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.
By Bruce Robinson, 2014