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.
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?
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?
· 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 GodOdi 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
Or are greater
To exercise patience
When companions are slower
To read the map than I am;
That I have got things
Utterly and completely wrong.
Bind us together, LordBind us together,
O bind us together with love
R.I.P Dan Hennessy ( 1990-2020) : a valued and much missed colleague.