Withdrawing from the world



My elder daughter and I recently watched Janina Ramirez’s BBC Four documentary The Search for the Lost Manuscript: Julian of Norwich and were fascinated. For my daughter, this was the first she had heard of anchoresses, Christian women who withdrew from their everyday life (the word comes from the Greek for ‘one who has retired from the world’) in order to live in seclusion, usually in an enclosed cell attached to a church, to devote their life to prayer and spiritual contemplation. I was reminded of my own interest in these women which began when I read the Ancrene Wisse (also known as the Ancrene Riwle), an early 13th century guide for anchoresses, and Julian of Norwich‘s 14th century Revelations of Divine Love at university. The idea of being so isolated from your society, of living such an ascetic life, of spending all your time praying and thinking about God is at once startlingly alien to our contemporary connected lifestyles, when we can be in touch with millions of other people via the internet even when we are physically all alone, and subtly intriguing.

My daughter’s first response to the programme was to find out a little more about Julian of Norwich’s writings and to draw a stained glass window style picture of her in the medieval smash book she was keeping over the summer holidays in preparation for the next term’s class topic. A quick look at photographs of existing pictures of Julian and of stained glass windows gave her some further inspiration.

The next thing was to take a drive out to St James’ Church in the village of Shere, Surrey. imag1715_1The church was once adjoined by the cell in which Christine Carpenter was enclosed not once but twice! It seems that Christine left her cell and returned to the world but later petitioned to recommit to her anchoritic life and was re-enclosed. Little is known about Christine Carpenter although a leaflet available from St James’ tells us that what we do know is gleaned from the Egerton MSS (kept in the British Museum Library) which records that in 1329 ‘Christine, daughter of William called the Carpenter of Schire’ had asked to enter the anchoritic life and was given permission by the Bishop of Winchester to ‘let herself be shut up in a narrow place in the churchyard adjoining the parish church of Schire’. A later mention is found of her asking for permission to be re-enclosed in 1332 having ‘left her cell inconstantly and returned to the world’. ‘Brother John of Wrotham Primarius’ pleads with the Dean of Guildford to allow the re-enclosure ‘lest by wandering any longer in the world she be exposed to the bites of the rapacious wolf and, which heaven forbid, her blood be required at your hands’.

Christine’s cell is no longer standing but a plaque on the outside wall shows the place where it once adjoined the church.

Christine’s quatrefoil

Inside the church you can see the quatrefoil window through which Christine received the host at the Eucharist and the squint through which she could contemplate the altar. There are other things of interest to see while you are there: beautiful stained glass windows; a medieval Crusader chest issued by Pope Innocent III in around 1200 for collecting money in support of the Crusades; and a bronze Madonna and Child circa 1300 which probably fell from the top of a Pilgrim’s Cross and was found in the woods above Shere. Aside from its fascinating historical features the church is clearly a loving and thriving modern community; it was great to see photographs on display of the couples who are to be married in the church over the coming year.

Shere itself is a very picturesque little village and if you visit on a sunny day then take a picnic to eat by the stream that runs alongside the churchyard (a little bridge leads from the road into the churchyard and to the church). When we visited there were children paddling with their fishing nets. The village has a few little cafes and pubs but we were drawn into Shere Delights, which describes itself as ‘an emporium of all things truly scrumptious’ including traditional sweets, coffees and hot chocolates, luxury chocolates and ice creams. Fortunately for us it also sells delicious sorbet; my daughter is bizarrely (and completely unlike me and my younger daughter) opposed to ice cream but adores sorbet. She loved Shere Delights’ blackcurrant sorbet so much that she had two!

A word of warning: after I fist visited the church years ago I was interested to stumble upon a novel entitled Anchoress of Shere by Paul L. Moorcraft who apparently settled in Shere to write it. It has got a lot of highly starred reviews on Amazon and Goodreads but was definitely not what I was expecting. It intertwines an imagining of a 14th century Christine Carpenter who becomes an anchoress after being brutally attacked by the Lord of the Manor with a 20th century serial killer plotline. It is graphic and not for children! Not for me, either, to be honest.

Visiting lowdown:

  • Shere is located just off the A25 between Dorking and Guildford, Surrey.
  • There is a car park by the recreation ground, postcode GU5 9JF but there is also street parking on the road into the village from the A25.
  • The nearest train station is Gomshall.
  • St James’ Church is usually open during the day for visitors but they recommend you check in advance if you are making a special journey.
  • Shere has its own museum which was sadly closed when we visited. It is open Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays 1-5pm and from 3rd April to 30th October it is also open Tuesdays and Thursdays 10am-3pm. It is free entry but donations are invited.
  • Nearby is the Silent Pool and Abinger Hammer, a little village where you can see the figure of ‘Jack the Blacksmith’ hourly strike the famous clock which overhangs the A25. 






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