Thursday, 2 April 2020

Alive and kicking?

Here we are sitting on our ball of confusion. Welcome to Babel Land.  Mr. Gove thinks a walk of up to an hour is enough exercise for one day. He doesn’t strike me as a sporty type. The police may turn me back if I set the Audi on course for a neighbouring county. Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes. The inhabitants of (variously) the Peak District, Wales, Cornwall and Scotland wish to repel all potentially Covid-19 bearing boarders, and who can blame them? If you’re on Kinder Scout at the wrong moment the rozzers may take a drone snapshot and stick it up on social media for the rest of the public to shame and abuse you.

Are we down-hearted? Well yes, we are rather. Is the advice offered consistent, or even well-argued? Well, maybe not, but the point is, consistent or even well-argued advice probably isn’t possible right now. We’re all improvising. Do we just give up, and wait to die? Well, of course not.

So if I can’t continue walking the labyrinth to Peterborough by ever more distant circles, the themes remain the same. We need each other more than ever. We have to explore and then reconcile our differences as Christians in a greater cause. We are the Body of Christ still, even in the face of the virus and closed churches. F.D.Maurice had the gist of it a hundred and seventy years ago. Who was F.D. Maurice? I’ll leave you to look him up, but he was quite a guy, for a theologian. He said his job was to dig, not build, which I rather like.

But I can still - for the moment - without using a car, walk the individual spokes of a wheel, out and back, from Weston Favell to neighbouring churches, and so today I go east towards Great Billing. My Big Walk first took me to St. Andrew’s church in May 2016. Great Billing like our own ‘village’ has an ancient centre surrounded by more modern housing. The walk is entirely suburban, but the church sits on a prominence with ‘Big House’ parkland falling away from it.

On the way there and back I’m passed by a hundred and one people (literally!) They are walking, cycling, jogging and in one case positively sprinting. Most are very well-behaved, apart from one morose geezer who can’t control his greyhound cross in the immediate vicinity of an understandably anxious woman with a baby in her arms. Then there are the kids splashing about noisily in Billing Brook, and four lads playing footie who don’t look particularly related to each other. Should I count as law-breakers the middle-class folk in a leafy close maintaining their two metres distance, but clearly having multi-neighboured social time? Probably. Calculating epidemiological risks is an imprecise science. We’re all taking our chances, more or less. I see more dogs in a limited time span than since last we were in Padstow and I encounter just two people wearing masks. On a Friday afternoon, it’s quieter than the most subdued Sunday, occasional distant blasts of Bhangra and Metal aside. The pathside woodland near St. Andrew’s has been coppiced. A contractor steadily mows the long stretches of grass by the church, blades sensibly high, in case of late frost or unexpected April heat. There are more people wandering the churchyard than I expect; parents doing some approximate home-schooling, looking at the inscriptions on the graves, enjoying the flowers and the quiet ambience. The notice affixed to St. Andrew’s door tells the world that the Church is alive and active, waving, not drowning. Are we?

Being a bloke, I’m only too aware that it’s men who are most susceptible to severe illness and death as a result of Covid. But I also notice in recent days that most if not all of those both taking risks with the virus and also projecting themselves in the faces of their fellow human beings e.g. by furious and noisy driving/biking - are also male. Is there a connection? Or is the presence of testosterone merely a spurious common factor between Covid mortality and manly strut?  And how do I read this in the context of men a) frequently wishing to dominate as ‘leaders’ in a religious context (as they also do in many other public contexts) and b) being absent from ground-level contemporary Christian religious observance, where that faithfulness isn’t expressed in more enthusiastic, extrovert forms? 

I stop by Billing’s cricket ground to mourn two amateur cricketers who this place conjures up. ‘Tot’ Manning was a sixth former when I was teaching at Northampton’s School for Boys in the seventies. He was generously built, and wielded (by the standards of those days) a heavy bat from which the ball was apt to depart with such rapidity that bowling slow-medium at him wasn’t a lot of fun. Tragically, ‘Tot’ died early in his college career, and ever since I hope he’s been terrifying close fielders on the heavenly cricket field. He was a protégé of Trevor Ford who captained the school’s staff cricket team back then, and whose funeral was conducted on-line this last week, as sadly many others will have been. Trevor was Yorkshire through and through, a purveyor of wily off breaks, delivered from almost a standstill because of arthritic knees. Both would have been surprised to find themselves mentioned in writings largely devoted to faith. Surprised, and in Trevor’s case at least, perhaps not entirely delighted.

Music and faith are intertwined at Billing. I may have previously mentioned that in 1577 Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, at that time riding high in Court circles, and having persuaded Elizabeth into granting them a monopoly on the printing of sheet music, also managed to obtain a lease on the Billing estate (and other land besides) for forty quid a year. It passed out of their hands not so long afterwards, but of course Tallis was dead by 1585, and Byrd was by then slipping out of favour for his Catholic inclinations. Elizabeth was not terribly amused by William’s churchmanship, but cut him more slack than she did for others.

Great Billing’s pub is the Elwes Arms, after the largely Catholic family who lived in the Hall. Gervase Elwes was a celebrated tenor at the turn of the nineteenth century, a mate of Percy Grainger, and a noted, pioneering exponent of Elgar’s ‘Dream of Gerontius’. He died in a terrible railway accident in Boston, Massachusetts. Elgar said shortly afterwards: ‘My personal loss is greater than I can bear to think upon, but this is nothing – or I must call it so – compared to the general artistic loss – a gap impossible to fill – in the musical world.’

I was brought up on ‘The Dream’, a work that’s absolutely without comparison as far as I can see, vividly imaginative and frighteningly emotional. I’ve found it difficult to listen to ever since my early teenage years, and despite its lovely colours and melodies which are both tender and plangent by turns, I’d find it impossible right now.

Stat Man:  Service temporarily suspended, but for the record:  13 deg C: sunny: 7 km.

With churches closed for the time being, many people are turning their minds to the maintenance of worship by other means. My small contribution to this is to provide a weekly ten minutes of audio – what we might have been doing/listening to in church on a particular Sunday if we’d been there. To find the various postings, please go to my website:


and click on the button ‘Ten on Sunday’ at the top of the site. This should take you straight to them. Alternatively, just scroll down until you see the pictures of a magnolia tree.

Friday, 27 March 2020

We are Borg*

                                         Crownwell Farm Wing
I’m expecting calls today, so the phone is chirruping away in my pocket as I turn right from Wing’s Middle Street into the village’s Bottom Street. Of the two, where would you rather live? The one might suggest a lack in firmness of purpose, the other a scatological sense of humour (though these are not the only possibilities: other interpretations are available!) The call is from the estate agent handling the sale of the old family home in Kent. The number of people interested in viewing what should be a highly desirable house has declined. Should we reset the price? Well, of course - the property market is bound to reflect the economic uncertainty existing elsewhere, so yes, we must.

I slither and slip down a soaked field to Crownwell Farm where chickens and ducks range freely and contentedly under pretty pink-blossomed trees. The Rutland Flyer bus scoots past up the lane, and I relay the estate agent’s news by phone to Sue. Then as I heave myself up a muddy ginnel beside the site of the old Manton Junction station, I field a call from My Client enquiring about the viability of next week’s recording sessions in London. They’re going ahead, but with me producing from Northampton by Skype. I always said I’d give up recording if it was reduced to us all working in our own little boxes made out of ticky-tacky (cf. Pete Seeger), but that’s what there is for the moment, and for all I know it’s a situation that may become permanent.

We’re so very connected, which provided the Internet holds up under the pressure from gazillions of bored kids and their parents playing Super Mario, is going to make the coming weeks and months survivable, mentally speaking, but which is also pumping infomatic fear into our homes hour by hour. These days I’m turning the phone off every evening to avoid Night Terrors, but here I am, on a lovely but chilly day, wired into the world even as I ‘do pilgrimage’ around the Rutland countryside.

As the path emerges by back gardens into the edge of Manton, a refuse lorry emblazoned with Rutland Cares reverses down the rutted lane towards me. A white-bearded, weather-hardened bloke leaps down in sprightly fashion from the cab, Father Christmas collecting sacks rather than distributing from them. He buttonholes me – almost literally – there’s no regard for social distance: ‘Don’t mind me asking…’ he trumpets, no introduction, expelling spittle into the surrounding air, ‘But ‘ow old are you then, mate?’  I spot the direction in which we’re headed. The government has suggested the over-seventies should confine themselves to barracks for the next twelve weeks. I say I’m sixty-eight. ‘And you walkin’? ‘Ow far you goin’ today then?’ I guess at a dozen miles. ‘Exactly. That’s what I mean…’ he offers to the world at large. ‘My buddy, ‘e’s the wrong side of seventy, but ‘e’s as fit as a fiddle. Works out, runs, the lot. He’d go flippin’ barmy stuck inside all day. Government wants their head tested…’

It isn’t an argument I can successfully contest. Seventy’s an artificial limit, and later I hear politician David Blunkett and Christian Wolmar, the railway campaigner, make similar points on Radio 5, but the general principle is surely right: we have to separate to survive. And by the time I write up this walk, the advice/instruction has been generalised with increasing force to the whole population. But here in the UK we’re still more free than friends Dorothy and Malcolm in France, who with the whole of the public there are restricted to within 500 metres of their property unless they fill out a form and take it with them. I extract myself from my Caring Rutland encounter with as much respect and dignity as I can muster, and wander across to St. Mary’s church, musing on my new possible exposure to Covid-19, and how difficult it can be to politely observe a sensible distance (This has also become easier in the days since, as the message has been gradually absorbed.)

For any human being, but with added weight and affect if one is Christian, and perhaps a little more still if one is a huggy/kissy/mwah mwah semi-theatrical, this all goes against the grain. We’re meant to be together, to show love and solidarity in physical ways. The human touch makes us more mentally healthy and grounded. When will we be able to fully trust other people again, on the Tube, in our supermarkets, in our houses, in church?

I spend a few minutes in higgledy-piggledy St. Mary’s, a church without a tower, but with the remains of the medieval chantry within, to the side of the plain, well-scrubbed sanctuary. When I emerge Rutland Cares are now making their deliberate way round the village, causing a posse of leisure riders to wait and then wait some more the far side of the crossroads. I laugh, because I remember the dustmen leitmotif from the excellent 80’s telly series A Very Peculiar Practice. An ingenue doctor (Peter Davison) finds himself attached to a medical practice at the subtlely dystopian ‘Lowlands University’. Feral nuns of rather masculine disposition roam the deserted campus, and so do sinister white refuse trucks. We’re left to make up our own minds about what either are doing. I’m sure you’ll find it somewhere on Netflix or Amazon, a gentle, funny, respite from the blood and gore of Game of Thrones etc. .

The dustmen finally part company with me for good as I walk the path beside the road which follows the ridge, Rutland Water to my left. Eventually I can drop down on a track to be on the shore of Rutland’s own little Galilee. Walking, cycling or driving the perimeter of a lake – it’s all the same – getting where you think you’re going takes a great deal longer than you’ve bargained for. And in this case the rise and fall may only be ten metres at a time, but then again, there are an awful lot of ups and downs. Another phone call announces itself. This time I’m able to put to rest something which has been causing a great deal of anxiety, and so I pitch up beside the boat club at Edith Weston with lightened step.

The village is neat and the church likewise, but there’s trouble with the roof, as there also seemed to be in Manton: it may be that the Lead Thieves have been at it again. As everyone will tell you, the village takes its name from Edith, Queen of Wessex and England, officially crowned, sister of Harold Godwinson, and wife of Edward the Confessor. Thus she lost both husband and brother in the same famous year, 1066, and survived another nine years before she was buried beside her husband in Westminster Abbey at the direction of William the Conqueror, the new Norman king. She deserves greater recognition as one of the most significant women of British history.

I cross the top road beside what was formerly the site of RAF North Luffenham, but which has more latterly become St. George’s Barracks. In its RAF days, the station was tasked with an extraordinary range of activities. Thor nuclear missiles were based here during the early 1960s, but it also hosted electronic repair units, medical services and a language school, training people to monitor Eastern European transmissions during the Cold War. In its new guise as an Army establishment it maintains its medical tradition, but also hosts the Royal Army Veterinary Corps. There are apparently a lot of Working Dogs in the Army. And now I’m thinking Peter Sellers:  It’s been a hard day’s night/And I’ve been working like a dog/It’s been a hard day’s night/I should be sleeping like a log. Yes, yes, I know:  it was written by Lennon and McCartney. But for a full-fat sixties’ diet you really need to hear the Sellers’ version in tandem with the original.

North Luffenham church is outstanding, from the point of view of its context, its exterior and its interior. This is a country minster church which tells you much about the status of the village in medieval times, or the wealth of its patrons. It’s lovely. For once Simon Jenkins is rather mealy-mouthed – though he begrudgingly gives it one star. He writes:  

‘Away from the bleakness of Rutland Water and the tat of the local RAF (sic) station lies a gentle group of farm, manor, rectory and church on the slopes of a hill dropping down to the River Chater…the tower is of the ‘dunce’s cap’ type, made ponderous by a jutting stair turret and nave aisles that embrace its base…’

It must have been something he’d eaten.

I arrive as the children are ending school for the day. A young woman is standing hunched into the wall, a few metres from the school entrance, weeping into her mobile ‘phone. It’s hard not to read everything in the light of Covid-19. Has she had some bad news about a relative? Is she wondering how she’ll cope once the children are sent home from school? Is she just terrified about the general uncertainty?  It might of course be nothing of the sort: I may simply be projecting my own worries on to her.

I walk the lane which rises gently from the western edge of the village, and keeps climbing steadily to the hamlet of Lyndon, where St. Martin’s church sits on its picnic-friendly green by a gothic ruin and next to the evenly proportioned, chateau-like Hall.

Once upon an eighteenth-century time, the meteorologist Thomas Barker lived here. In 1749, he saw what was probably a tornado:

'A remarkable Meteor was seen in Rutland, which I suspect to have been of the same kind as Spouts at Sea…

It was a calm, warm and cloudy Day, with some Gleams and Showers; the Barometer low and falling, and the Wind South, and small. The Spout came between 5 and 6 in the evening; at 8 came a Thunder-Shower, and Storms of Wind, which did some Mischief in some places; and then it cleared up with a brisk N.W. Wind.

The earliest Account I have was from Seaton. A great Smoke rose over or near Gretton, in Northamptonshire, with the Likeness of Fire, either one single Flash, as the Miller said, or several bright Arrows darting to the Ground, and repeated for some Time, as others say. Yet some who saw it, did not think there was really any Fire in it, but that the bright Breaks in a black Cloud looked like it. However, the Whirling, Breaks, Roar, and Smoke frightened both Man and Beast. Coming down the Hill, it took up Water from the River Welland, and passing over Seaton Field, carried away several Shocks of Stubble; and crossing Glaiston, and Morcot Lordships, at Pilton Town's End tore off two Branches … I saw it pass from Pilton over Lyndon Lordship, like a black smoky Cloud, with bright Breaks; an odd whirling Motion, and a roaring Noise, like a distant Wind, or a great Flock of Sheep galloping along on hard Ground … As it went by a Quarter of a Mile East from me, I saw some Straws fall from it, and a Part, like an inverted Cone of Rain, reached down to the Ground. Some who were milking, said it came all round them like a thick Mist, whirling and parting, and, when that was past, a strong Wind for a very little while, though it was calm both before and after. It then passed off between Edithweston and Hambleton, but how much further I do not know.'

Isn’t that just absolutely fab!

Orders of the day:  21 km. 6 hours.  Bright and cheerful weather, with a chilly breeze. 11 deg. C.  Four churches: all open.  No stiles. Seven gates. No bridges (that I noticed).

Here we are:
Your children -
A scattered family
Shouting from the balconies
To each other
And to you.
Hear our prayer
For deliverance from
Sickness, sorrow, loneliness and death.
We repent of our carelessness
With the gifts you have given us.
Reform us, even at this late time,
Into the creatures you intended us to be.
Grant us grace
To be wellsprings of love
Refreshing an exhausted and anxious humanity:
Pouring out a glittering witness
To your great glory.
We pray it through Jesus Christ
Your Son
Our Lord and Saviour,

·        The Borg were a new and terrifying alien invention of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-94) which featured the mellifluous tones of Sir Patrick Stewart as Captain Jean-Luc Picard – for some of us the most interesting and complex character in all the various ST series. The Borg were a robot collective whose m.o. was the assimilation of civilisations they encountered, and whose catchphase was the immortal ‘Resistance is futile’ (American English ‘Fewtle’)  They stand as a metaphor for ultimate connectivity, beyond individual personality and emotion.

Friday, 20 March 2020


As you know, and any Roman would have guessed, the English word for the above means – almost/an island. My walk today is a simple out-and-back along the Hambleton peninsula which sticks out like a thumb print into Rutland Water from the Oakham end.

By St. Edmund’s in Egleton a senior pair of walkers are eating sandwiches on the bench by the church gate. Once I’ve booted up from the back of the car, we nod and say hello maintaining our two metres distance, as advised. The lane towards the peninsula runs north-north-west, but I’m pleased to find there’s an alternative to the tarmac a third of the way along – a parallel sandy bike track across the Vale of Catmose running up to the old Ketton road. This broad, straight highway now simply services the village of Hambleton with its swanky hotel and arts-and-crafty buildings and then drops down in muted fashion to the edge of the peninsula, petering out and peering towards the reservoir’s eastern end.  As I tread the cycleway, Hambleton Hall’s guests roar past in Ferraris and souped up Beamers. I’m reminded of the line in Betjeman’s Christmas’: ‘Even to shining ones who dwell/Safe in the Dorchester Hotel…’ There are glimpses of water, and a camper-van hiding in the trees, before the road bends and climbs towards the village, which sits sufficiently high above the rest of the land such that it was never going to be inundated when Rutland Water was proposed (in the late sixties) and constructed (in the seventies). After this soggy winter the reservoir’s full of water which otherwise would have been making its way to the sea along the Welland and the Nene, and although way oop north Kielder Water is deeper and holds more liquid, Rutland has the larger surface area. If you want to cycle all the way round, including the peninsula, it’s thirty-seven kilometres of pedalling, which for the lycra’d enthusiasts is a mere bagatelle, but for most of us would be a Major Work. 

                                        Arts and Crafts: Old Post Office at Hambleton

The historical guide to St. Andrew’s church modestly suggests that the site of Hambleton village has been inhabited from ‘at least 600 A.D’, but the current settlement’s commanding position must surely have excited interest way before that. In medieval times it seems to have ranked higher than Stamford or Oakham as an ecclesiastical centre. Now the church is rather Victorian-dim inside, with a wealth of details that owe a lot to the aesthetic of Walter Gore Marshall, who made his money brewing, and re-invested it in the local surroundings for the benefit of all: philanthropy was in fashion back then. William Morris was all the rage, and those influences are obvious even in the elaborate carved details around the organ console. Either side of the altar two striking menorahs catch the eye, and why not? Without Morning Prayer and its O.T. readings, I tend to lose my sense of Judaeo-Christian continuity.

Marshall also built Hambleton Hall, not to be confused with the Jacobean-period Old Hall which sits by the edge of the water in Middle Hambleton. There was a Nether Hambleton too, but now it lies full fathom five, deemed superfluous to requirements, and the inhabitants paid off, an inland mini-Dunwich.  I have fond memories of Marshall’s Hall, now part of the expensive Relais and Chateaux chain. We dined there once a few decades ago, treating my stepmum and dad to a celebration lunch. It’s one of those places that brings a brigade of waiters to the table to dramatically and simultaneously whip off the metal covers from the diners’ plates. This gastronomical coup de theatre is somewhat spoiled if the wrong dishes are revealed after the denouement, as happened on that occasion. Lol. I remember the food as good but not as good as it should have been for the prices. I’m sure it’s quite different now.

I imagine Walter Marshall was rather an earnest chap. He left the Hall to his sister Eva Astley Cooper who was a bit more of a go-er. Noel Coward was part of her set in the Twenties and wrote Hay Fever in Hambleton. Sir Malcolm Sargent (‘Flash’!) who in his youth was organist at Melton Mowbray, became enamoured of her niece, and slipped in between the curly wooden columns to play St. Andrew’s organ from time to time. When we were students we used to sing Sir Malcolm’s banjo-inspired ‘Cowboy Carol’ a lot: ‘When I climb up to my saddle/gonna take Him to my heart/There’ll be a new world beginning from tonight’. I like to think of Flash bashing this out on the manuals at Hambleton, a sort of companion piece to the arrangement of Abba’s Super Trouper which B.J.Campbell, a sometime colleague of Sue’s, once essayed on the prestigious high-art organ at St. Matthew’s Northampton to our enormous iconoclastic pleasure.

Coronavirus doesn’t seem to be affecting the trade at the Finch’s Arms yet: the car park’s chocker, though perhaps mostly with walkers gathering a swift, self-justifying half before setting out round the headland. I’m feeling maudlin, overwhelmed by the likely consequences of this viral disaster in terms of illness and death and future economic catastrophy. Everyone’s trying to keep calm and carry on, but if we’re smart we know this is a series of events which will leave its mark for a generation, perhaps longer. Maybe some of the adjustments made will be beneficial socially and politically, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Maybe me and mine will come through unscathed, and maybe we won’t. Personally I know I’m viewing my own mortality in a different and more immediate way, even wondering if I’ll see to its end this project on which I’m embarked and which I’ve shared with you for so long now.

On the way back to the car, I pass a number of walkers and joggers. No one makes eye contact: everyone gives everyone else a wide berth. By the Audi I sit on the bench and eat a sandwich. Two other booted and anoraked seniors pass by. We nod and say hello, making sure there’s two metres distance between us, as advised.

When they’ve gone, a gent emerges from Egleton’s churchyard where he’s been busy tidying. There’s the sudden sound of a woody woodpecker, very close but nonetheless invisible among the bare branches of the trees, and for a moment the gent and I share exquisite enjoyment of one of God’s creatures doing what he was designed to do. I resolve, despite weak and shaking knees, that I must try to do the same.

Viral load: 3 hrs. 10k. Cloud and sun. 10 degrees C. No gates. No stiles. No bridges. One church. One Faith. One Lord. One woodpecker. Probably spotted, more or less.

Lord Jesus think on me
Nor let me go away
Through darkness and perplexity
Point thou the heavenly way.

Lord Jesus think on me
That, when the flood is past
I may eternal brightness see
And share thy joy at last.

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)