Saturday, 21 May 2016

Nostalgia ain't what it used to be

My rules state (being a Brit you understand these are rules in my head and nowhere written down - so much more classy constitutionally speaking!) that any new walk must begin somewhere on a circle previously described. So for the first time I use a car, but only to travel a couple of miles before parking near Holy Trinity, Northampton (post: 27.04.16)

I walk up Eastern Avenue South. It's a name that hints at a Grand Design, but there's no Western Avenue or Central Plaza to the St. David's area of Kingsthorpe, and though it's a long road, Eastern Avenue South hiccups in its middle even before it becomes...Eastern Avenue North. Half way along I arrive at St. David's church. There's something going on with children in the hall which I don't interrupt, so I sit on a bench in the small garden to pray and read a psalm. I hope the residents won't mind if I say this has always seemed to me an isolated and neglected part of town. St. David's and St. Mark's, Whitehills are grouped with St. John's Kingsthorpe, essentially appearing now as two mission churches bonded to an ancient foundation, both established in the nineteen thirties when housing boomed to meet new aspirations and the government built its way out of recession. I wonder what this feels like to the three separate but linked congregations. Looking forward into the 21st century is this good and sensible planning or not?

As I climb the hill further until it meets Boughton Green Road, I know I'm walking into our personal history. Here is the original part of Nene College, now the University of Northampton, which is spreading itself town-wide. Here is the Sunnyside pub. Here is Reynard Way and the second house we bought, at a time when young teachers didn't think twice about inviting their older students round to decorate their living room with an extravagantly inventive mural in green, purple and chocolate brown. ('You'll have to get rid of that', said the estate agent when we came to sell it). In those days we weren't much given to walking, so it's now a novel experience to pick my way round familiar streets on foot. Back then, having a car was a novelty, so we were in it whenever we could, crazily busy, fanatically dedicated to our profession. There was never the spare time or energy to use Shank's. I'm therefore surprised to find a small field where I didn't know there was one, and footpaths leading past a flower-filled nursery over the Harborough Road to Whitehills. Before I seek out St. Mark's, I visit our very first house in Clover Lane, a perfect starter home, costing £8750 in 1974. We had difficulty in persuading anyone to give us a mortgage for £5000, even though we were two graduates with good jobs. Me? Hold grudges? You bet!  The banks, yesterday, today, forever.

To my shame I never made it inside St. Mark's (or St. David's) despite living so close-by for a decade and I won't today either. I can see an elderly gentleman shifting chairs in the hall, and suspect a lunch for seniors may be imminent, so again I don't disturb him to ask for a key to investigate what looks like  a nice, bright, airy space inside the church.

Back in this old stamping ground, memories are crowding in on me, mostly good, but of course tinged with regret for things I might have done differently long ago. Then we acted fearlessly and with apparent assurance that we had the answers to everything. Now in (let's be generous) late middle age, we act only with caution and reserve. And in both unthought, instinctive strategies, there are seeds of sadness, ways of hurting people. We humans just can't help putting our foot in it, even if sometimes we can almost reach out and touch glory. Yup, folks, it's good ole 'original sin'.

But hey, the sun's struggling to emerge from a milky sky, so pushing maudlin stuff away, I retrace my steps and then pick up the path to Boughton (Bowton! cf. post: 08.05). I pause at the obelisk thrown up as one of the seven follies on the old Boughton estate just in front of a pretty new-ish pocket park. Seven?  Only seven! Just a back garden project compared to Stowe.

St. John the Baptist, Boughton is slap bang on the wisteria-scented main street, convenient for the toffs from the Big House to stroll down. But originally it was only a chapel, and highly desirable though the property is around here, the real story of the village lies under the soil a mile away close to the ruins of St. John's church. A triangle of lanes marks the site of the Boughton Green Fayre, once nationally renowned. It survived as a horse fair until 1916, when other matters occupied the nation's mind. The infamous Captain Slash ( now there's a tabloid headline!), a highwayman, was arraigned here a century earlier and met his end on the gallows at Northampton's Racecourse. The small grounds of the current village church are quiet and peaceful. I drink some water, survey the scene, and remember that Sue and I came to see the Diocesan Director of Ordinands here in 1982, when for a daft moment I thought I might fancy ordination. The DDO didn't think much of the idea, and neither did Sue. They were right, and he's now Bishop of Dover, a preferment he doubtless wouldn't have obtained if he'd shown judgment so poor as to let me in.

Remembering last week's experience at Overstone, I opt for traversing the grounds of the stately home, rather than the tempting, direct, trespassing option, but have to put up with a quarter-mile or more of the busy A508 as a consequence. Then I turn off down a farm lane, and get rewarded with a magnificent long view of open country, green and yellow under a heat-haze. And now I can find virtue in the fields of rape. Like seaside sand under a humid sky, they shimmer and dance, reflecting mystical light upwards into the distant murk. From the 110 metre heights of Boughton, the path descends thirty of forty metres past a new plantation to the old railway line from Northampton to Market Harborough. The heritage buffs are at work here, about to build a new station at the Boughton Crossing. The track's laid and awaits the construction of a new platform. The work and ingenuity involved in this and similar projects astounds me. If you're building a railway, you won't find time for church.

I stop for lunch at The Windhover, and then keep to the tarmac cycle path along the line of the old permanent way back to Kingsthorpe. As on the western approaches to Northampton, the fields along the river here seem to penetrate further into the urban space than they should, and at length there's a pastoral idyll of a view, almost a 19thC view, across to Kingsthorpe's parish church. I follow my nose through the maze of little paths which arrow in on the village green. I get lucky and because it's Thursday afternoon and Mums and Tots, hurrah, the church is open. I talk to Lisa - I think it was Lisa, but my brain's in oxygen deficit - anyway she's running the afternoon session and four of her own children are in Andrew Moodie's choir here. Andrew used to direct the music at Weston Favell: a good professional, like many who do this part-time job, able to turn his hand to playing the organ, conducting, composing ( a copy of his service for morning worship at St. John's is open on a lectern) and teaching. I buy a battered edition of the church's history. Outside I cross paths with Fiona the curate and say hello. She looks rather surprised: her mind is probably on small children.

Walking back towards the car I find friend Gerald walking towards me. He's distributing public information literature about the 'Brexit' referendum to householders, good citizen that he is. I've known Gerald and played various kinds of crazy music with him for nearly forty years. One time member of Northampton's 'Celebrated Ratliffe Stout Band', a musician of heart, soul and dangerous lead guitar breaks, raconteur extraordinary and general good egg, he always has a joke for me. This time there are four, none of which I feel I can share with this blog, but they're all funny, tho' I only 'get' one an hour later. Inevitably at this moment one centres on a Tory politician arriving at the Pearly Gates. You know you want to: go on, make up your own version! We shake our heads at all the referendum lunacy, and its alarming power to unleash British prejudice. We speculate: will it prove a helpful blood-letting, after which we'll return to normality?

Stats man: 15 km. Leisurely 4.5 hours. 4 churches visited. 10 rabbits seen. Hello greeting to 11 people. Humidity 80%

Dear Lord
All those years!
What times! What people! What fun we had!
I run the DVD in my head,
And cringe at some of the things I said and did,
clutching at the straw there was no lasting harm.
Lord, remember not the sins and offences of my youth.
I trust you to heal any injuries I caused
As I rucked my way across the pitch of life.
And now Lord, please help me
As towards the end of the game I ask, 'What's next'?

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Blossom Toes

After two days of un-May-like warm, gloopy and profuse rain, a pluperfect spring morning with bright skies and blossom of all sorts everywhere: a day that would have made Gerard Manley Hopkins surfeit on adjectives.

I meet our friend Richard P. coming back from coffee at Emmanuel Church as I'm making my way there. Richard's recovering from a hip replacement. He's applying himself to re-hab with characteristic spirit and discipline and looks much better than before the op. Probably because it's such a nice day, the professionally-minded coffee bar is quiet. Louise serves me. She doesn't attend the church here, but asks me where the Catholics can be found. I tell her they're next to the police station and their church looks like a pyramid. Through the glass in the café people are playing badminton in the Emmanuel hall. I go downstairs to the church space, and remember that in these utilitarian surroundings in 1982 I was confirmed by the then Bishop, Douglas Feaver. One day a few years earlier I'd found the Bishop, fully-rigged though not mitred, happily absorbed in a little episcopal downtime, playing honky-tonk piano in the music room at Northampton School for Girls. A notable eccentric, Bishop Feaver.

Outside in the Weston Favell Shopping Centre, the eastern district of Northampton does what it needs to. Emmanuel Church is a one-off, physically almost invisible (it's just about impossible to photograph!) because so integrated into the Centre structure, but faithful in practical and spiritual witness. Its food bank does great work. I pick up the easterly path to St. Andrew's Great Billing through newly-leafed greenery, across the Billing Brook and up through the swathe of open space which the Development Corporation provided when the area was built in the 1970s. Are housing estates still designed in this way? I think not.

St. Andrew's enjoys a delightful, airy situation (any estate agents need a copywriter?) which ought to gladden the heart of any worshipper as they arrive, and it's surrounded by lovely and gracious houses. Elizabeth the First once gave a twenty year lease on the parish to Thomas Tallis and William Byrd to say thank you to the old master and his precocious pupil for their musick. They were wily businessmen, exercising a musical printing monopoly in the mid-16thC. I wonder if they ever actually came here, or did they just gratefully trouser the monies due?

I'm not familiar with the path to Ecton, but it picks its way through the Ecton Brook housing estate, round a pond and into the field beyond. Walking up the rise between the rapeseed (a late-flowering variety this time!) the tower of St. May Magdalene, Ecton is absolutely dead ahead. At this point - the only time that the ancient path on the spring line is still extant out of Northampton -  the way is arrow straight for half a mile. If you put a ruler on an OS map, the path, the tower of Ecton, the church at Weston Favell and All Saints Church in Northampton are pretty much exactly aligned. Coincidental? My eye of faith sees ditches to either side of the raised path and wants to think 'Roman!'

At any rate Ecton is a place with much evident history. There are humps and bumps where the village once stretched into the fields to the east before the enclosures. Like Weston, the main street runs down towards the river. This village too has an evangelical past with Wesleyan roots, and at its northern end a pub rejoicing in the name 'The Worlds End'. An inn has been there to welcome strangers off the turnpike since at least 1675, and the current version has its own resident ghost, allegedly. Further down into the village, St. Mary Magdalene is today host only to the blackbirds as choir and congregation, and in the heat of the early afternoon, the porch provides welcome shady refuge. Overhead, two small planes out of Sywell practise some aerobatics. Ecton is still a country village, the first on the way to Cambridge out of Northampton. Will this parish one day become a rural memory as Wellingborough presses in from one side and Northampton from the other?

Up the lane opposite the Worlds End, diagonally across a field, and then onto a byway where vehicular traffic is banned between October and April. To my left the houses of the Rectory Farm housing estate appear, and eventually at the foot of a hill I cross Ecton Brook and follow it on the very edge of the houses until I climb up past the primary school which also serves as a Sunday outpost of Emmanuel Church. Whose Rectory? There's no church surviving here, and Ecton is a mile away at least. I now have a dilemma. My next destination is the long village of Overstone, but to get there I can either walk down a lane where the traffic is dangerous and there's no footpath, or I can cross the Overstone estate where the map tells me there's a golf course and metalled paths without right of way. I choose the latter.

I've found walking across golf courses a mixed experience. Some golfers take the very presence of the most considerate walker as an insult, and on occasion I've been roundly abused just for being. Today the golfers are extremely helpful, which is a good thing because real life on the ground doesn't match the map's aspirations. I am also forced to the conclusion that these days my wispy beard, hat, stick and untidy shorts may have me cast as someone in real need of assistance i.e. I may appear to be a person of no fixed abode or under mental challenge, who should be handled with kid gloves. Together we establish that the only way to Overstone is to run the gauntlet of notices variously forbidding pedestrian access and threatening the walker with attack by unchained farm dogs or Vogon-like security staff. In the event I'm accosted by neither, but this is not a route recommended for quiet pastoral meditation, unless you really and perversely enjoy trespassing.

St. Nicholas' in Overstone is set back charmingly from the main road up a tree-lined lane. It's of no great age (1807) and is where it is because in medieval times (and stop me if you've heard this one before) the Lords of the Manor found the old village an inconvenience and re-located it to where it is now, pulling the church down in the process. The author Peter Ackroyd is very good on the almost mystical continuity in the history of places. The estate at Overstone never seems to have been happy. 'Bad karma, man', the old hippies would have said.

In Moulton, the church office has just closed for the day. 'Moulton Church' welcomes everyone to each Sunday's 'Lord's Supper', and morning and afternoon 'meetings'. Its original dedication to St. Peter and St. Paul isn't obvious on the board. In busy small-town Moulton I've just passed the Evangelical Church on my way in (motto: 'Esse quam videri' -'Be rather than seem' - which is also the state handle of North Carolina). And amongst Baptist folk Moulton is also renowned because missionary William Carey once came to run their church here in the 18thC. A new housing development locally is called 'Carey's Fields', which Anglicans might wrongly assume celebrates a recent Archbishop! I went to a school sometimes known as 'The School for the Sons of Missionaries' (I wasn't), but because of my Baptist upbringing, I was put in Carey House, colour blue.  If you were Anglicans like my mates Malcolm and Bob you were allocated to 'Moffatt', colour yellow. I realise I feel slightly unsure about simply calling SS. Peter & Paul, 'Moulton Church'. If I were a faithful worshipper elsewhere in the village, how might I feel about this apparent claim to primacy? But then again, even in this multi-cultural age, we Anglicans are still the 'state church' so perhaps we have a right to assert ourselves.

Stats man:  23 km (too far!) Six and a half hours walking. Five churches plus two outposts. Four churches shut. Two open porches for vagrants like me. Three badly hooked irons out on the golf course, one landing at my feet. One country estate I simply hate(d).

Father God
Thank you for the astonishing beauty of spring,
For the memories that well up like tears,
For the forgotten scents from a childhood beyond reach,
For the hope re-born each year in flower and blossom,
Echoing our daily call to hope and trust in You.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

You say to-mah-to and I say...

From the top of our church tower (tho' I've never been up there!) you can see green fields on the rise away from the opposite bank of the Nene flood plain. Harry, who's sung in the church choir for sixty years, boy and man, remembers the flood waters reaching to the bottom of Church Way. Nowadays there are houses and the Riverside shopping precinct between us and the river. Only clever water management prevents an Underwater retail experience at times of major precipitation.

I walk a familiar path to Weston Mill and up over the sluice to Washlands reservoir where a notice reminds dog owners that their pooch will be shot if it worries sheep. On the far side of the lake the sheep are being shorn, and with the permission of one of the shearers I briefly share a pen with fifty or so of them in order to follow my path. With which other large-ish animal in such numbers would you willingly share a confined space? If I come back as a farmer, I'd like to work with sheep, please.

A field and a brief ascent of twenty metres brings me to St. Mary's in Great Houghton. I'm very warm. We've crossed from a cold spring to an early summer in the space of seven days. For country Northamptonshire it's an unusually Italianate church, built in the mid-18thC because the former building fell into disrepair. I sit in the churchyard, listen to the birdsong and look over at the heart of the village known as The Cross. There are some lovely houses here and a hollow way where the road to Little Houghton once went. Further up Willow Lane, I stop and ask a question of a gentleman who's doing a spot of gardening. I'm sure he'll be able to put me right, I say, but I remember a colleague once telling me that the pronunciation of the two village names was different: it was Great Howton and Little Hoten (or perhaps the other way round?) He replies that he's lived there forty years and never heard of such a thing, so I ask him to say the name for me out loud, and in the kind of lovely local accent that won't exist another twenty years from now, he gives me a version which precisely bisects the two possibilities. Wistfully, he tells me to walk while I still have the capacity. He used to so enjoy strolling through the surrounding fields and listening to the larks and cuckoos on a day like this. On once occasion he'd turned round to find a muntjac following him. I was able to assure him that these days I hear more skylarks than I did, and indeed as I cross the wheat field to the disused railway line, there they are carolling away.

In Little Houghton I buy Jaffa Cakes to munch on a seat by the south door of their church, also dedicated to the Virgin. Once long ago I taught summer Ancient Greek to the Oxbridge-aspiring daughter of a wealthy village family. I see that the once excellent butcher's shop is now a beauty salon. In Great Houghton I'd been surprised to find that the former Prep school is now the Dexterity dance academy, also offering instruction in gymnastics and Do-jo. Sue tells me to beware of an elegiac tone to this blog: you can only take so much sepia, she suggests. Fair comment. So OK, new wine in new wineskins. These communities are gradually being made over: their needs are changing. And I never approved of Prep schools anyway.

The other side of Little Houghton I find the nearest rape field to our house. The crop may make great cooking oil and look a cheery colour, but on a warm evening the heady, drugging perfume pervades the air miles away. It makes throats sore and eyes stream. Later I'll be able to smell it on my handkerchief after a brief four hundred metre passage through the middle of this one field. At the bottom of the hill, overlooking an old ford across the Nene is Clifford Hill, a castle motte that probably dates from the time of William the Conqueror, although no one knows for certain. The top's flat, because in the 17thC a bowling green was made there. These days no one's going to ask me for money to cross the river, but a notice on the far side warns me that if I use any of the facilities in Billing Aquadrome, I'll be charged the going rate. I miss my way among the serried ranks of fixed caravans, and wonder if my route through the maze of tarmac constitutes a 'use' under their definition.

Oh, the anxiety and guilt of evangelistic challenge! This is a mission field right on our doorstep, since our own church ought to share the responsibility with All Saints, Little Billing. The Aquadrome is a large holiday housing estate with everything a visitor could need for a week or so in the country, but no church of any church serving it, as far as I know.

Even within our own denomination, we Anglicans differ so much. Some of us say to-mah-to and some to-may-to. Howton and Hoton. Ma-ass and mass. But please let's not 'call the whole thing off', like the song (ironically) suggests.

In the churchyard of All Saints, close to the church door, where you can't miss it if you're coming to visit, there's a small section given over to quite recent child graves. I sit and look. To my right a woman kneels, clears the space around the memorial to a family member, replaces her flowers, and waits silently for a minute or two. When she rises to leave, I say 'Have a good day'.

Stats man. 17000 steps i.e. nearly 13km. 28 people encountered en route. No incumbents. No blisters, despite boots. Lots of birds (OK, I know that's not a stat, but they were really enjoying the sunshine!) One possible stone scraper of antiquity, but in reality more likely ploughed than knapped.

And did I say?  I'm Vince Cross. if you want to send me a message or check me out.

Here I am in this caravan park,
A little bit lost.
I can't see where I'm going because of
all these other people's experiences,
their opinions,
their edifices,
their washing lines.
It's snobby I know,
but I really don't like what I'm being made to look at.
Help me not to judge, lest I be judged.
Help me to be in this world but not of it.
Please help me find my way,
And Lord, please help them too.