrote a more detailed account of Paul Hodác and the shrine that he built. Bruce died in 2016 at the age of 80 years. His wife, Cynthia, said in his obituary – published in The Guardian newspaper, on 14 July 2016 and modified on 28 November 2017 – that he was:
“Quietly spoken, unassuming, browns and beige on the outside but inside seething with ideas that tumbled over each other to reach the daylight; my husband, was a born writer; someone for whom the honing of a chapter was as natural as the squeezing of oranges he juiced each day for breakfast.”
Notable, after his retirement in 1993 Bruce Robinson wrote mainly for pleasure; focusing on local history, novels with a Norfolk connection, plus miscellanies. Included amongst these was his ‘Flongster Blogspot’, from which the following extract about ‘A Feature of Spread Oak Wood was taken – Enjoy!
It would not be incorrect to say that former forester Paul Hoda’c came to Britain the hard way – being chased by the Nazis more or less all the way from Czechoslovakia to England. It happened because of a blizzard of occurrences, all of them more or less out of his control – and it happened like this:
Paul was born in 1918 to a Catholic family in Czechoslovakia, enjoying a way of life which was utterly shattered in March, 1938, when Germany annexed Austria. Neighbouring Czechoslovakia immediately took fright and mobilised, and Paul was among the many hundreds of young men who signed up. Fate, however, intervened again when, a few months’ later, the Nazis invaded his country. Most of the local resistance was brushed aside, and he fled to Poland, being forced to make a highly dangerous border crossing, before finally joining the Czech Legion in that country.
But the fates had more in store. In September, 1939, Poland was also overrun, and this time the young Paul Hoda’c was forced to flee to Romania and then, eventually, to Beirut and France, where he again fought the advancing Germans. By the time France fell he was a Sergeant-Major, but he managed to escape to England.
By 1945 he was married to an English girl, and when the War was over they moved to Leamington Spa where he worked for many years at the Jaguar car factory. But two things always stayed with him – the love of his home country and the Czech forests where he had worked as a young man, and his religion, and both of them, some years’ later, finally came together in one place.
In the early 1970s – which is when I first met him – Paul had only just purchased for himself a 10-acre piece of Norfolk woodland known as Spread Oak Wood between Longham and Bittering, near Dereham. Here, at weekends and during his holidays, when he ‘camped’ in a caravan parked under the trees, he rediscovered his connection with the forests of his youth, and also found something else – an authentic Roman road.
This, I presume, was one of the branches of the Fen Causeway which originally ran from Denver and may have continued east as far as Caister on Sea. Near Bittering, it went by Salter’s Lane and Stoney Lane towards Kempstone, and a short stretch of it ran along the base of Paul’s triangular-shaped block of woodland.
I visited him several times when he was living in his caravan and he showed me the distinctive line of the ancient road under the trees and covered by leaves, and another short section which he had cleared completely. For this was key to the next part of his plan – to built a chapel/shrine and erect a cross which, by dint of hard work during his free time, he duly did, by hand, using materials acquired by himself or donated by well-wishers. – And complete it he did, so successfully that the cross and the chapel, built on the Roman road, were officially consecrated in 1974. Since the shrine opened in 1983 there has been an annual Mass, and a plaque above the altar in the chapel was dedicated to Paul’s wife, Monica, who died in 1998.
The last time I saw Paul Hoda’c, which is some years’ ago now, he was very much at ease among the trees, and utterly content with his lot.
Since this was first published here in October 2020, responses have been appreciative, with some even surprised at the shrine’s existence – even promising a visit! Now since then, I have found out that this would worry some individuals – as borne out by a recent email which landed in my ‘in-tray’. It asked that photographs, plus any location references be removed – to prevent ‘the unsavoury element’ from turning up and wrecking what remains of the site.
I would say that it is a bit late for such a negative response, particularly since Bruce Robinson wrote about it in 2014 and the EDP mentioned it (accompanied with a photo) in 2018. Better now for those keen to preserve this ‘historical’ building to gather together, organise themselves into a structured group with a voice and attempt, with a positive stance, to promote awareness of the shrine’s plight and, hopefully solicit community and church support. They might be surprised!