Sunday, 7 October 2018


                                                    Yelden (Yielden) church: Bedfordshire

I once got caught at a posh dinner between two biochemist Munro baggers (male). It wasn't a very entertaining evening and that, folks, is an example of the classic English understatement. Why are we men apparently the gender most likely to collect obsessively and be completist about it? I own the tendency. I was a teenage trainspotter. I am a hoarding philatelist. I do have an unhealthily in-depth knowledge of cricket stats. Most women I know do not indulge such whims, or maybe if they do, they sensibly keep quiet about it.

Relations between men and women have been much in the news again this past fortnight. One sleepless night I found myself transfixed by CNN's coverage of Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh's testimonies to the Senate sub-committee. Some problems that arise between the sexes may be a matter of body chemistry ( as well as dodgy morality!) But where does the apparent difference in obsessiveness come from. It may be socially acquired, but why? If it isn't, what are its origins and seat?

All of which brings us to the matter of Newton Bromswold. Somehow I managed to avoid going there when I was in the vicinity of Rushden a year ago, but today it's in my sights as a single target, because the point of this project is to visit every church in the Diocese of Peterborough, right? This is a completist initiative, every bit as much as the Munro-baggers' self-imposed task, and here I am writing at you about it! Aaaargh! Freud famously asserted that no mistake or omission is ever unintentional. So what's with my previous denial of Newton Bromswold?

I park near the Baptist church in Rushden and stroll down through the back streets to the Wymington turn. Say what you like about Rushden, but at least there's a mighty strong Christian presence at this end of town. No more than a hundred metres from the Baptist Chapel (itself not a small building) is the imposing pile of the Heritage Chapel and Halls. This looks a very interesting proposition. Formerly a Methodist church it's now an 'Independent Non-Denominational Christian Church serving the local community', and from the weekly activities listed, it's clearly practising what it says on the tin. As I pass, a disabled young person is being assisted from a car and welcomed inside by a worker. The church's website commends itself to me by mentioning that the author H.E.Bates was  born close by and baptised here. There are descriptions of the collection of First War-inspired artworks by John Frederick Black which it holds. Moving on a few hundred metres further, I come to the Full Gospel Church, whose own website amuses me just a little by showing a graphic of a 'Help' message in a bottle on its 'Home' page. I know what they mean, but there've been plenty of times that's been my sentiment while actually sitting in a pew and being 'ministered to' from the pulpit - though not in east Rushden.

I don't want to make my walk to Newton Bromswold a simple out-and-back affair, so most of today will be spent in the diocese of St. Albans. Up the road out of Rushden, I pass the sign that tells me I'm in Bedfordshire. Climbing the little (wooden) hill to Bedfordshire was a childhood evening mantra, but still, topographically speaking, it feels a bit weird to ascend to this new, flat county. A path by fields is a more pleasant alternative to the suburban road but a few steps along it my Merrills slip on a tree root and I fall, rolling onto my left side, clunking my shoulder on the bone-dry ground and grazing my knees to a soundtrack of oath and imprecation. However no one but me is scandalized by this literal and metaphorical tumble from grace, and (check) my phone is undamaged and (check) my camera is intact, so I limp on until I meet a lady picking sloes from the hedgerow. They're better after a frost or two, she says. You put them in gin, I ask? She doesn't exactly make a sign of the cross but replies, rather judgmentally, that she doesn't touch alcohol. I'm thinking Full Gospel or maybe Unreformed Methodist. What she does is to make up a syrup and add it to lemonade as a sort of squash. Alternatively she pours the syrup on ice cream. Remembering a mouth-shrinking sloe mousse served to us by a friend long ago, I observe that it must take a lot of sugar. She admits that this wayside fruit is an acquired taste.

 St. Lawrence's Wymington, all clean stonework, turret and tower, isn't quite shut. A man and (perhaps) his father are just exiting from the priest's door, but I don't like to detain them, so merely say hello and pause for a few moments. Up the road I pass the sign to Wymington Chapel and Meeting Place - a mini conference centre - but the 'Meeting Place' idea triggers thoughts of Bunyan and Bedford, and I'm struck by how just a couple of miles out of Rushden and the world seems different.

The kids in the village school call out to me in friendly fashion, but times being what they are, I ignore their greetings lest I be reported as a funny man showing inappropriate interest (well, I do look, shall we say, casual). A woman in a high-vis jacket is spearing litter in the street by the New Inn. I say, probably rather patronisingly, that she's doing a fine job. She says ruefully that it's a thankless task. I reply as graciously as I can that she has my thanks anyway. She thanks me for thanking her. A blue plaque on the wall opposite St. Lawrence's commemorates Jean Overton Fuller, a biographer whose most celebrated work tells the story of WW2 betrayed SOE agent Noor Inayat Khan. Fuller also came up with the notion that the painter Walter Sickert may have been Jack the Ripper, a theory not widely accepted, even if some of Sickert's work is a touch on the lurid side.

Turning off the road by a waste disposal plant, a young guy, also in a high-vis, but this time officially employed by the environmental services and not a volunteer, sees me consulting my map, and asks where I'm headed. I try to explain, sounding like I'm doing Samuel Beckett, that I'm going to Newton Bromswold. Oh, you want to go that way he says (as opposed to the way I'm actually going). He looks puzzled at the notion of a circular walk for pleasure, but I think he's got it by the end of the conversation. Newton Bromswold's on his itinerary too, so I'll probably see him there. From over the fields comes an intermittent ear-splitting dragon's roar. I'm near Santa Pod, the drag-racing facility behind the village of Podington, where improbable looking cars light up their engines for a few fiery seconds to accelerate to two hundred miles an hour. As with Towcester race course (for which I may now be too late) I've never been to this celebrated local sporting venue, and watching it on telly, I'm not particularly drawn, though I have a penchant for the first few minutes of each Sunday lunchtime Grand Prix...but perhaps the latter's just chauvinism, Lewis Hamilton and all. Probably if someone gave me free tickets, I'd get hooked on Pod-ing and would be able to discuss the intricacies of fuel mixtures and drag coefficients with the best of them, though I think I value my ears too much.

A grey heron, which seems not to mind the engine noise, still has hearing acute enough to register my presence and flaps away from the lake-sized pond in front of North Lodge. I reach the crosspath which is the Three Shires Way and join it. In a few metres a notice tells me that if I want to go the other way, towards Odell, the path under the railway won't be available for the next six months, so hard luck, mate. This is uber-annoying Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy 'planning department in Alpha Centauri' kind of stuff . The notice quotes unsupplied maps allegedly showing the diversion and all kinds of footpath numbers no OS map shows. What's a walker supposed to do? How would she or he know of this potential hindrance to their day's enjoyment?

Over the A6, the path skirts a new biogen plant and some nice woodland. I'm welcomed to Manor Farm and invited to keep to the waymarked paths. The waymarks promptly disappear, and the faintest imprints on the soil lead me in the right direction towards the Knotting road by walker's instinct. There's nothing to Knotting, except the tiny church dedicated to St. Margaret of Antioch. It's cared for by the Historic Churches Conservation Trust, and truly it's a little marvel, the kind of place you have to tear yourself away from because it radiates such holy charm. It could never remain viable of course, because the people living in the parish now number less than fifty. But how grateful we should be that it survives to be enjoyed, open still as a beautiful house of prayer for the few like me who drop by. There are two boards in the porch, which together make me nostalgically sad. The first records the gradual rationalisation over twenty years of the local parishes into benefices, to the point at which Knotting became 'redundant'. The other records the rectors of the place back into the thirteenth century. Yes, of course this speaks to a history of wealth and established power in the English Church, and also to a pattern of employment for privileged families, but it also tells a tale of decline and failure which is painful to those of us now of retirement age. We don't want to go to our graves believing we've closed things down and watched valued institutions wither. We'd rather leave a thriving, dynamic exciting heritage of faith without recourse to fashionable extremism. Question: how do we achieve this?

  You want to know about Newton Bromswold, I know you do, so although the next leg of today's walk is perfectly pleasant, and the village of Yelden pretty (and served by an excellent guide, priced £2.50, available from St. Mary's church) I won't hold you up with tales of its castle or its wold.

It's a bit of a slog up the road from Yelden back into Northamptonshire and towards Newton. St. Peter's is up behind the pub along a tree-lined lane by a horsey field. In the churchyard I find Verdon Pope and his friend Bob who've come with Bob's daughter to tidy things up a bit. Verdon is 86 but looks ten years younger. He was named after the First War battle, although they got the spelling wrong, so he's now known as 'Vern'. Vern has cycled to St. Peter's, as he does regularly, although he says he's not really one for churchgoing. He takes me round the church and does a good job as a guide, making up in hospitality and welcome what's perhaps lacking a little in detailed knowledge. We share a cheery ten minutes. I admire the high and lifted-up organ
and the tapestry of the Last Supper. There was a Harvest Supper

here a week ago. In the summer there's a festival (patronal?) and Handel is played on the organ with the Rushden Band in attendance. Vern was born in Acton and went to the Grammar School there in its heyday. His parents brought him back to West London during the Blitz (not an uncommon, though counter-intuitive thing) and he remembers walking from school past the still-smouldering wrecks of buildings. I tell him that I work in Acton quite frequently. We agree it must have changed a great deal.

The word 'Bromswold' is said to be a corruption or version of 'Bruneswald'. Frank Stenton wrote a former generation's standard work on Anglo-Saxon England in which he has the 'Forest of Bruneswald' stretching from just south of Lincoln down across Northamptonshire and into Bedfordshire. Personally I have a few doubts about this, which might be the splitting of hairs over what constitutes a 'forest', and might generalise into discussion about human fertility and exactly how many people lived in pre-Conquest Britain. Anyway, legend has it that Hereward ('the Wake'), having looted the plate from what was to become Peterborough Cathedral, eluded his foes by retreating into the fastnesses of Bruneswald Forest. Sounding rather like a Welsh footballer, there's also a Leighton Bromswold not so far away, in West Cambridgeshire.

                                                           Chancel arch: Knotting

Sometimes a single event can almost come to define a small place: the most exciting or tragic thing ever to happen there. Both Newton Bromswold and Yelden are adjacent to the wartime airfield at Chelveston, later adapted to the needs of the USAF's strategic bombing capability. In 1943, two B-17 bombers returning from a training mission collided mid-air over Newton Bromswold. Both crews of ten young men were killed. Ghost stories hang in the mist around the crossroads just outside the village. And there were a further twenty-one deaths when a similar plane crashed on take-off and ploughed into an RAF billet at Yelden. The plane slid on into a farmhouse near the church, killing two children. The village school was badly damaged, and it's said that the school clock stopped at the exact time of the crash, shortly after midnight on March 24th 1944. Nowadays an incident of this sort would lead to calls for a public enquiry, and assurances that such a thing could never again occur.

21 km. 6.5 hrs. 19 deg. C. Warm with hazy sunshine. 2 stiles. 8 gates. 8 field bridges.

Dear Lord and Father
Tomorrow we shall hold another Harvest service.
I thank you
For John Arlott
Who wrote the hymn
'God whose farm is all creation'.
Thank you for what he gave me
As he gave others...
A love of the English countryside
And of the English Game of cricket.

Father, in him
I sense a Poet of Doubt
Called to write his faith
(Or the lack of it)
To meet the needs of the day.
May we all grow in grace
As through prayer
Through discussion
Through our music
And through all our written and spoken words
We struggle to meet you
And express our love and thankfulness.

John Arlott (1914-1991) was the doyen of radio cricket commentators, but he was much more than that. He was once a policeman, and was recruited after the war to be a BBC poetry producer. Various celebrated poets were asked to contribute hymns to the BBC hymnbook ( think of that!) in the early fifties, but their submissions failed to make the grade. Arlott wrote four lyrics around the theme of the changing seasons. Three were published, and 'God whose farm' is the one which has stuck.

Monday, 17 September 2018

A Band of Angels coming after me

                                                              All Saints: Brampton Ash
                                                             'Help thou my unbelief...'
                                                             So let's start with an easy one...
                                                             How much of The Creed do you need to believe
                                                             to be a Christian?  This bothers a lot of people.

I used to positively hate the arrival of autumn. My soul would wear black, my body would get sick as I mourned the loss of sun-warmth. These days I'm quicker to see the virtues of the year's final third. I particularly like the lower-angled light for the definition it adds to the contours of landscape and vegetation. Beauty accrues through shadow...

On a sparkling September morning I park near the foot of Great Oxendon's Main Street. Its telephone box may or may not still function as a communication device, but it now contains a few shelves of second hand books for sale or swap. Where I cross, a plastic watering can sits in the middle of the A508. I move it to the grass verge, thinking at first it's a car's lost silencer. A hundred metres down the lane two builders prop on their spades and agree it's a great day to be out and about. The sheep in a scrappy nearby field look unhappy on their poverty pasture: one of them might actually be dead. There's a pleasantly raspy sound from the engine of an approaching car, and I step off the road. An XK140 in smart navy blue accelerates past with a wave. I've always thought Jags of the 50s and 60s a total design classic - curves to match Marilyn's, sweep of bonnet and wheel arch. If I had a million quid spare and to invest, the plot on the right hand side of the lane might be worth a punt: space for two five-bedroomed houses with land a-plenty and a duck-pond for one of them.

I'm on the ridge now with expansive views of chocolate-cake soil and light straw stubble to the north and south. At the end of Long Spinney I turn down the lane towards Braybrooke. There are kennels on my right: I can hear the dogs. As with the sound of a baby crying, repeated barking trips a distress fuse. When my dad took an oil-man's tour to 1958 Iraq, leaving me at home with Mum, a pretty but unbiddable black and white fox terrier was bought as a consolation and to be a nightwatchman. Later, when Dad came home, his work disrupted by a revolution, a regicide and nationalisation of the petroleum asset, we took a holiday and Pedros went into the local kennels for a week. Re-united with us seven days later, the poor animal had lost his voice, completely barked out from incessant vocal competition.

There are some nice houses near the Braybrooke village limit. Anything built before the year 2000 has an open aspect. I can admire the owners' gardens and envy their good fortune. Anything from this millennium is hidden from view, defended by fences, walls and hedges. Is this fortification born of fear, or from a relentless assertion of individualism - I am an island?

Beyond Braybrooke my route follows the path held in common between the Jurassic Way and the Macmillan Way and sometimes the Midshires Way as well ( I-Spy score of at least 30, I reckon). Sometimes it's well waymarked, and sometimes not. It takes in ploughed fields and nettly ginnels, before beginning a lengthy step alongside Hermitage Wood.

What I frequently find difficult about prayer is the vain attempt to clear my mind of the day's clutter. I peer through the mental detritus to the people and causes for which I want to intercede, losing concentration and shape. It can be every bit as good an aid to falling asleep as counting woollies - but I don't think I'm alone in this. Today's baggage includes: (from the drive out to Great Oxendon) dialogues on women's reproductive health and rights broadcast simultaneously on Radios 4 and 5 and (from the Kingsthorpe Waitrose café), The Times' headlines about Justin Welby's speech to the TUC *.  Walking clears the mind wonderfully.

Where I turn north on the bridleway to Brampton Ash, the OS suggests I may be detained and amused by 'The Red Hovel'. Pictures available on the Web suggest this is now just a collection of farm buildings, but since I'm in the vicinity of a 'Hermitage' and Historic England tells me there was once yet another daughter house of Pipewell Abbey close by, I like to think of an ancient and lonely monk praying for the world's redemption from a woodland cell built of red sandstone.

On the lane at the top of the rise into Brampton Ash there's a very obvious worked-out quarry site, but from the village's handsome buildings, I guess the stone it yielded was Northamptonshire yellow sandstone and not the red sort you find in the proper Midlands. The neat church of St. Mary's sits right on the A427 Market Harborough road, so the nice way to reach it is across the lumpy bumpy field. The north door's open because there's a chap on the porch roof doing this and that. He doesn't see me, or pretends not to. His workperson's radio is playing what sounds like 'Radio Leicester, News Talk and Music' Man fell off bicycle in Blaby yesterday etc. He's only the fourth person I've seen since locking the car (the third was walking her dog in the field near the Hovel). I won't see another all day. Where has everyone gone? Has The Rapture occurred and no one told me?

I like the interior of St. Mary's: tidy, well-organised, broad in the nave and intimately arranged for the congregation, not the choir, in the chancel beside the pretty chamber organ, but the chap on the roof is inhibiting me from reading a psalm out loud (why?) I pause, gather myself, and trudge up beside the main road until I come to the straight path across the field to Dingley. These few hundred metres aren't dangerous, just unpleasant, although there's always the thought in the back of the mind that one of the thundering HGVs might lose control on a bend and put a premature end to this blog. Halfway across the field is a surprisingly deep culvert where the trees have recently been burnt out by the landowner ( ash disease?) I shouldn't be surprised by the cut: the Dingley name apparently implies a landscape crossed by ravines.

More recently 'Dingley Dell' has lodged in our pop culture consciousness thanks to Noel Edmonds and Mr. Blobby. Not in yours?  Lucky you. To Dickens' fans it's more properly placed in the fictitious Pickwickian Kentish firmament as one of the village protagonists in a cricket match with 'All Muggleton'. Locally to Market Harborough it's been claimed that since Rockingham Castle is thought to be the inspiration for Bleak House and 'Muggleton' is a characteristic Leicester/Northants border family name, at some point Dickens travelled through Dingley and 'borrowed' it. In real 19C  life the Muggleton family were known for being able to put out a cricket XI of their own, much like the Kingstons in Northampton Tch! These authors! Always on the lookout for unconsidered freebie trifles.

And here's something I didn't know, and you probably don't either. The Muggletonians were a seventeenth century Protestant sect formed by two London tailors who claimed to be the last two prophets mentioned in the Book of Revelation. According to the Wikipedia article, which you now don't need to look up, they avoided all forms of preaching and worship, and met only for 'discussion and socialising'.

  The church of All Saints is at the end of an unadopted lane near the delicious Dingley Hall. now subdivided into private flats. As I walk down there's suddenly one of those half-forgotten, elusive scents from childhood, placing me back in our Bexley garden or on Dartford Heath or I don't know where. I see a blue painted door in the wall, open it and find myself on a yew-bounded path, where to the right hand side there are drifts of the cyclamen which are doing so well this year. At the path's end is a stiff little gate and the well-maintained churchyard. The church is closed, but I sit in the porch and now do read out loud the first verses of Psalm 78:

      ...I will utter dark sayings from of old,
          Things that we have heard and known,
          That our fathers have told us...
       ...The glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
           And the wonders which he has wrought...
       ...That the next generation might know them,
          The children unborn..                                                                     
       ...So that they should set their hope in God,
          But keep his commandments
          And that they should not be like their fathers,
          A stubborn and rebellious generation...

Like my father before me I take comfort in these words, in the congruency of my own hopes and fears with those of the psalmist writing two and a half thousand years previously. I often think that in terms of faith the game's up with our generation and the one which will immediately follow us: we have to trust that like the cyclamen, Christian belief and integrity will be reborn and flower in abundance decades after our death.

                                                             All Saints, Braybrooke

I walk back towards Braybrooke with the pleasant, sun-dappled bowl of the valley to my right. By woodland the lane drops and climbs again quite steeply for these parts (is this the 'Dell'?) - what we might once have labelled a 1 in 7 or 1 in 8 gradient, in the days when motorists needed to know whether their car would manage an ascent without an awkward, heart-stopping, double de-clutch into first gear. On the far side of the main road, a bridleway veers to the right with Braybrooke's spire dead ahead across the Midlands Main Line. At three o' clock in the afternoon the railway's not unduly busy. A seven-car multiple unit streaks north, probably bound for Sheffield. A couple of freight trains rattle by. Next to All Saints' church are the remains of the Manor House, on which a herd of cattle graze, inconveniently, because ideally I'd need to pass right through the middle of them. I avoid the issue and shin over a fence. The church is securely locked, and as far as I can see there's not even anywhere to sit in the churchyard, although there are a couple of benches along the road nearby, next to rubbish bins. I feel excluded, and indulge in an outsider's mental strop, which is mitigated by the sign to Braybrooke's 'River Jordan'. The Baptists were active around here in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. When I was baptised by 'full immersion' in 1967, it was in a neat pool sunk into the floor of the church's sanctuary. I remember that being quite cold enough, thank you, but there were no such luxuries a century or so before, and maybe the little stream - for that's all it is - got its romantic name by association as new converts were dunked in its chilly waters, symbolically dying and rising with Christ.

 I lose my way on the path out of Braybrooke, and lose my hat too. It's been one of those days when one's either too hot or too cold. In taking off my sweatshirt, I must have left my titfer on a bench somewhere. I hope it finds a good home, but I needed a new one anyway - the brim had followed my brain and gone floppy. On the approach to Great Oxendon the sheep still seem unhappy and listless. But rumours of the death of one of their number turn out to have been exaggerated. The rising breeze is pushing the watering can back towards the kerbside with every passing second...

Archbishop Justin's speech to the TUC may or may not have been well-judged - prima facie it was troubling to have news the next day that the Church Commisssioners have invested heavily in Amazon, who were the subject of some criticism by him - although it could be countered that perhaps shareholders are the best-placed to offer advice about the ethics of a company's business practices. And then came the initiative from Frank Field to buy Wonga's debt, in full or part. Be that as it may, my attention was drawn to the Archbishop's assertion that his words were 'political but not party-political'. I think he's right and wrong...though perhaps in any case naïve, because a call for re-unionisation seems pretty party-political at this point in time. However, I'd argue that the Christian agenda is a true Third Way. Our vision of a society under God is a challenge to the orthodoxies of current (or any?) human politics, although superficially it may resemble a left-ish perspective more than one of the right. Tom Wright's book on Paul is rather good in making a similar point about the apostle's view of things in the first century Roman world.

Tenors in the choir:  21 km. 6 hrs. 15 stiles. 22 gates. 2 bridges. 19 deg. C.. Sun with cloud slowly gathering. An intermittent breeze to surprise one in exposed spots. Pigeons: I don't give pigeons a shout-out because they always seem arrogant and lazy to me. This is probably unfair. At any rate there are a lot of them. They are probably among the eventual inheritors of the earth.

When I see something amiss in your Church
Please help me not to be disputatious or divisive.
Give me grace to use the brains you gave me
To draw people together,
And by your Holy Spirit
Pour into my heart love and compassion
For all your struggling children.


Saturday, 8 September 2018

Water to a dry land

                                                     Laden chestnut tree: Maidwell

It's another naught-for-your-comfort morning on the news media, but nevertheless the clocks are striking eleven, not Orwell's thirteen as I park opposite Maidwell's Primary School. (Incidentally, I've learned that writing analysis proves from this first sentence that I'm not the author of the New York Times 'op-ed' about the chaos within Trump's White House: it contains a weighty twenty-seven words and there's no use of the word 'lodestar'. A current conspiracy theory runs that either VP Pence wrote the piece - because the latter expression plus an average sentence length of a crisp 17-18 words are his 'tells' - or it was someone good and sophisticated enough to forge his style. Smoke and mirrors or what!)

It must be a 'training day' at the school. The car park's full, but the building is as quiet as St. Mary, Maidwell's churchyard. The kids are off enjoying last moments of freedom in shopping precincts or playing Fortnite on their computers, unapproved and unsupervised. Meteorologically these are the early days of autumn, and actually that feels right this year, the shifts in the quality of air and colour barely perceptible but there.

In the street I immediately have a thought-provoking conversation with a parishioner accompanying a delightfully sleepy and docile grandchild, still wide-eyed years away from world-worry. We talk about the churches I may visit. Kelmarsh will be a treat, with beautiful Victorian restoration. We agree about the quality and charm of Cottesbrooke. We talk about the fact that so many churches are locked. Locally there've been anxieties about the proximity of the village to the A14, and the 'travellers' who've broken through the metal barriers to camp on the Brampton Valley Way, which will form part of today's expedition. This Maidwellian has valuable, possibly unique, experience of maintaining the structural integrity of churches, and clearly cares deeply about our heritage. The question is raised as to whether PCCs and wardenships should be open to those who are non-communicants. A number of local churches fail to find people willing to be wardens. I struggle to deal properly with the suggestion. I want to reply that faith is the major criterion for these posts, but that complete and utter confessional orthodoxy isn't a requirement, and indeed most of us would fail the test if it were. Nevertheless, there's still something of a gradient from being, say, a 'Friend of St. Boris the Apostle's church' to being one of St. Boris's officers. On the other hand, the churches need all the help they can get. And I'm reminded of my often-voiced thought that sometimes it seems arbitrary whether people define themselves in or out of the Christian 'crew', which is why the Gospels urge us not to be so judgmental. Some express or find faith through action, some through theory. Faith without an element of doubt is mere fanaticism.

The lane peters out in the fields and becomes a green track as it winds down to the Brampton Valley Way, which long-time readers will remember follows the line of the old Northampton to Market Harborough railway. It's now a linear park for walkers, joggers and cyclists with some mini-adventures thrown into the mix for all. After half a mile or so I confront one of them - the Kelmarsh tunnel. This route was once major enough to warrant an up line and a down line. It carried significant volumes of freight until its closure in 1981, and if you look at the angles and links, on to Leicester and beyond, you can  see why this should have been so. Lying in bed in our first little house in Kingsthorpe's Clover Lane, we could hear the two-tone horns of the diesel motive power during the night and early morning. The down line tunnel has been preserved for the use and enjoyment of people like me, but I've foolishly left my torch at home, so having peered through the portal of the 480 metre bore, despite the fact that the tunnel floor seems dry and flat, I opt for the bridleway diversion, which takes me beside the A14 for a short while before hanging a 90 degree turn into a wondrous little pocket park on the 'Midshires Way'. Here there are new plantations of shrubs and trees, and artfully placed seats. The blackberries are done, but the less edible autumn berries are beginning to show in reds, vermilions and purples. At the lane I begin a slog along to Kelmarsh Hall on the main Brixworth road. The tea-room there is decorated in the most tasteful grey and white, and unlike Cottesbrooke, it seems I can get  Earl Grey and tray-bake without having to stump up a full entrance fee to the Big House. So I do, and observe the comings and goings of the other grey-hairs. The conversations are conducted in muted tones today: I fail to pick up any juicy gossip, or cutting-edge political comment.

Predictably, Kelmarsh's church is closed, and the keyholder may live miles away, judging by the Northampton telephone number, so I'll have to make do with any pictures I can find on the web later. I can't quite work out the church's dedication, which is ostensibly to St. Denys, but possibly to St. Dionysius, to whom a church is also dedicated in Market Harborough - and surely these two can't be the same person? St. Dionysius was a very Orthodox saint, a writer of tracts about glory and celestial orders, a reputed witness to the death of Jesus' mother Mary, a member of the Athenian Areopagus.

I briefly retrace my steps and then gratefully accept a walkers' tunnel diversion which leads me down through the pretty woodland of New Covert to the Kelmarsh north portal on the Brampton Valley Way. I walk on, untroubled by human company, until the road to Arthingworth. Hereabouts every village has a country estate and/or Hall near its heart. In Arthingworth a handsome, new brick wall surrounds the money and keeps the plebs at bay. I notice a cricket ground is planned within the walls, and wonder if this will be for Arthingworth C.C., or a private John Paul Getty-like club.

Hurrah! A notice welcomes me to St. Andrew's church, and the inside is beautifully tended and preserved. The main body of the building is very narrow, with extra width to the right hand (south) side. There's a prettily decorated reredos, and smartly designed and fashioned stations of the cross adorn the clean and painted walls. It's a relief to find a church open, but oddly, I'm having one of those days of walking emptiness, and don't quite know what to do with the opportunity. As Paul Simon once sang: 'My mind's distracted and diffuse...'

Amongst other stuff, I'm still pondering the implications of two bits of radio I heard yesterday. One was ex-Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks comparing social media comment about young people with the actual views of a group of sixth-formers. They were startlingly intelligent, but nihilistic, and their grasp on the boundaries between 'morality' (with its defining universalisable requirement), and their own 'chosen' path in life, was tenuous. In them post-modernism was writ large.

Then later in the afternoon I caught a conversation between Radio 5's Nihal Arthanayeke and the grime artist Ghetts, now in his thirties after more than a decade in the music business. Ghetts was a bad boy in his teenage years, and in consequence says he understands the attitudes and violence prevalent among the class of urban 2018...the 'young men' as he pointedly refers to them. Ghetts is heavily influenced by his Seventh Day Adventist family upbringing. He prays every morning, but finds it more difficult at night - I guess because of his performer's lifestyle. As I listened in the car, I tried to imitate Ghetts' street-speak, but couldn't get close to combining the vowel quantities. 47 year old Arthanayeke's DJ background came to the fore during the interview, slipping from Radio 5's revised RP into Brixton/Moss Side/Sparkbrook. Where is the Church's connection with this? Is sleepy Arthingworth even in the same universe? There's interesting inter-generational stuff going on here. Arthanayeke's attempt to 'get down with the kids' wasn't much more convincing than the Church of England's. Don't try, bro, is my advice. They won't love you for it.

                                               'Do not play' says the notice on the organ at
                                               St. Andrew's. There's been water damage, but
                                               the rest of the church looks in good order.

Across the fields to Harrington, the fields are bone dry. The temperatures may have dropped here in the Midlands, but there's been very little precipitation. The plates of the soil underfoot are still solid, dusty and cracked. The farmers seem to have left the stubble. They haven't ploughed it in yet. Maybe the ground's too hard, or there'd be a risk of erosion if they did?

Harrington is fascinating. On the slope up to the village is the area known as The Falls, the bones of an extensive garden and ponds once belonging to a lost Great House. The earthworks run across two large fields. I suppose the archaeology's been done, but who knows? Now cows graze where once gracious ladies and their dandified gents strolled...and perhaps before them, in medieval times, monks. Modern Harrington has its delights too: the Tollemarche Arms, and a gin distillery. And St. Peter and St. Paul's, set at the end of the village, looking out to Rothwell one way and a broad uninhabited hillside the other, its autumn churchyard singing in the low dappled sunshine with a profusion of white and purple cyclamen.

After Harrington, an annoyance. Two bridleways which might have carried me across the A14 are closed. I think maybe they never had bridges, and now, quite rightly, it's been deemed unsafe to attempt a crossing of this motorway-grade highway at ground level with or without a horse. However the consequence is a lengthy detour returning me to the Midshires Way Covert. I'm hot, footsore and jaded. And then, halfway down the Park I meet Steve carrying a watering can. He's been tending some newly planted acanthus, and he's a friend of Andrew Presland who bought the strip of land from the Kelmarsh estate and planted the trees and bushes. Wow! We talk on, and it becomes apparent there's a Christian connection. Steve and Andrew are in membership at Whitefriars, Rushden, a 'Fresh Expressions' project worshipping in a school on the housing estates there. Andrew is a Deanery Lay Chair and sits on the C of E's General Synod. The Midshires land is sometimes used as a venue for young people to enjoy some camping fun, and hike the Brampton Valley Way. Church in action. No one to staff the parishes here, but incomers doing a New Thing. Water to a dry land.

Back down on the BVW, I need a pee, but if you'll pardon the expression, there seems to be a steady stream of female joggers, who prevent the access to relief. At the Draughton Crossing I take the lane up to the village. I should have known but didn't: it's pronounced 'Draw-ton'. The rustic little church of St. Catherine's is shut, as I knew it would be - it's after five o'clock now.

Halfway between Draughton and Harrington is the site of the late World War 2 airfield from which amongst other missions, the Americans flew Liberator bombers supporting clandestine SOE operations in occupied Europe. It was chosen because it was such a discreet location. After the war agriculture returned, and then as the Cold War heated up, the airfield was re-activated to host three Thor intermediate ballistic missiles, an outpost of the mother-site at North Luffenham. In time these became obsolete, but some of the structures apparently remain. In 2011 they were given Grade II listings. The Chief Executive of English Heritage said: 'The remains of the Cold War are fading from view faster than those of the World Wars. Our Cold War heritage is a complicated and not always easily loved collection of concrete bunkers and silos. but they are still the castles and forts of the second half of the twentieth century, and we want to ensure that the best examples survive...'

Discuss.  Shiver. Give thanks. Pray for future deliverance.

Birdies on the card:  23 km.  7 hrs. 17-21 deg C. Sun, then cloud. 6 stiles. 20 gates. 4 bridges. one tunnel avoided. 4 churches: one open. Where's the wild life?

Inevitably there may sometimes be unwitting inaccuracies of fact in the various posts, for which I apologise. I'm glad to correct glaring errors. So if you're reading this and any mistakes are shouting at you, please drop me a line at:

If you'd like to know more about me, please visit my website at

Thank you
That if I was making a song about
A Few of my Favourite Things
It would run to the length of
A Mahler Symphony
Or an Elgar Oratorio
Or a triple album by a prog rock band long forgotten.
Countless gifts of love.
Blessings all mine
With ten thousands beside.

Give me grace
To be grateful
But never complacent
But never smug.

Monday, 3 September 2018

O for a thousand tongues to sing...

                                                 Pumpkin and kissing gate: Clipston

A late start after a lengthy phone-spat with E-On.  Grrr! Wow! Splat! Take that, you bounders! It's past mid-day when I leave the car in Sibbertoft's Welland Rise and set out over the fields on the Jurassic Way towards Marston Trussell.

It's a commonplace that we humans often become more negative with age, unless we push back against the habit. By the time we reach retirement most of us have trodden in a lot of disappointment, but was I really so optimistic, so glass-full in my twenties? After my wasted hour with E-On this morning, I confronted the apparent impossibility of getting a doctor's appointment, and surely that wasn't the case a couple of decades ago? And after that came the encounter with the temporarily closed road (which turned out not to be closed) on the approach to Sibbertoft. Health and safety, my Aunt Ada!  I am the living, breathing model of a modern Victor Meldrew.

While I was arguing with young Aaron in the E-On call centre, I shared with him a rare moment of self-awareness - and I'm sure it's totally changed his life - which was that at least in terms of opportunity costs, it was more expensive to stay there moaning at him about E-On's tariffs and arcane, disingenuous billing procedures than accept the small financial loss entailed in letting them have their way.

And why should you care? Well, only that there are a lot of older people like me in the pews of our churches, so we need to take stock. Some of us sit on holy committees, and are elected to our synods. Do you think the young are any less inclined then the old towards theological and liturgical nit-picking, at differentiating their brand of 'faith' and elevating it as the one true religion? Do you see evidence among your congregation of the 'acceptance' supposed to characterise mature old age? And how do you tell that apart from passivity and nay-saying complacence? How do the virtues and vices of senescence balance with youthful activism? 

We oldies have to do better. I once had a much loved t-shirt whose slogan read: Radical thinking has to start somewhere. The late Tony Benn could be an idiot, but to his dying day he never ceased searching for new approaches to problems. How I admire that.

A brisk and chilly breeze propels me towards The Lawn and Berberis Spinney where there's an enclosure raising flocks (herds? scuttles?) of pheasant chicks. I always thought the aroma of pheasant came from its being 'hung', but there's a distinct 'game-iness' on the air in Berberis Spinney.

I leave the Jurassic and strike out north on an unmarked path to Rectory Farm with its satellite businesses, then cross the road with attractive St. Nicholas' church clearly in sight. Marston Trussell sounds like the state of a body after a heavy night out on the ale (I'm feeling ab-so-lute-ly Trusselled). Indeed the village seems to have hosted a beer festival in years past but now I can't even find the pub. From inside the locked church comes a high warbling drone which might be a burglar alarm. Noting the legend in the porch which reads: 'Polite notice. There's no lead on the roof: it's already been stolen', I phone Sharon, one of the keyholders. Apparently what I'm hearing is a bat deterrent.

As opposed to locked church doors, which are a people deterrent.

                                               Market Harborough from the Jurassic Way

I look again at the day's route, which by my feeble standards may be quite lengthy. I'm a bit heavy-legged and a lot of it will be on tarmac. However there's a not-strictly-necessary diversion I really want to make. Near East Farndon Grange I join a bridleway which takes me north then east slowly up a hill towards an airy position overlooking Leicestershire, with Market Harborough in the relative valley below. In a field there's a single outlier stone, a 'glacial erratic'. It shouldn't be here. It's the wrong sort of rock, and it looks very lonely, but it's in a suspiciously conspicuous and convenient place. So do we believe it rolled here from hundreds of miles away in a previous era, as some geologists would suggest? Or was it brought and placed for some forgotten reason? - to signify a meeting place for some lost political or religious purpose. Size-wise we're not talking a second Stonehenge, as you can see, but on a day when all the churches I visit are closed to visitors, this little bit of possible al fresco religion packs a rare awe-inspiring punch. It's called the 'Judith Stone' after Judith of Lens, who was a niece of William the Conqueror. She married Waltheof, and after his death owned lands across a swathe of the South Midlands. What her precise connection to the stone is supposed to be, I can't tell you.

I trudge uphill over a ploughed field whose soil is thankfully still light and friable, rejoining the Jurassic to find a piece of seemingly common land in East Farndon with the tower of St. John the Baptist's in front of me. Even though I can't access any of their insides, all the churches I call on today are very prettily situated. St. John's sits above a handsome church garden with benches. I take a photo of the tower and am appraised suspiciously by a woman leading her daughter on a pony up the path through the churchyard. I want to eat a sarnie there but the midges are biting, so I move on, chicken and mayo in hand.

Now I remember the long curving lane to Great Oxendon. It's warm but not overbearingly sultry today. The last time I walked this way it was sappingly hot, and I was nearing the end of a long ramble with the prospect of a wait for the irregular bus to take me back to Northampton. There was once a Little  Oxendon too, on the edge of the hill to the north, where the golf course is now. The history websites seem to indicate that it's an important place - maybe a relatively complete example of a lost village. The church of St. Helen's, Great Oxendon turns out to be halfway between the two original settlements and not really intimate to Great Oxendon at all, although there's a hardcore path stretching out half a mile from Main Street, so modern villagers can walk to worship without getting their feet wet. Before I join the church path I have to brave a small paddock containing a pretty highland cow sporting an impressive pair of horns. She looks at me, but aside from a single warning shake of the head refrains from putting them to anti-personnel use.

                                                          St. Helen's, Great Oxendon

The church is dedicated to the earlier of the two St. Helens, the one who, after the twelve disciples and the Apostle Paul, could perhaps lay claim to have been the most important person in Christian history, since she was Constantine the Great's mum. Without her, probably no conversion of Rome to the faith, and without that, who knows what might have happened.

In the impressive, solid Manor House next to the Rectory in Great Oxendon's Main Street lives Mike Bairstow who though maybe fifteen years older than me, went to the same school in Eltham, Kent. A tall, genial, convivial man, he played for the Old Boys against the school second eleven when I was its captain. I'd taken a few wickets in the previous seasons but didn't really believe I could bat. In that innings someone turned on the light, and I began to really enjoy being at the crease. Mike bowled me an off-cutter, which struck me painfully on my unprotected left hip bone and went for four byes, credited to me as runs by a myopic (or kindly?) umpire. Later, when his turn came to bat, Mike top-edged a ball higher than most hits I've seen anywhere. The ground was small but the ball was prevented from achieving earth orbit by the top of a street-light in the road outside.

I walk on to Clipston, where I have a small purpose in mind. I recall that a local Kentish Baptist minister called Ken Weller retired here with his wife in the 1970s. They'd formerly been missionaries in India, and a certain distinctive enthusiasm and capacity for organisation transferred with them back to England. There's a substantial Baptist chapel in Clipston and it occurs to me that perhaps they might have been buried there. But first I visit All Saints, which sits at the other end of a village larger than I'd appreciated. In the church porch I see that the Rev. Miranda Hayes has been appointed to both the benefice which includes Clipston and Naseby and the one which comprises Welford and Sibbertoft. This is a big ask, a wide territory to cover. I hope she's going to get some help.

Clipston Baptist is on the fringe of the village, set up above the lane so as to provide the visitor a monumental sight as she approaches it - as one commentator suggests , a place now out of scale with the nearby buildings. In a Sunday Times article, Paul Macartney refers to a drug-induced vision in which he experienced God as a hugely high, towering wall. There's a painting by Piet Mondriaan from his middle period - his religious psychology is interesting - which depicts a massive, vividly coloured church tower rising up phallically before the viewer. I can find no record of the Wellers in the churchyard, but I do see in the chapel porch a memorial stone which tells me that Thomas Jarman, composer of the much loved and sung hymn tune 'Lyngham' worshipped here in the eighteenth century. I'm intrigued and resolve to look him up when I get home.

I walk on, avoiding a field where there are too many cattle gathered across the path I want to use, and climb the busy little lane back to Sibbertoft. About a hundred metres from the car, I come across an old gentleman sitting outside his house on a canvas chair. He's wearing a coat and a hat, even on this warm early evening. He holds in his right hand, as if a sceptre, a long forked walking stick. His clothes are well-used and the garden behind him is not so tidy. But he has twinkly eyes and a lively smile, and it seems he wants to chat, so we do - about not much. At the end, I ask his name. Ken Jarman. Oh, I say, I saw that name on the wall of Clipston Chapel half an hour ago, but you're not related are you? Oh yes I am, he replies. Well, according to my grandfather, anyway. He always said that if we'd had the royalties from Thomas Jarman's music, we'd have been a rich family.

It's been a frustrating day, with the four churches closed. I think back to a song from a musical performed by Twentieth Century, the Cambridge Christian group of which I was once a member. 'You have built walls, and barred your doors securely...' In common with many of that 'Youthquake' generation we were mild iconoclasts, would be Christian flower-children protesting the perceived or actual conservatism of the older war-experienced generations. We also sang Sydney Carter's now largely forgotten 'Bird of Heaven':

Catch the Bird of Heaven/Lock Him in a cage of gold/Look again tomorrow/And He will be gone...
Bell and book and candle/Cannot hold Him anymore/For the Bird is flying/As He did before...

Fly, bird, fly. But how? And when, and where?

Balls in the over: (currently six, although at various times four or eight, and if the English Cricket Board has its daft way, perhaps five or ten, because obviously that's going to bring in a different audience, even if it alienates lifelong supporters of the game...)   22km. 6 hrs. 19 deg C. Sun, cloud and a cool breeze. 24 stiles. 18 gates. 8 bridges. Pheasants. Flocks of starlings on the stubble. Wasps, large, small, British, Foreign!


What's going to be the New Thing?
Do I get to see the Promised Land?
Or is my calling to deal with the Egyptians
Or to wander around pointlessly in the desert?
In which case, help me to do so with skill, energy and wit.
Cunning as a serpent, harmless as a dove.

But when the Moment comes
And your Spirit is released afresh on your people
Give me the grace to recognise it
And not be grouchy
Or obstructive
But to welcome new life and growth.

Sunday, 26 August 2018

1645 and all that (Part 2)

As I park up in Naseby's High Street - which although a pleasant and typical village lane, doesn't look conventionally much like a High Street - a moth flies out of my anorak as I extract it from the car boot. I think to myself that in Roman times this would have been a dire omen for the day's prospects. Just go home now! A man drives past. He's vaping through his chariot's open window. I sniff but detect no unusual whiff upon the balmy air. The giveaway's the wound-down glass. A committee of MPs is suggesting we cut vapers some slack and allow them to indulge themselves inside pubs and railway carriages. Personally I'm dead against having to peer at the world through a haze of peppermint, raspberry, or fennel and wet dog. Imagine having to commute each day with that. And before breakfast!

I'm suffering guilt over my comments about Naseby's church in the previous post. Was it justified? In retrospect I think I was harsh about the church's interior decoration and state of upkeep. But I'm still puzzled by the 'parish share' problem, and by the relation of the battle commemoration to the local parish activity. For a moment I consider borrowing All Saints key a second time, and sitting awhile inside to contemplate these matters, but the lure of the wild's too great, and I press on past the permanently closed Fitzgerald Arms, which I believe once housed a collection of Civil War ephemera, now inaccessible or removed.

As I walk on down the road I wonder again how we Christians can meaningfully but collectively disagree in love, while preserving a measure of unity. Similar dilemmas arise in 'cabinet government' whether at a national level or even say, within a school's governing body. I'm told that in southern Africa, the notion of the 'indaba' allows for the gradual emergence of consensus, at the expense of much
time spent in exhausting debate. As Christians we look for mutual agreement under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in something of the same way. Anglican synods might be one means of providing for this, except we probably skip from one issue to another in too close order, just as the 'pastoral prayers' in church services very often try to cover the whole of the world's news agenda within five minutes: 'And here's another thing, God...'

The other side of the A14 bridge, the white lines disappear from the middle of my road and it becomes a lane again. I'm learning to regard the roads hereabouts as simply paths which happen to have a bit of tarmac laid across them, and to enjoy the slightly more rapid progress they afford. There isn't so much traffic, and very often the drivers who pass are courteous and helpful. I think I notice that more male than female drivers acknowledge me with a friendly wave or greeting when I step onto the kerbside, and I now attempt to deconstruct this perception. It could be diagnostic of my own prejudice, an illusional by-product of the 'male gaze'. It could actually be true, perhaps because women drivers are still sometimes less confident or concentrate more, or are reluctant to swap signals with a man. I don't know.

I pass the farms: Shuckburgh, Wolley's, Red Hill and Sulby Grange, then turn off on the diagonal towards the site of Sulby Abbey, now a Georgian farmhouse constructed partly of the monks' robbed-out stone. The fields are very lumpy and bumpy, perhaps because of house platforms, or quarries, or fish ponds. The abbey was founded in 1155, and the monks belonged to the Premonstratensian order. Actually they weren't monks at all , but 'canons regular' because they went out in their white robes to preach and minister to local villages. I'm still trying to work out exactly what being Premonstratensian meant in practice, but it's something hair-splitting and liturgical. As happened with many religious houses they got themselves into hot water in the century or so before their destruction under Henry in 1538. There was a bit of an alleged problem in 1491, when some of the canons were caught drinking in Welford, and various of them were banished to Alnwick and (poor things!) Shap for incontinence, sexual or alcoholic. It's a safe bet there were no opportunities for incontinence up on the bleak moors. I could start jokes about the sheep looking happier, but that would be vulgar and inappropriate, wouldn't it!

In a field the other side of the Abbey site, the River Avon rises and then meanders towards Welford. I pass through a gate and negotiate my path at maximum distance from a black bull, who has been (deliberately, I presume) separated from his ladies by the waters of the Avon stream. He sees me, lifts himself onto his feet, and then stares me out every inch of the way round the perimeter to the field exit.

I walk up through a pretty set of barn conversions into Welford and find St. Mary's beside what would once have been the middle street of a prosperous little town. Alas Welford has declined, but the church is still fun. Rather high, I guess, from the statue of the Virgin by the pulpit, although of course the dedication of the church is to her, so maybe not...('Hymns Old and New' on the shelves!) The loo is particularly memorable. For one thing it houses the church's safe, a splendidly impregnable article set into the wall, and an unusual juxtaposition. It's lit through some Victorian stained glass, and on the window-sill there's a framed photo of a Roman loo in Philippi, with the thought feelingly appended by the 2005 incumbent that the construction of  that ancient facility required no faculty from the Diocese.

I notice two other things in St. Mary's. The first is a church chest, of the sort I come across relatively often. In Welford it's said that when travellers stayed the night in lodgings, their more precious belongings would be handed to the churchwardens who'd store them safely in the chest until they could be reclaimed the following day. The other thing is that the north chapel is more or less entirely given over to the remembrance of the fallen from the two wars. The significance of this becomes a little heightened over the next hour. One other legend about the church is worth recounting. It's said that there was once a tunnel from St. Mary's to the Abbey. No trace of this has ever been found, remarks the church's descriptive pamphlet. I'm not surprised. It would have been a massive undertaking to dig, the distance between the two buildings being more than half a mile.

I retire to The Wharf in search of a GB. The opportunities for incontinence in Welford are a little reduced these days. I can see there were at least three pubs until recently, but two are closed, one of which looks derelict. Welford is a frontier town. The county boundary with Leicestershire lies just beside The Wharf , and from the way the road dips and bends around its castellations, I fancy there must once have been a toll-gate here. The Welford branch of the Grand Union canal comes to a full stop by the pub car park. The fact that Welford was once thought worthy of its own waterway is yet another sign of the little town's lost status.

There are no women in The Wharf except those behind the bar. I listen to the men banter, and observe the layout and interior decoration of the room around me, comparing it to the church I was in a few minutes ago. In the Baptist chapel of my Erith youth, one of the regular meetings was a one-evening-a-week 'Men's Fireside', which complemented the 'Women's Bright Hour' held each Wednesday afternoon. The male half of our Weston Favell church in 2018 is still invited to 'Men Allowed' for breakfast on occasional Saturday mornings. And so are our traditional and questionable Christian gender patterns preserved - our own mini-reflection of the Jewish and Muslim insistence on 'separate development' for the sexes.

Two problems. One should be the associations of 'separate development' for anyone with anything other than a tin ear, although I know the expression in this instance is mine, and deliberately provocative. The other is to know how we should reflect the desire for all individual groups to find 'safe space' while remaining a ...Jerusalem...builded as a city...that is at unity with itself (Psalm 122, or if you like, C.H.H. Parry's famous anthem: 'I was glad').

I join my old friend,  the Jurassic Way for a hobble around a bit of Sulby Reservoir and a traverse of its dam. I meet a woman walking with her small, yappy dog. She has a narrow boat on the canal. She likes the reservoir and says how lucky we are to have access to such beautiful bodies of water. I agree. She observes that the water level is low. Together we eye up the herd on the far bank, in whose direction she's walking. I check that she's up to speed on 'what to do with your dog around cattle'. She is. I go the opposite way across the fields with the drone of light aircraft in my ears all the way to wonderfully-named Sibbertoft. Husbands Bosworth, just north of the county boundary, was a WW2 airdrome, which as the war dragged on hosted many Polish airmen, and subsequently became a settlement camp for them and their families. The connections continue. In Welford church I'd seen a touching letter to the churchwarden written last May by the daughter of a Polish woman who'd recently passed away. Right to the end of her life she remained fond of this place and the people who'd reached out to her in a time of exile and service.

Climbing a low stile, I'm suddenly struck by the paradox that it's quite likely the very people keenest on preserving our yearly celebration of Remembrance unaltered are also the most passionate supporters of Brexit. At least here in Welford/Sulby/Husbands Bosworth I hope account is taken that we went to war, not only for ourselves, but because we were outraged at the treatment of the Polish nation. And that subsequent to the peace there was a determination such things should never again happen in Europe.

Some parts of previous walks linger in the memory. The approach to Sibbertoft is one. Fifteen years ago I was so hot and thirsty here that I stumbled through the corn of the final field in mild delirium to find solace in the Red Lion pub, liking it so much that I brought the family back for Sunday lunch a week later. Sadly the Red Lion's closed, although there are menus in the window, so maybe it just opens in the evenings these days. The River Welland rises near by and flows east, whereas the Avon flows west to Stratford and beyond, so here I am, right in the middle of England, at the watershed.

                                                                                              The main street in lost Sulby

St. Helen's church is locked. I sit on the bench outside and say a prayer, not much more than a request that God bless the people of the village and those who minister to them, then walk on to encounter Bob and Liz and their little white Hyundai. They're looking for a Naseby battlefield viewpoint the map tells them should be just here, beside the lane. I walk with them a while, and share their puzzlement that no viewpoint's forthcoming, then leave them and retrace steps to my intended route where I find what we were looking for hidden the far side of a hedge. It's not a viewpoint in the conventional sense, just an information board. The only things to be viewed are a few fine horses, some stout fences and a lot of obscuring greenery. Further on, once the bridleway has rejoined the lane up to Naseby village, Liz and Bob pass me again, and I share with them what they've not missed. They offer me a lift up to Cromwell's Monument which I decline, explaining my Rule doesn't permit.

The straight little road suddenly becomes very busy. There are cyclists, and a combine harvester, and a brace of Anglian Water vans. They're looking for a leak, and ask if I've seen one. I haven't. Then a vintage tractor passes me. It's a Fordson Super Major in blue. I'm rapidly becoming a tractor nerd (see previous post).

At the Monument I meet Bob and Liz again. We survey the scene of Broad Moor where (perhaps) the Battle of Naseby was fought. The King's army lost, and Charles' fate was more or less sealed. It was a decisive step on the road to his house arrest, and eventual trial and execution, before England spent a lost decade tasting Republicanism. The sweep of the shallow valley is very suggestive of a field of battle. Today it looks very picturesque with the corn cut and the sun shining. I learn more about Liz and Bob. They're Lancastrians on their way down to Bletchley Park, via Edge Hill and Naseby. I venture the thought that they might be history teachers. Bob says he was. Liz is a Methodist and Bob's a Rotarian. As sometimes happens in these casual meetings we cover a lot of conversational ground in fifteen enjoyable minutes, everything from Rishton Cricket Club to Northampton Council's inadequacies, before they go off to find their gaff for the night at Maidwell's The Stag.

 So, to return to the question I posed in the previous post, is what the three of us have just been doing 'dark tourism'? No, I don't think so. It's very hard to stand by the Cromwell Monument, even on a lovely day, and not be moved by the terrible consequences of the Civil War. Some estimates put the loss of life throughout England from injury or deprivation at as much as a quarter of the population. It was simply a dreadful thing. At Culloden, in a different context, I experienced such a psychic whacking that it's stayed with me through most of a lifetime. And a solo visit to the site of the Jewish ghetto in Lodz one gloomy March morning created a similar unforgettable impression. Perhaps children need to see the First War trenches to get a grip on the awfulness of 1914-18. On the other hand, with apologies to my friend and one-time pupil Tim Perkins, I think the Sealed Knot may not be such a good idea. There's a danger of trivialising the tragedy, as there can sometimes be with 'celebrations' of more recent conflicts. For all the power of a full Albert Hall, the greater the number of people sharing the experience, the greater the risk of a wrong emphasis, it seems to me. The difficulty for Naseby is that it's a place of great importance for English history, but there's little to actually see, so explanation will always remain problematic.

                                                           Naseby:  Broad Moor

Pies in the sky:  19 km. 5.5 hrs. 23 deg. C. Sunny intervals and a cooling intermittent breeze. 8lb pack. 9 stiles. 15 gates. Reports this week cast doubt on the accuracy of Fitbits (which is how I measure my distance travelled). Some say they show too many steps, some that they show too few. Well, go figure! If you're looking for absolute accuracy, forget it, but within acceptable margins, they work very well. I count my steps, then assume a step length of .75 metre for the distance. This probably means I over-estimate, but not by much.

What happened in these fields
What still happens in some places this very day
'Heal your children's warring madness'
The hymn begs
'Blessed are the peacemakers'
Exhorts the Gospel
May I be in their number
In my home
My community
My church
My nation

Thursday, 16 August 2018

1645 And All That (Part 1)

Driving down to Cottesbrooke through Creaton I realise that when I visited St. Michael's ('We the people...' July 20th), I managed to miss the splendid village green. The main street curves round the foot of a verdant amphitheatre below a semicircle of perfect cottages. It would be a glorious place to live, but I doubt we'd ever be able to afford it. Should have stayed in teaching. Or retrained as an accountant. Anything but be a musician and writer. As Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam once nearly sang: 'Look at me, I'm poor but I'm happy...' (Actually, he sang 'old' rather than 'poor' - which is equally true!)

Whatever you do for a living in Cottesbrooke it seems you ride. An elderly lady and a younger companion nod graciously down at me from fourteen hands as I park the car by All Saints. Hard-hatted primary-age children walk purposefully carrying saddles. A svelte late teenager trots by and says a polite hello (which she probably wouldn't if we were both on foot, such are the current anxieties and consequent custom). You can get good, professional riding tuition at Bothy Cottage, and either there or somewhere else close by there's ample encouragement for the disabled to enjoy the view from horseback. As I wander up the road, I'm startled to see the rear of what looks like someone doing a spot of nudist farming. A second glance with readjusted specs disconfirms the impression. In fact he's wearing a pair of ill-advisedly-close-fitting pink shorts.

  At this time of year, God and our farmers make everywhere, and not just the obelisked parkland around Cottesbrooke, seem so tidy. Crops are neatly cut and gathered, or after 2018's prolonged sunny weather, standing proud and uniform awaiting harvesting. That said, here and in other places too, I see many apparently disused and unloved farm buildings. I guess farming is always going to require a midden somewhere on the property, just as a garden needs a rubbish heap, but I expect there are individual differences between landowners. Some of them probably leave discarded dirty underwear on the bedroom floor too. It's The Grundys' approach v. The (eponymous) Archers', for all that Ruth of that ilk habitually intones, 'Woar, David, I'm not havin' you come to the table smellin' like that...'

Over a couple of miles the road to Naseby rises in a series of undulations. Although Cold Ashby is Northamptonshire's highest village, Naseby isn't far behind at 193 metres. Away to the right are 'Purser's Hills'. The internet won't tell me who 'Purser' was, but it looks a pretty spot, and someone up there has a little observatory. The OS suggests there's a museum on the south side of Naseby, but it's no longer there, so I press on to the church (another 'All Saints') assuming I'll find some Civil War stuff inside. The door's locked but a key's available from the well-appointed Village Stores opposite, so I borrow it, and am surprised. The church is scruffy. Petals litter the floor around last Sunday's - or was it the Sunday before that's - flower display. There's a single dog-eared description of All Saints' history on the table by the door. A cursory display of information about the Battle of Naseby is to the north side at the rear beside a couple of ecclesiastical curios, about whose provenance one can learn from the scrawled felt-tip pen and card inscription. Everywhere looks in need of a lick of paint and a buff of polish. And in the porch, I can see that All Saints managed to pay just £5k or 30% of its requested 'Parish Share' in 2017, which for a village of nearly 700 souls seems inadequate and strange. I maybe missing something here, and I don't want to be unkind, but what's the story?

A little subsequent research tells me of a grandiose scheme dating back a few years whereby All Saints would become a 'battlefield visitor centre'. It was hoped that a rather large sum of money would become available to this end. Perhaps it was thought that the Diocese might chip in? At any rate it didn't happen.

Here's what I think, although it's very easy to be critical from the boundary rope.

There's a whole bunch of new housing going up at the gateway to the village in Purlieu Court, Hammonds Mews and Catton Close. These incomers won't give a stuff about recent village politics, but they will need ministry from the Church. I saw a number of telegraph poles with admittedly faded flyers from Thornby's Buddhist Centre attached, but none with a 'wayside pulpit' from the C. of E.. Well we wouldn't, would we, because fly-posting's illegal, but you get my drift... At the moment, even if any new people borrow a key and drop into All Saints, they're not likely to come back, unless the aesthetics of the church belie the warmth of the welcome.

Secondly, evangelism can come from all kinds of different directions. I've spent a great deal of time pushing the idea of 'good' music within the Church, because sometimes people who come to listen or participate stay for the other stuff. So it's a 'yes' from me to food banks, and 'tiny tots' groups and bailing out cost-cutting councils by hosting 'memory cafes', even if we make a loss, providing we all know what we're doing. And so quite possibly it might be a 'yes' to 'battlefield visitor centres' too. But the Church of England is subject to the same financial pressures as everyone else, and priorities have to be set. The population at large sometimes seems to think we mint our own fivers.

Thirdly, if parish shares egregiously fail to be met when they could be, the weight falls on other shoulders. Other churches will be subsidising Naseby, which isn't OK in my book. For instance, Haselbech, just up the road, with a population one seventh of Naseby's managed its full whack at just over £8k. On the other hand, I'm not sure that the Diocese is sufficiently transparent about where our money goes. I expect if this was ever to be read by Bishops or Archdeacons they'd be shouting at the computer in frustration that they're doing their best, but if I don't get it, I won't be alone. My verdict: 'Could do better'.

As an aside, there's been a bit of press comment this week about 'Dark Tourism', by which is meant at its most awful, Chinese tourists taking selfies with a backdrop of Grenfell Tower. Or in watered down version, folks who trot off to Chernobyl or the site of New York's Twin Towers for their holidays. Should Naseby or Culloden come into the same category? I'll come back to this another time, not least because at the time of writing, I can't see the wood for the trees.

I return All Saints' key to Rachel whose bright eyes and smile light up the counter in the Village Stores. We chat about the development of Northamptonshire and our shared fear that the fields and woods we love are destined for a concrete future. She talks with enthusiasm about the views from the Haselbech area cross the vale beyond, and she's spot on. Either side of Haselbech, where St. Michael's church sits calmly between the Hall and the beautiful Old Rectory, the ridgewalk is airily energising. At one point I can see way beyond Northampton itself to the slightly higher ground the far side of Milton Keynes at Great Brickhill, maybe thirty-five miles away.

There's work going on in Haselbech's bell tower, but they don't see me, and I can only hear them. I stay only briefly but this building gives the visitor everything which Naseby denies. The two congregations are yoked in a single benefice with Clipston. I hope they get on.

Rounding the farm at Haselbech Hill, and pushing on to Maidwell Lodge, there are the very first slight intimations of the coming autumn, my third on the Long Walk, the fresh perfume of leaves, woodsmoke in the air, though mixed with an overtone of barbecue charcoal. At one point the countryside reminds me of Somerset, and I'm pitched back nearly fifty years to a Christian houseparty at Crewkerne where I was recruited as a student to do good to a church group from Chatham. One August afternoon I was twinned with a pretty auburn-haired arty girl called Juliet for a treasure hunt through the fields. She was much younger than me, and in subsequent days preferred the company of someone I thought a goofy hobbledehoy. I found this rather wounding, but as Ned Kelly remarked before being shot:  'Such is life...'

At Maidwell, rather dried out by the stiffening warm westerly breeze, I head for The Stag and listen in on the local gossip. On the lane from Haselbech I've been avoiding getting run down by huge combines and their associated machinery, and now the talk is interesting, charming and all of farming matters. It's marvellous drying weather, but the expectation is that yields will be well down because of the drought conditions earlier in the summer. (I'm thinking about the forecast for tomorrow which is for heavy morning rain, and wondering how much it takes to spoil a crop: this must be an annual period of extreme anxiety for arable farmers). These days no one owns their own farms, someone says, they farm on behalf of the landowners. One old boy's just died: the farm has been split between children and grandchildren, and the principal shareholder has sold up and moved on to a smaller acreage over in Cambridgeshire where the land's better. And old Nigel's died too - it's been a funny few weeks - he was the life and soul of the local party, and loved his am dram. A road accident did for him. (I wonder to myself if this could be the same Nigel whose funeral I saw being prepared at Guilsborough (July 20th) and later confirm that this is so - Nigel Townsend, one-time teacher at Spratton Hall school.) Back to the farmer who passed on. Didn't he have eleven tractors? Yes, of various ages, heritage and contemporary. At which point the barman reveals that he's got a tractor too, a Massey 35, and goes backstage to find pictures of the 'before' and 'after' restoration of same to show the assembled company.

I make my visit to St. Mary's Maidwell with the overheard conversation fresh in my mind, The church is locked, and as always in these cases but particularly now, there's a sense of disappointment. Remembering these people before God is so much harder to do sitting on the bench in the churchyard rather than on a pew inside, however placid the early afternoon village. We humans are just funny that way about 'sacred space', and probably always have been.

                                                            Making the ways straight...

I pick up the Macmillan Way which drives almost exactly south-west back towards Cottesbrooke past Blueberry Lodge and Blueberry Grange. I see no blueberries, but I do meet a man walking the opposite way more rapidly than me despite hefting a pack three times the size of mine. I ask him where is he going and yes (thank you, Joni M.) this he told me. He's going to Boston, Lincs (which is where the Macmillan Way starts or ends) rather than Yasgur's Farm and if I understand him correctly he's walked from Chepstow already. I say that I've thought of doing the Macmillan Way myself, but that I looked at the section over the fens and came to the conclusion it was too hardcore for me. Oh, he was born near there, he says, so he won't mind it so much. And when will he arrive? Some time on Sunday, he thinks. So that's more than twenty miles a day, every day, come rain or shine. And tomorrow it will be very wet!

                                                          Stained glass at Haselbech

Bones on the stones:  21 km. 6 hrs. 23 deg. C. Meteorologically a bit of everything: a few early spots of drizzle, but mainly warm sunny periods, until the cloud bunched up. A warm wind gusting 25/30 mph. Swooping swallows much in evidence. Two pairs of kites inspecting me for food potential. Two quasi-stiles (my fault for missing the path near Maidwell) so fences in reality! Five gates. 90% roads and tracks. One squirrel on the wall at St. Mary's.

'Yasgur's Farm' : the site of the 'Woodstock' festival, referenced in Joni Mitchell's song of the same name.

In the week following the dispiriting Ben Stokes trial, and with Sue beginning a church course on peace and justice...

Physically inept
And cowardly though I am
I confess
I've too often been tempted
Towards violence as a solution
When frustrated by
The appearance of evil
The intransigence of incompetence
The sheer bloody-mindedness of events.

In humility I offer the mitigation
Of my upbringing in the aftermath
Of Hitler's war
And the shadow of the death camps.

I pray that you will work
With me
With us
On my soul
On our souls
To shun evil and violence
And promote peace with justice
In our home
In our community
And throughout the world.