Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Carmageddon Monday

Two weeks' worth of morning service readings about the Sabbath during the middle of August, the press full of stories about record numbers of cars on the roads over the Bank Holiday, and no one to be seen during a day's walking on B.H. Monday. Excuse me for sounding like a stock character late 60s hippie but 'Hey man, like, what's goin' on?'

I just about remember a stricter Sunday observance, or the last traces of it, from a 50s childhood. Some Sundays were chock full of church even in the mid-1960s. It was still possible for Dad as 'Sunday School Superintendent' (there's a title you don't hear anymore) to arrive in Northumberland Heath at 10 o'clock to prepare for 'Junior Church' and for us to be back home at 12.45. Lunch would be leaping out of the oven on return and would be served, eaten and washed up by just after two so there was time to drive the four miles back to church to set up for the Sunday School teachers' training session which would last until four. Tea would be taken at home and a further journey made to Erith for the 6.30 evening service which would generally finish by 7.30 unless there was Holy Communion. But the cracks had begun to show. No one really wanted to show up for the afternoon sessions, and soon no one wanted to be at both the morning and afternoon services either. Televised cricket crept into the Sunday afternoon schedules (Let's hear it for 'The International Cavaliers'!). Down our way, if people couldn't actually afford to go off to the coast, they would drive up to Dartford Heath of a summer Sunday afternoon to watch other folks on their way there or back. Dad permitted himself a little light gardening if he wasn't required on duty (mowing the lawns = OK: laying paving stones = not OK). We listened to 'Round the Horne' on the Light Programme as we ate our lunchtime braised steak and rice pudding (though I'm sure my mum didn't get the Julian and Sandy jokes!). And soon it was time for Mary Whitehouse and 'The Permissive Society'.

Later on, when Sue and I fetched up in Northampton, an enthusiastic URC minister suggested to his congregation, including us, that it would be marvellous if we could spend all Sunday worshipping the Lord together. Well, as a fully paid-up introvert, not so much!  Was there a confusion of quality with quantity here - as well as a lack of understanding about personality types? And if the answer is that such a thing may prefigure our future in heaven, well I respectfully hope there's something perfectedly practical for me to do when and if I get there, referencing the stuff I've been happily engaged on down here. With perhaps the occasional game of cricket thrown in...

I only mention  this because Sunday observance now has a different context to that of 1960, let alone 1860 or 60 A.D.. And landing it on Anglican clergy the length of the land to preach about the issues that surround Sabbath-keeping in the height of an English summer when everyone seems to have gone to the moon is weird. But lest I forget, one of the ways in which our society's divided is between those who have tons of discretionary time, like me, and those who have none at all, who don't like what they have to do to earn their daily bread, and whose employers would be glad to take from them even the little discretion they have, cf. zero hours contracts.

Although there seems to be a lot of traffic wending its way through the narrow streets of the 'green-hilled village' of Grendon, there's no one about in the countryside at 10 in the morning. It's still and dull, making the newly haircut fields look spectacularly golden in the way that the sand does at Padstow on a gloomy day. On the path to Bozeat though, I have some animal company. I perforce have to make friends with a horse whose field I'm invading: she's curious about the contents of my backpack. And apart from the usual sheep and cattle, there are some alpacas, which raise their snooty heads briefly before deciding grass is more interesting than me.

I call the village 'Booze-i-ert', but no one's very sure where the name comes from. Perhaps it's a variation on the 'bosky' woodland thing, perhaps a reference to the local springs (beau-jet!). It was a shoe town in the nineteenth century, and a seat in the churchyard is dedicated to a member of the Drage family: an important name in local shoe-making. If you bought 'Gola' trainers in the 1970s they were probably made here. I remember briefly working with a bass guitarist who was a 'clicker' in the Bozeat factory. The sound of his bass was pretty clicky too, but it was all the rage then, that Mark King slapping stuff. St. Mary's church is part of the Wollaston benefice: Alpha courses and Bear Grylls to the fore, this year's Christian celebrity of choice. Pray for him. It's a difficult path to tread. I note with approval that the vicarage, which is right by the church gate, has an absolute pile of garden furniture: this is a clergy house which clearly works hard at being for the benefit of the parish. But does the curate who lives there ever get any peace? What about his/her Sabbath rest of Galilee?

The sun comes out. Just across the fields on my way out of town I cross a road where a Subaru estate has come to a dusty halt. In the front are two dodgy blokes, and in the back some lads and more dogs than are feasible for the confined space. I look at them. They look at me, and then roar off, perhaps worried that I've rumbled the nefarious purposes to which they were about to devote their Bank Holiday. Hare coursing? I don't know, but as Laurie Lee once remarked, where the roads are bad all kinds of strange things happen in the deep country.

The fields climb gently away to a barely discernible ridge which is marked by the route of the Three Shires Way and the county boundary with Bedfordshire. A couple of right-angle turns later and I'm following the line of the Roman road which heads south-north towards Irchester. For a mile or two it's a very superior green lane. Traffic isn't permitted between October and April and unlike some byways of its ilk, the path is quite unchurned and puddle-free, sometimes standing a little above the fields  - so I presume that somewhere underneath it there remains a foundation of Roman hardcore. It's an evocative walk in imaginative company with the Roman squaddies who once made their way towards the comparative luxury of whatever Irchester was called in those days, backs sore and lower limbs aching, anticipating a nice bath and a scrape with a strigil.

I make an exception to My Rule and turn off into Bedfordshire to the hamlet of Farndish, the fern covered pasture. There are some nice ancient houses here, and a small church dedicated to St. Michael, now in the care of the Conservation Trust, but unlike Preston Deanery which it resembles in size, sadly it's not open. I eat a sandwich sitting on a low tombstone, and for my impiety am bitten on the lower lip by an ant. For twenty minutes or so it's surprisingly painful. Bear Grylls would have shrugged it off. Walking back through the village I pass some farm buildings which host a few small businesses, amongst them 'Muddy Matches' which as I guess, turns out to be a dating agency for farmers. Its website boasts of a number of happily consummated relationships, but all the quotes are from women...

The walk up to Wollaston is beside a grass airstrip. A light plane has just landed, and has taxi-ed over to the farm buildings. It's a Jodel D117, which of course I didn't know until I looked it up, and it turns out to have had a chequered history. On one occasion the owner managed to run it into the hedge by the road on the far side. Whether he was or wasn't inside it I'm unclear. Some nonsense about hand-turning the propeller while the engine was fired up. He seems to have tried a sort of Le Mans style getaway which didn't quite come off. Another time G-ATIZ hit a Piper Cherokee when landing in Leicester. Is this amount of excitement common for your average single-seat plane? Only asking, but maybe think twice if you get offered a quick lift out of Wollaston any time soon.

Wollaston sits on a south-west facing slope attractive enough to the Romans that they planted vineyards here. It was a shoe town too, though not back then, home to the world-famous Doc Martens brand until manufacturing costs took Mr. Griggs off to China. But there's still an outlet shop, and the name Airware is plastered across various billboards. If Doc Martens has gone, the factory of Scott Bader is still a major presence in the small town - an interesting company whose business is chemicals but whose governance is founded around a Commonwealth. St. Mary's, the imposing church is shut, the pub opposite is shut, the museum is shut, but the pocket park is open and I sit for a few minutes, hot and increasingly thirsty. I had a cold virus last week, and all walkers please note, like all athletes expect that in these circumstances your endurance is likely to be factored down by, say, 25%? I'm struggling today.

I wander down to the attractive cricket ground by the A509, but am annoyed that it takes me a while to find my way out over the road and up the hill to Strixton, a single dead-end street mini-village with the lovely little church of St. Rumwald on guard at its entrance. Usually saints with out-of-the-ordinary names come from Bithynia or Dagestan but Rumwald is almost home-grown: allegedly he's buried in Buckingham. He's also quite annoying and improbable: straight from his mother's womb he was preaching sermons of staggering right-on-ness, and having preached them, he promptly went straight to heaven without passing go. In the nineteenth post-Darwinian century an attempt was made to change the dedication of the Strixton church to St. John the Baptist. As one authority says 'the cult of St. Rumwald has been remarkably persistent'. But let's not be too snippy. We could do worse than dedicate our church to a baby, couldn't we, for who hasn't been inspired by the innocence and trust of new human life?

Stats man: 19 km. 5.5 hours. 22 degrees C, but feeling hotter. Four churches (one out-of-diocese). Twelve alpacas in two groups. Butterflies (mostly white or tortoiseshell): quantity. Only one pair of other walkers! One light aeroplane, slightly dented.

Father God
I'm so good at taking holidays.
As hard as I try to practise Your presence;
to tune in to the beat of Your overshadowing wings,
the world's churn and chatter cancels their rule and rhythm.
Days pass, and I realise
I've known only my own will,
my own thoughts,
my own desires.
While I work, and enjoy my leisure,
in day and night dreams,
through pain and pleasure,
I turn to You again
and praise Your name.
Semper peccator.
Semper penitens.
Semper iustus.
You are my saviour
and I praise Your name.

Friday, 12 August 2016


It seems an inconvenience, but for today's walk the best sequence of churches suggests I should retrace my steps from Earls Barton to Castle Ashby. But of course, walking in reverse is really a whole new deal. There's the footpath which I missed ten days ago (it turns out the finger post was shrouded in ivy and hidden in a hedge).  Ooh, I'd never noticed that barn - the farm is still pretty much inside the boundaries of the town, isn't it? How lovely this green lane is...(which I'd not really appreciated as I toiled up it at the wrong end of 20k last week). How striking Whiston church is from this side of the valley! How completely the old Northampton to Wellingborough railway line has vanished from the landscape just the other side of the river!

Just past Whiston a combine is whirring away in its own little dust-cloud harvesting the wheat fields, and so I'm lucky enough to enjoy that singular late-summer pleasure as the aroma of nut-toasty cut corn fills the air all the way to Castle Ashby. A tractor pulling a lorry-load of grain passes me on the incline up to the neglected village pub, 'The Falcon'. I've known clergy and others who've muttered about the irrelevance of the traditional harvest celebration because they think their churches are full of supermarket-besotted townies who don't get it. Not me, but then I'm just a 'John Barleycorn' singing folkie.

The first part of the walk gives me a chance to recover. I woke up this morning in the grip of a powerful dream in which I was seethingly angry with everyone - including my lovely family and friends. Yet in real life the previous night we'd come back from a great few days away with excellent food, company and activity. My first reaction on waking to the tightness of chest and teeth-clenching anxiety is a rather shocked 'This won't do at all!', but just as if I'd experienced the anger in my waking state, I find it's impossible to shake off the emotion just by telling myself off. It's perhaps a cliché but this parallel life of dreaming and waking, each as real as the other at the experienced moment, still puzzles (and sometimes alarms) me. How easily we slip from the one to the other. The frightening thought remains, 'How much am I influenced in wakefulness by the dreams I can't control?' And is this true for everyone?

I'm further repaired by coffee and lemon drizzle in the Buttery of Castle Ashby's Shopping Yard. Next door I talk to Janice in her 'Limeblue' emporium. She's been there 23 years and business is still good, if seasonal. She tells me 'The Falcon' is on the Compton Estate's list of things to do. I say how pleased I am about that, and that given how the gardens of the big house have been restored with energy, skill and intelligence, I'm sure the same will be true of the pub/restaurant. Sue and I have visited the place on and off for forty years - it has great character and charm - but apparently the inside's in a poor state. It'll make a difference to the footfall in Janice's shop if they can get it up and running again.

The lane through the village is called 'Compton Road', and my instinctive reaction is to harrumph. We all know that the lordly family own the whole jolly show, so why the need for yet one more namecheck? But when I look on the War Memorial at the names of those who died in the First War, I see amongst the four or five mentioned a young Lieutenant Compton, and my attitude softens. I may think of the road as a tribute to him from now on. There are two 'Private Ashby's on the list of the dead too. Coincidence?

Although there aren't any waymarks to say so, the path from Chadstone to Yardley Hastings is part of the 'Round Northampton Footpath'. The way across the fields between the crops is very dry now, and there are long cracks in the earth where the plates of soil have separated so I have to watch where I put my Merrelled feet. I'm wearing shorts, as I often do, and as I cross the long grass either side of the Castle Ashby drive I wonder idly about the risks of the tick-borne Lyme's Disease. The partner of a one-time colleague became infected - with disastrous results for his long-term health. Maybe I should be more careful with covering my legs.

A flowery little lane brings me into Yardley Hastings by the tradesmen's entrance. In the churchyard of St. Andrew's church I meet Alan. He lives in Rushden but many of his family are buried here. He hasn't come dressed to tend the graves so I think he's visiting just to be in the presence of those he loves. He's very fond of his native county. I say I'm an incomer of forty years, but I am too. As I explain what I'm doing, I'm too eager to say that I'll mention him in the blog: he becomes defensive as he says 'I don't have anything to do with social media', but we part in friendly fashion.

Easton Maudit is a couple of miles away by a path that is bosky at first, but then follows a stream through fields which climb a little to a view looking all the way back to the great house at Castle Ashby. There was a manor house in Easton Maudit once, but the Comptons pulled it down. In fact the village is only half what it once was. As I walk towards the buttressed spire of St. Peter and St. Paul's, I can see lumps and bumps in the west field, with the suspicion of a hollow way between them. The back lane survived until 1840 or so. What caused the depopulation? The village isn't so far from the junction of Roman roads near Irchester, and there's a lot of ancient history here, including a villa. Later I learn that the church-going actor Derek Nimmo lived in Easton Maudit and is buried in the churchyard. Apart from 'Just a Minute' I suppose Derek is best remembered  for a very Anglican role in the 70's TV series 'All Gas and Gaiters' as Noote the Bishop's Chaplain, playing opposite William Mervyn, John Barron and Robertson Hare. Compare and contrast to Tom Hollander's more recent 'Rev'. Which do you think most closely matches the clergy image held by the man/woman in the street? And do we care? As '1066 and all that' has it, 'Write on both sides of the paper at once'! And when will someone write a series about a church congregation without the main focus being on those in possession of dog-collars?

As I continue to Grendon, the one surviving Lancaster bomber drones past me on its way back home to RAF Coningsby, presumably after some summer show. Seeing it flying alone over the fields is peculiarly poignant: the landscape just here wouldn't have looked a lot different in 1943. St. Mary's, Grendon is open. I rest my wearying legs inside and read Psalm 24 out loud: 'The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof...'. When I was in my last year of teaching and feeling the pressure, I used to occasionally escape at lunchtime for a (very) swift transgressive half of well-brewed fullness in the Grendon pub. And at about the same time, we occasionally came with the young people of Abington Avenue URC to the Hall for weekend retreats. We never once went near St. Mary's, which in retrospect seems a bit strange and unfriendly.

And now I get lost. The Nene valley is broadening at this point, and probably because a lot of gravel has been extracted, ancient paths have been diverted or dug up. After a bit of wandering across the first ploughed fields of autumn, I get my compass out and exit a scrappy field system roughly where I intend, by the Summer Leys Country Park, ignoring the pleading looks of thirsty sheep. For the first time since beginning this enterprise, I have to walk along a really hazardous road: it's the cut-through from Wollaston to Earls Barton, and the rush hour is just beginning, but as I turn off onto the Nene Way, Hardwater Mill is as beautiful as ever, one of the most picturesque spots on the Nene, and 20,000 years ago home to at least two woolly mammoths. Eventually I drag myself up the hill away from the river towards Dowthorpe End in Earls Barton, and on to All Saints church with its wonderful distinctive mortared and carved tower, hard by the bailey of a now vanished castle which stood in puzzling, apparently symbiotic relationship with the ancient place of worship, grander than anything in medieval Northampton.

On its bury, the church is both separate from the little old shoe town, yet entirely dominating. Walking the perimeter of the motte, I'm in liminal space, caught up between the present time and that of our Saxon forebears. As was Alan, standing among the graves at Yardley Hastings. As maybe was I, waking in confusion this morning. There are times when the new physics with its talk of multiverses and the New Testament with its perspective of 'looking through a glass darkly' seem to hint at the same wider reality.

Stats man: 24km: 7.5 hrs: 5 churches (two open, one previously visited). One barn owl, disturbed. Two crested grebes. Ten cyclists, three hellos. One country bus, cautious. 18 degrees. Occasional breeze, betokening autumn. Blackberries still mostly green and small.

Dear Lord and Father

I can do absolutely nothing
About #Donald Trump
Or #TheLabourParty
Or even #TeamGB.
In fact the sheer number of things and people I cannot fix
Is utterly overwhelming
And dismaying.
I give in.
I submit.
I put all matters great and small
Into your hands
Together with my family and friends
And commit them to your grace
Which is sufficient
For all our needs.