Monday, 10 February 2020

North and South

A woman riding a pretty brown mare and leading a pony with her spare hand comes towards the Audi as I drive the lane to Braunston (Rutland). I slow to walking pace. Then without warning the mare rears at the car. Thankfully the pony behaves perfectly but still it’s a ‘moment’ that makes the heart go boom diddy boom. 

I’m anticipating another mudbath out on the paths today, and though at the previous close of play my use of Belton’s church for the removal of filthy trousers was improvised, today I’m planning ahead. I park outside All Saints, Braunston and check the church is open: I’ll need it later…

I walk round outside the west end to inspect the church’s celebrity stone (see the previous post). I’m not convinced it’s a true Sheela, but what do I know? The carving’s very indistinct, and some say has been further damaged in recent decades. I wonder whether it’s a grotesque interior church feature removed in a restoration, thought inappropriate because it could be seen as a woman with bare breasts. How can I put it decorously? The figure lacks some of the other attributes one might expect in a true fertility symbol. Wikipedia opines it may have had an ‘apotropaic’ purpose – the evil eye and all that.

I take a path that crosses the little River Gwash to follow its line on the fields above. Where things get too sticky, I drop down to the roads to walk past the site of Brooke Priory. Above ground nothing survives. It seems to have been a poor place, providing for three Augustinian canons who once made themselves useful ministering to the bodies and souls of local residents. What may have been its only great treasure can still be seen in Oakham’s museum, a reliquary beautifully decorated in Limoges champlevé enamel applied to a copper base, discovered in the basement of the priory’s successor Big(gish) House. Such an artefact must have been revered and treasured, glowing among the dun colours of fourteenth century Rutland life, a focus for wonder and faith.

Sweet soul music, Wilson Pickett, Otis, and the Four Tops issue from the churchyard of St. Peter’s church. The tower’s being re-pointed, and minor works are in progress on the timbers. I chat to one of the craftsmen, who’s done a lot of stuff for the Churches Conservation Trust. St. Peter’s is a little star of a building with a bare chapel, lean of dry wood and stone. Simon Jenkins likes it too, and there’s even a photo of it in 1000 Best Churches, showing off the ironstone against a dramatic stormy sky. He says ‘We enter through the south door, a Transitional arch of the most ostentatious carving…box pews fill the nave, and in the chancel are boxed stalls…in the north chapel…is a 1619 alabaster memorial…despite its age (Charles Noel) is clad in ancient armour, like a medieval knight…the Norman hinges on the north door are extraordinary, even sinister. They are shaped like giant fishbones, centipedes or spiders, according to taste… What a place to work in for a week. Go and see it.  If you do and it seems vaguely familiar, you may be right. St. Peter’s was recruited for the 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice. Keira Knightly woz ‘ere.

Away from the village I find myself climbing on what the OS assures me is my old acquaintance the Macmillan Way, though there are no signs to say so. Near the top of the ridge I turn left on a track much trafficked by tractors and horses. I squelch along, an elderly circus act, balancing precariously on its edges with my stick to reach the metalled lane of Brooke Road aka the Leighfield Way muddy but unbowed, bowling on down towards Oakham, county town of Rutland.

All Saints’ spire stands up proudly from the town centre: you can’t miss it. What’s the ‘emotive meaning’ of such a building for today’s residents? For me of course, it’s about (lol) inspiration. It tells me I’m in Britain, or at least in northern Europe. It’s a nudge to faith, a finger pointing to heaven. It associates immediately to all the lovely things and people I may find adjacent to it. The word ‘spire’ is possibly nothing to do with the Spirit or ‘breath’. Those who know link it to ‘spear’, and the pointy bits of flowers, shrubs and trees, but regardless, I can’t help thinking of a spire as funnelling down the wind of God’s goodness and channelling up the people’s prayers.

Oakham and Rutland have recently been newsworthy for an unsuccessful attempt to keep McDonald’s out of the county. Which makes the sign at the city limit announcing Oakham’s twinning with Dodgeville, Wisconsin a rib-tickler. You could say that under Trump the whole of the USA has become Dodgeville.

I walk across the Peterborough to Leicester railway at a level crossing, and then past Oakham Cricket Club, reminding me that England fast bowler Stuart Broad spent his teenage years at the town’s famous public school. Sound the klaxons: here comes a paragraph about cricket! Broad is still, I think, something of a curiosity for such a highly successful and effective player. As a schoolboy he was a batsman, but then he began to gain height (he’s 6’5”) and was turned into a quick bowler. From the comfort of my armchair he’s always seemed to have an ungainly action, not using his left arm to any great degree, and his wickets tend to come in great clumps, which alternate with ‘dry’ patches when his bowling seems almost benign. There was a time when he seemed destined to be a great all-rounder, but having been hit in the face by the Indian fast bowler Varun Aaron, the batting has fallen away. Nevertheless, as they say, he can still hit a long ball, and he has a scything, ferocious cover drive, on occasion enormously frustrating to opposition bowlers.

Oakham is the County Town time forgot. There are genteel ladies’ clothes’ parlours, design emporia, antiques for sale, posh cake shops, and yes regrettably, if you really, really want, you can get yourself a tattoo. Admittedly, the stylish Post Office has closed and relocated to McColls’ newsagents. The smart young people of the College stroll the streets at lunchtime, looking like the future Home Secretaries and Captainpersons of Industry they’ll undoubtedly become. There’s even a nice untrashy, old-fashioned market to sell you fruit, flowers, veg and linen. Before I investigate the town history, I have an Earl Grey and a clever sandwich at The Larder in Mill Street, where everything’s tickety-boo under the control of Alyson, Iain and Kym (this is sounding like a local paper restaurant review). If they cared to open up a second set of premises in Northampton, I’d probably be in there every day, and get myself a soubriquet, perhaps as ‘Vichyssoise Vince’. (From an overheard conversation I gather favourite and regular customers have been known to acquire pet names - with the customers’ permission and encouragement!)

So am I in the North now, or still in the South? Well, yes, technically I’m neither in one or the other: this is The Midlands. I’m certainly not in the East, where for televisual purposes Northampton has paradoxically ended up, along with much of the rest of the diocese.

It’s strange that more than a hundred and fifty years since Mrs. Gaskell published ‘North and South’, the UK is still in the throes of debate about the relationship between the two halves of England. Yet, having walked in my native Kent two days previously, there seem to be some not-so-subtle differences of attitude even between there and here (distance 130 miles). And all this despite the internet, and motorways, and the myriad readjustments to British life that have come about during our lifetimes. South-east of London there’s more than a small sense of nouveau riche: a defensiveness too. Everyone seems to want to mark and defend their property, and establish their wealth credentials in ways that sometimes look rather tasteless and crass to me. The manufacturers of iron railings, the better to surround the roadfront of one’s property, are doing a roaring trade. But then, I’ve been living in the ‘Midlands’ for forty-five years now, so I’ve become part of the divisiveness that accompanies diversity. These days all of us are more suspicious of the mildly strange or different. It comes as a shock to realise I no longer trust many of the people among whom I was born.

Trust, or a lack of it, is engendered in so many complex and varied ways (and now I’m thinking about the Church). It’s most obviously nurtured by seeing how someone behaves over a period of time, and being able to like and predict what they’ll do in any new situation. Yet language in all its nuances plays a part (how oldies despise the street talk of the young!) and perhaps body chemicals, and also our past experiences (our personal ‘baggage’). Then we must factor in ethnicity, and the customs of other groups/communities/families.

Among all the chatter about HS2, and the relocation of the BBC or the House of Lords, nobody’s talking much about building trust between north and south, between individuals within the Church, between clergy and people, between politicians and electors.

So back to the emotive meaning of the spire. You can make a case that there’s always been a vein of anti-clericalism in British (English?) culture, as evidenced by literary works from Chaucer to Austen. But the grooming scandals, and the boom in aggressive secularism, fuelled across the religious divides by anti-Islamic feeling, now has the middle class making a metaphorical sign of the cross whenever they encounter faith, except when they want to use the Church for rites of passage. And the middle classes have always been the drivers of British Christianity, haven’t they? So when the ‘unchurched’ see a spire, unlike us, perhaps they shudder, or say ‘not them again!’.  

Is this something we’re prepared to accept submissively, like this weekend’s coming Storm Ciara, or the coronavirus? There was a chorus in Junior Praise which we used to sing, though it’s fallen off the hymn roster of late: ‘Be bold, be strong, for the Lord your God is with you.’ And there I go, preaching again.  In Christ there is no East or West/In Him no North or South – nor Clergy or Laity, nor Catholic or Evangelical etc. etc.

The Great Hall of Oakham Castle is a blast, built for feasting, frivolities and much else by the Normans. These days you can go there to imagine yourself a judge or in the dock at an Assize, and you can hire it for your own wedding too, though I’m not sure where the ceilidh band would go. It’s been beautifully re-decorated, and is a great place for an educational visit. There’s a rack of period costumes to one side. A moustachio-ed gentleman from Moldova or Belarus under a misapprehension about my status asks me ‘Plis, is it to put on the clothes?’ I direct him to the enthusiastic council staff.

There’s something going on in All Saints church (another Simon Jenkins mention). It’s an Oakham School  organ recital. I surreptitiously open the south door, and rather cartoonishly, every head swivels towards me in disapproval. I back away as quietly as I can to avoid interrupting the Buxtehude, and go round to the entrance under the tower for a peek through the glass. Not only is someone clearing the mice from the pipes of the Ken Tickell-built organ, but today’s scheduled programme is for ‘organ and drums’ which carries awful connotations of ‘summer seasons’ at Butlins’ c. 1970.  I see a large Sonor kit sitting on the chancel steps and step away. I was never one for drum solos, although of course I may be about to miss out on a prog-rock extravaganza.

Out of town I walk across the Vale of Catmose to Egleton church (Eggle-ton? Eagle-ton? Egg-le-ton?) which sits prettily at the end of a field path, surrounded by snowdrops. The paths and fields are oh so slowly drying out, but will get another drenching this weekend from Storm Ciara. As I sit inside St. Edmund’s, I remember Jean Eggleton and a drama course at the Baptist church in Erith during the Easter holiday of 1963, at the end of a winter very different from this one. Then the snow was still lying in April, as it had been for the previous three months, even in suburban London. Jean was listening to her tranny, The Beatles were singing ‘I wanna hold your hand and life started to reveal whole new possibilities...

Well, I did promise you some rock n’roll.

Book of Numbers:  16.5 km 5 hrs. plus a 45 min lunch at The Larder. 8 degrees and mostly sunny after the early mist, although a little more cloud towards dusk.  7 stiles. 18 gates. 6 bridges.

Great Father God
I’m scared.
A coming storm.
My own mortality.
Bad politics at home and abroad.

I know.
Nothing can separate me from the love of Christ.
But just right now
I don’t feel it.
Sustain me
Lift me up.
Help me to be brave for others.

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Both Sides Now

Well, as a matter of fact it is very cloudy*, actually misty and dreakh, as I park the car opposite the church in Belton. A pretty young woman walking her dog greets me with a cheery hello. This of course gladdens my heart, but the emotional lift is mitigated by the understanding that what she sees is a daft old codger inefficiently compiling his stick, hat, boots and pack from the tailgate, and were I my former youthful and handsome self (I should've been so lucky!) she’d probably have ignored me. But let’s be sunnier than the weather. Maybe sociability and good manners are just par for the course in Rutland.

There are very lovely views to both sides on the way over the border to Loddington. I’m in Leicestershire now, and for a reason. The Dioceses of Leicester and Peterborough share a retreat house at Launde Abbey, and that’s where I’m headed. But first, Loddington, to which I descend by a lane on which not a single vehicle passes me in the couple of miles from Belton. The church of St. Michael and All Angels isn’t where you’d expect it to be - near the crossroads in the little village. It’s over a field, through a gate and up a muddy green track fringed with a carpet of snowdrops. In fact, there are no metalled paths to the church’s door at all. My exit to a lane which doubles as a stream for thirty metres is also grassed, with the exception of a few rough stone steps. This was a plague village and when it was rebuilt the new houses were placed at a distance to all those bad, disturbing memories.

As I write this of course, the novel coronavirus is big news, and who knows what threat it may yet pose beyond the Chinese frontiers. I ask myself, if the worst came to the worst, what should Christian congregations be encouraged to do? I only observe that our consciences sometimes make us reluctant to stay away from worship and allied events (choir practices, shared lunches, PCCs etc.) because we feel we’re letting God down by our absence, and so opportunities are given for viruses to do what they’re built for, and replicate. We have some means at our disposal to gather together collectively on line, but inevitably this would exclude some older and poorer members – exactly the people who need community and communion the most. We were very good at hand sanitisation during the swine ‘flu epidemic. Will that be enough this time? Please God, yes!

The road climbs again past an obviously converted one-time school house and ‘School Farm’, both dated to around 1870, at the beginnings of elementary education for all, although how many children were ever catered for in this sparsely populated area I don’t know. At Copthill Farm the ewes are ready to drop, and I think of the lovely Scottish air ‘Ca the yowes’, and then of my favourite TV ad – for Specsavers – the one where the short-sighted farmer accidentally shears his collie. (The music for that is an Irish song called Mo Ghile Mear… which reminds me a bit of the better known Scottish ballad.) 

At the top of the rise, there’s a splendid view down to Launde, comfortably set down among the low hills. The ‘Abbey’ looks Victorian now, but inside are remnants of its former buildings and status, notably in its small chapel. An Augustinian priory was founded here in 1119, by Richard Basset (long-time visitors to this blog may remember my visit to Sutton Basset a year or so ago, out on the Diocese’s western flank). Thomas Cromwell took a shine to Launde and had it earmarked for his personal enjoyment, but the King removed his head shortly afterwards, and occupancy was left to Thomas’ son Gregory, who’ll be well known to readers of Hilary Mantel.

(Reading back the next few paragraphs, I realise I've come over all intellectual, so either skip a few, or sit in for a bit of Radio 3. I know, I know, it's not a way to build readership in 2020. I'll try to remember to be more rock n'roll next time...) 

How do you feel about ‘retreats’? They don’t come easily to me, I must admit, but I see their merits – and maybe some dangers. Sometimes parish life becomes sooo intense. Little niggles become big issues and people fall out with each other from misunderstanding rather than real differences. As in families, a little time away, even for just 24 hours, can lend a bit of perspective to events, and help set new and better priorities, or re-establish energy for existing ones. On the other hand, the exclusion of key individuals because of cost or other commitments can entrench distrust…

It seems marvellous to me that we have a safe space where all Anglican traditions can come together and find something which speaks to their particular path to God, and as far as I can judge Launde provides that. As so often I turn to Diarmaid MacCulloch, who writes as a critical friend to the Christian faith, rather than as a devotional aid (though perversely, I often find what he says helps me at least in that way too).  In his History of Christianity he writes (pp. 487 ff.) about the Hesychasts and their opponents within the Eastern church during the fourteenth century. At its heart this was a debate/controversy concerning the knowability or not of God, and how one could know him. It’s a tension between personal revelation and tradition/scripture which plays out repeatedly, one could say, in the phylogeny of the Church (the ebb and flow of theory and theology) and in our own particular ontogeny – which is to say we as individuals may feel either thing to be most important at some time in our lives, or even to think both things central/crucial at the same time.  (Is such a thing strictly possible?)

By inclination, and partly by training, I’m a shades of grey person. I tend to see merit in both sides of an argument, and generally think that no one has a monopoly on the right belief or moral attitude. There’s a lot to be said for Hegelian dialectic as a process where (in its most naïve sense) a synthesis is arrived at after the propagation or proposal of a thesis and its antithesis. Even as I write this, I’m thinking of a piano-playing debate I’ve stumbled across about how one should approach Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words? Does one take seriously the comparisons some have drawn with Mozart, and like a youthful Barenboim, play the Lieder lightly and in a kind of ‘surface meaning’ way, or as might befit a composer living when Mendelssohn did (Victoria and Albert’s Elton John-alike!), tackle them with fully-blown Romantic sonority and the largest possible dynamic contrast? Is there a Hegelian solution here? Not really.

Well, you can take your pick re: Mendelssohn, and it’s of no great consequence, and as BBC interviewers are apt to do, opine that it’s a debate which will run and run, though goodness knows some people will get all het up about anything. But seeing Both Sides Now in matters of faith (or social policy, or politics) sometimes just leads to incapacity: we’re rabbits in the intellectual headlights. Which can lead critics to mistake this for being a paid-up member of the Laodicea (Revelation 3: 14-22). But there’s nothing lukewarm about aporia. It can be a hot anxiety.

Still with me…? As I say, I like to think Launde and similar places are safe spaces where all of this can be explored, along with the day to day, mundane nitty gritty of living the down and dirty Christian life.

Talking of down and dirty, that just about describes the next three quarters of an hour, having eschewed the metalled route on towards Withcote, and chosen the hem-hem more direct approach by a path over the hill. It’s sodden and pitted and ultimately frustrating because I can’t find a way to what from the pictures looks like a perfect little Georgian chapel maintained by the Conservation Trust, and which is now always open, according to the kind ladies on the Abbey reception desk. Then the path veers uphill again over three more fields of increasingly mucky pasture until it gains the ridge at about 180 metres, where a farmer has blocked the right of way with an electric fence. Sigh! At least the views west over Leicestershire are some compensation.

Then it’s downhill all the way to Braunston-in-Rutland (to be distinguished from the Northamptonshire canal village) along a stretch of road known as The Wisp. I’m going to make a guess that this was where the mist gathered, though the Web tells me ‘wisp’ is also a collective noun for snipe. Who knew?

The clock on All Saints church in oh so pretty Braunston is bright blue, and large, and stuck on the tower in most unusual and whimsical fashion. The churchyard is also host to a Sheela-na-gig which formed the one side of a doorstep, such that the fertility (?) carving was hidden for centuries and people would have trodden on or across it on their way into worship, knowingly or not. Both these things suggest a long-standing vein of good humour in Braunston to me. And no one quite knows what to make of Sheela-na-gigs.

The day’s drawing in and the way back to Belton is up hill and down dale by pleasant and straight lanes. The light level’s very low, and I’m reminded of those wonderful gloomy early Mondrian paintings where perhaps beguiled by Theosophical thoughts he’s fascinated by the lack of light across the flat Dutch landscape (or maybe just trying out a challenge on light-obsessed, value-light Impressionists). The birds fall silent, except for a solitary screech owl and the flap and call of a pheasant I disturb as I pass. I relax my brain, and let the legs take over.

Members of the PCC: 21 km.  Nearly six hours. 11 deg. 6 stiles. 7 gates. 4 bridges. The church of St. Peter, Belton conveniently open as I return, so that I can divest myself of trousers that post-Withcote look as if I’ve been caving. Taking one’s trousers off in church feels particularly transgressive.

When all’s said and done
We’re no better than the ancients.
We stand in awe
At the mystery of the world you’ve created here
And the greater mysteries that lie beyond.
We thank you for the extraordinary beauty
Pervading the natural world around us
And the people we know and love.
Our heart fills with gratitude
That we’ve been granted the experience of this day.
We pray that our response to your love
May not be found unworthy.
We pray it through your Son
Our Saviour, Jesus Christ.

*Bows and flows of angel hair
  And ice cream castles in the air
  And feather canyons everywhere
  I’ve looked at clouds that way

  But now they only block the sun
  They rain and snow on everyone
  So many things I would have done
  But clouds got in my way

  I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
  From up and down and still somehow
  It’s cloud illusions I recall
  I really don’t know clouds at all.
                        Joni Mitchell

Friday, 24 January 2020

Baby, it's cold outside...

                                                   Frost at Preston

I’m careful when I park the car in someone else’s village.  Of course, I check to make sure I’m not across anyone’s drive – we live in a house where that’s a fairly common occurrence, and it’s the thing most likely to have me indicted for breach of the peace – but more selfishly, I ponder how often farm vehicles are likely to pass by. How wide precisely is a combine harvester or muck spreader? I play the tortoise and suck in my wing mirrors. Expensive things, wing mirrors.

Down the hill in Bisbrooke is a building that says it was once the Village Hall but looks more like an old Post Office. Then round a bend Baulk Lane drops steeply. The last two days have seen the first serious stay-all-day frosts of winter, and the fringes of the road are icy with the run-off from the waterlogged fields. There’s an extra meteorological peculiarity this week. An unusual configuration of the jet-stream is causing near record high levels of barometric pressure, so if I’m hearing a singing in the ears, perhaps for once it’s not tinnitus.

It’s also Blue Monday, the day when allegedly the New Year glow has finally worn off, and we realise that all our futures are much like all our yesterdays. I guess, whether we’re people of faith or not, this kind of blueness is a common experience, but of course what might be an opportunity to apply a little critical examination to our attitudes and behaviour is craftily subverted by the marketing types. Go on, the siren voices hum, what you need is a little more retail therapy. Something to help you through the darkest days of winter…you deserve it, you know you do…

The ridges of the wolds lie west-east. There’ll be quite a bit of up and down today. This isn’t exactly the Lake District but it is Rutland, where the streams cut just that extra percentage further into the land compared with Northamptonshire. I’m puffing as I reach the crossing of the A47. The literal upside beyond is the wide airy view across a landscape much less wooded, now that I’m north of the patchy remains of Rockingham Forest. The lane rollicks on down a second time before climbing again past the well defended Rutland Alpaca Farm. I’ve never heard of alpaca rustling, but there must be a risk. Preston sits the far side of the Oakham main road. In its main street, the traffic noise subsides around the quietly graceful cottages, the first flowering cherry of the season decorating the entrance to Holly Farm. The church of St. Peter and St. Paul is down a lane on the margins of the village, overlooking fields. There are some advantages to being liminal. It’s good Christian symbolism for our time. We are…edgy, not identified with the mainstream. On the other hand people may not come to find us: it costs them effort, and as they see it, lost opportunities. We’re missing a whole generation of twenty to forty somethings, constantly waiting for a better offer to arrive courtesy of their apps and social media. Perhaps we aren’t being clever enough to draw them in. Or maybe their fate is to find that all else is vanity before they give us a go, a Hail Mary. Will we be up to the challenge when/if they do?

                                          Liminal at Preston

There are many wonderful people, clergy and laity, paid and unpaid, working for and within the Church of England. But is it enough?

Clergy, you sometimes give the impression of thinking you’re not like the rest of us, that there'll be a special place reserved for you in heaven. You are overworked, but do you understand that this is a problem shared by many other jobs and professions, and that it's not OK to use your busy-ness as an excuse for rudeness and evasion? Sometimes, in my experience, you don’t really seem too interested in what other people do between Monday and Saturday. A huge question: does being collegial with the laity preclude being teachers and spiritual counsellors, or will it deny you identity? 

And Laity, ‘we the people’, the ‘priesthood of all believers’, we can't afford to act so smug. We collude with the same reasoning, and disempowered, leave the Church’s work to the ‘professionals’. More than my job’s worth, mate/luv. We don’t skill up with theological curiosity, Biblical knowledge and empathy. What’s a search engine for, for God’s sake? We hide our Christian identity for fear of ridicule. We don’t give the Church too much of our valuable thinking time between Monday and Saturday. It’s Fortnite, footie and Love Island for us (please supply your own weaknesses!)

We all have to raise our game - a lot – if we’re to be successful persuaders – if evangelism is any longer important to us as the Christian Remnant. Cor blimey, guv’nor, Blue Monday’s got to me.

Having given offence to some (and as always, it’s fine for you to tell me I’m wrong), now I’ll make you cry. Whether Michael Morpurgo knew the story or not, the saga of the Preston War Horse ought eventually to have provoked a film or book. You can read it in full on the ‘rutlandremembers’ website, as recounted by Jane Micklethwait. Briefly, in 1912 General Alfred Codrington, the owner of Preston Hall, bought a five year old called Lincoln. He had two sons. On call-up for military duty, the older brother Geoffrey shipped Lincoln to France along with a groom, as sometimes was the custom with well-to-do folk. In 1917 Geoffrey was badly wounded, and his brother William took over Lincoln plus amanuensis. Together and against the odds all three survived the war. As Jane observes, of a million British horses to go to France, only five per cent returned. I’ll let her tell the rest:
            ‘In 1918 Lincoln and his groom (arrived at) Manton station in a special horse carriage attached to the train. Lincoln walked out onto the platform and across onto the road. He stood totally still for a minute or so. His groom left the reins loose over his neck, and without any prompting or need for directions, Lincoln walked back up the hill, past Wing Grange into his old stable at Preston Hall.’

Lincoln lived on until 1926, and to this day, on a mound beneath some hawthorn bushes below the Hall is a stone marking his burial place. This tells you so much about so many things, I think, including the character of the County of Rutland.

I walk the ridge (not the same as walking the line, thank you, Johnny!) looking over a few miles to the gleaming stone facade of what I think is Burley Hill House atop the next undulation, and on to the village of Wing, where lives musical colleague Bill Coleman, distinguished bass player and arranger. Bill has helped me out with dots-writing a number of times, particularly with jazz inflected show tunes, where I just can’t hear how all those clever combinations of brass instruments and rhythm section slot together. At a certain point in the 1980s, ‘Barron Antony’, swapped playing bass in the Barron Knights pop group for windsurfing in New Zealand, and Bill took over, which was where I first met him. In a time somewhat after the band’s heyday, I was occasionally hidden behind a curtain to play extra keyboards on their occasional TV appearances. As I enter the village, I pass Wing Hall which advertises itself as a perfect venue for weddings, bar-mitzvahs etc., and smile to myself that Bill has a ready-made source of income on his doorstep, have keyboard, will busk.

Wing’s little church, also dedicated to SS Peter & Paul, is shut, but there’s another focus of spiritual energy up a side street by the football pitch. For centuries there’s been a grass maze here, whose design is reminiscent of the maze in Chartres cathedral, although that in turn probably owes a debt to pre-historical ritual. For some a maze is just a trivial game, and I suppose that’s how we all come to the idea as kids, especially if there are high hedges where we can become safely ‘lost’. For people of faith it sometimes speaks of our puzzled experience of life, and the elusiveness of certainty or moral progress, maybe even of our mortality, and it contains a universality which reaches out to other religions. In small part it contributes to what I’ve been doing on these walks these last few years, circling and meditating, and so I give it a moment…

Then it’s on, over the fields, less sticky than I fear, into the hamlet of Pilton with its simple chapel of ease and twin bell tower, and further by a sweeping road into the lovely village of Morcott. Two very serious power walkers (male) pass me in Pilton, one wearing shorts - which in view of the temperature is just plain showing off. Later five dogs and three humans scatter as we coincide on the lane, while yet another home improvements van accelerates past. Today they’ve constituted fifty per cent of the traffic. Clearly it’s what you do or have done in Rutland this winter, in lieu of sticking cash in the bank or attic. Vanjanuary.

The tower of St. Mary the Virgin in Morcott is mortar-clad, and in that respect reminds me of All Saints, Earl Barton. It’s not a beautiful material, but speaks of age, and some would call it ‘honest’, which is a double-edged sword of a word. I sit inside, and in a few moments the door opens. A chap has come to put out the bins for emptying. He’s mildly startled to find me there. I assure him I’m OK. He tells me not only has St. Mary’s a claim to be the oldest in Rutland, but also the coldest. From chivalry I hesitate to agree, but thinking again say, well, it is a tad on the chilly side. We gaze up at the high hung electric heaters and I ask how the church is doing. He replies that on a Sunday they get as many as a dozen people for worship. The 2011 census records there as being 321 inhabitants. It’s difficult being a 4% minority, but that’s what we are, and while it’s so cold in our churches, five months of the year at best, it’s the way we’ll remain.

Last week I played the organ in a large urban church. The eucharist ran towards one hour twenty. By the end I was rocking myself back and forth on the organ stool to keep myself vaguely warm and concentrating, despite my Sunday best woollen suit. At one point I thought of reaching for my nearby overcoat, but the console was on public view, and it could have seemed a hostile act. The clergy were swathed in many layers of clothing, and thus insulated from the environment. They detained the children who’d come to be present during the eucharist with a lengthy interrogation of what they’d been up to during the earlier part of the morning’s worship time, while the rest of us twiddled our fingers and hoped to be entertained. I wonder what the future associations of ‘church’ will be for those kids? Baby, it can be cold inside, as well as out. Equally, in our own St. Peter’s, it’s usually nice and cosy on Sunday mornings, but because there’s nowhere to put your coat and scarf, the congregation mostly keep them on. Would you do that in a restaurant? Or a cinema? Or anywhere you wanted to be? When I was teaching it was often a battle to get teenagers to take off their anoraks and coats. It was their way of showing their alienation, that lessons in school were nothing to do with them. As I say, we have to up our game. A lot. 
                                           ....Feed my sheep...

The path to Glaston (no bury!) leaves the Pilton road on a slant to follow a hedgeline until it doesn’t, disappearing into a newly planted field. I tut and slog up the field’s slightly firmer margin by a copse to the main road, then stomp and sigh along the A47 verge until the village games field where I should have emerged.  At the heart of the settlement on the back lane, St. Andrew’s church is charming, with a tower right in its middle. Suddenly I’m reminded of a Beyer Garratt steam locomotive. These were built with heavy duties in mind, articulated into three sections, with the boiler (and the cab) in the middle and two steam engines front and back - I think I may not quite be conveying to you the prettiness of Glaston’s place of worship. As at King’s Cliffe, it’s slightly strange sitting in the nave and peering through an aperture to the sanctuary. One could perhaps try to find symbolism in the bells, ringing out Good News to the surrounding countryside, but my thinking is dominated by the perceived distance from the sanctuary, the implied separation of the holy ones from the common horde of the unwashed congregation.

The last pull up the lane back into Bisbrooke is the steepest of them all. Take 2. ‘This isn’ t the Lake District but it is Rutland etc. etc.’  Penny is standing in the garden of the erstwhile Village Hall/Post Office, where she lives. She remarks that I look contemplative as I drag myself towards the car, just a hundred metres away. I thank her, and say no I’m just knackered, and explain why it’s nice to be described as in contemplation, being on a sort of pilgrimage n’ all. We chat about a wide range of things – the garden, Rutland, a little of Penny’s background, change, friends who audit the contents of churches: it’s amazing the ground you can cover in fifteen minutes. I’m warmed by conversation after a day largely on my own. All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

Stones in the North Wall:  18 km. Five hours. 5 deg.C. Bright, sunny and cloudless throughout. 5 stiles. 4 gates. (This was mostly a walk along metalled lanes) 5 churches. 3 open. A startled hare in the fields near Wing, running a long semicircle around me. Twittering birds everywhere, grateful for the sunshine.

Father God

I thank you that your Church unsleeping,
While Earth rolls onward into light,
Through all the world her watch is keeping
And rests not now by day or night…

…So be it Lord; your throne shall never
Like Earth’s proud empires pass away;
Your kingdom stands, and grows for ever,
Till all your creatures own your sway.
John Ellerton (1826-93)

Saturday, 18 January 2020


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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