Ancient abbey ruins hidden in Norfolk garden of Today programme editor
- Credit: Supplied by author
When her job in the frenzied maelstrom of national and international news stopped her sleeping, Sarah Sands set out to find stillness, starting in her own garden and travelling across continents and centuries
A flinty wall, with circles of stone tracery where windows once let light into a nunnery, are all that remains of Marham Abbey.
It was destroyed and the nuns dispersed almost 500 years ago, but the quiet certainties of their life inspired a 21st century quest.
The ruin stands in Sarah Sands’ garden - and at the heart of her search for stillness and peace.
For years, as she whirled through her busy life, she was intrigued by the wall.
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Sarah edited the Sunday Telegraph and London Evening Standard before becoming editor of Radio Four’s flagship Today programme. Her professional and social life is ceaseless and star-studded. At a single dinner she meets the creator of Alexa, the inventor of Wikipedia, the founder of Carphone Warehouse. She moves in the same social circles as the Prime Minister.
“The most frantic times on the Today programme were probably the election nights, and because of the extraordinary period of British history, they kept on coming,” she said. “Then there were the terrible overnight tragedies of the Manchester bombing and of the Grenfell fire.”
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Jittery, unable to sleep or switch off from the ever-scrolling news cycle, she began researching the ancient wall in her garden and the monks and nuns who still choose to give up many of the things she fills her life with.
“There is a wisdom in the monasteries which answers the affliction of our times,” she said.
“Renouncing the world, the monks and nuns have acquired a hidden knowledge of how to live. They labour, they learn and they master what is described as ‘the interior silence.’”
Searching for this interior silence for herself she began researching the lives of the women who once lived at Marham Abbey.
“I have a greater sense of how they lived, with frugality and faith, labouring under that great Norfolk sky,” said Sarah.
From Norfolk she travelled to a dark sky observatory in Scotland, a Coptic desert community in Egypt, Buddhist retreat in the mountains of Japan and Bhutan, where the king ‘turned happiness into a political project,” and a monastery in Assisi - close to a castle where she had been a guest, alongside Boris Johnson, at a lavish house party hosted by Evgeny Lebedev,
“I have a memory of a dishevelled Johnson chasing Evgeny’s wolf, also named Boris, because it had eaten his computer dongle,” she writes in her new book The Interior Silence.
This time she meets monks and visits countryside shrines where St Francis preached.
Her pilgrimage to 10 monasteries around the world included a night with the nuns at Quidenham, near Attleborough. It was the home of the nun who found herself an unlikely art history television sensation. “Quidenham still has the spirit of the late Sister Wendy Beckett, who came from there,” said Sarah. “When Sister Wendy was asked in a media interview what the other nuns thought of her amazing fame and of being on television, she replied: “They feel sorry for me.”
Sister Stephanie entered the closed order of nuns at 33, leaving a job with Norwich Union and a busy, modern life to enter a world of silence, work, reading and prayer
When the pandemic hit Sarah found herself confined, like the nuns, to Marham Abbey. She feels closer than ever to the women who lived here centuries ago, who kept sheep and pigs, and planted so many cherry trees that the village was known as Cherry Marham until the 19th century.
The Abbey was founded in 1249 and closed by Henry VIII in 1536. Most of it was demolished, its stones used for Sarah’s home, but a section of wall with the tracery of two rose windows remains. A local story suggests the last Abbess, Sister Barbara, ran the nunnery in league with a highwayman who robbed wealthy travellers just before nuns arrived to nurse them back to health. The grateful patients would then make generous donations - which were shared between nuns and robbers. The legend has Sister Barbara walled up in the abbey and left to die – from where she still haunts Marham. Or was the story priceless propaganda for politicians determined to destroy the abbey? Sarah said: “Some guests have claimed to see a nun’s ghost but I never have.”
She and her husband have lived here for 10 years, but have been visiting Norfolk for decades. Sarah’s brother, lyricist and cabaret performer Kit Hesketh-Harvey, lives in Stoke Ferry, near Downham Market, and their parents live in Swaffham.
She left the Today programme in autumn 2020, moving to a mix of paid and charitable roles, including working on a science and technology summit she hopes will be a British Davos. She is also a director of a consultancy firm, chair of think tank Bright Blue which has been described as “the modernising wing of the Tory party,” chair of the Gender Equality Advisory Council for this year’s G7 which meets in Cornwall this summer and on the board of organisations promoting London and British luxury brands.
“I am busier than ever and the Interior Silence is a life’s work so I am afraid that I have not undergone a conversion. But I appreciate it more and have perhaps a tiny slice of distance and perspective,” said Sarah.
Part enthralling travelogue, part self-help, part meditation on family dynamics, part glimpse into the frenzied interface between politics and media, The Interior Silence is sublimely written,
In counterpoint to this search for timeless, otherworldly stillness is the transient worldliness of current affairs, Brexit, Twitter, constant travel and consumption. But it is the breathtakingly beautiful descriptions of holy places and holy people which remain, the chance to climb with the author up mountain paths, or cross deserts and seas, to patches of paradise where people devote themselves to working around the clock and across the globe for something outside time and beyond the world.
Sarah calls her own religious faith: “A low key Church of England faith, inspired by the wonderful architecture of Norfolk churches.
“When I worked on the Telegraph 25 years ago, my colleague Simon Heffer always took his wife on a tour of Norfolk churches for her summer holiday. At the time, I thought that sounded dismal. Now it sounds like heaven.”
The Interior Silence, 10 lessons from monastic life, by Sarah Sands, is published by Short Books in hardback for £12.99.