Friday, 22 June 2018


It's Midsummer Day, and the Druidic faithful have already been up many hours doing their Stonehenge thing. Under a Canaletto sky and with a chilly northerly wind blowing, I drop down from the green behind Great Brington church onto the road to East Haddon. There'll be a lot of road walking today. In this sector of the county there are far fewer footpaths. Perhaps this is a result of ancient enclosures and the influence/habits of the old landed gentry, or maybe the villages are slightly more detached from each other geographically. Just past the railway bridge I try a diversion onto what will obviously be a very minor right of way - it doesn't have any logic to its use - and quickly wish I hadn't. The consequence is a long push through fully grown rapeseed where I can't even see my feet. Then the waymarkings disappear near a copse and I find myself on a track leading back to the road, so I give up on being alternative. I push on up the hill to cross the old Rugby turnpike, and puff into East Haddon, thigh muscles complaining.

And there a lovely surprise awaits me in the form of the Haddonstone Show Garden. We commissioned Haddonstone for a wrought iron gate a few years ago, the better to keep out potential burglars, but I had no idea about the extent of their other garden work. They make moulded stone artefacts and statuary of all sorts, and display their wares in the beautiful gardens they've made either side of the lane beside the Primary School. This is such a clever combination of commercial purpose with public benefit. I chat with Nita who sits at their reception desk, and of course she knows Weston Favell well because of friends and family living nearby. She knows Bishop John too. She lives in Spratton where our former curate Allison was recently installed as Vicar.

                                                    A bit of Roman at Haddonstone

East Haddon was the birthplace of a significant person in the history of British pop and rock music but the significance is quirky. Long John Baldry was a nearly man of sixties' music. He was a very tall chap, hence the name, and the possessor of a voice whose qualities were rarely matched by the material he was given to sing. Most of his career was spent as a member of various bands who formed the mid-sixties' 'blues revival'. He worked with Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated for a while ( as did a long list of other famous musicians), and then formed his own group 'Bluesology', which at one time featured an up and coming session piano player/singer called Reg Dwight. Reg borrowed his future stage surname from Baldry, and his first name from sax player Elton Dean, another Bluesology alumnus. The rest is history. Long John was apparently born in East Haddon's Hall, perhaps in a tied cottage. His dad was a local policeman, and they re-located to Edgware not long after the birth. The rest of Long John's life wasn't altogether happy. And that's why they call it the blues!

I normally say the following kind of thing for readers with no great interest in matters of faith, but today is different. Health warning: if you're not into pop music heritage, you may want to skip the next bit (though perhaps opt back in for the next but one paragraph).

Like many kids of my age I was transfixed when I started to hear blues music. It was always there as an underlay to 'pop' and jazz of course - Duke Ellington/Elvis etc. etc.. There's a twin framework: a blues scale, which flattens the fifth note (the 'blue' note) in a way which can resemble a cry of pain when used in a certain way by voice or guitar or horn, and therefore mimics the prevailing mood of black slavery, and a notional twelve bar, three chord progression which has a beguiling simplicity and inevitability which I can't find anywhere else in music of any sort. This is matched by a lyrical 'rule of three', whereby a first line is repeated and then capped or explained by the third line. Theoretically each line will take four bars to sing (though in the hands of some exponents like John Lee Hooker it may take three and a half bars or as long as the singer likes). Hence the 'twelve bar blues' e.g. T-Bone Walker's: 'They call it stormy Monday, but Tuesday's twice as bad/Oh you know they call it stormy Monday, but Tuesday's twice as bad/Wednesday ain't much better, and Thursday makes me feel oh so sad.

Why did this musical form make such an impression on a little white middle class teenager from North West Kent? There's no sense to it. Some responses of the human spirit seem so immediate that twentieth century philosophers and scientists (like those of earlier ages) were inclined towards feeling that some human characteristics are innate rather than learned. Other wispier commentators will invoke mystery and magic.  Will we eventually discover somehow (I'm not sure how the experiments could be conducted!) that our DNA carries substantive memory from one generation to another? Or like concepts/phenomena in mathematics, for instance the Fibonacci series, are some things 'just there' in this universe, or potentially any universe?  Noam Chomsky thought that the subject-object relation was linguistically innate to humans. But then again, the separation between 'me' and 'you' is just a factual, out-there, given, isn't it? (Until Artificial Intelligence makes it not so). Can this work for chord sequences too?

I'm disappointed to find that St. Mary's church is locked. I walk down East Haddon's main street and at the house where a painted wall-sign still faintly records that it was once the Plough Inn and served Phipps' ale, I turn down the road to Ravensthorpe, whose name a reference book tells me has nothing to do with big black birds. The road drops and then climbs again. A gent strolls down towards me - recuperating from illness, and taking the walking cure I would guess by his gait and pallor. He flops onto a roadside bench. 'It's what it's there for, isn't it?' I agree.

In Ravensthorpe I amble round the rectangle of roads, trying to get a measure of the place. Unlike East Haddon it's not a village I'm familiar with. A grandad and two very small boys say hello nicely, and I come round on them again walking the opposite way as I enter St. Denys church. 'Why is that man going into the church? asks one of the children. 'To have a look at it', answers Grandad.

Ravensthorpe is one of the many churches in the Uplands Benefice, which has eight parishes in all, two of whose buildings are dedicated to St. Denys, who you'll remember is the patron saint of France. I think this is up for review next year, don't you? Not the sort of nonsense up with which we should put in post-Brexit Britain. Let all churches be henceforth ascribed to St. George or St. Arthur. Not canonised, you say? Well, why let such a minor namby-pamby consideration get in the way of patriotic C. of E. duty. What do we keep an Established Church for? (N.B. to the casual reader. This is me trying out a little irony for size!)

Like many churches these days the Uplands Benfice has an excellent website (tho' not bang up-to-date) with a clear statement of the Christian faith allied to a welcome for all. Inside St. Denys it's unusually hard to find something which will decode the building for me, but eventually I find a pamphlet under a pew at the back. A very tidy mind has been at work! St. Denys is literally broad, with two wide side aisles. There's a one-manual Victorian-looking pipe organ, which it seems will soon be replaced with a new digital job and I spy an ubiquitous Clavinova, so there must be a musician at work. From the modern plastic chairs set on a south-side dais I deduce there may be a Sunday School. Either that or the choir has been decamped from its stalls to provide encouraging welly to the congregational singing with a sideways blast. The Uplands Benefice defines a Christian as someone in a personal relationship with Jesus. There are many other Uplands churches to visit so I must remember to come back to this frequently expressed idea another time: it bears a bit of deconstruction.

The pub is nobbut a step away, but my lunchtime GB is a slightly weird experience. The bar is dominated by a random group of (mostly) oldies. I can't work out what the occasion is, and at first I assume there must be a two o'clock funeral and they're getting in a celebratory drink beforehand. But the dress code is too varied: some suits for sure, but also a bow tie, an incongruous bowls' player's flat white cap, and what's this? - a lot of tartan ties on the men denoting some kind of club membership, although there's not a Scottish accent to be heard. I hear mention of an Alvis, and cricket. Inspection of the car park gives nothing away. It remains a mystery, but their demeanour conveys a sort of nineteen-seventies vibe, like watching an early episode of 'The Good Life' or 'Yes, Minister'. The gents' loo rather reinforces the timewarp feeling. The walls are adorned with topless and pneumatic ladies water-skiing or emerging onto beaches, Ursula Andress-style. I didn't think pubs went in for that sort of thing anymore, but apparently they do in Ravensthorpe. It's The Chequers by the way, if that's your bag.  Fine cuisine is the claim.

Just down the road is an emporium for used, quality cars. An ancient Arthur Daley V8 Jag will cost you £5k (but may fall apart after a few miles, in my humble opinion). A handsome nearly-new Bentley in bright blue will set you back  £106k. Yes, that's right, one hundred and six thousand smackers. Who buys these things? Any Russians living in Ravensthorpe?

It's a gorgeous day, and the walk along the undulating road to Teeton is very jolly with expansive views of green and sunny countryside to my right. On the other side is Ravensthorpe's reservoir, sparkling and blue, and we hope, clean. Teeton has no church. There used to be a Chapel of Ease in the late medieval period and the priest would pop along from Ravensthorpe to administer the sacraments once a week. I'm still musing on St. Denys. St. Paul, on the other hand, seldom gets a dedication, at least round here, unless in tandem with St. Peter. We don't love Paul very much, do we, considering how much of the New Testament is down to him? Stern and forbidding, exhortatory and judgmental, he was short on jokes ( name one!) and perhaps even on personal warmth. But then judging someone's personality on their writing may not always be fair, thinks this blogger...

I'm looking forward to seeing the church at Holdenby (pronounced 'Holmby' - there's posh for you!) Hall, now redundant, but according to the website, open. The original Hall was the creation of Sir Christopher Hatton, who allegedly wouldn't stay a night in it until Good Queen Bess had done so. It was a vast mansion, a so-called 'Prodigy' like Audley End, but it was pulled down after the Restoration, and the current version is only an eighth the size. Did it ever recover from its role in the regicide, when Cornet Joyce turned up at the door to arrest the lightly incarcerated King Charles and lead him away to trial and execution?

For the second time today I'm disappointed, and All Saints church too is locked. I could call the number on the Holdenby website, but either someone would have to come and let me in, or I'd have to walk back to one of the estate cottages a third of a mile away, so I let it go, and walk on down the hill and across the plain, thinking of something someone said recently...that many people come to church just to take communion, nothing more. This is at the opposite end of the scale to a 'personal relationship with Jesus'. It's a holy, worshipful  but perhaps superstitious habit, almost a right without a responsibility, whereas I would characterise the eucharist as at its most basic a privilege, an opportunity for confession and absolution, a wish to incorporate with, identify with, the Body of Christ stretching back through time, and in future generations, a chance to be one at least now with the God who made me, and perhaps will continue to hold me into eternity. But, just as the Blues are profoundly simple, so is the act of taking bread and wine. Is that just a start then, or the Whole Thing?

I struggle up the hill along the Althorp wall back towards the Audi. A black car, tinted windows, steams up the road past me. Mistaking the sweatshirt tied round my waist for a skirt, he gives the motorist's equivalent of a wolf-whistle, tooting his horn. Should have gone to Specsavers!

Twenty metres from the car-park, I trip on a kerbside and for the second time in three outings end up with a dramatically bloodied knee. That'll be Specsavers for me too, then.

Jars on the Bar:  19 km, mostly by road. 6 hrs. 18 deg C. Unbroken sun. Wind northerly, veering westerly later, gusting 25 mph at times. 6 stiles. 5 gates. 2 bridges. Pollen count:  very high - this week the highest for ten years, or so they reckon. Various birds of prey: two pairs of kites high and circling: one buzzard low and intent on powerful wings. One squirrel.

The fantasy faith -
The stuff to do with the imagination;
The internal religious psycho-drama;
The doing of liturgy;
The theological maybe this and maybe that;
The parading around in public -
All this is so easy;
So dangerously attractive.

But that cold dose of reality;
The loving;
The forgiving;
This I find so hard.
Help me by your grace
To make a better fist of it.

Monday, 18 June 2018


There are oh so many reasons why I never made it as a rock n'roll star ( 'Can't help about the state I'm in/ Can't sing, I ain't pretty and my legs are thin' : Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac 'Oh Well' 1969)
but some way down the long list is an absolute inability to remember lines or lyrics. Just about the only one which has ever really stuck over the decades is Edward Thomas' poem 'Adlestrop', learned at the earnest behest of English teacher Mr. Steve Woodley thousands of years ago: 'Yes, I remember Adlestrop - / The name, because one afternoon/ Of heat the express train drew up there/ Unwontedly. It was late June/ The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat/ No one left and no one came/ On the bare platform. What I saw/ Was Adlestrop. Only the name.'

In its simple elegance and unspoken foreshadowing of the Great War, it's been a pretty good lifelong companion. Anyway, as I set out from Ashby St. Ledgers, it's that sort of Adlestrop day, oppressively humid and quiet; something waiting to happen. Today I'm learning about pilgrimage to the max what I suppose is always a possibility in solo walking, which is that sometimes one has to forget about enjoying oneself and grit the teeth both physically and mentally. Despite the fact that the farmer's done his best with the field paths, I'm already feeling weary under the sun by the time I reach Welton although in slight mitigation it's hard pushing through the waist-high undergrowth where the rapeseed has drooped over the cut right of way.

I'm in that state the Greeks called 'aporia': an existential perplexity which defies resolution, and before you shout 'oh for heaven's sake just get over it', don't tell me you've never been there. Don't understand Brexit. Don't understand the Americans. Don't understand God and therefore not a ghost of understanding the Church of England. Don't understand People. Don't understand, most of all, don't understand Me. And if one's lucky, the rhythm of the walk rehearses and rehearses the cycle of puzzlement, slowly untangling it. Socrates famously said that he was the wisest of men because he was aware he knew nothing. Perhaps his 'method', which got a surprising outing in a recent episode of Sky Living's Madam Secretary ( for the uninitiated, a 'West Wing Lite' with occasional flashes of originality amid frequent thematic plagiarism) whereby Socrates claimed to be a midwife to the truth by relentless questioning, was simply just relentless questioning from a place of angst and aporia. Of course I'm tempted to say that if this doesn't also represent your state of mind as you read this, you're delusional, given 2018's politics. Yet, as I was driving to Ashby today, there were so many people phoning in to Five Live expressing their unshakeable green-ink conviction that immediate cliff-edge Brexit must be enacted NOW. How nice to be so certain. Not. All that and dog poo.

Inside St. Martin's Welton it's cool, and there's a table where I can de-stress and eat a sandwich ( not enough carbs?) There's even a box of tissues with which to wipe my Coronation Chicken mouth. Beside me there's the handsome case of St. Martin's two manual organ, and pictures of the church's patron saint. The organ began its life in Suffolk's Hengrave Hall, and was gifted to the church for the coronation of the Queen by a local benefactor, so my choice of sandwich turns out to be very appropriate, As I leave I buy a copy of Douglas Feaver's commentary on the Collects, a couple of slightly dog-eared copies of which are lying among other random printed matter at the back of the church. Douglas Feaver was the Bishop of Peterborough who confirmed me in the early eighties. I once came across him in full episcopal gear, cope and mitre, playing honky tonk piano to himself in the music room at the School for Girls in Northampton, and retreated on tiptoe rather than interrupt his reverie. He was a very eccentric, sometimes rather rude man, and I was rather more in awe of bishops back then than I am now.

There are only a score or so regulars in the congregation at St. Martin's. Nat White is their (relatively) new vicar. Her predecessor Sarah Brown said the following in a recent annual church report. It puts the dilemma of many parishes very well.

                  'I believe that we are balanced on the line between terminal decline (one member of the congregation at a time), and the opportunity to grow the church and safeguard the future of Christian mission in Welton by developing new congregations... (and here Sarah makes reference to new housing projects locally)
                    ...the challenge is to take these opportunities while properly taking care of the people and traditions that we already have. Time will tell what compromises and changes will have to be made and what we should hold fast to...
                    ...If the choice is 'As long as it sees me out without changing' then a loving management of decline will be the appropriate model of ministry. If there exists a passion for the long term future of Christ's church then the model of ministry will be energetic, riskier, outgoing and missionary, but there will be costs associated.'

Sarah is now Canon Missioner at the Cathedral. But is it simply a matter of A or B? And is what Sarah says code for 'Move over Dadd-i-o, and make way for the hip cats...'?

Welton is a village of springs, and the church is perched on the edge of a little hill looking out over the valley, so that the view from the road makes the undulations on the far side look more impressive than they actually are. I cross some fields past a donkey sanctuary towards the Braunston arm of the Grand Union Canal, and promptly have a brain-fade, turning right rather than left along the towpath. I only realise my mistake when I'm nearly back in Daventry because suddenly there's a main road where no main road should be. I turn on my heel, hold my head high, and saunter nonchalantly back past bargees and tramps, wishing one and all a happy summer's day and pretending this was exactly what I'd intended for my day's rambling entertainment.

There are a number of pleasures to be enjoyed on the way back to Norton Junction where the canal offers the northward bound traveller two options - should she steer for Leicester or Braunston? A massive heron takes gracefully to the air and flaps away above me, head and beak jutting, gradually descending to another fishing pitch two hundred metres away. A duck stands by a sluice watching her clutch of mini-ducklings make their first moves towards independence. I chide her for being a bad mother and then am unexpectedly moved that she's only doing what we all do as responsible parents, hearts in mouths, allowing our children risk and uncertainty. A narrow boat flying the Cornish flag chugs by, and I offer the opinion that they're a long way from Lostwithiel, which gets a smile. By Buckby top lock there's a boaty hiatus. (It sometimes seems off-puttingly hard work getting a boat through the locks!) A country lady is limping around, eliciting sympathy. 'Oi slipped back there and went on moi arse' she complains to another waiting crew, 'And now moi knee's bust. So that's moi lot for the day!' 'Easily done' replies the other party, winching, shoving and pulling, sweat dripping.

Yet again I cross Watling Street and the railway and the motorway, and by fields arrive in the housing estate on the edge of Long Buckby where I need Googlemap's assistance to find the centre of this sprawling townage ( i.e. L.B. is halfway between a  village and a town!) So long is Long Buckby that nearly four thousand people live here, but its shoe-making and railway heyday is of course long since done and dusted. It was once the home of Stanley Unwin, who made a single verbal gag into a complete career, and acknowledged how lucky he was to do so. The Victorian red-brick buildings of the shoe era crowd impressively around the townside view of St. Lawrence's church, whose interior was restored by George Gilbert Scott in 1862 but which I can't see because the church is double locked, reinforcing just how urban is this place. So I sit and look at the sheep in the fields behind the churchyard, and think of the characters who might have sought refuge here from the drudgery of factory or marshalling yard, or who might have lived in picturesque Nuns Lane, which runs up one side of St. Lawrence's in a fashion suggestive of a medieval past.

As I walk out to the west, a green Triumph Herald convertible, hood down, yorrocks into town. A seventy-something lady is driving. Her be-capped gentlemen companions all look jolly pleased with themselves. The scene is redolent of a sixties' Punch cartoon. Well, the weather's shifted. It's now a breezy afternoon, so why not? Less Adlestrop, more the top of the Malverns. Are they churchgoers, I wonder. If not, what would attract them inside?

A road-avoiding bridle path takes me north and then west again towards Watford. No, no, not that Watford, silly-billies, beyond which culture is alleged to vanish in a cloud of soot and squashed vowels. This is Watford of the famous Gap, where the motorway service station was once the late-night haunt of pop stars, models and the nouveau riche crowd making large with quiffs and starched petticoats back when the two-tone ice-cream coloured Ford Zodiac and Vauxhall Cresta were King and Queen. But to get to the land of these delights I first have to negotiate countryside obstacles I shouldn't have to deal with. First of all comes the crossing of the railway out of Northampton towards Rugby. It's not immediately clear what to expect from the O.S. but what one has to do is locate the hidden gap in the undergrowth which carries the path up a ramp in a copse where once there must have been a bridge over the permanent way. But the bridge is long gone, so the walker drops level with the track to 'Stop, Look and Listen', before venturing out across the welded rail and gravel - except that some of the metal inserts designed to help him do this are missing. 'Could you just tweet for me, Donald?  Thanks.  'Not Good!!! @ NetworkRail'

Then come sweary moments, courtesy of a farmer who hasn't time for his side of the country code bargain...


St. Peter and St. Paul's Watford is just an average country church, you'd think. Not big, but not small either. And inside there's nothing very posh about the place. Without being rude, you'd have to say, it's not particularly well-appointed, though the pews look nice and shiny. The altar's covered in plastic, so there's either an ongoing problem with birds or bats, or restoration work's going on. Which it may well be. Over the last five or six years £224k has been spent, just to keep the church safe and upright. There've been grants from public bodies of course, but I expect the villagers have worked pretty hard themselves to keep intact the building which more than any other defines the heart of their community. I refer you back to Sarah Brown's challenge, and I'm in perplexity again, not knowing how to reconcile the competing goods of national culture and being an ambassador for the Gospel. If they are competing...

The website for SS. Peter and Paul teases us. There's probably a crypt under the chancel, but no one knows exactly where. Don't we all love a secret passage!

Goals in the net: 22 km. 7 hrs. 23 stiles. 21 gates. 9 bridges. 3 churches, one closed. 21 deg. C. Variable cloud. One rabbit. One heron. One buzzard. Two annoying farmers ( I didn't mention the second one, but he seems unilaterally to have diverted the Jurassic Way between Watford and Ashby, constructing elaborate schemes of electrified fences and possibly removing some waymarks supposedly in the interests of public health and safety because of his admittedly very large herd of cattle. One for the Council this, I think. And possibly the CPRE.)

I'm not clever enough to work this out.
I see there must be a link
Between Free Will
And Not Knowing What To Do,
But sometimes I could wish
You'd made things easier for us.
I confess.
Sometimes I just do bad things
And then I'm sorry,
And try hard not to do them again.
Other times...
I just don't have a clue
So either I 'hit and hope'
Or I hunker down
With my head in my hands.
Help us, Lord.
Give us a sign.
Show us what to do,
Even if it gives us more opportunities
To disobey you.


Friday, 25 May 2018

Tumbling Dice

I like most things about France. But not all.

In Brockhall the birds are singing merrily in every tree and bush. Apparently not so on the far side of the Channel. A recent report expresses anxiety that there are far fewer trills and tweets in Tarbes or Troyes than once was the case. I'm not surprised. The citoyens will have shot them all.

No signs of trigger-happy bird-hunters as I walk up through the pretty fields towards Little Brington. This has been the best May I can remember...but I've probably said that in many previous years. Has it been God's consolation goal after such a lousy second half to the winter? Or will we suffer payback for this month's benignly beautiful weather in midsummer's return match? OK.  Enough strained football references already. Car roofs glint up on the low ridge which carries the sometime minor Roman road from Duston towards Bannaventa by Watling Street, where St. Patrick may have spent his youth (emphasis on the word may). A rather morose dog-walker passes me. 'It's getting hotter..' he intones, although I can't tell you whether this is a global assessment , or just a comment on the day's meterorology.

I take the small lane into Little Brington before doubling back on myself to visit the single spire which comprises the remains of St. John's, the village church. Crossing the road, I somehow manage to trip on a slightly raised piece of asphalt and, unbalanced by my rucksack, sprawl headlong into the roadside gravel, uttering ungodly words as I go. Raising myself painfully from the prone position my initial, stupid reaction is to look around nervously, anxious lest someone should have witnessed my undignified tumble from grace. They didn't. But my knees are as bloodied as they often used to be when I was a schoolboy, and so I spend ten minutes with water, tissues and Savlon cleaning up and staunching the trickle of blood. It spoils my appreciation of St. John's just a bit. The church was built in the mid-nineteenth century as a Chapel of Ease by the 4th Earl Spencer to be a memorial for his wife. Her family name was Poyntz. She now gets a substitute commemoration by way of having a road named after her (well more a cul-de-sac than a road) on the far side of the Spencer land in Dallington, Northampton. The rest of St. John's was demolished in 1947, but the spire survived as a landmark for the RAF, or so it's said, and the villagers of Nobottle and Little Brington have to make do, as they did in former times, with traipsing across to the mother church at Great Brington. Only now they go by car.

Only rarely in Northamptonshire is one so aware of the influence of the old aristocracy. Down the lane back into the village, I pass the legend over the door of a restored farmhouse: 'The Lord giveth; the Lord taketh away...' - a reference to some fall in fortunes or family loss suffered by Lawrence Washington (not the most famous one) who may have been acting as land agent for the Spencers in the early seventeenth century. And just round the corner, I briefly amble down Carriage Drive past a monitory Althorp Estate notice before climbing a stile into the Earl's fields. The sheer scale of ownership puts a different spin on the notion that Diana Spencer was a 'commoner'. Not in the sense that you and I are commoners, she wasn't, however much they traded in stories about her dropping in on the Brington post office to buy a pint of winegums when she was a mere slip of a lass!

Field paths take me down to the barely detectable settlement of Nobottle, which Wikipedia would have us believe is one of the 'smallest hamlets' in the country. I don't know how they know that. From there yet more well marked and worn paths carry my bruised legs across the expanses of Spencer territory to Harlestone, Lower and Upper, where I can enjoy again the villages' wonderful collection of thatched cottages. If there's a better set in the county, I haven't seen it. Once in Harlestone an undulating tarmac path carries me round the back of the houses and up to St. Andrew's church, crossing one of the Northampton Golf Club's fairways as I go. It's rather unusual to find a church and a golf course in such contiguity. Here one could preach a sermon, pronounce a benediction and be out on the first tee in five minutes or so. I think this should be mentioned when the benefice looks for an incumbent in about two years time. But do vicars go much for golf as their sport? I notice that membership at the Club runs at £1120 annually to play seven days a week, plus a joining fee of £500 - although you'd find it hard to get in at the moment: they're oversubscribed. Compare and contrast. I wonder how St. Andrew's finances are doing?

Back down in the village I chat to Stephen who's repairing stonework in one of the cottages. He was apprenticed as a dental technician in Northampton nearly fifty years ago but didn't enjoy it and transferred his skill into the jewellery trade before seeing a better living in masonry. After all, there'll always be a need to replace and maintain the wealth of stone from which the county's houses, churches and walls are built. Stephen is rightly proud of what he does, even down to using delicate tools which he's made for himself. He calls to my notice the variety of stone in the house he's working on, the darker, harder material, and the honey coloured, flakier stuff which may have come straight out of the ground just round the corner, beautiful but not long-lasting ( in terms of centuries). Stephen tells me about working in a church at the Buckinghamshire Twyford: so much did he love the place, he ended up giving visitors guided tours in between cutting and filling, but he's an atheist he says, when I tell him about the blog. That's OK, I reply, there's lots of other stuff in among the holy bits. Which now includes a conversation with you, Stephen. I hope you approve!

                                                                    Harlestone thatch

Stephen wishes me good luck with my pilgrimage, and passing the Dovecote Laundry, I go up the hill to find the wall defending the Althorp Estate proper. I follow it along the lane until I reach the permitted view of the Big House through its railings. Looking further up the road I can see the tower of Great Brington church on the sharp edge of the hill ( a farm on the brink?), and recall the stories that when Charles I was imprisoned by Cromwell at Holdenby Hall, he was allowed to ride down a couple of miles to play bowls at Althorp, and to take communion in St. Mary's with the Spencers. A couple pass me, walking their pooches, and we swap a greeting. But then I see there's a green path which would make a preferable route up to the village, and so I turn and catch them up, and then have to explain my war wounds, still technicolour gory and dripping. They are solicitous for my welfare, which is nice.

I have affection for Great Brington because I was commissioned to write and record a couple of 'library' albums for John Gale who once owned a house there. Remarkably the earlier album, recorded in 1984, still brings in the occasional royalty. A reggae track, South West Two seems to have been used in an Australian soap, who knows why, and a pretty generic 50's rock n'roll instrumental, Teddy's Delight, also turns up from time to time on Romanian pay-per-view or Canadian Cable. It's a funny old business, music.

St. Mary's church is a place for reflection. At first I'm peeved to find that access to the Spencer Chapel is prevented - as you can see from the opposite picture. But then I look in the visitors' book and see that people who come to Great Brington church are interested - of course they are - in Lady Diana, and I suppose a small proportion of those folk may be crazies who'll think she's buried there, and may hold all kinds of weird conspiracy theories about the government and Dodi Fayed and who knows what. So I suppose there's not much choice but to lock and alarm the Chapel. The rest of the church is open though, and a lovely place it is too. As well as thinking about those national tragedies, I'm remembering my uncle, Bernard, who died aged 86 last Sunday morning, the youngest and last of five brothers. He and Joyce had two daughters, Sue and Diane, who between them and their husbands Robin and Chris produced half a quiver of grandchildren. They will all be missing him greatly right now. In a quirk of birth and death only my stepmum and my Aunt Margery still bear the name Cross in that older generation (the joke among my dad and Bernard's teachers long ago was 'We all have our little Cross to bear...' ). I'm the only one to do so in the following generation, and only our son Matt in the one after that. The study of history leads me not to be greatly worried about such a thing (as if I could do anything about it!): families come and go; names are absorbed into the cosmos but the DNA line goes on. I'm far more anxious that a properly conservative view of society - 'a little change in a time of change' - continues to be allied to kindliness and inclusivity in a properly socialist British, Christian tradition. It's a tradition which arguably a lot of people broadly agree with (given discussion about the Christian bit, and the fact that some will choke on the word 'socialist') but it's a third way which is hard to articulate in a formal, PR-friendly soundbyte, and it's going, going, nearly gone. It was an intangible about British life which New Labour reified for a short while and has now become wispy and unreachable again. Tony Blair was at least right in identifying the death of Diana as a watershed. Coincidentally we were all in the process of losing something much larger at the same time. Kingdoms rise...and they fall. I think ours may have had it, and I mourn that too.

 As I walk from Great Brington along the narrow lane to Whilton and back to Brockhall, the cloud cover disappears, and I'm walking into the afternoon sun. Like the man said: 'It's getting hotter.' Or darker. Please supply your own weather metaphor.

                                                                                                 Whilton church plus guardian

Hitches on the britches:  22 km. 7 hrs. 23 deg C. Little breeze. Distinctly sultry around lunchtime. One deer: bouncing dangerously across Watling Street in front of the car. One rabbit: they're having a bad year or two with viruses. Two scarred knees. One poorly finger. (Have I milked this enough for now?) Eight stiles. Twenty-seven gates. One bridge.

This week
The suggestion was made
That politicians should be more joyful.
But I confess
That having read the News assiduously
I too am more than averagely
Eeyore right now.

Lord, run that idea of Free Will past me again?
How do we
How do you
allow people to make their mistakes
And therefore be truly human
While harming themselves
And the world in which we all live
And which you made?
When wilt Thou save the people?
Oh God of mercy, when?


p.s. Two reports to consider this week.

1) The National Housing Association. Wants to build 4 million homes in the UK by 2030. So do the math, people. How much land would this take, if you factor in the necessary infrastructure? You wanna live in a country like that?

2) The Church of England: 'Setting God's people free'. It's about empowering the laity, without disempowering the clergy. Or is it? How can a church reconcile having a bureaucracy? Particularly when in our case it's tied to the State?

More about both in due course perhaps. 'Oh no!' I hear you cry. 'Give us a break...'  And God said: 'This is a break...'

Monday, 14 May 2018

Worn out Road

The Oxford Canal north of Braunston winds its way towards Rugby through emerald fields. The towpath is narrow and overhung. Drifts of cow parsley brush against me as I walk. Moorhens scatter. Duck parents shepherd their new ducklings into the safety of the middle water. A few random geese offer a rustic fanfare. Cattle are much in evidence all around, sight, sound and smell. And where the cattle are, there are flies, lots of them even on this cool bright morning. The canal is quite busy, as perhaps you'd expect so close to a major boating hub.  On a two mile stretch, fourteen narrow boats pass me, in each case driven by a bloke, usually of late middle years, usually bearded, usually with a leather Stetson covering a bald patch. Below decks the women are cleaning and cooking. One or two are out front, soaking up the rays. One or two are literally Standing By Their Man, peering into the distance for signs of the Spanish Navy. I'm happy to report that most crews swap jolly hellos with me. But a couple pass by without a word exchanged, staring ahead unblinkingly, the ships of the damned. Maybe from their perspective I'm just making the place untidy.

The scene is so very pastoral, it's easy to forget the industrial strategy which brought the Oxford Canal into being. Completed in 1790, it carried coal from the colliery at Bedworth to where there wasn't any. The junction with the Grand Union, just to the west of Braunston, soon afterwards offered the possibility of cargo reaching London. Amazingly, the last mule-powered boat was still going towards the end of the nineteen-fifties, at which point the Oxford's commercial life had ended. Barbara Castle saved it from being filled in, as pride in our industrial heritage began to blossom and the leisure possibilities afforded by the waterways gained recognition.

I pass Willoughby Wharf, flirting with Warwickshire, and after the large new marina at Dunchurch Pools, turn east up a fieldpath towards Barby. The parish is actually 'Barby with Onley', and the Parish Council is 'Barby and Onley', but Onley is yet another vanished, cleared village, the name now chiefly commemorated in the prison which sits out of sight beyond the trees which skirt the canal. Formerly it was a Young Offenders Institution, with a reputation for violence between inmates and towards staff. Now graded Cat. C, it claims to concentrate on rehabilitating adult prisoners, very often from London. But a 2016 Inspectors' report again highlighted problems with violence and the taking of psycho-active substances. Perhaps because of staff shortages, prisoners were missing out on training too. It's strange to be in the fresh air, enjoying all the English countryside has to give, knowing such complications are the daily stuff of life just a few fields away. More positively, also in 2016, the prison became a member of the Community of the Cross of Nails, an organisation which works for healing and reconciliation, and which has its origins in the post-war rebirth of Coventry Cathedral. The Christians are in there, doing what they can.

At the top of the hill I come to a farm track with the M45 away to my left in the valley. This is a motorway from the very beginnings of the system in the late 50s and early 60s. Like the similarly two-lanes-a-side M50 out near Ross-on-Wye, it remains a pleasure to drive, very straight and little trafficked. I've always imagined these were roads built partly with military needs in mind at the height of the Cold War. Either that or the predictions of traffic flow were way out. Up on the little bumpy track, I'm passed twice by Postwoman Pat (no sign of any cat, black and white, Persian or tabby) bringing the day's mailshots and bills to the farm. What a little marvel this service remains, no doubt lined up for replacement by drone delivery any day soon. At which point Jess will receive a redundancy notice as will her mistress, their distinctive red van will be cannibalised for spare parts, and every Greendale will be the poorer for it.

               Why does my camera distort the verticals? There is no leaning tower in Barby.

Nigel Fry, who I met by  accident a few walks ago in Daventry's Courtyard Café, is the priest at St. Mary's, Barby. There's a long list of people I could phone to obtain access to the church, but life's too short, and today's walk is slightly longer than average, so I content myself with sitting on a bench there and eating a M&S sandwich. Googling the village to see what I'm missing, I find Wikipedia hasn't a lot to say about St. Mary's, although there's a reference to a Saxon window. So for a moment I'm tempted to file this under 'not of especial interest'. But whoa, hang on there old timer, this is still a thousand years of history we're talking here. The shades of forty generations of Barby ancestors are dancing around my chicken and sweetcorn. Let's not give in to cultural fatigue quite so quickly!

Barby is twinned with the village of Vulaines-sur-Seine. I wonder if the Vulaignots and the Barbies (?!) still have anything to do with each other - twinning is less fashionable these days (an early indicator of disenchantment with the European idea?) I hope they do. Personally I think twinning is still a Good Idea. I'm charmed to see that the first baby buggy was conceived by Mr. Maclaren in 1965 Barby to the benefit of parents ever since. The alliterative potential of Barby, baby and buggy amuse me.

I'm less amused by what happens in a field between Barby and Kilsby, the other half of Nigel Fry's patch. About four hundred metres away I see a herd of young heifers, and spot that my onward diagonal path takes me nearer them than I altogether fancy. So ignoring Pythagoras' wisdom, I take the line of least resistance but maximum distance around the field edges.

(To digress for a moment, have you picked up on the new linguistic tic, which is to do what I've just done and elevate subordinate result clauses beginning 'So...' into complete sentences?  As in: Q. What are you going to do between school and university, Jason? A. So...I'm gonna spend a bit of time in Vegas before, like, taking six months out to find myself in Vietnam and Australia...

Rather as with water going round the plughole the opposite way in the southern hemisphere, of course Jason will find this changes once he/she reaches Wollamboola or Cork Hat because the Standard Young Australian, let's call him Jarrod, will reply in similar circumstances: A. Aw, look...I'm gonna spend a bit of time in Vegas before, like, taking six months to find myself in Vietnam and Earls Court.)

Back to the heifers. The bloomin' animals are eyeing me up. I can hear them whispering to each other, Well, we're not going to let him get away with that, are we lads? at just the moment I put a foot down a rut filled with putrid country muck, soaking my right foot and lower leg. I quicken my pace towards a gap in the hedge. Putting on greater speed than I could ever manage, they find the gap no obstacle at all. There are lots of them and they clearly have all kinds of juvenile bovine fun in mind. I scamper for a gate and hurl myself over it. They stand the opposite side, reproachfully: Spoilsport! We only wanted to play!

Kilsby is a workaday village, the more modern of its houses crowding up to the back of St. Faith's church. The George pub serves me a Fentiman's GB with a smile, I spend a few minutes listening to a conversation one of whose participants has clearly been working on the Yorkshire accent adopted by Sir Derek Jacobi in Last Tango in Halifax, and then drop in on St. Faith's for a quick tootle on their one-manual organ. I also spend a few minutes thinking and praying for Nigel and his congregation, who've just met a substantial bill for repairs to their tower, but are finding the yearly Parish Share hard work ( £6.5k short last year). As their leaflet says, 'How odd would our village feel without St. Faith's at its heart?

Kilsby is a traveller's landmark, and always has been, a crossroads for drovers to meet and share an ale, the locus of a 1.6 mile railway tunnel, shielding the village from the worst of the West Coast main line's noise, and the beginning of the A361's long trek down to north west Devon's Ilfracombe! It's the longest three digit road in the land.

I put my head down, grit my teeth and stride out across the fields. Today's walk was to a degree a venture in faith, and my body's feeling the stress just now. Since Glandular Fever eight (!) years ago, I experience occasional bouts of post-viral fatigue, and this week it's been on me again, making nights uncomfortable and days a bit out of focus. How it interacts with food and exercise, health maintaining drugs, alcohol and painkillers is all rather mysterious. Is the fact that I can now achieve less than I did a decade ago to do with increasing age or the fatigue? The general counsel seems to be that moderate exercise helps rather than hinders, but have I taken on more than I should today?

Increasing numbers of people are vocal about their experience of 'fatigue'. The inclination among the fit and well is sometimes in the direction of 'Get a grip...' which of course is what those who suffer from fatigue would very often wish to do. I think people's bad experiences in employment...the requirements to meet targets, even and particularly in the caring professions including teaching and the sometimes a factor. And so maybe is our 24/7 exposure to the media, and particularly social media. Perhaps diet and other lifestyle choices can be causative. Fatigue is boring, both for those who live with it, and those who care for them or encounter them. Moving away from the strictly pathological, do we all have shorter attention spans than previous generations? Do we all tire more quickly? And if so why? And how does fatigue relate to concepts such as 'routine', and in a church context... 'liturgy'? Yup, no typo. Liturgy not lethargy.

Ashby St. Ledgers is one of my favourite places in the whole world. The long village has beautiful vernacular building, not all of it as old as at first seems (check out the Lutyens workers' cottages opposite the excellent pub.) The fields are lush and sheep-filled. The pluperfect Manor House (also restored by Lutyens) was the scene of the Catesby/Fawkes Gunpowder conspiracy, hatched in the half-timbered gatehouse next to the church, and the church itself is an ecclesiastical mini-marvel, filled with every kind of ancient decoration and ornament. It's dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Leogedarius. He and Kilsby's St. Faith were both French, and both met with grisly deaths in the 7th and 4th centuries respectively, thus gaining their sainthoods.

Nat White, the new incumbent at Braunston, also has Ashby St. Ledgers in her care. My route back to Braunston takes me along what must have been the old lane from the one to the other. The track is obvious at the Braunston end, but is a fieldpath towards Ashby. As at Staverton, it's hard now to see why the old road was never developed between the two - perhaps some land dispute prevented it. Anyway, Nat has these two very different but equally lovely places to look after. Apart from a lack of available clergy, there's no reason for yoking them together. I don't know if they are already a single benefice or whether there's the intention to make them into one, but it would make no sense. (The same isn't true in Barby and Kilsby, the latter having once probably been a daughter church of the former.) This is something to come back to in other contexts...

Runs on the board: 22km. 6.5 hrs. 17 deg. C. a breeze, slightly cool at times, dying later. 28 stiles. 23 gates 11 bridges. Blossom. Birdsong (my how happy the birds have been since Spring finally came!) The buzzing of innumerable bees.

                                                                  Ashby St. Ledgers

We thank you for the renewal you brought the children of Israel
With the coming of Jesus.
We thank you for the renewal you brought to his disciples
By the gift of the Holy Spirit.
We thank you for the renewal we receive daily
In prayer and contemplation,
In the love of family and friends,
In the experience of your lovely Creation.

Monday, 7 May 2018


From the Grand Junction Canal near Weedon, a track winds down through a field to Watling Street. I've just crossed the 'West Coast' railway line. For the rest of today's walk I'm very often within sight or sound of these three north-south arterial routes. When King Alfred made peace with and then converted his Viking enemy Guthrum in the late 800s, Watling Street north of the Ouse became the boundary between the Saxons and Danelaw. Was it used as a demilitarised zone by both societies? Or was it a porous border of as much significance and danger as say, that between Northern Ireland and the Republic in the nineteen-seventies?

Borders are Big News. The next two years will tell us how we're going to cope with a changed relationship to Europe. For the life of me, I can't see how the different political positions within the UK on this matter can he resolved harmoniously here or the other side of the Irish Sea. Nor do I see how the structural integrity of the UK can be maintained. Perhaps you can. I'm convinced David Cameron's decisions will be regarded with incredulity by future historians, but that's no comfort. It isn't the first and it won't be the last time a nation's wellbeing has been sacrificed to an interest group's well-being. If you disagree, please stay with me! We may not be at odds about everything. This isn't The Guardian...

The soil on the far side of Watling Street is noticeably sandy. All Saints, Flore dominates the higher ground the far side of the little Nene bridge. The village has a reputation for fertility - crop-wise. I can't speak for the sperm counts of its inhabitants.

If one knows that at least some Romans thought well enough of the place to build a villa here (what's not to like - just off the main road and with a plentiful supply of water?) then you'll have guessed the possible 'floral' derivation of its name. But in Saxon 'flor' means 'floor' (which itself is an alternative ancient spelling for the settlement) and so this could refer to knowledge of the villa's now re-buried tessellated pavement, or the threshing floor which received the fields' abundant harvests.

The church is shut. I sit on a sun-warmed bench and watch a lady tend a grave near the field edge. All Saints' ochre sandstone is particularly weathered. The details of a gargoyle over the south porch and a Norman arch by the chancel are softened and fading with age. As I walk up through Flore's streets, I see the drive to a house called 'Living Stones' and think of friend Maurice Walton, priest and architect, who with his wife Jill made one last home in the village here...but not at 'Living Stones'. This is a community house for the Jesus Army. As at Bugbrooke, I wonder how much contact there is between the Army and the folk at All Saints. Boundaries. Even in the Christian church. And becoming more rather than less marked with time it seems, contrary to my teenage expectations. Does it matter? I believe this. You believe that. Is it too post-modern to think that we can still love one another? See Angela Tilby on a related matter in a recent Church Times.

A lane follows the high ground to the north, and brings me to the by-pass described in the previous post ( 'Gongoozler'), which will perhaps form the future boundary of Northampton/Daventry. I'm surprised by how far advanced the work is. The road surface is laid, and even the white lines are marked. I'll try to be fair. For a few hundred yards I've just followed the road through Flore, and been impressed by the number and size of (mainly logistics) HGVs that rumble through the village, breaking up the road surface and doubtless representing a threat to any residents crossing e.g. from the church to the housing estate opposite.

But the logic of by-passes is that infilling will inevitably occur everywhere between the by-pass and what it's by-passing. Whoever you are, wherever you live, you'll be able to find an example. But let me show you with a few rather poor pictures what that means here:

So, all the land to the left will be given over to housing... (we're looking roughly south-west)...

And so will the land that you can see here...(the road from Northampton to Daventry is out of sight but in this direction... this is to the south-east...

And because the M1 lies beyond the trees in the right of this picture, itself forming a boundary, so will this...and here we're looking more or less north...

I don't expect they say this is what will happen. But in time it will...

Near the new by-pass I slip on a patch of mud, and spatter my legs with slurry. I hope it's not the smelly sort or I'll be persona non grata in any pubs or cafes I visit later.The path veers westwards through a spinney close to the M1, and at a ploughed field right beside the motorway there's a choice as to which margins I follow (the path originally went on the diagonal, but I'm in Merrills and I can see it's stickily wet in the middle). I opt for left and then right, but of course make the wrong choice, ending up in mud so sucky it threatens to pull the shoes from my feet. I zigzag through the tilth, trying to find dry land, hoping no one's watching. Sorry, Mr. Farmer. Footprints all over.

Metalled lanes take me above the motorway and on to the delectable hamlet of Brockhall, which don't you think sounds like a place in Wind in the Willows? And since brocc means badger in Saxon that's pretty much right. St. Peter and St. Paul's is an estate church, built no more than twenty yards from the Big House. It's no great surprise to find that it too is locked. Services here will only be occasional: it's in the same benefice as Flore. Going forward the road's gated at either end of a sheep pasture. Gated roads used to be a more common feature of Northamptonshire's landscape, but they've mostly disappeared now: the inconvenience to solo drivers was just too great. On this occasion I have the opportunity to open and close the gate at the far end for a passing motorist. I think she said thank you, though she didn't bother to open her 4x4 window if she did. Perhaps she assumed I was an estate retainer, paid to stand and serve, and she was merely shocked I didn't tip my cap.

Just beyond the crest are the lumps and bumps of the medieval settlement of Muscott, once moved and emptied, I expect, at the behest of some long gone Lord of the Manor. So distressing and inconvenient to have the peasants quite so close to one's nice shiny new Seat. By the wonders of modern science i.e. cell phone I talk to friend Richard Holder as I stroll through a farmyard and then back up and over the M1...the canal...the railway. Richard has written a good song and I shall try to find a piano part worthy of it. All we less-than-famous musicians are now doing what our more celebrated counterparts have been at for years, using our laptops to record together remotely. It's fun, creative, and makes us collectively more than we are individually. Potentially here then, boundary transcendence...

At Watling Street I find myself by the entrance to the Heart of the Shires Shopping Village with a sudden overwhelming urge for Earl Grey. Hey man, I like...I need my fix, ya dig. Ya gotta give me the stuff. Now.  Whatever it takes. Don't be cruel, man. Ya gotta help me... Inside the Village everything's red brick and lavender paintwork. The shoppers are, well, like me really, in their sixties and seventies with the occasional real OAP thrown in. And all, well, quite lavender. Unlike me. A moment of self-awareness intervenes. No one else is sporting ordure-spattered legs, nor do they look like tramps - these are Country Casuals of a different ilk. I try to forget my personal bohemian chic and sit in Darlington's café with as much dignity as I can muster. The chocolate and orange cake is to die for, but I decline the offered accompaniment of ice-cream. You see that old dosser we had in here today? Went for the Blood Orange Gateau bigtime, he did. It's not right you know. I mean...the smell! What I say is, if he can afford that, he can afford a decent pair of trousers. And what about them Big Issue blokes? They take their benefits and manage to run a Merc on the side. Well, that's what I've heard. They should bring back the Workhouses if you ask me...Well, good morning to you, Mr. Willetts. ('Two Brains' David Willetts has been at it again this week, blaming Old People for all the ills of society.)

Pubs are closing but cafes like this are certainly doing a roaring trade among the middle-class retired. However N.B. to the Church (and 'Two Brains' ). Do not imply, when requesting greater donations from elderly parishioners or taxpayers, that this year's suggested increase in giving will only be the price of a Starbuck's coffee per week. Not all pensioners can afford the café lifestyle. Many are still on the breadline, and they too should be made welcome in our pews. And in wider society too.

                       Modern Watling Street. The boundary with Danelaw (to your right!)

The road to Norton curves away expansively from Watling Street at the junction you see above. I talk on the 'bone to stepmum Jean about electricians and days out, occasionally stepping onto the verge to avoid the surprisingly frequent traffic. At tall-towered All Saints' church I meet assistant treasurer Patrick who welcomes me warmly. He's come to check that the church is open (it is!) We chat as we shove our way through the tight-fitting churchyard gate and then walk together up a short avenue of nicely pollarded trees. It's a lovely spring day, but I don't think it's just that which makes the atmosphere of this place so cheerful. Norton's pub is a good 'un too. It doubles as a chippie, and gets very good web reviews - one to remember, if we're out this way and fancy a bit of haddock.

The lane to Dodford takes me up hill and down dale past acres of munchable grass, glittering blue-green in the sun, to a long view from an airy plateau where various bits of WW2 detritus litter the fields, frustrating the efforts of successive farmers to destroy them. In one place slabs of concrete are piled on top of each other so as to resemble a Cornish/Breton menhir - and artistically/historically it kind of works in this elevated setting.

Down the hill, beyond the relics of the old branch line to Leamington, is a little ford whose stream leads me beguilingly into the village. Dodford has associations with travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, who yomped his way entertainingly around Europe in the middle of the twentieth century, disregarding the artificialities of political borders.

A reality check. The milk of human kindness was no more widely available a hundred years ago. Ask the Armenians. Ponder on the butchery of the Great War and the Holocaust. But thus far through life, while acknowledging the universality of sin, and frequently rehearsing for my own benefit Luther's formula 'Semper peccator, semper penitens, semper iustus', I've also believed that slowly, oh so slowly, humanity is inching towards an omega-point, that moral and spiritual progress is possible. These days I'm less sure. With the cyber-revolution has come more sharply defined differentiation, a greater tribalism, exploited by knowledgeable oligarchies for financial and political gain. We're happy with our boundaries, safe in our insulation, content only if our walls are high and excluding. There's an upside. The Christian message of sin and salvation, of our being in Christ neither Jew nor Greek, nor bond nor free, was never so relevant. I talk the talk. Am I walking it enough?

And finally, Esther. On my way into Weedon, I catch up with a young African woman (I know she's African and not Caribbean from the accent as she returns my hello). At her side is a prettily summer-dressed three year old who turns, hearing the tap of my stick on the pavement: she finds me hugely amusing. I suppose it's the mud. The woman has another baby in a sling, and she's pregnant. I can't ask, but I want to know: 'what's the story?' She will have crossed, will daily be crossing, borders to be here. But why Weedon?

                                                                 In Norton church

Ticks on the stick:  20 km. Just shy of six hours. 19 deg. C. Slight breeze. Mostly sunny. One stile. Eleven gates. Nine bridges. (Why do I rehearse these stats each time? Because I love the British idiosyncrasy of 'the stile'. And they give some crude indication of the kind of country I'm walking in and the strenuousness of the hike.) Four churches, only one of them open.

No prayer this time.
Sometimes the subjects are too large;
The matters too weighty.
Words fail to meet the requirement.
So I'm afraid you'll have to do the work,
If you wish.
T.S.Eliot said much the same
But infinitely more elegantly.

Saturday, 28 April 2018


Big Hill

Is everywhere the same as everywhere else?

I've been putting off this walk for a while. It looks like hard work: a slog up the Leamington road into Daventry, and then navigation of the town's Milton Keynes-like periphery: roundabouts, grass verges, commerce, boxy houses and all. In the event it turns out to be less intimidating than a first, careless study of the OS made me think.

The old road out of Staverton soon winds back onto the modern highway. The trees and bushes are bursting into green life on every side. It's that exciting week when winter really turns into spring, although you wouldn't know from the ambient temperature, nearly twenty degrees down on last week's exceptional maximum. I'm swathed in sweaters. The tarmac roadside path takes me past the Staverton Park Hotel and golf resort. It's clearly a favourite with the conference crowd. The large car park is rammed with Sales Rep transport on this Thursday morning, Insignias and Focuses by the score.  I'd have thought the 'De Vere Staverton Estate' would have demanded a re-branding of the prosaically named 'Big Hill' on the opposite side of the road. How about 'Trump's Head' or 'Mount De Vere' or  'FTSE Top'. So much classier.

I leave the main road through a layby and cross to a brief diversion along the remains of the older way out of Daventry, now just a footpath. I pass six or seven individuals walking the other way, perhaps workers at the De Vere. At home we've been watching BBC TV's 'Civilisations' series - with rapture when Simon Schama's presenting, somewhat more desultorily when Mary Beard or David Olusoga have been in charge. From our Gogglebox critical cheap seats we find Olusoga's style anachronistically didactic and his arguments sometimes less than convincing, although great as discussion starters. Oh my, how highbrow life is at the Crosses. Why not drop in sometime for an evening seminar on Derrida or String Theory. Such fun. Anyway...

Last week Olusoga mentioned a painting by Caillebotte neither of us knew: 'Paris Street: Rainy Day'. It shows  people hurrying through the city, heads down and avoiding eye contact, against a striking backdrop of Hausmann architecture. Today none of the people I pass on the road to Daventry want to make eye contact either. This isn't the countryside default. Just a few hundred yards back in the village I'd swapped the cheeriest of greetings with two women on horseback. In towns people are scared, and sometimes with good reason. We too have been burgled, assaulted and sworn at. It was probably always so. Is it just over-close proximity that makes us mean? Or an enhanced awareness of what we have and haven't got?

The old Staverton road takes me across a pedestrian flyover into a traffic-calmed urban street, the houses going increasingly upscale as I approach the town centre, through an underpass to a previous era of building, and then past the old  'Coach and Horses' travellers' inn. It's being gutted, earth movers where the horses once lodged, perhaps for part-refurbishment as a pub, abut also partly because it's soon to be reborn as an apartment complex. As Daventry's road plan changed, the 'Coach and Horses' lost its function as a hostelry. Now it's on a road to nowhere.

Say 'Daventry' and I think 'radio station'. On Bakelite wirelesses of the fifties it was one of the many exotic-sounding locations printed on the dial along with 'Hilversum', 'Sundsvall' and 'Allouis' etc. etc. Until fifteen years ago, going north on the M1, the motorist passed an extensive array of radio masts all now dismantled - tho' I think the town is still a radio marker for Britain's busy air traffic control. Daventry strikes me as a liminal town, looking west more than east, an outlier in Northamptonshire's geography. The town's shops are the usual contemporary mishmash, at least in the older streets. In the arcade by the bus station you can find Boots, Waitrose and Greggs as you would in any comparable place. Elsewhere it's charity emporia, tattoo parlours and takeaways. The buildings are a bit of a jumble too - here a bit of handsome sandstone Georgian, there workaday nineteenth century and nineteen-sixties utilitarian. I order an Earl Grey and a slab of Cherry Bakewell from the cheerful women in the Courtyard Tearoom (alas too sweet even for me!) and fiddle with my latterly unpredictable I-phone to no great effect. I notice a chap with a clerical collar in an adjoining comfy chair. It's Nigel Fry, the incumbent at Barby and Kilsby. I explain myself briefly, and leave him with a card and the threat that I'll be 'down his way' soon. He deserves his peace and quiet (I thought I detected a certain hunted look in his eye when I said hello), although I suspect like me he'll find it hard not to tune into the intimate domestic details being shared with the world by two ladies-who-cake on another near-by table.

Up at Holy Cross church, the front door of the splendid Georgian edifice (1754) is open. I'm welcomed by a be-gowned steward who explains there's a funeral shortly. I'm sorry not to be able to spend more time looking around. Everything about the church's décor and presentation is friendly and enthusiastic in an embracing kind of way. Recorded music is playing quietly in the background. A discreetly positioned sound desk is tucked in behind the back pews. Fe-fi-fo-fum, I smell the amps of a worship band ( but Holy Cross's website begins its 'music' section with a great - and clean - Thomas Beecham quote, and they have a church choir too!) The whole place sparkles with light and warmth. Leaving aside any human element, why wouldn't you want to worship in a place like this?

I follow my nose downhill looking for the Ashby road out of town ( not Ashby-de-la-Zouch: Ashby St. Ledgers!) It's still really chilly, particularly when the sun's hiding. A brisk west wind has got up. I recall the one time I played cricket in Daventry, also in late April, the first game of a season with a rather smart-alick team, all manly exhortation and diving around in the outfield. The wind was positively howling across the ground. It was right in my face as I opened the batting, the pitch soft and wet. I made a big lonely blob, tamely prodding the ball to a waiting catcher in the first over. It was one of the most miserable afternoons I ever spent on a cricket field. I played a few more games in that lot's company without any discernible distinction, sliding down the batting order week by week, confidence shot to pieces, until finally I brushed the dust off my cricket boots and moved on. I have to like the people with whom I'm spending time. The activity is never enough by itself.

After three quarters of a mile I find what I'm looking for, the converted path of the old branch line from Long Buckby, heading north-west, now a green corridor for cyclists and walkers through the housing estates. Daventry is expanding, like all the other Northamptonshire towns, pushing out on all sides. On the way from Northampton out through Weedon, there are roadworks on both flanks of that village, part of the Daventry development plan, as if the countryside in between and beyond will one day soon be quite consumed by housing. And so Daventry will no longer be an 'outlier': it will be one with the Northampton Megalopolis as it pushes forward to Coventry. And Oxford. And Cambridge. The bones of the structure will soon be in place. The detail will follow and nothing now can prevent it, outside economic collapse, and even then, that possible disintegration would be offered as the rationale for the 'necessary' destruction of the countryside. I'm sorry to bang on endlessly about it, but if this blog is to add to the historical record in any tiny way, this has to be recorded as one of the most important national trends of the early twenty-first century.

 I'm looking for a cross-track which I eventually find, but it's running along a viaduct fifty feet above me. I scramble up the steep and slippery sides of the old railway cutting, and walk a newly-made grassy way skirting the farthest extent of the housing. It eventually delivers me to the lane which once carried horses and people over the Braunston Tunnel on the Grand Union Canal. Below them the boats were 'legged' by their operators, who lay on boards and from an inverted position walked them from end to end - in this case through almost a mile and a half of tunnel. Not great for the digestion I wouldn't have thought. Apparently there's a bit of a wiggle in the middle, as there is at Blisworth, either because of difficulties with the soil, or miscalculation. At ground level the spire of Braunston's 'Cathedral of the Canals', All Saints, is dead ahead as I look down the green lane where it descends to meet the tunnel at its western portal.

Braunston is a first real taste of the Midlands as the traveller goes west. There's a lot of nicely weathered red brick, and much less yellow sandstone. The ginnels on the north side of the canal meander pleasantly between the cottages and eventually I gain the High Street, passing the old windmill, and arriving at All Saints to find Pat Milner one of the churchwardens waiting inside, drumming his fingers. A colleague has forgotten a promise to meet. We chat about this and that. They've just been through an interregnum: their new incumbent Nat White will be installed this Saturday. I say that we've just lost our lovely curate Allison who is to be installed this weekend too, and Pat and I get confused about dates. At any rate, the Bishop's working hard ( as I expect, creep, creep, he does every weekend!) Pat and I swap news about Marion and Keith Thomas, our former members at Weston Favell, who many years ago felt a calling to minister to canal folk, and made a temporary new home among them at Braunston, as you would.

I spend a few minutes just sitting in the beautiful breadth of All Saints' nave, looking around me. You could spend hours here, and still find new detail to stimulate and excite. The sheer quantity of symbolism in form, colour, fabric and glass is dazzling. This wealth of suggestion has been taken for idolatry, here in England and more widely around the world. As we know, courtesy of IS et al, wanton destruction is still going on. The Baptist church of my younger days would have been uncomfortable with what I see around me now. But for most of us, finding God in the desert is the hardest thing to do. My soul is relaxed and revived in this forest of images.

I walk back along the south side of the canal. Near to the entrance to the extensive marinas is a narrow boat café, the Gongoozler. I had no idea, but a gongoozler is a person who enjoys watching activity on the canals, but doesn't participate. That's me then! But there's no time for tea today.

                                           Legend on the wall by the Marina at Braunston

Did the people of Braunston not get on with their counterparts in Staverton? The Jurassic Way follows a more or less north-south line from the one village to the other, but it was never metalled, and at times is no more than a one person path. Just to the north of Staverton, two-thirds up a two hundred foot climb from the stream at its bottom, there's a civic seat. It looks out across miles and miles of uninterrupted country patchwork, a glorious view, a national resource of food and emotional sustenance. For how much longer?

So is everywhere the same as everywhere else? (I'm asking myself!) Yes and no, Superficially, all Mozart sounds the same - and some music-lovers never get past this. Superficially all sheep look identical, except perhaps to the farmer. At first glance every town and village look alike to the world-weary traveller. But, as I remind myself, the more we look and listen, the more we identify difference. And then it strikes me, as if a new and revolutionary thought, the only near-clones are those we produce through our own human industrial processes - knives and forks, cars, photo-copies, 3-D printed artefacts, robot-produced books. Or am I still not looking closely enough? And what conclusions should I be drawing from this?

Snoozes on the pews: 19 km. 5.5. hours. 9-14 degrees C. Wind: 15 mph, gusting 25. No stiles, Ten gates. Maybe four bridges. Countless new-born lambs: a shout out to numbers 19 and 13 in a field near Braunston.

Ignite our land
With the gift of discernment
So that we can tell apart
False prophets from truth-tellers;
Disingenuity from integrity.
And then give us courage
And opportunity
To speak as you would have us speak.