Saturday, 26 January 2019

Low Gear

The weather is wonderful, absolutely clear, a dusting of white on the green wherever the ground is exposed, laying bare the contours, the temperature hovering around zero but with little wind chill. However the cold's obviously got to my brain. It isn't functioning properly. Before leaving home, I dither, fussing about what to take with me. I dither again at Rothwell, thinking I'll have a coffee at 'Bewiched' on Market Hill, but then ditching the idea when I find the square fully parked. What are so many people doing in the middle of Rothwell at ten o'clock on a Wednesday morning? Perhaps they pack 'em in at Holy Trinity's midweek communion.

A more serious misjudgement further up the A6 at The Hermitage. The back lane to Brampton Ash is covered in black ice, and the Audi slithers uncertainly along it. I quickly realise that for such a narrow thoroughfare it's heavily trafficked: the reinforced but crumbling margins of the road bear testimony to that. And of course though some drivers are perfectly aware of the treacherous conditions, others, oblivious of danger, hustle past, impatient of my wariness.

I park by the entrance to St. Mary's church field. The church's tall spire will be a landmark for most of the day's walk, a significant siting, and although there's no more snow than the heaviest of hoar frosts, it lies thicker here than anywhere else. The tarmac on the little hill down into the valley affords no grip for my boots. I take to the verges as the cars pile past.

Near the 'Red Hovel' (see left) I turn onto the Macmillan Way up towards the woods. In March it will be fifty years since my mum died of breast cancer, an event which has determined more of my life than I admit most of the time. She was nearly twenty winters younger than I am now when she passed away, and how I still regret the time taken from her, despite the would-be-comforting religious clichés, the things she might have done, the denial of her calling to be a teacher, the fact that she never knew her grandson, at least not in this life. We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Or at least, we try to.

At the top of the hill - and there will be eight of them today (OK I know it's not exactly Kanchenjunga, but everybody's got to start somewhere) - the Macmillan crosses the Jurassic Way. I turn prehistorically in the direction of Stoke Albany. And then, gosh darn it, I'm misled by a wonky fingerpost, and track back down the hill way too far, looking for a non-existent gap in the hedge. Hence the second climb of the day, eventually to discover the correct line of the Jurassic by a sheepy field whose occupants look pityingly at me, as sheep in a certain mood will do.

                                                                    Yeah, right!

Once across the new and old A427's, the village of Stoke Albany is pretty and peaceful, with its Middle Lane, Chapel Lane and Bottom Lane. The church of St. Botolph's is set lower even than Bottom Lane, on a little green, the verge opposite covered in snowdrops. I perch on a bench for the first sarni of the day, see a headstone prominently positioned by the church porch in the name of Swingler, and wonder what the story was. (According to the web, there've been Swinglers in the locality since at least 1792!)

Stoke Albany and Wilbarston are so close you can almost reach out from the one to touch the other. The lane goes straight round to Wilbarston's All Saints church, hidden in the trees on a promontory at the village edge. It too is closed for business, but I can see from the notices at the south door that the parish is enthusiastic about conserving their churchyard for the wildlife. Up the other end of the village, there's sometimes been a different sort of wild life. Wilbarston Village Hall, capacity 250/300, ('the village hall that likes to think it's a stadium') acquired a reputation over thirty years for hosting regular concerts by exponents of guitar-driven blues rock. The roll-call of professional artists who came to perform here is impressive, from blues veterans like Walter Trout (great name but is it real?) to proto-heavy metallers like Robin Trower and Pat Travers. The Hamsters were regular visitors too. For twenty-five years they played up and down Britain, sometimes 300 gigs a year, marathon runners of the rock scene, until in 2012 they hung up their Fenders and Gibsons, and so it was farewell to 'Snail's Pace Slim' and the 'Rev. Otis Elevator'. We shall not see their like again. Thankfully for the hearing of Wilbarston residents, the Hall stands a little apart from the housing, looking north towards Leicestershire and Rutland from an apparently lofty position above the valley. The gigs seem to have bitten the dust too, though last year John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett stirred themselves to entertain the troops one evening. If you're unfamiliar with these two eccentric luminaries of English rock n'roll, they're worth checking out. Once heard or seen, not easily forgotten. I earn no advertising revenue from this site!!

I trundle back down the hill past All Saints musing over lack of accessibility, about which I know I habitually moan (I'm on a bad trot here: the last half dozen churches visited have all been shut). My whingeing has a different perspective today though, since I've just learned that St. Peter's, my own church, was broken into in recent days, although it appears nothing of actual or sentimental value was taken. You can't blame PCCs or incumbents for not wanting to take risks with what is precious. The same feelings of violation that apply to us as householders when we're burgled, can hold for congregations, regardless of what is stolen or damaged. On the other hand, if someone wants or needs temporary spiritual sanctuary in a holy place, ringing a keyholder for access may not quite cut it. And anyway not all churches publicly list where a key may be found. Even my intentions as a 'pilgrim' may not match those of the casual tourist. But it also has to be said that each of the four villages I pass through today has a pub, and not one of those is open either - at least at lunchtime!

Below All Saints, Brig Lane curves round in the direction of two-mile distant Ashley. Was the 'Brig' (you'll perhaps remember me encountering something similar near Loddington last autumn) the local clink, or is it a corruption of the little bridge I shortly cross? At the outset of the bridleway I pass a sign I've never seen before, a local council proscription on equestrian traffic because there's a badger sett further along and the track's surface has collapsed. And so it proves. Mr and Mrs Brock and the Brockettes are nowhere in sight, but the evidence of their labour is manifest, although at this point I snort with scepticism as to the difficulty a competent rider might have in navigating the earthworks. 'Bridleway' can mean a number of things, and what I've not factored into my energy output and timing today is that there are a few points when the track just becomes a marked way across a claggy, planted field. Uphill too. The clay just here is very heavy, and carrying a few extra pounds weight on each boot I haul myself to the top of the rise, eventually rewarded with a great view of Ashley village below me.

Hallelujah! St. Mary the Virgin's is open. With its large Hall and substantial buildings the whole of Ashley looks prosperous, and inside its church the considerable style is maintained. The man responsible for that was Sir George Gilbert Scott, the immensely hard-working Victorian architect, and designer of London's Albert Memorial. I'm guessing he may not have handled every one himself, but over 800 buildings lay claim to have been designed or renovated by him. In Ashley he seems to have tidied up all of the previous structure to some degree, but then really let himself go on the chancel, lengthening and heightening it, and commissioning designs for the sumptuous decoration of the walls and ceiling. Rather than me trying to do it justice - go and see for yourself. And let's hope that the churchwardens' enterprise in keeping the place open is encouraged once the benefice has a new incumbent. It may be that the Victorians (Oxford Movement and all that) were trying to 'revive' a High Anglicanism which never existed in the sixteenth century as they believed it did ( a perspective I owe to Diarmaid MacCullough) but the fabric of countless numbers of our church buildings wouldn't be as striking without their input. For all that the nineteenth century aesthetic sometimes fails to match ours, we should be grateful.

                                                      North side of the Chancel: Ashley

It's fascinating to see how at any one time so many parishes are without a priest. Perhaps it's a matter of cash (and the diocese is saving money the longer vacancies run). Perhaps there aren't enough new vocations - and that's certainly true among younger people. At the moment! Whether it's a matter of fashion or 'God's time', such a thing can quickly change. In the meantime the lay people buckle to and mind the homestead, sometimes with distinction and success, sometimes not. Now here's an issue for (principally!) any clergy reading this to consider. As an occupational group, as I know from personal experience, musicians sometimes yield to the feeling that they're 'chosen ones'; that they possess a gift which sets them apart from ordinary folk (perhaps, swapping callings we could label this the 'Mourinho Syndrome' ) It's total tosh, of course. We may be privileged to be able to earn money from a God-given gift, but superior human beings we are not. Sometimes clergy give the unfortunate impression that they feel the same about what they do, that they're separated and special, superior rather than privileged. They may talk the talk that lay people have vocations too (and spiritual gifts - 1 Corinthians and all that), but they seem not to walk the walk, when it comes to the crunch. Is that unfair?

Over more soggy ground and fields of clay, I toil my way to the top of another hill, and then here I am in Sutton Bassett, where on a bend in the main road to Uppingham I find the chapel of All Saints. There's no graveyard, just a tiny green patch with a seat to admire the honey-coloured stone. The the downside. I now have to struggle back up the hill to rejoin the Macmillan Way as it returns to Brampton Ash, this time in company with the Midshires Way. I'm in some discomfort and wonder if my hips are showing age damage. I'm almost immobile at one point on the only moderate upslope. I creak towards the car as the light begins to fade. I've judged it just about OK, but with maybe only ten minutes to spare before dusk properly falls. For the first time in a while I feel vulnerable as I walk. The battery on my phone gave up the ghost at Ashley. I have to pass another badger sett straddling the track towards Brampton, and this time see the danger more clearly. Some of the holes just drop vertically from the path a couple of feet. Carelessness could too easily result in a broken leg or ankle, and what would I do then, space blanket or no, with no means of calling for help?

Anglican Weakly: 21 km. 6.3 hrs. 0-2 degrees C. Unbroken sun throughout. Little in the way of breeze. A tough walk, by my standards. 5 stiles. 17 gates. 1 bridge. 8 hills 4 churches. One open. No one, but no one else out enjoying the countryside - or on the street in the villages.

I'm a token of the type.
So many ways
To enjoy myself.
To find
Personal validation.
So much reluctance
To serve.
Raise up among us
Women and men
With vocations
To make your Kingdom
In this winter world.

Monday, 21 January 2019

And it's from the old I travel to the new...

Crisp and clear by the church at Cranford's 'Duck End'. There's a slick of ice on the road where the dustcart manoeuvres and a sprinkling of fairy dust snowflakes on the Jaguar parked by the shadowy wall. Why were the ducks this end of the village and not the other? Cranford takes its name from 'cranes'. So where are the cranes? I want to see some cranes, daddy! Perhaps the ancients meant herons. There are none fishing the river today: it's been too dry.

I open the gate and walk across cropped grass towards the Ise. On the far bank a few Lowry dogs and their owners stud the fields. We cross paths at the footbridge and say hello, and I continue eastwards with the chilly wind at my back into Twywell's 'Hills and Dales' country park. It does nicely as advertised. There are shallow ironstone quarry workings to be explored up and down, and there's a semi-circular railway cutting. A sculpture from the rescued quarried stone confronts me, carved with vaguely runic inscriptions and indentations. Not bothering to extract compass from rucksack I wander about, directionally confused, and on the open heathland of the park have to consult a couple of locals for a heading. Should I believe the fingerposts or not? One of those consulted says I'll find the village more or less whichever way I go. Hmm...

But I do. Twywell's a more-or-less-one-street place. I emerge at the top end and walk down to St. Nicholas' church. I can't get in, and sit in the porch a moment, gazing at the long list of diocesan requests for payment of the parish share going back maybe fifteen years, with the accompanying statements of the percentages actually contributed. It's never been 100% (sometimes v. substantially less), and I wonder why such a litany of failure should be publicly displayed. Is it to shame the parish into doing its bit, or to cock a snook at central authority? If either of these theories seems unlikely, I have to say there's at least one parish of which I'm aware where drastic non-payment seems almost to be worn as a badge of honour. Let's be clear, as politicians say when they most wish to obfuscate, my purpose here is to say we all belong together, so I'm not going to be uber-sympathetic where our fellowship is flagrantly compromised. So there!

Horace Waller was once Rector of Twywell in his declining years towards the end of the nineteenth century. As a younger man he'd travelled widely in Africa as a missionary, and knew Livingstone well, later writing what is said to be an over-generous biography of the better known man. Waller continued to carry the anti-slavery torch at a time when the trade was still flourishing in obscure parts of the continent. Once at Twywell, he seems to have become increasingly prolific as an author. One of his works is entitled: 'Ivory, apes and peacocks: an African contemplation', and another: 'Health hints for Central Africa'. This turned out to be his greatest hit. The book ran to five editions.

I try to walk the pretty way to Slipton, but miss the path, and almost rubbing noses with some alpacas, heave myself over a fence to regain the road at the end of the Twywell houses. Slipton's nobbut a step away, and I arrive in it close to the Samuel Pepys pub. There's a Pepys Cottage opposite, so I'm assuming a village connection to this great observer of seventeenth British (London!) life, though subsequently I haven't found one. Then again, Pepys had a great liking for pubs and coffee-houses, so maybe the name of Slipton's hostelry is in simple homage to that. I look for the tiny village church, St. John the Baptist's, but can't find it until as I retrace my steps along the Sudborough road I see it in a field away to my left. It's a charming, removed setting for a chapel which presumably lost its roofs centuries ago, for now they're flat and there's no tower or spire. In the churchyard I almost literally stumble across the simplest of memorial stones which dates from 1992 and says 'Michael de la Noy: biographer'. Two or three years ago I read his excellent account of Elgar's life (that's Edward the composer, m'dears, and not Dean, the South African cricketer). And his Wikipedia entry triggers the vaguest of teenage memories. As a younger man he was press secretary to the saintly-looking Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, but in 1970 was fired 'after writing an article in support of a bisexual and transvestite colonel, which was seen as too liberal for the Church of England...'. Notwithstanding he went on to write Ramsey's biography too (though perhaps not officially sanctioned?), as well as one of the Queen Mother, and much else besides.

A single, probably juvenile, red kite inspects me curiously as I exit the churchyard. Too big for your lunch, boy! I wish I could say that the onward path to Grafton Underwood is a pleasure but can't really. It makes its way over fields for a couple of miles on the slightest of inclines, crossing numerous drainage ditches on ground of moderate clag. At home we're watching the American version of 'House of Cards', so as I walk, the image of Kevin Spacey as the criminally cynical Francis Underwood floats before my eyes, on his way to the US Presidency. Life imitating art, or the other way round?  Spacey's a wonderful actor, for all that he's done some pretty bad things himself. Allegedly.

Of course much experience is coloured by contrast, and perhaps Grafton is all the more wonderful because the walked approach to it is a bit of a slog. In the early afternoon sunshine it presents as the pluperfect English country settlement, thatched cottages flanking a glistening stream flowing down the main street where ducks swim, feed, and preen themselves. In fact the legend by the speed sign says, with definitive Anglo-Saxon allusion: For duck's sake, slow down!' 

Go back nearly eighty years, and into this charming piece of Olde Englande came the Americans. In 1942 an RAF base just up the road was allocated to the USAF. First came Boston light bombers, and then the heavier, impressive B-17s, and they took off from Grafton to degrade the German facilities in Rouen and the Low Countries. One of the pilots stationed here for a while later flew the mission to Hiroshima which ended Japanese resistance and brought the Second War to a close with a cataclysmic, world-altering nuclear bang. It's now a very quiet January day in this sleepy Northamptonshire village, and I find the thought of these events, so distant and yet so much a part of the mindscape of our generation, intensely moving - the side by side existence of rural tranquillity and cutting-edge military technology, of Northamptonshire burr and variety of American accent, a new world colliding with the old. That 'shock of the new' cliché has been with us ever since, but perhaps in the current political turmoil, as both left and right look back nostalgically, the one to days of Marxist triumphalism, the other to 'true' British independence, we're feeling its real force for the first time. Do we move forward and forget completely what we were before? Or do we assimilate inevitable global change into a pre-existing framework? Are humans changing themselves from Mark 1 to Mark 2 with the advent of social media and AI? The church of St. James the Apostle with its lovely window of remembrance is shut, and sitting on the bench outside I can't focus my thoughts into any kind of prayer. I'm worried for what will be, which as always we little people can do almost nothing to prevent or promote.

                                           Primroses and daffs: Cranford: January 17th

Dairy Express:  16 km. 4.7 hrs. 2-4 deg C. Pretty much cloudless sky throughout. North-west wind dying into the afternoon. 3 stiles. 22 gates. 11 little bridges. Going: tacky after limited precipitation in recent days. But this is still a very dry January after a very mild autumn.


Two stories with countryside interest in The Times these past few days.

1. Lost footpaths. 'Time running out to save lost walks'. In fact there are countless footpaths marked on the nation's OS maps, and as I understand it, there can be no threat to most of these, though perhaps some local authorities are too easily persuaded to allow diversions to suit developers or landowners. And as I've mentioned before (probably too many times!) sometimes ingenuity and a good geographical sense are required to find the route on the ground where fingerposts and stiles have been removed or allowed to fall into terminal disrepair. Those who do this should be sanctioned. It's also true that in some areas of this county, and presumably other counties too, there's a strange and irksome lack of rights-of-way, perhaps due to ancient enclosures or even the Second War. But extracting from the diaries of the great and good anecdotal evidence of rambles which Virginia Woolf or Eric Ravilious may once have enjoyed in their youth, isn't going to get us very far. The answer's simple. Get your boots on, baby, and walk the paths you can see on the map. Go for the low fruit!

2. Pheasants. They're beautiful birds and a glory of our winter countryside. And they're very nice to eat. Which means one way or another they have to be shot. If it's true there's such blood-lust among our feckless rich that birds are massacred for no reason to do with the dinner table, then of course that's a scandal, and those responsible should be ashamed of themselves. But then again, we have to beware of covert lobbying by particular interest groups...

Dear Lord

I had a shock last Sunday.
That woman I used to see
On the pavement by the newsagent's
Next to St. James' church...
She died.
January 2nd.
Didn't want to use the shelters
In central Northampton.
Apparently she didn't feel safe.
I'd said hello
Once or twice.
But that was all.
Never stopped to find out
Why she was there.
She might not have told me.
Might have spent anything I'd given her
So I feel bad.
And angry too,
That our politicians' focus is elsewhere.
'God help the lost and lonely
God help the poor
Cold days and ice nights only
Hard times for sure' (Steve Forbert) 
And dear God, help me to be better
Next time.
(For there will be a next time).

R.I.P. 'Jerica'

Saturday, 12 January 2019

Spinning a few 45s

Welcome to 2019. Looks like it could be a bumpy ride. Maybe it's the prospects for that which have kept me awake the last two nights. I'm very groggy and heavy-legged as I park the car by St. Mary's Weekley on a sparkling morning and climb the stile onto still-frosty grass in the field beside the wall of the Boughton Estate. On the far side of the wall the Boughton Herd, black and dun and perhaps 200 strong, munch contentedly, most of them, as animals do, feeding with their bottoms facing the chilly prevailing wind of the day. One or two raise their heads and sniff suspiciously in my direction, although I'm a couple of hundred metres distant and separated from them by twelve feet of brick.

 When I'm awake at night I try to use the wee-small-hours telly to bore me back to slumber. Last night a lamentable documentary eventually did the trick. Someone thought that sending sixties' electric folkie Donovan back to the Indian ashram he once shared with The Beatles would be a great idea. Wrong. Donovan now looks as if he's being played by Nigel Planer, and his singing isn't much better than Planer's would be. Maybe it was a spoof, and it really was Nigel Planer. The claims made for the transcendental spirituality of Hurdy Gurdy Man were frankly ridiculous, and the now deserted and ruined ashram looked sad. However meditation has kept Donovan and his wife together over many decades, and there were some useful nods at the concept of 'letting go'. I know how tightly I cling to the past. What will we have to 'let go' as individuals, as a nation, as a Church, in the next twelve months? (see my comments in this blog after the Vote of June 2016).  I'm properly fearful.

The curse of the mobile phone. I receive some potentially hurtful news from a client as I walk on towards Geddington on the bridleway, and although it was brilliantly sunny as I left Weekley, there's a cloud over my spirit as well as the village when I pitch up in Geddington's main street. However there's enough about this place to distract and restore perspective. We used to whizz past on the old A43, the Stamford road long ago diverted to avoid the river crossing with its lengthy ford, but I've never actually stopped to look. I watch as a Ford Transit justifies its name by successfully ploughing through the Ise's waters, smug satisfaction on the driver's face at completing this permitted transgression. Our Polo could just about squeeze between the guardian posts on the lovely old bridge beside the ford, though at risk to its wing mirrors. There are two pubs still open, a hairdresser's, and a Post Office which sports an ancient sign promising customers the delights of 'confectionary' (sic). Geddington is a sizeable village still, and St. Mary Magdalene's church is an impressive building. As of February 3rd they'll have a new Priest-in-Charge, Gillian Gamble. And every time she walks up the church path, she'll pass the best of the surviving original 'Eleanor Crosses'. (There are two others - at Hardingstone and Waltham Abbey. The one at London's Charing Cross is a replica.) You know the story - one of the most touching memorials to love. Eleanor of Castile, wife of Edward the First, died in 1290 at the age of 49. The marriage may have once been in the service of Franco-English diplomacy, but it became one of deep affection, and when she passed away near Lincoln, the bereft King ordered that crosses be erected at every one of the twelve places the cortege stopped on its progress back to London. Most of them have gone now, but here three statues of Eleanor still gaze down somewhat sepulchrally on passers-by. I drop into bright, cheerful Oak Café for a coffee and lemon drizzle cake, served by Linda. Bernie, the owner is labouring away at the back, preparing sandwiches. I'm the only customer on a late Wednesday morning, but January's a funny time, as someone was saying on the morning radio about retail in Stockport. People don't want to go out to shop when it's cold.

This Saturday (12th Jan) there's to be a 'Twelfth Night Wassail Party' in the village. It says so in the church porch. Am I being too sensitive in complaining that society has become so secular it now thinks 'Twelfth Night' refers to the New Year and not Christmas? Happy Holidays everyone!

I walk the lane out of the village to the west, passed by snorting forty-tonners squeezing their way through the parked cars, and pick up the bridleway which twists and turns up a mild gradient until Little Oakley appears below me, nestled down into a hollow as a Cotswold village might be. A pair of red kites, each with perhaps a metre of wing span, circle and plummet, the A10 tankbusters of the ornithological world, but not so well camouflaged against the winter sky, beautiful russet, black and white. Little Oakley is empty of people, and the church, without a sign, its windows invaded by ivy, its porch clagged by leaves and mast, looks almost as sad as a sixties' Indian ashram. Later I find that in 2016 there was an application to turn the thirteenth century church of St. Peter into a three-bedroom dwelling, but whether that's been taken further since then I can't find out. At the time the Northamptonshire Telegraph commented that 'eerily' the future householders would have to live 'surrounded by gravestones' because they wouldn't be able to have title to the churchyard. Go figure. What should they be allowed to do? Grub up the headstones and replace them with decking and barbecues? I'd have thought any self-respecting thirty-something Goths would love the Doomy vibe. There are snowdrops already showing by the church wall, and I'll take that as a sign that Little Oakley's church will find good use soon. Spring flowers are much further forward than last year. There were even some primroses visible round the sheltered sides of the moat at Wells Cathedral last week.

                    Little Oakley: 'nestled down into a hollow as a Cotswold village might be'

I follow the stream across the fields towards Great Oakley. In a mile the path crosses under first the by-pass for the original Geddington by-pass, if you follow me, and then the railway line from Kettering to Corby and on to Oakham, a service that's expanding with time. Corby used to be exceptionally ill-served by the railway, perhaps on the basis that no true Scot thought London had anything to offer. Then from 2009 an hourly train was provided, and this may become half-hourly in the next year or so. Accordingly the housing is pushing outwards from Corby into the countryside. The latest claim from Shelter is that we need to build three million houses to meet the supposed shortfall in the stock. Really? That would be an increase of at least one-ninth to the existing national provision, and would assume an ongoing average occupancy per dwelling of not much  more than two people. At a time when there's real poverty out there, it would be nice to see Shelter concentrate on the essentials, and not being slave to political or commercial propaganda, which has more to do with mitigating difficulties elsewhere in the economy. But long-time readers have heard me on this before.

St. Michael's, Great Oakley, is a bit of weird affair, location-wise, sitting a little way out of the old hamlet, and stiflingly close to the 'Big House', but their self-description on achurchnearyou looks promising and maybe the gracious setting is a selling point for those wanting an escape from deeply urban Corby and its surrounds. Our national Church's buildings are such a marketing and emotional asset, and the more ancient, the better, if we can keep them well-maintained. I was inside Moulton's parish church a few weeks ago, and its refurbishment is a model of what can be achieved, comfortable and warm, multi-purpose without doing violence to the core architecture. Dealing with the gritty problems of everyday twenty-first century living is all very well, and some town centre churches do a fantastic job among the poor and needy, but it can be very hard to develop a sense of the numinous on a housing estate or in a shopping mall, sometimes requiring a refined, poetic nose for metaphor.

I pick my way across the parkland of the Great Oakley estate, and though I can negotiate my way back under the soon-to-be-electrified railway, the path diverts annoyingly back to a road bridge to cross high over the dual carriageway. At first I'm puzzled by some notices pinned to the railings beside me and assume they're romantic notes - the equivalents of the keys often hung  on continental river bridges. With a shock I realise the notes have a serious, sadder purpose, intended to make any potential 'jumpers' think twice before killing themselves. Do the notes originate in personal experience, or are they just for the greater good?

I give up walking to Newton off-road (the path is now three sides of a rectangle) and dodge cars and litter up the lane instead. First I see a London Records single of Bobby Vee's Take good care of my baby' lying on the verge, but it's scratched and anyway my first girlfriend Rosemary always preferred John Leyton, so I leave it for the fairies. Then a few hundred metres on I see Eddie Harris's (who?) 'Boogie Woogie Bossa Nova' (dented and broken), and then a quarter mile after that, Johnny and the Hurricanes ( now we're talking!) 'Down Yonder'. But the distribution of these ancient platters of plastic makes it clear that someone has deliberately 'sown' them from an open car window in some drug crazed anti-sixties revenge trip. Or perhaps it wasn't drugs but alcohol. Or just an extreme excess of caffeine. How else to account for the innumerable cans of Special Brew, Irn Bru, Red Bull and Coke also adorning the roadside? Much further on I stumble over Charlene's late seventies regrettable hit 'I've never been to me'. Enough already.

                                                   'Watching you?'  Evidently not.

Strolling into the little settlement of Newton brings to mind 'Fig Newton', Rumpole of the Bailey's occasional preferred private investigator in John Mortimer's amusing stories of barrister life. A 'fig newton' is a trademarked biscuit variant on a fig roll, but Rumpole's 'Fig' is nicknamed from his initials. The Northamptonshire Newton is sometimes known as 'Newton-in-the-Willows' from its proximity to the River Ise. The one time St. Faith's church is now a Field Studies Centre and there's a little nature reserve close to its front door. But in this lovely setting there are dark memories. In 1607 the local peasants rose up against enclosures. 47 of them were killed, often hung, drawn and quartered, pour decourager les autres. At its outset, the revolt was led by John Reynolds from Desborough, known as 'Captain Pouch' from the wallet that always hung at his side. He told the rebels no harm would come to them because of the pouch's contents: he carried authority from God and the King. The villains of the piece locally were the Tresham family who were vying with the Montagus of Boughton for control of land around Rockingham Forest. As they grabbed territory, hedging and ditching it, the rebels fought back by tearing down the planting and filling the dykes. A thousand people gathered in pitched battle at Newton in June 1607, but only one side was ever going to win. Reynold's pouch was found to contain nothing but mouldy cheese, and he was hanged, of course. The Montagu family went on by marriage to become the Buccleuchs. They still have vast holdings of land throughout Britain. The notice by the right of way at Weekley on the Boughton Estate tells me I must keep strictly to the path, with the implied threat that shooting is always in progress close by.

Pieces on the board:  18 km. 5.5. hrs. 5 degrees C. Early sun, then cloud and the possibility of a shower, clearing towards dusk with a beautiful sunset. A chilly breeze at times. Going: yielding and soft, though not claggy on the fields; firm and good on the tracks: little or no precipitation over the last fortnight. Four churches visited. Two still in use as places of worship. None open. 5 stiles. 27 gates. 2 bridges. 1 ford.

God, my God
Father and Mother
From your viewpoint
Wherever that is
Above our creaturely existence
Warp and weft of all that is
Seen and unseen,
Tell me
Whose side should I be on?
John Reynolds or the landowners?
And now if it isn't impertinent,
the more difficult ones.
Those fascists outside Parliament.
The make believe 'gilets jaunes'.
What if they appear in Northampton?
Do I sit idly by?
And what should my stance be
If some exploit the food banks
And then some politicians
Exploit their exploitation
For oppressive ends?
Should I be a doormat
Endure in silence
Let the chips fall where they will?
Lord, prevent us in all our doings.
Guide us, guard us, keep us, feed us.


For any new readers. Hello!

In April 2016 I began walking to every parish church (and redundant parish church) in the Diocese of Peterborough by a series of circular routes. My rule has been that each walk must start somewhere on the circumference of a previous one. The first walk began at my 'home' church, St. Peter's, Weston Favell, and the last one will end at Peterborough Cathedral, probably some time in early/mid 2020.

I'm now roughly two-thirds of the way there. I've visited every church in the southernmost of the two arch-diaconates (Northampton), and I'm just finishing my rambles around the old industrial belt which straddles Northamptonshire between Wellingborough and Corby.

It's been a fascinating project. I've learned an awful lot, and met some very splendid people. In this blog I've allowed myself to write about some of the town and country issues I've encountered, and publicly indulged in sharing a few of my interests and obsessions.

Most of all though, this has been about saying how much churches in our diocese need each other. We differ widely in our liturgical practice and theological nuance, but we all proclaim 'One Church, One Faith, One Lord', and we'd better mean it, because the World out there won't understand anything else, and there isn't enough money in the bank to sustain our every individual whim. We need to share - to really share.

I'm currently reading Diarmaid MacCullough's brilliant set of essays on the Reformation 'All Things Made New'. I highly recommend it. If you think you've got the Church of England down, after reading MacCullough's book, you'll probably realise you haven't. I wish I could write like him.

                                                    Dusk at St. Mary the Virgin, Weekley

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

A million small kindnesses

Opposite Loddington church is a finger post and a tiny aperture in the hedge by a drive. Sometimes I'm the walking equivalent of a fundamentalist, so I squeeze through the prickly opening.  A wall blocks the way. I re-route. At the bottom of the short drive by an industrial unit is a neglected stile which leads by muddy descent to one of Messrs. Linnell's ubiquitous field gates. There's renovation going on in the building. A decontamination cabin sits beside its open door. Asbestos? I hold my breath and stumble quickly through the gate and onto the grass on my way to whatever Orton will bring. A hymn tune from yesterday morning's service is running through my head on repeat - 'Coe Fen' to 'How shall I sing thy majesty?' It's not even a tune I particularly like - preferring 'Kingsfold'. I deliberately swap it for something else, but the something else turns out to be a Stuart Townend song which ends with a phrase reminiscent of S Club 7's 'Reach'. This is all so much worse, so I instruct brain to return to 'Coe Fen'. Marching up over pasture under a brittle sky, I have the chance to admire some pretty highland cattle and a flock of curious Christmas turkeys before a black lab sees me off Manor Farm. (I mean the turkeys are curious about me. No reflection on their size, shape or table-worthiness!)

                                        Turkeys - or on second thoughts maybe guinea-fowl?

What I find in Orton is a minor puzzle. There's a church all right, closed and under the care of the Orton Trust, whose moniker is also carved on the door lintel of a dusty hall to one side. But the emblem seems to be Masonic. Surely that can't be right?

A tiny bit right, and yet oh so wrong! The Orton Trust was formed in 1968 and exists to 'maintain and encourage the traditional stonemasonry skills used in the restoration and conservation of historic buildings'. And All Saints, now redundant, has been turned into a workshop and lecture room. How creative. How absolutely perfect!

England's cricketers should be about to beat Sri Lanka for the third time in a month under the sub-continental sun, but the mobile won't co-operate in feeding my news hunger. Sighing, as one does so often these days when technology won't immediately perform a miracle and accede to a pernickety wish, I take the road onwards to Rothwell. Down the hill a black bull is confined in a side field with a single cow. She seems bored. He carries a mournful air. From the look of him he may well have sired the calves up on the Loddington side, and if so should be pleased with his work - a proverbial quiver full of arrows. Can't win every one.

I can't access Rothwell by my chosen path, which would have conveniently taken me under the A14 into town. Earthmovers are still at work around the periphery of what will soon be a new supermarket ( another Lidl? How many more can the world take?), so I have to go the tedious way over the roundabouts, past a freshly crunched Ford Focus. It's the second RTA consequence I've seen this morning. The weather's been blameless: it's just drivers getting used to the November darkness. Is this an argument for or against BST?

I've been known to knock the parochialism of some parts of the county, but OK, it's time for confession. In forty-five years I've only been through Rothwell on a handful of occasions, and stopped off just the once ages ago for a Northampton Chamber Choir concert when the excellent Stephen Meakins was still in his conducting prime. The town is twinned with Droue, which I have to look up - it's in the Loire, not far from Blois, but of course in terms of county commonplace, the only real twinning for Rothwell is with Desborough, a mile or so up the road, as durable a combination as 'fish n'chips' or 'Mick n'Keef'.

The town is sometimes pronounced 'Rowell', to rhyme with 'towel', and you know this by the sign on the pub near the centre on the old A6 coaching route. The church of Holy Trinity is totally splendid. As I walk through the glass doors, a light, bright riot of colour greets me. There's a servery to the left and a comfy, kiddie-friendly area to the right. Four ladies are sharing the dregs of their Monday morning coffee. I say hello and tell them they have a lovely church, with which they agree monosyllabically: they're grooved on their own conversation. For once I don't feel like interrupting them. This isn't a criticism. Knowing what to do with casual visitors who wander into church has occupied thousands of PCC hours. Too much interest can be as bad as too little: sometimes people are just looking for untrammelled peace and quiet. And here the home team have their own business to transact. Human interaction can be so simple, and so endlessly subtle and complex, can't it?

The most singular thing about Rothwell's church is its ossuary, which can only be seen every other Sunday afternoon. I'd assumed I wouldn't get a peek today, and to be honest wasn't entirely sure I wanted to spend time alone with a big pile of bones. There's something terribly atavistic about such a collection - itself perhaps something of a relic of ancestor worship. It's also a 'memento mori', which at my age I really don't need, thank you. As it is, at some point most days I find myself thinking with reluctance of a world without Me. As Shakespeare wrote: 'what's to come is still delay there lies no plenty...then come kiss me sweet and twenty...'

 Up the hill I go, past the 'Faith and Fabric' shop, and the Old Bank which now hosts a Turkish restaurant. I pass two ladies who look dyed-in-the-wool Northamptonshire, but are chatting away in Polish. Near the Eastern European carwash I hang a left round the back of the cricket ground, and wander over fields towards Desborough. For the first time this autumn, my boots properly clag up - and that's before the days of rain we're promised this week as the wind switches to the south-west. The approach to St. Giles is through a long field where hairy horses (which might belong to travellers) graze with fierce concentration, and then up a steep bank into the churchyard. At the north door some ladies are hanging decorations over the porch. They encourage me to go inside, where they tell me there's a cup of tea on offer. I enter, and am amazed. Preparations are in full swing for the church's, for Desborough's 'Christmas Tree Festival'. Alan's in charge today, and he gives me a tour of the building with its moved and preserved rood screen, its nice looking, funkily-piped organ, and its collection of Green Men, all of which this week take second place to a display of over eighty Christmas trees, decorated in various styles, traditional and contemporary. Each one's the work of a different individual or concern in the town, commercial and organisational. Alan tells me this is the oldest Christmas Tree Festival north of Watford, which amuses me. What the Festival does so splendidly is to bring the town together, focused on the church. It gets people inside. It creates opportunities for ministry and care. The locals will be queueing to get in, come Friday evening.

 Going eastwards out of Desborough the skies darken. Eventually I have to admit defeat and raise my umbrella. The lane is busy. I repeatedly hop up the nine inches on to the verge to avoid the oncoming 4x4s while a) not dropping my stick b)not having the brolly turned inside out c)not getting soaked by uncaring motorists. Could be an audition piece for Strictly. It's a relief when the perimeter wall for the Rushton Hall estate begins because there's a thin strip of sidewalk beside it to keep me safe.

Rushton Hall once belonged to the Treshams. They were Catholics, and one of them, Francis, ended up in the Tower of London in 1605 for his role in the Gunpowder Plot. Now it's a top-end hotel/spa, which seems distinctly laisse-majeste. Apparently Dickens was a regular 19C visitor and for Great Expectations 'Haversham Hall', read 'Rushton Hall' or so the story goes. By the road is one of Northamptonshire's defining landmarks, the 'Triangular Lodge' folly. Not only did it feature on the front of one of the OS maps, but it also adorned the cover of  Pevsner's 'Northamptonshire Buildings of England', so you can tell how important it is. The whole building is a religious allegory, and had it been open, I could have paid my money to English Heritage and spent the rest of the afternoon trying to decode the symbolism. It's triangular for Trinitarian reasons, but it doesn't end there. There are inscriptions and mysterious numbers which reveal, for instance, the supposed dates of the Flood, the length of Jesus' and Mary's lives and much else besides.

                                     You'll find much better pictures elsewhere on the Web...

I'm desperate for a drink by the time I reach Rushton, and head for the Thornhill Arms (the Thornhills were later owners of the Hall. It was Clara Thornhill, whom Dickens came to visit.) When I emerge, there's been another shower, and the light on the cricket field behind All Saints is brilliant. You wouldn't need to be Ben Stokes for a good hit down the ground to threaten the church windows. I wonder if a ball has ever been sent through the glass. Sue's old college in Cambridge, Hughes Hall, has a new building contiguous with Fenners' cricket ground such that high netting has had to be installed to ensnare any big hits. The upside is that the Common Room has a peerless view of play. Just a pity there are fewer county matches with fewer stars of the game on show against the undergrads these days.

Local village names persist as family names. Sue and I both taught 'Desboroughs'. Bill Rothwell is a stalwart of our church community, a doughty walker and organiser (though he's an Ulsterman so maybe that's another Rothwell!). And then there's Rosie Rushton journalist, writer of children's books and lay reader at our church. I don't know any Ortons personally, but of course playwright Joe comes to mind, and so does Beth of that ilk, a folktronic singer better known in the US than over here.

There's another lengthy bout of exposed road walking as I approach and pass Glendon. There was a church here once, St. Helen's, and in 2006 Time Team went looking for it, only to conclude that it had disappeared under later revisions to Glendon Hall. Likewise there was once a Rushton St. Peter's, but it too was pulled down at the convenience of the landowners. It seems that past centuries were less sentimental (or superstitious?) about removing redundant places of worship. I turn into Violet Lane, lovely of association, which is now a pair of dead-ends for traffic either side of the A14. By using a path that at one point is intimidatingly close to the onward rushing traffic, I cross under the trunk road, and walk up to Thorpe Malsor past the point the map marked as 'Potted Brig'. (tiled lock-up??)

As I walk into Loddington, a school coach driving furiously along the narrow road misses my head by inches with one of its sticky-out wing mirrors, although I'm walking securely on the thin pavement. Near the pub a man walking his dog smiles and says hello. He lets me past and prevents me from having to step into the lane. We are a royal priesthood, a holy nation, yes we are. And we are here to spread the Good News. But we the Church are also distinct and different in our commitment to do good everywhere we go, each day, 24/7 with a million small acts of kindness. Aren't we?

At Loddington school, the lights shine brightly from inside as twilight falls, and for a few seconds I capture again the magic of approaching Christmas as a child, the hand-numbing cold, the scent of decaying leaves, the foggy drama of December afternoons and trains cancelled, the school carol concert, the mystery of a child born to bring new hope in the fading of the year.

Cathartic Herald:  21 km. 6 hrs. 2 stiles. 17 gates. 2 bridges. 2 showers of blessing. Bird of the week: Blue Tit. 6 deg C. A very light, easterly breeze.

Look, I know you're not idiots. You're reading this for a start. But if you've got eyes as bad as mine, try clicking on the photographs, if you want to see more detail...

I read the inscription
On that strange ancient building
'Consideravi opera tua, Domine, et expavi...
I thought about all you have done, Lord,
And I was terrified...
Because maybe I haven't been a good steward
Maybe I've contributed to spoiling your creation
Maybe I've failed to use my talents
Maybe I've chosen to be
Careless like the bus-driver
Rather than kind
Like the dog-walker.
Make me a clean heart, O God
And renew a right spirit within me.

Saturday, 24 November 2018

Understandeth thou what thou readest?

I've always loved this story from Luke's Book of Acts. An Ethiopian on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (..Is he a Jew?...Or just curious about the Jewish religion?) is sitting in his carriage in the desert, scratching his head over the book of Isaiah. Perhaps he's sheltering from the heat - or wrapped up against the cold! He manages the treasure of his Queen so he's a rich bloke, hence the carriage and the faith tourism. Philip (the deacon and evangelist, not the apostle) pops up from nowhere, and asks him if he understands what he's reading. Now I know the Ethiopian's carriage didn't have windows, but I imagine Philip played by Marty Feldman, the insistent face, suddenly there, banging on the glass, demanding an answer, wanting to do his evangelist thing. This is a two thousand year old story, right? Astonishing!

I'm the Ethiopian, you see. So often these days I find myself reading stuff, and not having a clue what's going on. This week, as the first phase of Brexit, the withdrawal agreement, is paraded before our faces on a 24/7 schedule, I don't know what's up and what's down. More's the point, apparently neither do some of the major players in this ghastly but fascinating Match of the Day. Both David Davis and Jeremy Corbyn have spoken in profoundly logic-defeating ways about the matter during the last twenty-four hours. Philip ( May? Hammond? Any old Philip!)...where art thou?

And as I continue to plod my way around the Diocese, there are many occasions when I come across an artefact or person, and am left in a state of puzzlement. Well, I suppose that's OK. Socrates famously claimed to be the wisest of all people, because at least he acknowledged that he knew nothing.

Chilly and grey the morning as I walk down past Kettering's fire station and Bishop Stopford School. A fire appliance, all blues and twos, tightening of belts and girding of loins, hurtles up towards the town centre. Yellow high-vis jackets loiter at the top of the school drive, hoping there'll be some customers to shepherd into the Saturday morning Craft Fayre (at least they spelt it with a 'C' and not a 'K')

Were you a pupil at this school, you'd find yourself in one of eight 'houses': Canterbury, Durham, Ely, Gloucester, Peterborough, Salisbury, Winchester or York - so it won't surprise the out-of-county reader to learn that BS is an Anglican foundation, or that Stopford himself was a Bishop of Peterborough who graciously consented that the school be named after him at its inception in 1965. That last sentence sounds a bit crabby. In his position I'm sure I'd have had my arm twisted too.

                                                                  Near Mawsley...

Kettering suddenly opens on to fields just here, but first I have to cross the A14 on a bridge and then navigate a scrubby, nasty path round the back of what was once one of the most celebrated eating places in England. Now it's just another Starbuck's. Not so long ago it was one of the three Little Chef restaurants whose menu and décor were given a makeover by Heston Blumenthal (himself named after a service station on the M4 - only kidding, Hest!) Up to then Little Chef fare was straight out of 1969, when food in roadside cafes was mostly inedible (although didn't you just love their e-number-laden 'Jubilee Pancakes' c. 1977). HB was brought in and zapped the high calories and low nutrition. The star of his new show was definitely the Braised Oxcheeks and Mash.  For a couple of years we regularly drove the fifteen miles from home to indulge in this heavenfood while the traffic from Felixstowe to Manchester whizzed by. But it is no more. Only the ubiquitous Starbuck's coffee and muffins remain.

Up the field I see two things I 'read' but fail to understand. The first is a multi-coloured cone by the side of the crop, pictured above. Is it to mark a stash of animal feed, or does it cover stuff to kill weeds? Then on the far side of the adjoining, busy lane, an MOD site, owned by the RAF. It's poorly defended, so what's it for?

There's a hint the sun's coming out to play as, pursued by a dog, I walk up through the rough pasture into the large village of Broughton, which perhaps unfairly I've always thought of as rather untidy and sprawling, but only because I've been passing through on the main road. The area around St. Andrew's church is refined and pretty though, and I sit in the churchyard with a chicken sarnie, viewed suspiciously by a couple using the gate into their back garden. The church is being renovated, and so is closed to all for a few weeks. It has a broach spire. Wikipedia tells me a broach spire starts from a square base and is carried to a tapering octagon by means of triangular faces. Now you know. On the western side of the village I cross the by-pass with difficulty and drop to the stream bridge on the road to Great Cransley. A left turn at the Three Cranes gives me

a good peek at swanky Cransley Hall, which was on the market for 2.6 million in 2013. OK, so there's a name link between Cransley and Cranes but why are there always three of them? (cf. The Three Cranes at Turvey).  Daddy Crane, Mummy Crane and Baby Crane? Frasier, Niles and Martin? There's another St. Andrew's church here, also shut, and so close to the western end of the Hall that it either tells you something about the relation of the Church and the toffs at a certain point in history ( the enclosures and all that) or the original location of the village centre.

The OS map is great, but it's not absolutely 100% infallible. Very occasionally odd distances or angles on footpaths surprise one or seem slightly askew. On this occasion my 'Explorer 224' edition must be more than fifteen years old, because it doesn't show Mawsley village at all. Perhaps I should get the OS app...

I keep going south-westwards from Great Cransley along a bridle path to New Lodge Farm. On the way I'm passed by a small boy driving a buggy with his dad and some manure on the back. The family look happy enjoying a little bonding time, and I get a cheery wave.

                                                            St. Andrew's Cransley

Beyond the farm I can see the modern houses of Mawsley across the fields and the path begins to veer in unexpected, diverted directions until it emerges at a road near the entrance to the village. The place surprises me. It has the spacious, organised feel of some parts of Milton Keynes. Everywhere seems very well-ordered. The planting is mature. There's a mixture of housing, all of it smart, some of it surprisingly capacious, though there are also rows of two-up two-downs. The architecture nods in the direction of various vernacular styles without being fussy or over-severe. As I lean on the fence beside a recreation space, I say hello to Steve and his two small terriers. I ask him what Mawsley's like as a community, whether it is a community. Steve's enthusiastic. He, his wife and two daughters love it. The kids have been through the village school and thought it a great experience. Some of his friends tell him off when he jokes that they all live in a 'housing estate in the middle of fields', but Mawsley's clearly gradually developing an identity despite not having been provided a pile of amenities at first. Now there's a Community Centre, and some shops, and even a café. Steve's involved in Am Dram, and the same people turn up at most community-related events. But that's the  same everywhere, isn't it?

The C. of E. has an outpost in the village, bundled with  Broughton and Cransley, and I presume it must meet either in the school or the Community Centre, so mentally I sprinkle holy water over Steve, his family and the village (pop. 2320 in 2011) and move on, spirit lightened.

It seems a long old drag up the lane and then back across the fields in the direction of Loddington. After a certain time walking I'm feeling a touch of Jon Pertwee's 'twingeing screws' down both thighs. I hope the pain's referring from my back and not from decaying hips, but at this point in the day my pace and agility are well reduced. I creak into Loddington, and admire the solid polished wood around St. Leonard's porch. I was a Bishop's Visitor to Loddington's Primary School for a while. On its somewhat constrained site on the main street just down from the church and up from the pub it does very well for its hundred or so pupils, dealing with more social deprivation than you'd credit in such a rural place, although sometimes these are kids sent from  nearby urban environments to somewhere that might calm them down.

As of quite recently, Bishop's Visitors are no more. It was always hard to recruit new ones, and these days, with the plethora of checks and balances, the various triangulations on performance that are all part of 21st century education, it's been decided BVs have no useful function, quite correctly IMO. Of course if this were to mirror any dilution of the distinctive nature of Church of England schools, it would be a great loss, but as a Church we have to work out whether we're offering a service without reward in our schools, or recommending and representing a particular way of life. Can we do both? I'm not sure I understand the way ahead for this in a multi faith/no faith society.

Minor rant coming...but kind of related to the above. This week Radio 5 had a #sextakeover day, during which any moral position (as opposed to any other kind of position!) your grandma might have taken was routinely tutted over, and the contemporary sexual supermarket repeatedly advertised. I don't think there's the scintilla of awareness at the Beeb that in the way Five Live's presenters talk and react they're projecting the strongest of let-it-all-hang-out moral attitude, rather than maintaining the objectivity they claim to inhabit. It's a mistake from first year undergraduate philosophy, babe.  Rant over.

In Thorpe Malsor, down the road from Loddington, it sounds like there's Diwali and Bonfire Night going on at three o'clock in the afternoon. I'm surprised the villagers haven't all got PTSD. It's just the wealthy blowing up a few hundred brace of pheasants for tea. I like pheasant. It's just the evident pleasure in killing I hate. In Netflix' Good Wife a senior lawyer, Diane Lockhart, convinced Democrat and liberal, has a lover/husband who's a gun-toting Republican ballistics expert (you know it's going to end in tears...) The writers elucidate the fascination with firearms very cleverly over many episodes. Eventually they have Diane exclaiming: 'My, don't I look good with a gun...'

So another village, another locked church - All Saints. In this central belt of the county, very few PCCs are prepared to take the risk of being open to all. I stop in the village and look at a strange monument by the side of the road. Is it a seat? Is it a memorial?

There's a Greek inscription which gives God the glory, and there are some dates, but I can't interpret the significance, and unusually nothing on the Web will tell me. Thorpe Malsor was where some of the local ironstone quarrying was undertaken in the mid-twentieth century, supporting the war effort. Seventy years on I daresay one could reconstruct the locations and find superficial evidence of the activity, but generally speaking you'd never know what had taken place. Part of the line of the narrow gauge Kettering Ironstone Railway is still discernible on the map, as is the site of Cohen's breakers' yard near Great Cransley. Woodham Brothers in Barry, South Wales, is celebrated as one of the most ghostly, evocative railway venues. As British Railways disposed of its stock of ageing steam locos in the early sixties, replacing them with the nice, new, clean (!) diesel motive power, they were sent for scrap to various places. Woodham's was the largest, but Cohen's played its part too, down in the dip near the junction of the A43 and the more recent A14 trunk road. I never knew.

The re-entry to Kettering isn't a pleasure. I pick my way through a new housing project where, unlike at Mawsley, there'll be very little landscaping, and absolutely no community infrastructure, the assumption being that the residents will use the town centre. The houses are crammed together, the references to traditional housing styles crude. There are already people in some of them, but the roads aren't finished, and it's clear there isn't enough parking. It's a future slum staring us in the face. I think I do understand this: if an environment is barren and bleak, so will be the minds of the inhabitants. Why are we repeating this mistake? And how can we square my complaint with the need not to build on green field sites all the time?

Christian Sciatica Monitor:  25 km.  7.5 hrs. 9-13 deg C. Light but chilly northerly breeze.  2 stiles. 16 gates. 4 bridges. 2 nurofen. Wrens much in evidence (now the leaves have fallen). One conversation. Four churches (all firmly shut on a Saturday morning/afternoon & no sign of life in or around them).

We're not understood, are we?
Most people out there
Think we're deluded fantasists
Working out our own inadequacies.
And yet...
Like a friend of mine said the other day
'Why can't people just be nicer to each other?'
So they see there's a problem
They just don't think we have the answer.

Help me to help them understand
And keep me coming back to you
To have my sight checked
To test my assumptions
To acknowledge my faults
And be made whole again.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

Spoiled for choice

                                                  Memorial to the fallen: Weekley

How do we choose where we worship? (If you watch Channel 4's Grand Designs, think Kevin McCloud's voice here...) For some it may be less a question of choice, more a matter of habit. Some will have a strong preference for a particular style of service (drums and/or incense, anyone?) while others will think only one place represents their core beliefs (transubstantiation, an absence of uppity women, the Literal Word of God?) Loyalty and duty play their part. The presence of friends or the age of a building (either Ancient or Modern) may be key factors...and so may be where a family's three year old hopes to go to school. Today's journey enables me to sample a single town's churches all in one go. That town is, ladies and gentlemen...let's have a big hand for...Kettering. Of course, my Big Walk takes in only Anglican churches. In Kettering (pop. approx. 93,500) the Kaleidoscope of Faith also comprises places of worship for Catholics, Methodists,URC, Baptists (rather famously!) plus more contemporary foundations such as The Vineyard and Open Door, and groups on the fringe of the Christian mainstream too, such as Jehovah's Witnesses. There's something for everyone, you'd think, but the majority don't care and go shopping or to football instead. Just as they do everywhere else.

Is there too much choice? Do our divisions weaken our Brand? And can you be a Christian if you're generally nice to people, read your Bible, and stay at home on-line?

I park on the green next to St. Botolph's in Barton Seagrave, and stroll down past the dog-walkers into the green space by the earthwork remains of Barton Seagrave House. Over the road I meander into the parkland of The Wilderness which runs roughly parallel to Kettering's river, the Ise. On my right is a housing estate where the luckiest occupants have a green view. The ends of their closes are marked by blocks of stone so large they'd cost you a small fortune in your local garden centre, a protection against invasion by Travellers. Two men are standing around a heat exchanger on the outside of a community building. I catch a fragment of conversation: 'I was born in Kettering, you know...grew up in dad was in the Forces...' In another half mile I come to a road and there's the Church of Christ the King. The door's open...

Jo Batch is tidying up after Thursday morning Mums and Tots and now she's preparing for the afternoon session. Around the large modern space which sits under Christ the King's canopy is a cheerful clutter of toys and chairs, drum kits, music stands and keyboards. It's all very bright, warm and welcoming. Jo tells me there may be 300 in on a Sunday morning, split between two services. A Friday evening club for primary age kids will attract 50, and there are perhaps 30 in their teen group. You see, it can be done! Do I like everything about Christ the King? No, of course not.  A leaflet about their men's ministry says: 'for too long Church has often been seen as a place for the ladies, the children and the older generation...Kingsman Men's Ministry aims to allow a very real environment for real men to be real about their spiritual lives...' (my underscoring). I agree with some of the diagnosis, but worry slightly about some of the language. But should this matter? What this church is doing works, doesn't it, and if I lived close by, I'd worship here, though perhaps I'd miss Choral Evensongs.

                                 Jo Batch + assistant aka Mr. Sheepy. He has his own song...

After a month of not-blog-walking, it feels a bit strange to be on the hoof again, the kind of disorientation one feels returning to familiar software after weeks away: the hands/feet move instinctively, but don't quite know why. What's this all about? Am I doing things the way I should? Will I break the machine?

There's time for a little countryside in among the urban today, and I follow a bridleway across the fields towards Warkton. In this mildest of Novembers I'm still in shorts, but have kicked my Merrills in favour of boots, because it's slightly greasy underfoot on the paths, although the ground is still firm. This last week has seen a sudden end flame of autumn, the colours at their most vivid, but even over the most recent 48 hours, the leaves are giving up their struggle against the inevitable. There are squirrels everywhere among the overhanging branches. I like their cheekiness out here in the open, but we think we have squirrels inside the walls of our house. I have threatening conversations with the Weston Favell brethren concerning their fate if they don't clear off.  A puzzle. I pass a badger sett, where some of the holes have been covered with hollowed out pumpkin skins. Have the badgers developed a taste for this most gastronomically drab of autumn vegetables, goodness knows why, or has some human individual tried to stop up their various holes? Or, nasty thought, has a farmer poisoned the pumpkins in an effort to prevent the spread of TB?

I shelter in the porch of St. Edmund's, Warkton and eat a sandwich. Yesterday was a sapping, depressing day, six hours on the road to and from London, holding back resentment against clients, fellow-drivers, politicians, radio presenters, you name it and I've got a grudge. So as I sit, I allow myself the luxury of praying for me as well as the parishioners of Warkton, for what I should be doing with my life, to know how much slack I should be cutting myself at the age of sixty-seven and whether I'm entitled to enjoy my preferences in expressing my faith. I look at the stones around me, and feel the challenge of being a 'living stone'. In short, I'm feeling a bit Weekley and Warkton, as Les Dawson might have said.

The two villages are spread either side of the Ise, linked by the Boughton estate, sharing a cricket team who are lucky enough to play on the pretty ground which sits beside a grand drive of trees close to St. Mary's church in Weekley, by a long chalk the more picturesque of the two settlements. It was sufficiently photogenic to find a starring role in the Keira Knightley film of Pride and Prejudice, the seventeenth century Montagu Hospital hard by the church becoming Mr. Collins' rectory. Weekley's a lovely, calming place, and though I'm sure the monuments inside the church are fascinating, I don't regret for one moment not seeing them. I could have done though, because as I pick up my stick and rucksack to move on, a gentleman in a Mercedes is just arriving. He winds his window down. It's Brian Giles. He's the lay worship leader in the benefice. He has a group coming in for a tour this afternoon, and it wouldn't be a trouble to let me inside. I decline, thinking I have only so much time before dusk (I started late today!) The parish has a new incumbent arriving in February, Brian tells me. I leave him with a card, and he leaves me with a leaflet. Over the lintel of the Montagu Hospital door is the legend: 'What thou Doest, Do Yt in Fayth'.

                                                   Bats: to be found in many churches...

The main road back towards Kettering is vaguely familiar. Once upon a time it was the only way out to Stamford and the A1. Now there's a Kettering by-pass. Inside the town limit a right turn takes me up Weekley Glebe Road into fifties' housing estates, which after a mile or so shade into terraces from an earlier era, for Kettering is largely a Victorian shoe town, building on a wool trade from the centuries before that (Stamford cloth was once famous Europe-wide, according to Trevelyan) and diversifying into iron ore for a time as the cutting of the railway revealed deposits which remained economically viable until the late nineteen-fifties. Here is the still barely beating heart of old Northamptonshire. Opposite the Midland Band Club lie the Rockingham Road Pleasure Gardens, complete with bandstand and lovers' walk, and tucked away in one corner is All Saints Church. A chalk board sign by the Club tells me that the Pensioners' Parliament isn't meeting there today: they've gone to Weekley - to be entertained by Brian  Giles, I presume. 'Pensioners' Parliament'! What a fantastic name!

All Saints' patron is the 'Society for the Maintenance of Faith', which I think has its roots in the Oxford Movement, and has some ninety parishes under its wing up and down the country. I associate this Catholic tradition with mission to the working classes, the Arts and Crafts Movement, and an invigorating, robust, no-nonsense approach to living the Christian life, which to the outsider can sometimes seem at odds with its mystical, complicated liturgy. All Saints has been on the ground here since 1898, and the current building since 1916, which must have been an interesting moment to be developing a church community. Their website invites and encourages, and stresses community involvement. And it seems puppets feature in the preaching ministry here too...

The pattern of church building in Kettering follows the town's historical development: an ancient town centre foundation, satellite churches from the Victorian housing boom, and Christ the King as the twentieth century outlier. What, if anything, will the 21st century bring? I wander down the Rockingham Road. They're pulling up the town centre, to further improve the road system. My first impression is that sadly where Northampton has led, Kettering is now following into a soul-less, character-less abyss of political failure. No one knows what the middle of a town should be. On the corner is an interesting church - St. Andrew's, which says that it hosts various congregations, and has become the venue for Kettering's Arts Centre. Perhaps a place to try if you're from the radical Christian left? Recently it's seen a memorial service for Morey Gompertz, a formidable, pioneering headteacher at Northampton's only Anglican Middle School, back before three tiers became two again, educationally speaking.

I walk on through the mazy back streets, the untidy terraced houses dotted with small businesses, and think how this kind of environment was a part of my family past. In Erith's Emes Road, my grandparents brought up six children in a two-up, two-down, with scullery and outside toilet. I and millions like me are so lucky to live in the more spacious accommodation which is so widely available and desired now. Other upwardly-mobile populations are moving in here. A head-scarved North African woman gives me a lovely smile as she wheels her pushchair towards the distant sound of children playing. An Indian couple argue as they move in on their front door, juggling keys and offspring. A black British postman says a cheerful hello. I find St. Mary's on the slope between light industries. It's a Forward in Faith church 'under the care of the Bishop of Richborough'. It looks sad and beleaguered, the windows defended with metal and plastic, the stonework blackened and dingy. However, the cliché about books and their covers must apply: like St. Andrew's, St Mary's proclaims a welcome to all. This next question may seem provocative, even offensive. How do the attitudes of this wing of the C of E stack up against #MeToo, hate-crime, and anti-discrimination legislation? Law and Spirit? (The same questions would have to be addressed to Muslim and Jewish congregations where there's 'separate development' for men and women. Ditto for some Evangelical groups.) A recurrent challenge to all Christians is how to respond inclusively to those who tell us aggressively we're wrong, from outside the Church, and within it.

                                          A Saturn 5 of a spire: SS Peter & Paul, Kettering

The spire of St. Peter and St. Paul's was built on a grand scale. There are beautiful buildings in the town centre, but they've become somehow disconnected from the commerce. A banner proclaims a Kettering Cultural Quarter, but appends the word 'Shopping', and two doors up there's a large Tattoo Parlour and a 'Private Shop', which I shouldn't think is the kind of culture the town councillors had in mind.

As I approach the entrance to SS. Peter and Paul, a bell sounds, and a man hurrying past exclaims 'they've been doing that for days...' as if to say to me 'go and sort it out, will you?' According to a woman sitting patiently inside by the bell tower, a thirteenth bell is being added, and although the company hanging it have been testing to make sure it doesn't come crashing down through woodwork and stone to wreak havoc on Kettering heads, today is the moment when the church team get to take their new toy out for a walk. Her husband is one of the ringers. The church is long, solemn and dignified. I light a candle for my family, and think with amusement of my friend Lynda Hayes who was once a parish administrator here, and is a very long way from being solemn. Lynda's a wonderful session singer, with a command of all pop styles, but she didn't style herself Crazy Hayes for nothing!

I walk away through solid, prosperous villas once built for the managers of the shoe factories, past the surprising, green painted, corrugated shack of St. Michael's and All Angels. Humble St. Michael's shares a vicar with the town centre grandeur of SS Peter and Paul, and it's only ten minutes away on foot, so why is it there? There'll be a reason, and there'll be a congregation who love the place. In deepest winter, I bet it's the warmer of the two buildings!

So, if you re-located to Kettering, where would you go to church?

Postscript.  'A cloud no bigger than a man's hand'. Manfred Weber has just been elected as the European People's Party candidate for the post of President of the European Commission. He talks a lot about the fact that a unifying, defining symbol of 'Europe' is the presence of a Christian church in every town and village. For this reason, some see him as a person to be feared, and his Christian beliefs may prevent him from the highest office. Through this prism, what does it mean that we're about to extract ourselves from the European family? Clouds sometimes pop up and then disappear again as quickly as they came. And sometimes they're harbingers of cataclysmic meteorology, for good or evil.

Factsheet: 16 km. 4.8 hrs. 1 stile. 15 gates. 2 bridges. 13 deg. C. Sunny at first, clouding somewhat in the afternoon. A warm south-westerly breeze. Roses still blooming in Weekley, as well as in Picardy.

We are scattered limbs
Torn apart by the wars of religion
We do not speak each to each
Or share
Or respect
Retaining bare, ghosting memories
Of how we were made.

God of miracles
Knit us together
Breathe your Spirit into us
Make lovely what is dry
Fashion a new body
Which though scourged and wounded
Is triumphant
In its resurrection life

                                                                                               Remembrance 2018