A Feature of Spread Oak Wood.

By Haydn Brown.

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.

121976458_978361372667412_1836466013923910614_n
 The Catholic shrine in Spread Oak Wood at Bittering, Norfolk. The 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. The chapel was consecrated in 1974, but is gradually being lost to the woods. Photo: EDP.

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.

Bittering (Salter's Lane_Evelyn Simak)
View east along Salters Lane
From here, in a sharp bend, the Devil’s Dyke extends northwards, with pastures adjoining in the west. This area once used to be part of the historical parish of Launditch. Photo: © Copyright Evelyn Simak 

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.

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Inside the Shrine. Photo: William Harrison

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.

By Bruce Robinson, 2014

THE END

 

8 thoughts on “A Feature of Spread Oak Wood.”

  1. I remember attending mass here with my late parents, siblings, and family friends a few times in the 1970’s and early 80’s.
    Mr Hodac was a real character and very kindly donated Christmas trees to local Catholic Churches (and to us). The consecration was conducted by the then Priest from Dereham whose name escapes me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The consecration was done by Rev Fr Rochla 24 September 1975. I wonder if he also conducted the masses that took place in the chapel? The plaque on the cross in the chapel says “pray for Edith Howard”, who presumably was a member of the local Catholic Church in Dereham. Had she died the year before or recently? I understand she died in the first week of November but I don’t know which year. I think the stories about this place and people who were connected with it are worth saving so I would be very interested to hear more about your memories of attending and of Paul and other people who attended, if you would be willing to communicate with me. This is my email address (insert the@) imogen36[at]googlemail.com. Many thanks, Imogen Radford

      Liked by 1 person

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