Thursday, 23 June 2016

Into the tunnel: Referendum Eve

A chastening, strange beginning to today's walk. I drop into M&S on Northampton's Abington Street for water and a sandwich. The unpromising weather means I'm juggling rucksack, umbrella and stick, so it isn't exactly thrilling to find a total absence of human check-outs with the consequence that going automatic is the only option - 'unwanted item in bagging area' etc. - except that most of the tills are out of order. I wait while others are helped to find their way. My reward to myself for a successful solo running of the virtual maze is a coffee upstairs. Tumbleweed rolls through the café. The girl behind the counter mumbles at me something I don't hear distinctly but which eventually transpires to have been the question that I'd like a 'medium' coffee, would I? Which of course I don't, because we all know what 'medium' means. As a substantial bucket of Kenyan Arabica sits steaming between us, I remonstrate mildly. I'm only giving her a hard time because downstairs is a real mess today, I say, but shouldn't she really offer her customers a choice between small, medium and large rather than assuming we all want to drink a pint of caffeine at ten in the morning? Or is this perhaps some new M&S policy? She breaks down in a torrent of tears, and sobbing that there's been a death in the store this morning which is why everything's gone to pot, disappears out the back leaving the café to fend for itself. The lady behind me in the queue drums her fingers on the counter. I review my new role as a social pariah. At the customer service point the assistants are red-eyed. Was it a customer, I ask - in which case surely a major retailer's show should go on regardless - or was it perhaps a member of staff? Their faces say it all: a much loved colleague has succumbed to a brain haemorrhage.

My too-frequent and unattractive display of pomposity aside, there are a number of questions which could perhaps follow, about the nature of contemporary public bereavement and how service industries engage with the public, but no, not today, not now. This is Referendum Eve.

I walk down Guildhall Road, once the town's convenient access to the long-vanished St. John's station, but now gateway to the Cultural Quarter and a Hall of Residence for the University, and on towards Far Cotton into what should be, but isn't yet, the Brewing Quarter. Here is the Malt Shovel pub. There is the Carlsberg site with its once daring architecture, where the mighty Phipps Bewery formerly stood. There is the old warehouse of Latimer and Crick, Corn Merchants, now gentrified. And there is, goodness gracious me, Northampton's Christian Orthodox Church. I'd never noticed it before, on a corner of the one-way system in a little brick building. I imagine it's a Tardis. If I were to step inside I'd become lost in a forest of gilded lights, caught up heavenwards by a soundtrack of water-loosening bass notes.

In St. Leonard's Road I'm asked for directions by a young black couple carrying a baby in their arms. The woman looks relatively assured. The man looks uncomfortable - truly lost and in a foreign place. Together we consult her phone and my map, and then they cordially ignore my suggestions. The woman speaks with a marked sub-equatorial African accent. Genuinely interested, I ask her where she's from. I'm guessing somewhere South African...the Republic, Botswana, Lesotho? She looks at me anxiously and answers 'Spain', speculatively, as if she's trying out the answer for size.

St. Mary the Virgin serves Far Cotton which is to south west Northampton what 'Jimmy's End' is to the north west. Like St. James, St. Mary's is a Victorian building, originally for the spiritual welfare of the local industries. The railway and marshy land has always divided the two districts, but each had a 12th C. monastic foundation close at hand. Just up the road from Far Cotton was Cluniac Delapre Abbey. At St. James you'd have found the Augustinians. I wonder how they got on.

Now comes a familiar experience to anyone who like walking in urban places. Half way over the bridge back towards Toys 'R' Us, a sign takes you down some muddy steps and onto the towpath for the Northampton arm of the Grand Union Canal, which from 1815 and amid general rejoicing linked the main north-south channel to the River Nene. In a few hundred metres or so I'm wrapped in a green corridor of paradise. Birds sing their hearts out, hundreds of yellow water lilies are in bud, all around is the drip and suck of a warm, wet June morning. There's something illusional about this, because for a mile or so the trees and bushes insulate the boats, joggers and fisherfolk from industrial sites and housing estates. But while it lasts, it's totally lovely.

Eventually I pull up and away from the canal at ninety degrees, heading for Hunsbury Hill. Here opposite the Ironstone Railway, and near the ring of ancient British defences is Northampton's newest Anglican building (as distinct from church) St. Benedict's. The parish has just held its Wednesday morning Eucharist, and inside the church some modern Britons are still drinking coffee. I've not been in before, and immediately love the building's strong internal verticals. They give the impression of greater height than is actually present while drawing the congregation into an intimate relationship with the stone altar and Christ's presence on the overhanging cross. I meet Anne the new-ish Rector,
Keith one of the two churchwardens and Geoff who's a bellringer. I ask Anne how she's finding things. She says she loves the people here, and she's feeling very much at home, despite being a Leicester girl by birth. Her last parish was on the outskirts of Birkenhead. She spent thirteen years there and it was a wrench to leave, but sensibly she gave herself some time to grieve her loss, so that she could completely commit to the new task. With Geoff I talk about the beautifully placed and decorated organ, which was the third instrument ever built by the late Ken Tickell. Geoff tells me that we're missing a bell at Weston Favell - we have only five. I say I have no influence: he needs to lobby Graham, the captain!  This is a church I could worship in on a regular basis. As if to underline that the people around here are as nice as Anne says, a lady with a dog greets me cheerily on the pavement outside. The memory of M&S is beginning to fade. Over the road behind the fence of the 'heritage' Ironstone Railway, I'm astonished to see the driving carriage of an ex-Southern Region 4DD double decker electric multiple unit, one of Mr O.V. Bulleid's cleverer inventions to increase capacity on the overcrowded Dartford loop line I rode every day as a teenager. I was once an undiscovered juvenile delinquent in that exact carriage!  It's like seeing an old friend in prison. (Please write to me if you'd like further discreet discussion about trainspotting. Your secret's safe with me!)

Some walks seem to leap off the map the night before. I'm making this one up as I go along. But with the weather at its wettest, I drop back down to the canal and press on out of town, under the motorway and up to the set of locks which like the M1's service station are named after the village of Rothersthorpe (probably once 'Raether's farm'). In the village everything is quiet except for the jolly sounds from the parochial church school playground. In the pretty main street the old Baptist chapel next to SS. Peter and Paul has been converted into a house. I eat a sandwich on the church's manicured lawn, and then look over the fence at the motte and bailey in the village's green heart. Now I have to face something that will be a regular problem as I move out into the county. Unsurprisingly, rural villages are usually connected directly by roads, and if I'm to walk from one to another, I may have to cover a great deal of dangerous tarmac, or else be creative in finding greener routes. Dodging oncoming traffic driving far too fast on the by-road to Milton Malsor, I decide a high-vis jacket is a must-have.

Milton Malsor was once the home of Stuart Marson, whose gently wistful songs I used to accompany occasionally in seventies' folk clubs (ah, my Olde Sun in Kislingbury and Dun Cow in Daventry), but I've never been into the village itself. Turns out it's absolutely lovely: much larger and more rambling than I'd ever guessed. When colleague Nigel built his first studio in Milton Keynes, our local pub was punningly called 'The Eager Poet'.  Nothing similar was tried this side of the county border: the biggest pub in  Milton Malsor is prosaically 'The Greyhound', but anyway this 'Milton' is a shortening of Middletun - it was in the middle between Rothersthorpe and Collingtree.  Which is where I go next after the other half of my sandwich lunch in the churchyard of Holy Cross.

I push through a nasty field of wet, smelly rapeseed, under the main railway line out of Northampton, and find a good solid path through knee-high corn towards a bridge over the motorway. Beyond are beautiful common-land meadows on the approach to Collingtree and its church of St. Columba. From there I catch up with urban Northampton again, skirting the nouveaux-riches of the golf course, onwards to St. George's church in Wootton, and around the back of where the Barracks once were, near the famous Eleanor Cross, to St. Edmund's in Hardingstone.

All these churches are locked, and to visit them one by one in close succession is a bit dispiriting. But to take Hardingstone as an example (where at least I could see a candle burning through a window), Beverley, the incumbent for the new Living Brook benefice, must spend most of her time in a car going from parish to parish. And if, pro rata, she can only give a day and a half of her time each week to each church in her care, what does that do to lay involvement in the respective parishes? One answer might be that the 'ordinary people' would step up to compensate, but without belittling what I hope are lively, engaged parishioners in Hardingstone, that isn't the way real life often works, is it? Less may mean less. I know our churches are far more than the mere buildings, but there's an awful lot of very visible and useful 'plant' lying idle most of the time. We'll have to do better at addressing this. But what could that ever mean in sleepy midweek Rothersthorpe?

The path down from Hardingstone is enticing and even slightly dramatic at first. It's raining again now and no one's out on Delapre's less exclusive golf course. The site of the 1460 Battle of Northampton, Henry VI, Hollow Crown and all that, is under the light industrial untidiness beyond. An un-summery gloom hangs over the town. It's an odd and ominous day, this EU Referendum Eve. I'd have been walking with a sense of foreboding, even without such an inauspicious start. We are entering a tunnel, and God knows what may be on the other side. We'll get our first inklings in two days time.

Stats man:  25 km. 7 churches visited. Max temp: 20 degrees. People asking for directions: 3. Narrow boats seen: 10. Rain never far away.

Whichever way people vote,
Whichever football team they support,
As for me,
'The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup,
'Thou holdest my lot.
'The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
'Yea, I have a goodly heritage.'
I thank you for your past loving kindness and care for us,
And I trust you,
with whatever tomorrow may bring.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Enough already?

The Audi is due a service. A technician greets me by name as I drive into the garage yard at precisely 8.40 (I've been schooled not to be late). I and the Audi are directed around the yard to an electric door which lifts upwards and allows us into a gleaming white interior where the keys are taken by a second acolyte. I walk into the showroom to do the paperwork. The car is presumably getting its pre-med. Car servicing and surgery are merging. How long before Audi offers facelifts and appendectomies?

Leaving the car to the ministrations of the doctors, I start to walk. Along the road at Upton, the old village has gone, and St. Michael's is under the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. On a damply fertile Iris Murdoch sort of a morning, it sits prettily thirty metres from the busy A45 on the edge of the estate once owned by the rich Knightley family, now a private school. The paradox is that brand new housing crowds in on the old church, which might again attract worshippers if there was space for some parking. This will never happen, but one has to walk quite a way to find something that looks like an Anglican place of worship.

In this part of Northampton houses are going up everywhere. I find it difficult to square what developers and governments say about the numbers of houses being built with what seems to be the case on the ground. Duston Benefice has three active churches, one of which is tasked with looking after all these new builds. It will be a big job. I walk up to the location of Berrywood Church, which is close to if not inside the grounds of the original Berrywood Asylum, later St. Crispin's Hospital. The murky day adds to the loveliness of the misty view down towards Nether Heyford. Up here on a ridge which once commended itself to the Roman constructors of the south-east trending road towards Northampton from Nobottle, you can see why the Victorian asylum builders might have thought the fresh air of the elevated position would do the inmates good. St. Crispin's carries a powerful, uncomfortable memory from our early years of teaching. We used to visit a teenage pupil of Sue's here, worrying that ECT and other therapies were just making her problems worse. Without much effort of mind I can still smell the slightly sinister atmosphere and the overwarm, disinfected rooms. But there was a happy ending for her: a gradual recovery, a deepening faith and the eventual discovery of a calling.

In the stable block of the old hospital I stop for a coffee in the surprising 'retail village'which now occupies it. Just opposite is 'Jack Parnell Close', and I remember that Jack, son of Val, once recorded in our Milton Keynes studios, pausing briefly in a career which took in a variety of jazz and variety 
bands big and small as well as the musical direction of the Benny Hill Show and The Muppets. He was very unflashy: a less-is-more drummer. But why does he get a road named after him in Duston?

I now begin a roller-coaster urban stroll through various neighbourhoods, all with their own identity, some distinctly less genteel than others. St. Luke's, Duston is the ancient church in the benefice, set just beyond the slightly shifted centre of the old village. Standing outside the gate I sense the years roll away to reveal its original pastoral setting. St. Francis' is its sister church in the adjoining New Duston, where themed road plans (Cotswold Avenue...Mendip Road...Chiltern Avenue...ah! - perhaps there were other drummers hiding in the road names around St. Crispin's) attempt to break the anonymity of the housing projects. Some of the sixties' houses look in a dodgy state.

St. Francis' is a brick cube with a pointy glass steeple in its middle: a design from 1968 which continues to cause the parish grief because it lets the water in, but whose cheeky presence next to a parade of shops makes me at least laugh. Yes folks, these spires and towers say, here we Christians are, still among you, serving and suffering with you, doing our very best to bring Good News. This week I heard an atheist American scientist suggest on Radio 4 that Christians make a profession out of being morally superior to everyone else. Baloney! It's absolutely the reverse. Ain't we just the ones who 'acknowledge our faults and our sin is ever before us' (sic)? On this walk, beside the Anglican churches, I pass buildings belonging to the URC, the Methodists, the Elim Pentecostals, the Forefront Church, the Mormons and the Greek Orthodox. There's a nun at a Duston bus-stop, and JWs at a stall outside Northampton station. We're everywhere, and Lord knows this isn't triumphalism in secularised 2016. It's a Good Thing for the UK and the world, and shouldn't we be on the front foot about it?

Of all the encircled centuries-old villages in greater Northampton, Dallington is the smallest and most hemmed-in. There's a brook beside some cottages, the Wheatsheaf Inn, a gracious one-time manor house and St. Mary's church, and that's about it, but it's an extremely charming spot. St. Mary's like its companion a mile away, St. James, is partly clad in scaffolding: its preservation in working order is just one of the burdens the priest, Father Phill has to bear. From there I climb the slight hill into Kings Heath, once the most worrying sixties' generation housing estate in Northampton and still showing signs of real need. As I approach its central shopping area, I see it's flanked by two second hand shops, which tells you something. One of them is run by the local church - the 'Church on the Heath', a joint Baptist and Anglican venture, whose meeting place around the corner is humble and discreet. Away from the higher ground back towards the centre of town is the Spencer Estate. Time was that the two neighbourhoods were daggers drawn, Old Northampton v. The Incomers. Maybe that's all in the past now, but it's still possible to feel threat here. A late teenager on a BMX cycles fast towards and past me. He's wearing a mask, perhaps to ward off traffic fumes, perhaps to disguise his face. A few hundred metres later, I sense him coming up behind me again. I make sure he sees me grip my stick in anticipation of self-defence and he peels away at speed. I watch as he pedals furiously up a side road. He stops and turns to look at me defiantly.

Walking through Victoria Park alongside the railway and a tributary of the Nene, I obey The Rule which dictates that each walk must touch a previous walk at some point, so before turning towards St. James, I go to look through the railings at St. Peter's Marefair (27.04.16) and have a sandwich in the newish foyer of Northampton Station. It overlooks the site of the castle from which England was briefly ruled. Nothing of the castle survives bar the postern gate, not even the name in the station's title, although the town's walls are faintly traceable by the outline of the street plan.

The area of town to the west is known as 'Jimmy's End', and the Victorian St. James Church gave the famous town rugby club its nickname: 'The Saints'. I sometimes play the organ here, but the traditional two tone chant 'Come on you Saints!' hasn't so far featured in the liturgy. Ladders stretch up the St. James tower. On the opposite side of the road is one of Northampton's few surviving shoe businesses. The old bus depot used to be close by. The Express Lifts Tower, once amusingly characterised by the late Terry Wogan as 'Northampton's lighthouse' no longer tests lifts, but it's still there, one very big finger pointing towards heaven. Or so I like to think...

I return to collect the car. There have been complications, and although it won't be kept in overnight, prophylactic treatment has been required. Additionally the replacement of a single faulty sun visor will set me back £110. That'd buy a few dinners up on Kings Heath.

Stats man:  6 churches visited plus one redundant. 15 km. 13 degrees max on June 1st!! Drizzle most of the way. 3 postmen in shorts. One nun (in habit).

So, how much is enough?
I'm losing my bearings.
At my time of life I know I should resist an extra slice of pie but,
2.7 diesel or 1.0 petrol?
Cornwall or Cambodia?
Waitrose or Aldi?
Three loos or a single bathroom?
Just asking seems bourgeois and wrong.
Especially when I see the pictures from Fallujah on TV.
Lord, please forgive me.
Please preserve my critical faculties, such as they are.
And teach me to be simple.
I find this all so very difficult.