You leave the medieval walled city of Visby the eastern gate, cycle across the footbridge over the moat, and then through ordinary garden suburbs until you reach one of the roundabouts. The road to take is the 147, which leads eventually to somewhere called Slite.
There’s a cycle path for about two kilometres outside town. You smell the sweet perfume that often tinctures the air around Visby – a light floral bouquet is how it would be described on a perfume bottle. Chicory, cornflowers, chrysanthemums, poppies, meadowsweet, flourish on the roadside, but you’re not sure where the smell comes from – from none of those perhaps? From all of them? From some shrub? Some mimosa or jasmine?
It’s delicious, this scent, and both more delicate and more definite than any manufactured perfume. Words like evanescent, airy, heady, come to mind. Ephemeral, fleeting, evasive. Numinous: it comes and goes like a fairy or a ghost.
After a few kilometres the real cycle lane stops, to your dismay. For another three or four kilometres there’s a hard shoulder, a narrow hard shoulder, and you cycle in this. The landscape becomes scrubby. You’re cycling through a forest of low pine trees. Cars speed along the two lane road. From the perspective of someone on a bike, they seem to drive very fast. Most of the drivers are polite and give you a wide berth. Occasionally someone, seeing an oncoming car, and unaware that a driver is allowed to slow down,even stop and wait, skims too close for comfort. There’s not a lot of traffic but it’s fairly constant. Every minute or two a car passes.
Then the hard shoulder stops and you have to cycle on the road, share it with the cars. Just like in Ireland, where you don’t cycle. Your hands grip the handlebars very tightly, as if this could protect you.
There’s nothing along this road for six or seven kilometres. Just the road, the cars, the trees and a sort of scrubland. Not a house or a farm to be seen. Or the café you’d been hoping for, somewhere ‘on the way.’
Hejdeby. Of course. This is a heath. The name should warn you.
You wish you’d eaten lunch. You wish you’d brought something to eat in your bag. Luckily you had the sense to put in a bottle of water. And one square of chocolate. You don’t feel hungry but it’s almost three o’clock and you had breakfast at eight. You should be hungry. But this is more a cognitive realisation than a feeling. Hunger is a sensation you lost when you were eighteen and it has never returned, not with the strength it had before then. But then, you’ve never been far from food. No doubt if you were assailed by famine, if you were a prisoner of war, the feeling of hunger would come back.
Are you on the right road?
You haven’t seen a signpost for miles. Is it possible that you took a wrong turning?
You decide to cycle to the next bend, and then, if nothing is visible, to turn back to Visby.
At the next bend there is a signpost. Slite. 147. You check the map. Hejdeby is definitely on the 147. You must be close to it now. Give it another ten minutes. You’ve cycled too far on this risky road to turn back.
The landscape changes. The woodland gives way to fields of corn, of wheat or rye. You see the roof of a house. And then, rising from cushions of fluffy trees, the slim black spire of a church.
Minutes later the sign Hejderby appears.
The church, just down a little road to the right, is perfect. A doll’s house of a church. The snow-white walls, the black roof, the square tower with the black spire on top, the little vestry or altar place tucked on at the back like a kitchen extension. It’s set in a green lawn. The graveyard nestling around it, graves dotted like children on the grass. Behind, a field of golden corn.
One car in a parking spot. You cycle along a grass path and park the bike under an elm tree. There are black doors in the white wall and you fear the church may be closed. But it’s not.
It was worth the ten kilometre cycle.
Inside, the walls of the church are covered with pale pastel chalk paintings. The twelve apostles. The Virgin Mary. King Solomon riding to Jerusalem. Prince trong
Pale faded pinks, blues, yellows, drawn in two dimensions on the chalk walls.
The pews have painted red roses, framed in blue, on the little gates: you open the gate to gain access to your seat.
The pulpit is similarly decorated, and painted blue and red and gold.
Hejdeby Church was built in 1281. After the Reformation, its murals were painted over: the word, not graven images, would hold sway from henceforth in the Lutheran church.
Hejdeby Church was built on sand. This was discovered or attended to in the early twentieth century, and various attempts were made to secure its foundations. In 1995 the floor was taken up. Underneath in the foundations a horde of silver coins was found - coins which had been placed there, for good luck, when the church was built. These dated from 1281. More spectacularly, the thick chalky whitewash on the walls was removed, to reveal the most sensational set of murals in any church on Gotland (there are a hundred churches on this island.) Many generations of Hejdeby people knew the paintings were there. They had caught a glimpse of them, through the veil of whitewash, when the sun was strong enough to x-ray the paint, to render it diaphanous. They were uncovered, after five hundred years in hiding, sleeping like the princess in the fairytale. Now they are there.
The church is very simple. The paintings are light, not heavy handed as later ecclesiastical paintings in other parts of the world can be. Folk art. The design of the church – like all the Gotland churches – is symmetrical, pleasing. The paintings are rather childish, like the art we call naïve.
You feel a sense of mystery in this church. It’s a small achievement, to have figured out how to get to it, to have reached it on a bicycle. You don’t feel a direct link to the generations that have sat here, to the people who built and painted the church in the thirteenth century - even before Chaucer was born, for instance. When you were young, and could feel hunger, you felt, or imagined, such nebulous connections. Now you try to regain those feelings but they elude you. Sensitivity diminishes. Nevertheless you feel something for which you have no adequate words, as you sit on the old painted pew in the dim, silent, clean, painted church. Appreciation. Gratitude. Delight that such a building, such a church, exists, sitting our here in the middle of the summer fields, preserved intact since 1281, in spite of the battles, the reformation, the tribulations, the economic upheavals, of the centuries.
It’s awesome, that such places survive, that idiots didn’t knock them down. Of about a hundred medieval churches on Gotland, more than eighty survive and still function.
There was a sign saying ‘Prylbutik 300 metres.’ You cycle around but can’t find anything. It would be nice to sit here, in the sunshine, on the bench which has been thoughtfully placed close to the church, overlooking the cornfield, and eat a sandwich. (Later you realise that Pryllbutik means a sort of fleamarket, a junk shop; it probably opens only at weekends, when people like to root around and find old things.) Hejdeby seems to be nothing but a townland, containing the church, a farm or two, a house.
You cycle back to Visby, the walled medieval city, where there are supermarkets and restaurants.