Saturday, 18 January 2020


Last remains of seasonal nosh binned? Christmas tree chopped up and taken to the tip? Decorations re-swathed in tissue paper and returned to the loft?

 This year we broke with family tradition. The Christmas tree was someone else’s and plastic. Turkey was off the menu. Our decorations lay undisturbed in hibernation throughout the Midnight Clear and beyond. We were in someone else’s church for Nine Lessons and Carols and Christmas Eve, which is when the vague sense of alienation kicked in. Though we were delighted to find the congregation of St. Petroc’s, Padstow singing a very Northamptonshire tune to While Shepherds Watched,* we weren’t with our people. We were strangers and guests, inhabiting a slightly skewed, parallel Anglican universe.

This blog tells the tale of a journey around the Diocese of Peterborough on foot, visiting every one of its many churches by a long series of roughly circular walks. Each new circle must touch a previous one somewhere on its circumference. At each church I stop and pray for the people of the parish and those who have care for them. The project began in April 2016, two months before the EU referendum took place. It’s likely I’ll finally pitch up at the doors of the cathedral sometime before next December 31st, when not only will we have left Europe but it’s hoped the final trade t&cs will be in place: two entirely coincidental arcs, the one local, personal and of faith, the other national, corporate and political. Thinking purely about the Church of England my theme has been ‘better together’, even as our people and government have set their minds to being ‘better apart’.  And even though I believe passionately that whether we’re Evangelicals or Catholics or something in between, we need each other more than ever as Anglicans, my experience at St. Petroc’s shows how far I personally have to go to make this actual. How often in church do I think, ‘What am I doing here?... I don’t belong…’ The impulse towards individuality is so strong, the push away from the truly other-seeking Body of Christ likewise. And lurking in the background the difficult question: is faith a matter of what I believe or what we believe?

 I park opposite the village pump by Laxton’s pretty village green, and vault four stiles in quick succession before crossing an undulating field to enter Town Wood. ‘Vault’? No, ‘Haul and clamber’ would be nearer the mark… Robert Frost’s woods may have been lovely, dark and deep but it’s a good job the sky is an ineffable, enlivening wintry blue, because today the going is oozy, wet and steep. Well, not steep exactly...more a gentle incline.

 As I said in the previous post, the ground is more saturated and boggy than at any time in the last three winters. The track though Town Wood suffers from being used by walkers, riders and bikers, probably both pedalled and motor-assisted. In weather like this, the combination doesn’t work. I guess the horses don’t relish such conditions either, but they manage, and trials’ bikers love it – the muddier the better. For those of us on foot it’s just irksome, propping along the path margin on the end of a stick, boots socks and trousers enrobed in mud and ordure. According to the OS my way should emerge from the wood and cross some fields before there’s a short road section into the hamlet of Wakerley. Not so. What I hadn’t spotted was that the criss-cross of ungated tracks marked on the map actually shows an extensive quarry - Mick George’s quarry.

According to the firm’s website Mick started with a single tipper truck in 1978, but now the annual group turnover runs to £120 million. There’s a lot of brass in the muck of aggregates. The quarry site stretches along the low ridge for a mile or more behind mud banks that obscure the view but at least reduce the noise of hacking and digging. The path now follows the lengthy perimeter of the site, initially with considerable difficulty on a waterlogged track, but more easily at the western edge, where one can see the results of past quarrying, the land reduced to scrub, although perhaps mitigated as a new haven for undisturbed wildlife.

 I know I’m a sucker for conspiracy theories, but at some later date will a cash-strapped, centrally-pressured local authority declare this a brownfield site and build cheap and nasty houses where formerly all was sylvan and beautiful?
After a half hour or so’s deviation, I hit the road Jack, and bounce down to the edge of Wakerley, looking across at an attractively watery Welland valley. I think I may not make a dry crossing to Barrowden, but with the aid of a few strategically placed branches I span a brimming ditch, and then find to my relief that the modern bridge for the old packhorse road was designed for winters like this. I climb Mill Lane, and admire the tranquil loveliness of the long village. There’s not a soul to be seen, not a hair out of place. Every house seems perfect. As at Guilsborough there’s what I take to be the old fire shed, centre of the large green, ready to dispense water and help. Maybe it’s a village hall or scout hut these days. There’s a duck pond too, with the sort of little house which once got a Tory grandee into expenses’ trouble. St. Peter’s church is at the end of the lane.

St. Peter’s has undergone internal restoration over recent years, and was re-dedicated last summer. In the porch there’s an impressive list of contributors to the costs of the work; trusts and commercial concerns. Among the credits I note one to Mick George. Well done then to all – to the church and village for knocking on the firm’s door at a time of need, and to their Board for doing the right thing. How we need philanthropy, and every sign we can contrive that there are limits to greed (and growth?) Inside the church I find Phyllis and her vacuum cleaner. My boots are uber-muddy, so our conversation is made within a foot or so of the door – at my behest, not Phyllis’s: she’s very welcoming, and clearly proud of what’s been done to St. Peter’s. The tone is set by a wonderful, light-honey coloured new stone floor. It shows the dirt at the moment because it has to be allowed to settle. Soft, warm light suffuses the worship area. Phyllis tells me that the intention is for a multi-purpose building, capable of running village events as well as the usual regular services. The proportions of the place will help this. The chancel is large relative to the size of the nave, which is almost a square. Everything suggests a community that’s moving forward together. I like Barrowden very much.

When Phyllis mentions the name of the Rector, Chris Armstrong, it slowly dawns on me that Sue went to college with his wife Gerry decades ago. As so often the Wonderful and Wacky World of Faith is revealed to be smaller than I think. There are connections everywhere. Before coming to Barrowden, Chris had a long and distinguished career, latterly as Dean at Blackburn Cathedral, making things new there too.

As I walk back to the village green for a quick sarnie (though sadly not a drink at the Exeter Arms, which is being refurbished prior to new management), I look across the Welland and the dismantled Peterborough-Market Harborough railway to the adjacent disused kilns, which a hundred years ago were designed for use in processing the iron ore from a seam which ran where the quarry now sits. Like the Yorkshire coal mines, beyond the immediate wartime requirements, the financial returns were too meagre in a developing, modern economy: the kilns were apparently never used, but remain as a striking feature in the landscape. How strange that older industrial features often add charm to a rural landscape and modern ones tend to spoil it, in our contemporary eyes.

I pass diagonally over fields by the lovely modern houses which watch over the valley and then climb the wold into Wakerley Great Wood via the conserved church of St. John the Baptist, a spired twin to Barrowden. There are echoes one of the other inside too, both the subject of 19th century restoration, I suspect, each with a pretty but faintly industrial tiled reredos. St. John’s has been redundant for nearly forty years now. How long should we keep it going without greater purpose? I imagine it isn’t much visited, Grade 1 listed and magnificent though it is.


The woods above are Forestry Commission land: there are parked cars and some walkers concluding their afternoon before the light fails. I press on, back over the ridge and down the slope to a view over the site of Fineshade Abbey, of which only the stable block of its successor buildings still stand the other side of the A43.

About Fineshade Abbey, Caroline Floyd of the ‘Friends of Fineshade’ quotes the antiquary John Leyland (1506-52) as saying: ‘From D(e)ene  to Coll(y)Weston a 5 or 6 miles, partely by champain, partely by wooded ground. Almost yn the middle way I cam by Finshed, lately a priory of blak canons, leving it hard by on the right hond; it is a 4 miles from Stanford. Here in the very place wher the priory stoode was yn tymes past a castel caullid Hely, it belonged to the Engaynes; and they dwelled yn it…’

For three hundred years, on the site of an older castle, Augustinian friars served the local community to their better spiritual and bodily health and wellbeing before Henry did for the foundation in the 1530s. Then the toffs took over, until their time came too.

I stroll on over the fields on a track past Laxton Hall, of which I have an eighteenth century print at home. The scene depicted looks pretty much the same even now in its northern elevation. It was a boarding school in the twenties, and has since become a residential care home for the Polish community, a remote but beautiful place to pass one’s declining years. I slide and splosh my way back through Town Wood, fingering the torch in my anorak pocket, but despite misgivings make it to the car before twilight.

In the fondly remembered BBC ‘Home Service’ Round The Horne, the late Kenneth Williams occasionally portrayed a character who from a surfeit of teeth was unable to say his ‘s’s and ‘x’s very efficiently. (Societal norms and senses of humour were way different back then!) I wonder what he would have made of the ‘Sussexes’ (Meghan and Harry)?  The expression must be casting terror into the scripts of newsreaders the English-speaking world over. Beyond all the Press kerfuffle and nonsense, I only observe that for all the couple’s apparently praiseworthy charitable work, they share the growing tendency for naked individualism – despite their privilege, position and wealth, only their interests seem to matter. In the context of this blog however, it strikes me that their moves are a straw in the wind. If the power of the Crown is much diminished, if we very soon have a downsized, bicycling monarchy, relegated to the status of celebrities, how will we deal with an equally relegated, disestablished church. Once there’s a modicum of slippage, sometimes, as in the case of the Berlin Wall, change follows very rapidly. Are we ready for this? How will it affect our sense of belonging, my sister and brother Anglipersons?
Pegs in the ground:  15 km. 5 hrs. 6 deg. C. Mostly sunny, with a slow build of afternoon cloud. 14 stiles. 9 gates. 3 bridges.

·          The Cornish preference is apparently to sing While Shepherds Watched to ‘Lyngham’ by Thomas Jarman, whose modern relative long-time readers will remember I encountered on a chair outside his Sibbertoft garden a couple of years back. It works very well, but why/how did it emigrate three hundred miles for the purpose. Astonishingly, it seems that when the Cornish miners followed the work to South Australia in the late nineteenth century, they took this particular Christmas combination with them, and it’s still sung that way today in Wallaroo and Tantanoola.

Father God
Odi et amo.
I love that you made me me
As full as I am
Of faults and contradictions.
Well, at least they are
My faults and contradictions.
But you know how sometimes I struggle
To be part of the group;
To subsume my devices and desires
To the needs of others:
To rejoice in the skills
That complement
Or are greater
Than mine:
To exercise patience
When companions are slower
To read the map than I am;
To acknowledge
That I have got things
Utterly and completely wrong.

Bind us together, Lord
Bind us together,
O bind us together with love

R.I.P Dan Hennessy ( 1990-2020) : a valued and much missed colleague.

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Why can't you, just this once, be Uncle Fluffy?

A winter thought at the start of a walk. Uppingham’s civic cemetery is right at the end of Leicester Road. There’s ample car parking, and relatively few graves nicely and democratically laid out, first come, first served. It looks as if the neighbouring field could one day act as an overflow – for cars or bodies. Word has it that we’re running out of space in ancient graveyards. But would I want a loved one buried just here, close beside the busy A47? Probably not, unless HGV driving had been their life’s calling. This cemetery’s placement seems lacking in respect. We’re putting death where it won’t unduly bother us.

I hairpin left at the top of a green bowl on a path which draws the walker down beside a stream to Wardley Wood. The ground is saturated and progress very slippy-squelchy. The woodland’s winter-quiet, but provides welcome relief from the piercing northerly wind that’s blowing around the fringe of the first seasonal storm – ‘Atiyah’; strange name, after the Irish/English amalgams of recent years. Most of Wardley Wood is on a hillside, and towards its far end the ground slopes away, channelling the water, so the stream and path become more or less one. There has been a lot of precipitation in recent weeks, with the threat of more to come: this is the wettest I’ve seen the going during the four years of this project. Eventually I come to a track which takes me up to the small, comfortable settlement which gives the wood its name, a line of houses flanking elegant, spare St. Botolph’s, in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust since 2010 - about the time I was here last. The sheep in the adjoining field look heavy and content. A man halfway up a ladder to fix a roof nods, chap to chap.

I wander the church, thinking of the people who might still visit, perhaps for occasional services or to be married or maybe vagabonding like me, the silence broken intermittently by the tweeting of a sparrow who’s been caught up in the sanctuary. I hope he can find enough food for sustenance. How should I think of him?  As a prisoner of the Church or a humble priest-custodian of this holy place, bringing life to space declared redundant, because humans no longer care? Should I be sad or happy?


As sometimes happens, when I’m alone somewhere on this circling voyage of diocesan foolishness, I have to re-set the dials. In the presence of the absent God, what am I doing here in Wardley on such a winter’s day?

 Pretentious – probably - pompous, yeah, thank you for that, but I think it’s important, even in the Age of Social Media that people like you or me continue to make journals and records. I’ve recently come to realise how much I tend to see History (and even and particularly Personal History) as a puzzle to be definitively solved. Well, no it isn’t, it can’t be, but describing what happens, ‘what there is’ and relating it to the past and the future, offering possible explanations, is still something some of us can and should do.

 I have an agenda to promote too, but just now the dream of the people of God being ‘better together’ seems ever further away. For the third time since I began this Big Walk, we the people of the UK are shortly to vote for a New Beginning, even though we know there can/will be no such thing in the aftermath. As a country we’re hopelessly divided, and in many ways the Church is mirroring our body politic. I heard someone say from the pulpit recently – somewhat presumptuously - that they weren’t going to tell us how to vote (which of course could never be appropriate). In fact, the criteria on which we make our single, secret, political wish have never been harder to pin down. Should we abide by principle, or choose tactic? Prefer person to party? I haven’t a Scooby. In the church context, I don’t know whether (still!) reading MacCulloch's History of Christianity it’s a comfort to be reminded how deeply divided the Church was at the time of the Council at Chalcedon (451 A.D.) as they tried to cut and dry the question of how Jesus could be simultaneously human and divine. People died for the sake of these verbal and cognitive gymnastics, and amid similar religious differences are dying even today. So I think my advocacy is right, but not much likely to succeed. However, at the very least it changes me and just possibly it might influence you, so I’ll keep calm and carry on.

Someone’s improved the paths and tracks between Wardley and Belton-in-Rutland. Ten years ago, I got told off rudely by a posh farmer because I’d missed my way for lack of signage. He drove half a mile to complain I was where I shouldn’t be, even though I was plodding stoically  around a field margin to avoid damaging his bloody cabbages. I notice a CPRE reference on some of the newer signs, so maybe I wasn’t the only one to come in for agricultural abuse. I do nevertheless decline a more convenient path in favour of a detour via a layby replete with abandoned cars and coaches because a couple of longhorned cattle are standing guard over a small bridge in a ravine. They’ve clocked me from over a hundred metres, and are raising and lowering their heads in that bovine way which suggests ‘Don’t mess with me, mate’, so I don’t.
From the outside Belton’s church is a contrast to Wardley’s, its tower appearing squat even at its elevated position in the village. A rider-for-leisure trots by as I approach the lych-gate, mobile phone clamped to his right ear. This strikes me as odd, but only because I’ve never seen it before: I suppose some riders do it all the time. Dropping your mobile while seated atop your steed would be a bit of a pain.  Inside the church is damply chilly;  they’re looking for £44k to put right the water damage on the north aspect and prevent further decay. A bucket sits on the floor near the tower. Yet, with that cheering balance common among Christian parishes, the box for the Oakham Food Bank is overbrimming with produce. The leaflet for last Sunday’s worship is still available. I read the collect for that day aloud, and then the Isaiah passage which provided the first reading, with its inspirational vision of a possible future, the wolf and the lamb, the calf and the lion. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain… A tear comes to the eye, because we so long for peace and amity, and the fulfilment of the prophecy is so far distant.  

To the north of the village the lanes divide. I take the more easterly route, Leighfield Way, which drops to a stream and then climbs steadily to the top of the wold. Turning right onto the ridge and Holygate Road there are long wide views to the next lazy roll of countryside, mostly open, with occasional areas of cover, and a vivid blue patch of Rutland Water sparkling away in the north-east. Near Wills Farm two Typhoons out of RAF Coningsby cruise past five hundred feet above me, maybe at 200 knots. At this relaxed speed the sound of their engines conveys massive authority and quality of engineering; it’s hard not to be impressed. I have to force myself to recollect that these are machines built with the intention of taking life, or at very least offering that possibility as a deterrent, in the interests of making the wolf lie down with the lamb.

 It’s at about this point that I realise I’ve left my stash of sandwiches in the car, and I’m hungry going on weak-kneed. I top up with a warming cup of tea from my NT thermos, and suck on a Strepsil, figuring there must be some trace amount of sugar among the active ingredients. There will, I think be no village shop in Redlington…
Nor is there, but it’s a very fetching place nonetheless, the church of St. Magdalene and St. Andrew set very high on its mound, so that you can’t help wondering what’s underneath, or what preceded it. It’s one of the ten (!) churches in the Rutland Water Benefice, whose name suggests, as Sue has pointed out, that the Rector might be best served by a boat in her commuting between parishes, or maybe better by a DUKW, the amphibious vehicles used by the WW2 allied military, which you can occasionally see in London being used as tourist transport. In its layout, buildings, and substantial earthwork, Redlington has the feel of an ancient and important settlement despite its size (never more than a population of about 250 over several centuries). The church website says that the 19th century restoration makes interpretation of the church’s history difficult: it’s certainly intriguing, as is the whole untouched rectangular plan of the village.

 The walk on to Ayston is partly along a puddled byway, but mostly on a busy lane, where I have to make frequent hops onto the verge to preserve life and limb. Ayston’s worth it when I arrive. Away from the curve of the road through the village, there’s a grass lane which leads beside cottages to the church of St. Mary’s whose warm stone is dramatically lit by the afternoon sun. It too is a Churches Conservation project, and through the two-fold doors, the visitor is confronted and challenged by the well-scrubbed economy of space and decoration. There’s little in the way of artificial aid to cling on to in the service of faith. Here, coming to the encounter naked, one has to deal with God mano a mano.  As in the Garden, there’s nowhere to hide. High above is a brilliant surviving patch of wall-painting;  a crowned figure, Mary, Queen of Heaven, as I suppose; only this to focus the attention. It’s a memorable end to the afternoon.

Sandwiches short of a picnic:  17 km. 5.2.hrs. 6 deg. C. Keen northerly wind, dropping away during the afternoon. Clear skies for the most part. 3 stiles. 18 gates. 7 bridges. Four churches, all of them open: two redundant. One ‘hello’ from a lady on a white horse. One large, companionable bunny the opposite side of a fence near Lambley Lodge.

Inspiration of humankind
We met you first
As you challenged Adam and Eve
With their disingenuity.
Help us to be truthful
With ourselves
And with each other
In loving candour
And lead us forward
As stewards
Of your Garden
And builders
Of your longed-for Kingdom.
We ask it in the name of
Your Son
Our Saviour
Jesus Christ

Monday, 4 November 2019


I park the car near Apethorpe’s stocks, and bring to my mind’s eye the political scoundrels I’d like to see sitting there, justifying their inanities, half-truths and knowing lies in the face of the public’s rotten tomatoes (Don’t hold back, now!) At the village limit the road’s still damp by the little stone bridge despite a dry couple of days: the rain of a week ago was intense enough to make the stream flood. An autumn track hung with brown and gold veers away to the left. I follow it up the rise towards Bushrubs Wood, sharing a morning hello with two lady riders, who’ve politely slowed so that we can pass without a hoof-spatter of mud. The horses look askance: I just cost them a premature end to an energising gallop. Bluefield farm is an attractive spread beyond the wood; a lovely, tranquil place to live. Was flax a major crop here years ago?
Clockwise progress today.  Now the daylight hours are shorter, I don’t fancy picking my way through the trees after twilight were I to have a bad map-reading day, so we’ll do the bosky bit first. By the entrance to the privately owned woods of Little Morton Sale, a notice tells me to keep to the path or take the consequences. Turning left up a track as wide as a ‘B’ road between lovely broad-leaved cover, a strongly constructed estate bridge takes me over the cut of the railway which once ferried the citizens of King’s Cliffe to Peterborough’s shops. Up ahead I think I see a deer, but it turns out to be a lanky, over-inquisitive hound taking its jogging owner for his daily constitutional. I shoo its rude nose away. Eventually the woodland clears to old quarry workings on either side, the track now paved with densely packed hardcore, emerging anticlimactically by a noisy industrial park, clank and grime. Across the Roman road I enter the Forestry Commission greenery of Bedford Purlieus, where Time Team once searched for high status villas, and were disappointed (although do archaeologists ever admit regret?) that the local inhabitants two thousand years ago weren’t all that posh. Well, yes. This is artisan country. Anyone who made it big cleared off to Gloucestershire to find more genteel neighbours. Plus ca change. On the eastern edge of the Purlieus I’m curious to see ‘Cook’s Hole’, but find the path diverted because of the ever-expanding quarry: there’s now a hole bigger than Cook ever imagined, whoever Cook was. Crossing the A47 with care on a really hazardous bend (N.B.) I take the lane into Thornhaugh.

There’s a sign which says I’ve arrived at the village limits, but actually the settlement is still a good twenty minutes away on foot, where there’s another sign plus a twenty mile an hour speed restriction. (Who lives here then?) In sheer acreage Thornhaugh is an unusually large parish for the number of residents, and the Big House is left out on its own behind the usual defensive walls and gates. Once upon a time it probably made its own arrangements for religion:  St. Andrew’s, the village church, is sunk down among the commoners’ cottages in a little valley well out of sight of the aristos, far too long a walk for dainty and noble ankles. I’d wondered how to pronounce the village name, but as you can see, it’s Thornhaw. A notice proclaims that it won a Proby award (surely not PJ!) as a best kept village in 1991. It’s still neat as a pin, if a little clinically so.  A familiar refrain:  the church is closed, so I sit on a bench by the door, open a packet of sandwiches and watch the world for a while. A note in St. Andrew’s porch tells me that the church is part of the Watersmete benefice, so-called because all of its six parishes have streams or rivers flowing through them. In Anglo-Saxon Thornhaugh means ‘thorn-enclosed low lying meadow beside a stream’. The note further implies that within living memory the mill here was used to crush bone into meal. 
I’ve had the best of the day. Without me noticing the clouds have gathered, and the breeze has ebbed away, so the afternoon will become dull and less bracing. The exit from Thornhaugh is humdrum, untidy suburban semis overlooking scrappy fields. As I pull up the path back towards the A47, there’s a strong chemical smell, presumably crop spray, and I replay an iterated internal argument.
Q. Might whatever this substance is give me cancer/cause my limbs to wither/accelerate brain decay? A. Surely not. Otherwise it would damage consumers of the crop, animal or human. Q. But that’s what happens all the time, isn’t it? People think stuff is safe, and then only when it’s too late they find out it isn’t. A. Well, the farmers wouldn’t knowingly expose themselves, would they? Q. I refer the honourable gent to my previous answer. How would they know?...

 By the entrance to Wansford I detour into the village Pasture, maintained as a Pocket Park, grazed by two mournful long-horned cows, who ought to be as happy as Larrietta, given all the nice organic stuff there is to eat there. The legend at the Pasture entrance reminds me that I’ve crept across the border into Cambridgeshire: in Thornhaugh I was actually north of Peterborough. Down the road, St. Mary’s church looks more substantial in profile than it is inside, where it’s cosy, intimate and comfortable. I read a psalm and use their loo. Think outside the box, Church House, there’s a coffee table book to be made out of C of E toilets, often cunningly contrived in nooks and crannies of ancient architecture.

The graceful spans of Wansford’s ancient bridge are the backdrop for a horsey field. A notice tells me not to feed one of the inhabitants: it’s been poorly, and recycled Macdonald’s won’t aid recovery. The Nene Way to Yarwell is very squelchy: the water meadows have been doing what water meadows are supposed to do. The Angel at Yarwell is festooned with cobwebs (artificial!) spiders, skulls and all the usual Hallowe’en tat. Eleven years ago when I visited friends in South Carolina, I was fascinated by the prevalence of temporary graveyards in front gardens and witches’ hats by front doors as the first Obama election came to its climax. I haven’t seen any make-believe cemeteries in Weston Favell yet, but I guess it won’t be too long. As a reply, there’s a fine and tasteful display of pumpkins in the windows of the little church of St. Mary Magdalene.
Every year I ponder whether the function of our solemn, annual remembrance of the departed is replicated in the secular Hallowe’en. Are we all really dealing with our own mortality? Maybe even the recent youthful fixation on ‘zombies’ (and I don’t mean the fine Rod Argent/Colin Blunstone sixties’ band) is dealing with a fear of losing one’s identity in e.g. dementia. In a few days’ time we’ll make our Weston Favell All Souls’ commemoration, which always provokes such a mix of emotions for me. As the names of deceased parishioners are read, their faces come powerfully to mind, and it’s hard to believe they’re not still with us in the pews week by week, dispensing kindness and faithfulness, being tiresome as fellow-worshippers can sometimes be. And then there’s the terrifying thought that one day my name will be among them, and that others will think of me in much the same way. And somewhere in the mix is a ridiculous, funny memory of Sir Michael Redgrave reading the ‘List of Huntingdonshire Cabmen’ on Spike Milligan’s quirky, subversive, Q7 telly programme of yesteryear. I always have to check that I’m not smirking inappropriately!

                                                                     Ford at Nassington 
Nassington isn’t far along a muddy by-way, where a mum’s dutifully allowing her two tinies to splash and dirty their trousers in the ruts and puddles. As I get to St. Mary’s (the Virgin this time), the air’s filled with the sounds of a thousand starlings perching on the knobbly bits of the spire (there’ll be a technical term, but I don’t know it). Though Cromwell’s men scraped most of the walls clean, ghosts of some of the paintings remain, disappearing into time’s distance like the image of Jesus on the Turin Shroud. In the north aisle stands the bottom half of a Saxon cross, astonishing to contemplate, a link across a thousand years of time to people who thought (so we believe) more or less as we do about faith and mortality, inducing shivers of wonder, making Nassington in Tom Wright’s words ‘a thin place’.
As I walk on, I hear half term happening somewhere on the heritage railway between Yarwell and Wansford: ‘Everyone loves the sound of a train in the distance…’ (Paul Simon), Thomas the Tank Engine delighting yet another generation of small children, a note friendly and lonesome all at the same time, counterpoint to the calls of the hawks hunting above the fields. It’s properly autumn, now, lowering and grey, with that strange, suffusing glow lent by a carpet of multi-coloured fallen leaves.
Votes cast: 19 km. 5.5 hrs. 11 deg. Clear at first with a keen easterly wind, dropping to leave a calm afternoon under the increasing cloud cover. Four churches: three open. Three stiles. Seventeen gates. Two bridges. Do be careful of that crossing on the A47!

A thought strikes me as I hobble back to the car. As we peer through the Brexit cloud of unknowing (with another general election now set to further weary the people), I realise that for me the impossibility of resolution has a familiar feel. Frustration about it sits on me rather as it does on my contemplation of the Christian Trinity. None of us can quite see, or perfectly articulate, how God is One and Three at the same time – which is perhaps why clergy fight shy of preaching on Trinity Sunday. In the end I’m happy-ish to live with the ineffability and mystery of traditional doctrine. But with Brexit, in the end, there’ll have to be a practical choice between A and –A. Everyone knows it. And it will leave a great number of people unhappy because they’re losing faith - of a kind.
I thank you for the great cloud of witnesses
People humble and high-born
Differently-gifted to me
Some who have gone before
And some who are yet to see the light of day
Testifying to the wonder and mystery
Of the world you have made
Bearing me up
On the wings of their faith and steadfastness.
May I be worthy
Of their example and teaching
In words and in action

Thursday, 24 October 2019

Missing the mark

                             It's been a very good autumn for funghi, but stay away from these...

Do I walk anti-clockwise more than I walk clockwise?  I think I do. And what should be read into this?

Today at any rate is an anti-clockwise day, beginning at Gretton and following the track south-east towards Kirby Hall. The early clouds have vanished: it’s a sparkling clear morning. A van splashes through the puddles behind me and I step onto the verge. The van veers from side to side of the lane ahead, avoiding a lorry tyre that’s been abandoned dead-centre. The van stops with a squeak, handbrake interruptus. I greet the dungareed farmer. His mood doesn’t exactly match the weather:

Me:  (sad shake of the head) ‘Pah. Have they left it for you to clear up then?’

Him:    (mumbling to himself…I don’t think he’s heard me: probably too much time too close to industrial machinery)  ‘Grmble, grmble, maudit gerbil…’

Me: (louder) ‘I said, they’ve left it for you to tidy…’

Him: (Not looking up. Shovelling muck into a pile I hadn’t seen by the hedge) ‘It ent my job. I dunno how the buggers got it ‘ere. They keep that gate back there shut nowadays. I give up…grmble grmble maudit…’

And indeed it isn’t his job, and it’s utterly mystifying why someone would drive a mile into the middle of the countryside to clutter up the lane. His job has probably been to dig out the ditches which line the track a little further on, painstaking but necessary work which reminds me how much patience is still required to keep animals safe and coax a living from the land. I couldn’t do it.

Eventually the track peters out, and its successor path climbs a little hill, skirts a copse and arrives at a stile from which there’s a great view of Kirby Hall. Though blind and derelict, it’s a fine, noble example of a ‘Prodigy House’ and its first owner was Sir Christopher Hatton. He also built the rather larger Holdenby Hall, thirty odd miles away. Prodigy Houses were a by-product of Queen Bess’s liking for making ‘progress’ around the Midlands, which I daresay was a mutually convenient way of keeping royal costs down and key individuals sweet. Who was sweeter on whom in this instance it’s hard to say. She liked his dancing (he apparently cut a mean galliard), and Hatton must have had a brain to match his shapes, since he became her mid-reign chancellor. He clearly valued her assets highly too, or was at least smart enough to pay them due homage: he gave her a ring which he claimed had ‘the virtue to expel infectious airs’. It was to be worn between Her Majesty’s ‘sweet duggs, the chaste nest of pure constancy’. Unsurprisingly there were rumours that they were lovers. Hatton’s lasting legacy is to have a school in Wellingborough named after him. Ah well!

A man short of stature, in clothes suggesting household repairs rather than rambling, and with no dog or walking paraphernalia, follows me purposefully from the surrounding fields into Kirby Hall’s drive. I say hello and he answers incomprehensibly. Was that Latvian or deep Northamptonshire dialect? Half a mile later he’s there close behind me again as I stand by a stile trying to make sense of a path diversion. Again, without offering any facial or bodily clue, he says something I can’t understand so I just smile encouragingly…but not too encouragingly. It’s a morning for mumbling. Perhaps I’m doing it myself. I choose the road, he the possibly-closed path. Then further on up, by a nice rule of three, he suddenly stumps out from the trees beside me. I move into a higher gear and leave him behind, speeding on to Deene with its chocolate box cottages, its stately home and high-spired St. Peter’s. Inside one immediately thinks what a big old pile this is for such a diminutive village. It’s now in the care of the Conservation Trust, whose work with smaller buildings is often so instructive, beneficial and worship-preserving, but they have a tough task here. Most of what one sees inside the building is already gothic-revival restoration, lovingly completed a hundred and fifty years ago at the instigation of the ‘Light Brigade’s Seventh Earl of Cardigan’s widow, a member of the local Brudenell family whose tombs are prominent in today’s church. Near the door I see a board which mentions a figure of £1.5 million to put things right. I think to myself that however beautiful the setting, we just can’t do this. Bar the discovery of a local saint and the founding of a celebratory cult here, few people will ever make a pilgrimage through the doors of St. Peter’s to find faith or even simply enjoy its lofty proportions.

The Greenbelt festival made its annual home at Deene for some years in the nineties, and then perhaps at least for one weekend a year St. Peter’s was full of people at prayer. Being here now causes me to reflect on my past as I awkwardly navigate around a herd of cows on the path to Bulwick.

WARNING: Old rocker’s reminiscences. Can cause drowsiness. Do not operate heavy machinery while reading…

We had various encounters with splendid Greenbelt throughout its earlier history. What a good job it’s done for making visible the fact that the Christian faith touches every area of life in ways that are surprising, radical, and un-churchy. In the absence of fifties-style Billy Graham evangelistic crusades, it and ‘Spring Harvest’ have been the poster events for The Church these past forty years. Greenbelt began in Odell on the Northants/Beds border. Bill Thorp’s lovely ‘Water into Wine Band’ sought relief from Bank Holiday soggy bottoms in our front room in August 1975, and I subsequently managed to park our Renault 6 on a festival site tree stump, wheels waving in the air, a feat apparently much more easily achieved than remedied. When the festival moved more or less down the road from us in Castle Ashby a few years later, Sue and I were part of a festival lunchtime radio roadshow with friend Myra Blyth and radio presenter Dilly Barlow, all jingles, interviews and panel discussions on abortion and South American politics. In 1987, I hit the mainstage, number two on the Saturday night bill behind Philip Bailey as one of the two keyboard players in Mark Williamson’s Bloodline. In fact the band had two of most things. Apart from me and six foot seven inches of Babe Ruth’s Dave Morris, there were two guitarists in the wonderful Robin Boult and international hit producer Alan Shacklock, two drummers including my mate Nigel Pegrum, and squadrons of backing singers, one of whose mics was turned off because he was singing so flat (though I think he may not have been entirely aware of this). There was so much on-stage smoke that the set became an exercise in solipsism. Not only could we not hear each other, the faithful reproduction of a 1953 pea-souper made it impossible to see each other too. I might use this as an excuse for my delivery of what on one of our more-bombastic-than-Muse numbers may have been the worst ever keyboard solo in rock n’roll history, or alternatively an inspired piece of dada-ist art, but it would be inauthentic of me to do so. There was a mixing-desk recording, but thankfully it never saw the light of day, and I ritually destroyed my cassette copy in red-faced disgust.

A couple of years later, the band I was then with, Beltane Fire, opened the whole weekend for die-hard, early adopters on a damp Thursday evening. We worked hard for meagre applause from punters who didn’t have a clue who we were, but at least I could see the drummer and bass player.

I never played at Deene Park.

                          Inside St. Peter's, Deene. (I had a go, but couldn't make it happen).

The nineteen eighties/nineties were a funny time. I was in my thirties and forties, a latecomer to the entertainment world, convincing myself that I wasn’t a failure for giving up on teaching after six years, striving desperately for recognition in an industry for which I wasn’t very well-equipped. I think now I lost my way, and compromised the ‘real me’, too desperate, too eager to please, too exploiting, too ridiculously obsessed with glamour and fame which never came. Perhaps we often feel that kind of thing about our pasts. Does it strike a chord with you in some way? Perhaps in twenty years I’ll feel comparable things about the me-that-is-now. All that blogging! What did he think he was playing at! The New Testament Greek word for ‘sin’ is ‘hamartia’, which famously comes from a family of words borrowed from the military or sporting worlds to do with ‘missing the mark’ (as perhaps in archery).  I missed the mark quite often, and of course I still do.

This seems like a cuddly, friendly way of thinking about ‘sin’, a long way removed from hell-fire preaching, or even the condemnation the apostle Paul hands out to the early Christian churches for their shortcomings. Some evangelical commentators seek to redress this by suggesting that implicit in the idea of ‘hamartia’ is that the person missing the target won’t ‘share in the prize’ (heaven?) or would be ‘letting the army down’, in a way that deserves punishment. Would it be fair to respond that not many archers deliberately try to ‘miss the mark’? Most of us are in it to win it. It’s just that all of us fail: our technique’s not good enough, the target’s too far away, our training wasn’t right. I prefer to think of God laughing at our foolishness and chiding us lovingly back to better ways. Elvis Costello sings: ‘Oh Alison…my aim is true…’  I don’t believe in a God who throws his creation away, who, in an old fashioned phrase, ‘sets it at nought’. And so on my more generous days I also think, notwithstanding confession and absolution, I should cut my sadder eighties’ self a bit of slack.

 But what about the real bad stuff, the meticulously planned fraud, the abuse of children, genocide?  I don’t know. I really don’t know…

Except that working these things through is also the stuff of pilgrimage.

 Bulwick was once on the main Stamford road, but was by-passed some years ago, and is a pretty, lively village with the Queen’s Head on my left and St. Nicholas’ church on the right. I’m served a restorative GB by the smartly dressed bar staff in the neat pub, and am amused to find that Bulwick’s local Big Family are the Tryons, which reminds me of the BBC execs’ difficulties when first introduced to The Goons – they read the groundbreaking comedy act as the Go-ons, which seemed to them far more in keeping with ‘variety’ theatre.  The inside of St. Nicholas tells me two things: that there are not huge numbers of worshippers, but that the people of the village care for each other and their church.

 The plight of their village shop underlines the fact. On February 22nd a chimney fire caught the thatch and the whole of Camille and Andrew Ortega-Maclean’s business and domestic life went up in smoke. The Pickled Shop had both become loved as a local amenity and was establishing a reputation as a supplier of fine foods in the UK and Europe. The couple walked out of the ruins with what they wore and nothing else. Now the villagers are crowd-funding Pickled Shop rev. 2, and as I pass today the builders are whistling and hard at work. Good on yer, Bulwick.


                    A kneeler in St. Nicholas', Bulwick. Deenethorpe was the site of yet another
                                                  tragic World War 2 air crash.

Shots in the locker:  19.5 km. Just shy of six hours. 14 degrees C. Clear skies followed by some lunchtime cloud, dissipating towards dusk. 3 churches. 2 open (but not All Saints Laxton, whose building and churchyard lie at the end of a little Church Walk with a small field to one side, today containing two tiny, perfectly pretty calves and two understandably protective mums.) 9 stiles. 14 gates. 2 bridges. A black (?) squirrel near Kirby Hall – I’ve only ever seen one before and that was in Woburn, but this one looked pretty dark to me from a distance of 25 metres. The constant mewing of kites hunting near Laxton, singly and in pairs. And the verbed-up sound of a barn owl, taking over the night shift near Harringworth Lodge as I made my way back to Gretton.

Forgive me my trespasses
And help me to forgive
Those who walk across my cucumber patch.
Grant me the capacity
So to learn from my past mistakes
That this day I better represent Christ
To those I meet
So that together
We bring about on our blue planet
Your kingdom of love, justice and equity.





Monday, 7 October 2019

Into the woods...

Shortly after leaving Southwick I get lucky. Crossing the stream, I glimpse a flash of electra-glide blue skimming the water: a kingfisher, still one of the most breathtaking sights in the British countryside, because relatively rare, and invariably fleeting. And just where it’s flying, on a branch overhanging the rill, a black and white woodpecker, whether lesser or greater spotted I can’t tell you, leaning away from the bark as an experienced climber would on a rockface.

An erratum – or at least, a misapprehension. I thought the ‘World Conker Championships’ were still held at Ashton, but a correspondent tells me that in 2013 they moved to Southwick, and will be held there this coming Sunday. The entry form is available on line, so there’s still time to compete if you feel the force is with you, though this year the conkers are small, and the horse chestnut itself is threatened - now classed as ‘vulnerable to extinction’ across Europe. Use it or lose it. And if you have a secret conker-hardening recipe, don’t give it away.

 On the far side of the field the trees await. On the subject of Stephen Sondheim (see my previous post!), my personal favourite among his musicals is ‘Into the Woods’. Little Red Riding Hood sings:

Into the woods and down the dell
The path is straight, I know it well
Into the woods and who can tell
What’s waiting on the journey?
Into the woods to bring some bread
To Granny who is sick in bed
Never can tell what lies ahead
For all that I know she’s already dead
But into the woods…
Into the woods to Grandmother’s house
And home before dark!’

 So LRRH is on a pilgrimage too, of sorts. Nursery tales are where we explore our shadow sides. We don’t know what we’ll find when we enter the childhood which is still part of us each and every day. The wolf may be lurking in unexpected places. And yet, for many of us brought up on tales on Robin of Sherwood, the woods are where we like to be, outlaws and fugitives on the run from Authority. Oh yes, my walks are full of fantasy.

 Fortunately man-eating animals as well as conkers are also virtually extinct in Howe Wood and Great Colsters. I emerge from the forest and follow the track round and up towards Lodge Farm. My phone vibrates. It’s Matt on Facetime, and we have a jolly conversation feeling very modern, him in a European capital and me in the middle of the Northamptonshire countryside, until he asks why I called him, and I say I thought he’d called me, before realising that because my phone was in my trouser pocket and I was striding out in the way men do, it had called him of its own accord. Later I find I’d unintentionally called my stepmum in much the same way.

 Apethorpe (‘App-thorpe’!) is a very pretty hamlet (with quite a few cottages for sale) and in thrall to its own adjoining grand-manner Jacobean house, once called ‘Apethorpe Hall’, now retitled ‘Apethorpe Palace’, on account of it having been a favoured hunting lodge for James the First, back when Rockingham Forest really was Rockingham Forest, and not just a disaggregated set of woodlands. Given his ambiguous reputation, one can imagine that ‘Into the woods’ had a different range of meanings for Jack and his boys (and girls!) 


                                Eighteenth century justice: stocks and whipping post: Apethorpe 

St.Leonard’s website assures me the church will be open, but it isn’t, so I scoff an M&S chicken sandwich in the porch and admire a view across to the older buildings at the back of the Palace, which is now privately owned but with some involvement from English Heritage, such that visits may be made to inspect its splendours during July and August. On the OS map there’s an intriguing reference to ‘Gold Diggings’ south east of the Palace. A very good English Heritage article on the web tells me that this was the site of a Roman villa, unusually posh for around here, with hypocausts, galleries, more than one range, painted walls, bath houses, altars, the real deal. It further points out that for whatever reason the parish boundary between Southwick and Apethorpe was aligned with the villa, so in all probability a folk memory of the place remained after its decline. From artefacts found locally around Apethorpe, human history here goes back much further than the Romans. How big was the Neolithic population of northern Northamptonshire? The archaeologists and historians tend to the very conservative about this. Unhampered by any evidence or academic qualification I’m inclined to think there were more folk around than generally reckoned, though of course, life was much nastier, more brutish and short than today. Life and procreation tends to the abundant, it seems to me, until it doesn’t, as with conker trees and snow leopards.
I walk on across the fields, flat except where they were once dug for clay, and then drop down to Morehay Lane and the eastern entrance to King’s Cliffe, still at over a thousand souls, a sizeable settlement, little changed in size over two centuries. Up at substantial All Saints and St. James the church ladies are cutting and arranging flowers for tomorrow’s Harvest service, sneezing as they do so. The bells of All Saints are right in the centre of the church underneath the broach tower, accessed by a magnificent metal staircase. From the congregation All Saints’ high altar is a distant feature. An everyday altar sits on the west side of the tower, fronted today by a harvest loaf, which I hope and imagine will be accompanied tomorrow by a plethora of harvest gifts in the old-fashioned way.

 I’m not sure I can explain why, but this part of the diocese is so different to the south. One breathes Viking air. Celtic sensibilities are far away. King’s Cliffe is a highly individual place, with tiny paths given the status of ‘lanes’. By name my next port of call even sounds like it belongs to Yorkshire – Blatherwycke. It’s true that here we’re less than ten miles from Lincolnshire where accents quickly change and vowels broaden in directions that suggest ‘The North’ rather than ‘The Midlands’.

 There are a few disagreeable few moments in the fields beyond the King’s Cliffe allotments. Why does my sense of outraged justice kick in so quickly and dangerously in public spaces when for instance in matters ecclesiastical I’m generally so slow to mix it with issues and individuals I think are out of order?

 I hear him well before I see him. Someone’s riding a trials bike at manic speed somewhere ahead of me, obviously doing some kind of circuit, because the sound comes and goes. Across another field boundary he becomes visible, driving his bike round and round a grass field, maybe touching fifty or sixty on the straight sides, scattering a group of grazing horses as he goes. He passes me, casting an f-off look as I lean on my stick to observe his behaviour. When he next passes, I take out my camera, and point it in his direction, but do not take a photograph. There’s no point. He’s unidentifiable in his helmet and leathers, and my lack of zoom ( as opposed to his excess of zoom!) means nothing useful would result. His bike has no number plate anyway. I stroll on, and cross another hedge by a stile parallel to Willow Brook. Now he’s crossed into this  field too through an open farm gate. He rides round to confront me. I reverse my hold on my stick and grasp it half way down, showing the knobbly end. I make myself look as big as possible (that's not very big, really!)

 Him (muffled):  Why you taking photographs of me?

Me:  I wasn’t

 Him: You was…

 Me: I wasn’t. You can have a look if you want… (showing him the camera)

 Him: You was. Suppose it was my thirteen year old daughter…

 Me: Do you have the landowners’ permission?

 Him: You the landowner then? Anyway, it’s a footpath.

 Me: Which means you shouldn’t be riding on it.

 Him: Why you taking photographs of me?

 At which point I disengage. I’ve been stupid of course. This isn’t a situation in which I should have intervened or appeared to intervene. If I found a bull inconveniently in a field, would I do anything other than give it a wide berth? I have no knowledge of his possible reaction, or whether he might be carrying a weapon, and I'm a long way from assistance in a place where mobile reception is intermittent. Ironically, as soon as I get home, I receive an advisory from our local rozzers asking me to let them know if I see someone riding a motorbike illegally or in a way likely to endanger life.
After something like this, you replay the conversation, and if you have an interior life as vividly melodramatic as mine try alternatives for size, in which you play a more heroic role. I think about phoning the police, and when I arrive at Alders Farm look for someone to confide in. I find a gamekeeper shutting up shop for the afternoon, but the fields to the east aren’t their land: he doesn’t want to know. Oddly, I see his 4x4 a little later, tracking me from the far side of the field beside Blatherwycke Lake. The game bird business is clearly a Big Thing here. Perhaps he had wondered if  I was trying to distract him while my accomplices robbed his pens or undertook some animal liberation stunt.

Within the Christian community (at least in person, if not in print), I am so much more willing to hang back and not offer criticism, even when I see injustice or offence being caused. Is this good or not? How do you act in such situations? As I’ve written a number of times previously, how we learn to disagree well is a major issue for the Church – and is becoming a big question in our future national life too. Walking together in the Deep Woods requires discipline, and the finding of a common purpose. Leadership and imposition are not the same thing.

The comedian/musician Graham Fellows (aka John Shuttleworth) wrote a song about Blatherwycke because he was passing up the A43 towards the A1 and the North after a gig, saw the sign to the village, but left it as a regretted road-not-taken. In truth, although the setting is quite romantic, the church of Holy Trinity set above the pretty lake, and the atmosphere of the once Great House still palpable, it might not have been the peak experience Graham/John was hoping for. The little church is in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. Had it been summer it’d have been open, and there’s an address for the key, but I have some long way still to go and I move on, fearing any lapse in waymarking or map-reading will leave me vulnerable to fatigue: there aren’t many features between here and Southwick, just a lot of trees, and to the west, wide open vistas, uninterrupted by much in the way of human habitation. Who cleared Rockingham forest and when? And as in so many matters ecological and social/historical, how do we feel when we compare this clearance/enclosing with the destruction of the forest in poorer parts of the world today?
Beats per minute:  21 km. 6 hrs. 17  deg C. No wind to speak of. Sunny periods. 9 stiles. 9 gates. 6 bridges. One out of three churches open. Not only a kingfisher and a spotted woodpecker, but also kites, buzzards, yaffles, pheasants and partridges by the hundreds, squirrels getting in supplies for the winter.

When I am deep in the woods
Help me to find my way.
May I recognise the shadows for what they are
And not imagine them as dark forces
Overwhelming me.
Help me to find friends
And avoid foes.
And teach me
That wherever I am
You are with me
And will keep my feet from falling.