Thursday, 29 September 2016

One step enough for me

As Barn Lane exits Milton Malsor towards Blisworth, I pass one of many 'No Rail Freight' signs to be seen around the village (local land is about to be lost to a huge new commercial hub), and quickly find myself walking between sheepy fields under threat of extinction. The sheep get me thinking about the Latin word 'grex'. (This is the kind of nerdy thing that happens when you walk on your own and all the oxygen is going into your legs, not your brain!) I suppose sheep are quite gregarious insofar as they mostly seem to prefer the company of others to being on their own. (Though 'Shaun the Sheep' suggests they get occasionally grumpy or solipsistic like the rest of us). But would humans who think of themselves as gregarious like to be characterised as 'flocky' in a sheepy way? Perhaps not. And then there's the word 'egregious', which I've always assumed means 'out of the flock', therefore 'obvious' or 'outstanding' or 'pre-eminent'...even in a bad way as in 'egregious offender'. Thus does the countryside continue to make its linguistic presence felt, even in the biggest cities...truly 'rus in urbe'!

A side path takes me diagonally across a field which had wheat growing in it six weeks ago towards a high footbridge spanning the main Euston railway line. When I was eleven I would have loved this. The bridge affords a fantastic trainspotter's resource - if you could be fagged to walk that far, which I think only pretty fanatical trainspotters would. I stand and watch a few trains thunder past: the privileged Virgin expresses and a punier, clattering London Midland job. On the far side the path has been ploughed so there's a trudge over thankfully still quite friable soil to the Blisworth Football Club. Their pitches are quite hard too. You wouldn't want to be a goalkeeper diving around on them at the moment.

There's a funeral at St. John the Baptist's church, which from a friendly sign outside I deduce would otherwise have been open. Four undertakers are standing near the porch - the service is in progress, and I can hear the sound of the organ playing what I think is 'Abide with me'. In a generation, only diehard football fans will be requesting this: surely it's destined to be replaced with 'My heart will go on'. Organists, get practising! One of the undertakers is talking into his mobile. The others are chatting, sharing a quiet joke. What a funny job - being professionally serious most of the time, and then clocking off to talk about footy or Bake-Off or for a moan about the boss. I think of actors who knit or read or gossip before assuming their 'game face' and going on to give their Hamlet or Hedda.

I've been to a lot of funerals over the last few years, playing the organ, singing in the choir, mourning those I've known and those I haven't. I missed one this last Monday for a lady who we saw married only a few weeks earlier; David our Rector took the instructions for the wedding at the hospice. And last night I was rehearsing the Northampton Chamber Choir in Henry Purcell's 'Funeral Sentences': 'In the midst of life we are in death...'

I find walking useful in dealing with all this, the immediacy of putting one foot in front of another, of having the next small objective in front of me, of being made to appreciate each scene as I become part of it, and then leaving it behind me.

Blisworth Mill has been gentrified, but at least it's been preserved, a handsome building towering above the canal. A path crosses a long field above a tiny stream, but again the path has been ploughed and it's a tough, gently uphill half-mile to the far fence. No one has walked this way for a while and no wonder. The next obstacle is the A43 dual carriageway, a bit like crossing the Silverstone track while there's a Grand Prix is in session. 'In the midst of life...'

I scramble through the gap on the far side. Across the field is Gayton Woods Farm and beyond the farm some angling lakes, ringed by earnest fisherfolk on this lovely September day. I pick up the Northampton Round Path, conspicuously waymarked. In a little copse, I'm astonished to see what I at first think is a deep disused quarry. Then I realise the precipitous drop is into the cutting of the railway which once ran from Blisworth to Towcester. It was part of a network of lines whose prime purpose was the transfer of ironstone from Northamptonshire to South Wales during mid-Victorian times. Demand fell away drastically and there was never any prospect of substantial east-west passenger traffic so by 1952 the line was closed. The gradient up from Blisworth across 'the summit' was steep, so they cut as deep as they could to ease matters.

I'm now in the 'Gayton Wilds', according to the map, though it doesn't look exactly untamed. When I did my stint with 'Beltane Fire', looking for a record deal c.1988 as a sort of English U2, my favourite number was lead singer Clint' s 'Southern Wild', the reference being the New Forest where Clint had been brought up. The New Forest isn't exactly the outback either, though perhaps a tiny bit less domesticated than Gayton.

The church at Gayton is dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin. As I've walked, I've been surprised at the number of dedications to both Mary and St. John the Baptist, although I shouldn't have been. Where I was brought up, in Bexley in south-east London, the two Anglican churches are dedicated to...Mary and John. Just asking - but why aren't there more Anglican churches with Jesus in their monikers? Is that a stupid question? I mean, I know John was 'the forerunner' and all that, but he was just a family member doing a job, wasn't he? And in some small sense, actually pre-Christian, so an oddity among the saints...or perhaps we should say 'special'.

Gayton has a strikingly large number of big houses for such a small village. Perhaps the reason for this is the unique balcony view down towards Northampton. Here be Coppocks, numbered among the more kindly teachers of Matt during his time at Weston Favell Comp, including David, who's churchwarden at St. Mary's. I remember accompanying the Faure 'Requiem' here some years ago on a wing and a prayer (I think the regular accompanist had dropped out at short notice...)

My path follows the high ground for a while through fields of beautiful red-brown soil, then drops to the railway and the canal, and I walk the towpath until the Grand Junction meets the Northampton Arm, near the point where the railway branch to Northampton is visible while the main line is still audible. When we came to Northampton forty-three years ago, we were incomers and viewed with suspicion by Northampton society as fifth-column agents of change and decay (or at least, that's what it often felt like!). The Northampton of that era and several before was detached and wary. Many of the kids had never been to London, and were scared of escalators.  You'll think I'm exaggerating, but I'm not.  That branch-line attitude has changed completely over the last twenty years, but nothing's a given. With all the talk of Hard and Soft Brexit, of freedom of movement and the open market, of wanting in other words to have our cake and eat it, of just plainly irreconcilable desires, what's the future for this town and the country?

Stats man:  15km. 4 hours. 23C. No kingfishers on the canal. Undertakers: four and jovial. Ploughed-up paths: at least three. Churches: two. Railways: two. Buzzard: one, hovering purposefully. Defunct pedometer: one.

Father God
Do I really matter to you?
When I consider
The grains of sand on the beach
The specks of soil I crush underfoot
And the boffins tell me
There are more stars in the expanding skies than that,
Then what am I?
I hear you Jesus.
I hear you say
Our Father sees the sparrow fall.
I try to mitigate my mortality;
To be present in the moment;
To make each second an eternity,
But still I'm afraid.
I doubt.

I will rest in the loving arms
And trust.
One step enough for me.

Sunday, 25 September 2016


I park by the Windhover pub at the bottom of the road to Boughton, and walk over the bridge towards the Bramptons. I could go up the lane in front of me directly to Church Brampton, but there's no footpath on the road and you wouldn't believe the speed of the traffic zonking down it. So I tramp up beside what used to be the A50, now demoted to the far less important sounding A5177, and walk to Chapel Brampton first. I'm curious. I can see a cross on the map so the chapel must sit beside the primary school. I wonder how hard and fast the delineation ever was between church and chapel folk in the twin villages. But all that's extant on the ground is an extremely shabby shack. Was that really the eponymous chapel? It looks more like a scout hut, and this is odd given the desirability of other property hereabouts. A few weeks ago I was within earshot of a weekend bargee who peered out, beer in hand, from his rented narrowboat towards a Porsche parked beside a barn conversion, muttering enviously, 'There's a lot of money in these parts...'. Which the evidence amply supports as I walk past the all the nice houses.

We're in Lady Di territory now. There's the Spencer Arms pub, and there's a Spencer Close, and St. Botolph's, Church Brampton is one of the churches in the Spencer Benefice. You might expect the church to be sitting right atop the hill, visible from all directions, but it's on the far side overlooking the valley, facing Harlestone and roughly in the direction of Althorp, the Spencer seat. Outside in the road two women with dogs swap hellos with me. The dustcart is collecting recyclables: I never realised the dustpersons sort the plastic and glass by hand as they go, house by house. I hate the way they throw the boxes around on the pavement outside our house, but my, it's a hard and unpleasant job. St. Botolph's churchyard is tidy, but I can't see the name of the incumbent anywhere. Black mark. St. Botolph was an Anglo-Saxon, more likely a Botwulf, and lived somewhere in East Anglia in the seventh century. What he did to earn canonisation I don't know. I remember St. Botolph's in Cambridge: back in 1971 an extremely cold place in more ways than one.

A long bridle path angles away north-westwards from the village past Brampton Hill Farm and Cank Farm. I have no idea about the bona fides of the website 'lingomash' but it reckons the word 'cank' is Midlands dialect for 'gossip'. Unfortunately there's no one to chew the cud with today, just lovely miles of rolling countryside settling into autumn under a hazy grey-blue sky. Eventually I come to a lane and turn down a hill steep enough to have both an OS arrow across it and a salt box for icy winter times, to Holdenby Mill. Looking at the little stream running underneath the road, it doesn't look to have ever had the power to generate energy, but it must have done so once. Away from the Mill there's a relatively long pull up to the busy road to Spratton sitting on its ridge at the grand height of 136 metres. Indeed, St. Andrew's, Spratton is a church in the 'Uplands Benefice', which sounds very cheery and altogether better than being part of a 'Down in the Miry Pit Benefice' (though I'll store that one up for future satirical purposes - very Stella Gibbons!) And my goodness, Spratton is jumping. I meet Vivienne, who likes a good natter, outside her house. She tells me there's a festival centred in the church over the course of the week with all sorts going on. There's a 'Spratton's Got Talent' evening, a concert by 'Boobs and Brass' ( as you may have guessed, a women's brass band franchise), and if I'm lucky I may get a coffee in the church's 'Café Doris'.  But when I walk through the open door, the café is closed and there's a wedding rehearsal taking place. Later this afternoon there'll be an organ recital. Linnet Smith, the vicar, is taking a young couple through the service. 'And then what comes next? Ah, we're all going to sing, 'Lean on me', are we?' she says.  Apparently there's Saints' rugby club interest in the nuptials. Perhaps, in view of the choice of music, the groom is a front row forward. Much discussion of blue tooth speakers ensues, forte e nobilmente from Linnet, un poco piu piano from the couple. I leave them to it and retire pro tem to the well-appointed King's Head. When I return, I chat with Frances of the W.I. about the church. She's laying out cake and coffee for the organ 'do'. I tell her I've already admired the splendid and unusual medieval tomb of Sir John Swinford, and we agree the café at the rear of the nave is a great boon, the result of a generous legacy and a previous incumbent's vision. Even so, the congregation of a Sunday morning she estimates at less than fifty, which in view of the liveliness and humour of the place and its centrality to Spratton's life, seems meagre. What more do we have to do? I find myself (silently!) asking. Frances' husband Philip used to work with our friend Michael Jones, the jeweller and pioneering Northampton entrepreneur: they knew Maurice Walton too, who designed our house, and was later in life a non-stipendiary priest in charge of the Spencer Benefice churches. Frances and I reminisce a little about Northampton of the 60s and 70s, until more concentration on cake is required.

Away from Spratton it's a mile and a bit of hazardous tramping along a 'B' road up to Brixworth. You really wouldn't want to be doing this a) when you were in anything less than like a totally alert state dude (thanks to the King's Head coffee, I'm good n'perky) or b) if you were in the company of anyone else you cared at all about, and therefore worrying about the possibility that it's not only you who should be prepared to throw yourself over the kerb into the roadside nettles and hawthorn. I survive the experience, cross the narrow bridge in the valley, and with gratefulness head on the same line up a field path towards the Brixworth spire.

As I push open the gate to the churchyard, I see a bloke exercising his terrier (not a euphemism of any sort) and as I approach, realise it's Andrew Bransby, once our immediate neighbour, one time teacher, cricketer and general good egg. I haven't seen Andrew for more than a decade. We embrace and catch up, exchanging family news. He plays keyboards for the band in the local Christian Fellowship, still lives in Brixworth, still umpires for their second XI. I didn't know about the keyboards thing: previously he helped out at St. Mark's Whitehills and St. David's too, and he also goes to play and sing songs You Once Loved at a seniors' home. I ask about the cricket. Not a good standard, he says, not at second team level anyway. Are they well-behaved? Mostly, according to Andrew, except ******** (a village recently visited on my travels). And 100 overs of adjudication on a hot Saturday afternoon takes some concentration. It's a joy to see him, and I hope we get the chance to do so again soon.

All Saints, Brixworth gets three stars from Simon Jenkins in his 1000 Best Churches book (which is still a considerable tribute), but if he revisited it now, maybe it would join the elite bands of those meriting four or even five stars. Since I was last here the restoration work seems to have been finished gloriously, and the interior of the church is a wonder to behold. It's a place of mystery too, not just because of its exceptional, unique age, but its size relative to that, and the eclectic nature of its architecture. The suffragan bishop of the diocese takes his/her title from here, of course, as an acknowledgement of the likely spiritual importance of Brixworth from Saxon times onwards. There's even Roman brick and tile in the technically challenged arch in front of the apse which encloses the altar. Yes, we know, churches in the true sense aren't the building, but to worship in one like this gives a head start in meditation and faith, taking one back almost to the dawn of British Christianity. What a beezer place!

Stats man: 19 km. 19C. Haze and occasional sun. Pied wagtails everywhere. Three churches, two of them open: a majority - hooray!  Old friends: one. No park benches, so we didn't sit on them like bookends (cf. Simon and Garfunkel - who incidentally I'm getting into again. Without them no CSNY?) Grim-faced motorists: numerous. Dog-walkers: four and cheerful.

Dear Lord
Thank you for the communion of saints;
The greater cloud of witnesses;
Those we have loved long since
And lost awhile;
Those whose influence
Is still written for good
In the book of our lives.
May we by our practical example and teaching
Be for others
As they were for us.

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Denton Addendum

I pick up Sue from Northampton station and we decide a coffee at Castle Ashby is a necessary treat. On the way there a sign says that the church at Denton (St. Margaret of Antioch's: post 26th July) is open because there's an art exhibition. What I want is to show Sue the Henry Bird murals, so we veer off the Bedford Road, park up and go inside.

There we find Sue Brownridge, whose exhibition it is (we'd forgotten it's 'Open Studio' week). She recognises 'my' Sue. I assume this must be because she's a past pupil, but no, she's remembering her from even further back, when they were both students at the former Bedford College of Physical Education, more than forty years ago. Goodness gracious!

We chat, and among other things look at Sue B.'s lovely designs for stained glass work, including the windows behind the St. Margaret's altar - she lives in Denton. There's a deliberately commissioned element of continuity with the Bird murals, which wrap the interior of the church.

Afterwards we talk about the murals, which we'll need to go back a further time to really engage with. Why asks Sue C. would any artist ever want to do what Bird did? Is it ego, or religious inspiration, or a sense of wanting to contribute to that particular place? Good question.  I think for we who might ever worship there, it's actually a bit intimidating to be surrounded by one person's intensely individual point of view. For me, it would 'colour' anything that ever happened there. Did I feel the same in the Sistine Chapel? Well, yes, but there I was simply overwhelmed by the sheer complexity of detail. As a literate (more or less...) 21st century schizoid man, I didn't know how to put it together with written and heard scripture and theology. It confused and substituted rather than complemented. But as a musician, I have to be humble enough to accept that there'll be people who'll feel that about the weight of religious music, which I so love, and which partly holds my faith in place.  Now that's an uncomfortable thought...

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Hazy cosmic jive

Last Sunday I met Jim from Halifax, Nova Scotia. He says he wore sandals all through last winter, and they didn't get snow until after Christmas, which isn't the image I've always had of the place. Of course, being Canadian, Jim may just be the strong and silent type, with resilience way beyond our namby-pamby British norms. But here we are in mid-September, and two days ago there was a record temperature for the month down in tropical Gravesend, which has a penchant for such things, recording 34.8 C. And this morning it's 17C as I set out at eight in the morning, with a nasty 97% humidity. A soupy mist bathes the countryside, soil and stalk.

I walk from Wollaston across shrouded fields in the direction of Irchester. I'm starting early because I have to be back at 14.00 for an encounter with SkyMan II who is going to sort us out for broadband, telly, landlines etc.. As opposed to SkyMan I who came last Monday. And didn't.

From its very name you know that Irchester's Roman in origin. It's been through quite a bit since, perhaps for the same reasons that brought the Romans here in the first place: the ironstone. The town is untidy: light industry rubbing shoulders with the gentry and each generation adding housing for ordinary people in the style of the time. 'Thanks, babe!' says a jogging-bottomed woman to a friend as she crosses the road in front of me. Like you do.

The Romans hung out down towards the river, the other side of the A45 dual carriageway on green terraces near enough to walk to the quarries, but far enough that smoke from the smelters kept out of their eyes. The current large village with St. Katharine's generously proportioned church close to its heart is a long half-mile away. Further up the hill is the Working Men's Club, which looks as if it's seen better days: the 'no smoking' rule has hastened the decline of such places. Even twenty years ago, they were still hiring bands to entertain the punters of a Thursday evening. Not any more. Doubtless there are fewer local folk who want to identify themselves as 'working men/women'. More or less opposite the WMC in a low-rise building is the 'Reach Out' church. And the Methodists' front door looks very smart (something I've already seen elsewhere quite often on these walks). I wonder how they all get on with St. Katharine's? I note with a smile that the current vicar is herself a Catherine. Wheels within wheels.

I pause in the churchyard and read a psalm, on this occasion Psalm 27. My dad was a great fan of The Psalms ( not in a sung fashion, because my parents were Baptists, though you could occasionally catch my mum listening to Choral Evensong, and the New Baptist Hymn Book actually contained a few chants, although no one ever used them). More than once he recommended them to me when I was an angst-ridden teenager, but I didn't get it, not back then. Now reading 'The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?/The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?' I imagine my dad in army uniform sitting in a Nissen Hut at Tidworth camp in 1941, and I understand. It must all have been very frightening indeed for a trainee draughtsman thinking about a vocation in the Ministry.

From the churchyard, the definition of the tall spire is still fuzzy in the mist, and the grass is damp as I head towards the boundary of the Country Park on the Nene Way. Across an extremely stony field (and if you wanted to do a field walk looking for Roman bits, I should think this is a prime place to go right now) some steps descend into the woods around the quarries.

The whole area has been poshed up a lot since I was here last, in a sort of Center Parcs (sic) fashion. The paths are all very well-kept I pass a lot of pairs of ladies chatting and powerwalking. Annoyingly, whatever the map says, the old route of the Nene Way doesn't work any longer, blocked by steel fences, and I have to retrace my steps and in the absence of any waymarks, guess at the best path. I follow my nose to the Visitors' Centre with its café and what looks like a good playground. On Sundays there's a regular summer Railway thing going on with a couple of ancient quarry tank engines. For the exit from the park towards Little Irchester, I walk along a cutting which must once have provided a permanent way link from the quarries to Wellingborough.

I see a cross marking a chapel on the map as I emerge into Little Irchester's small conglomeration of houses, and wonder if it's an outpost of Anglicanism, but no, it's a redundant 'wee free' place of worship from the 1890s. Out the back something child-centred is going on in the 'Hilton Hall'. Turning right under the A45, I pick up the Nene Way as it begins to follow the towpath eastwards on the river from Whitworths' Lowry-esque great mill, the nineteenth century part of which now looks disused. But the swans still beautify the riverside just here, a Wellingborough feature which has adorned many postcards over 120 years.

The sun has burned away the mist now, and it's very hot down by the river as the Nene Way uncertainly leaves town, a shimmer over the stubbly fields and gravel-pit lakes. On a rise to the right is the mothballed building of HMP Wellingborough, a modern architectural echo of Whitworths', a comment, conscious or unconscious, on our ambiguous feelings about work: it both provides us the means of sustenance, and is our prison. And so mankind has felt, I think, since the book of Genesis was written. Was there ever a time when great infrastructural projects were undertaken with mutual joy by a whole community. The building of Stonehenge? Or the great cathedrals?

It's surprising what a difference it makes to walk over grass of even a moderate length, as here beside the Nene. The extra couple of centimetres you have to pick up your feet reminds you quickly of muscles that are underused. Just before I turn up to Great Doddington, by the site of its mill, I come across a ewe with a poorly foot. It limps away from me, and though I can see an orange tag, I can't see if it's numbered, and I can't see the farm to which it might belong, so I have to leave it be. It's feeding quite happily, but encounters with animals in difficulties always tug at the heartstrings. And there's something about sheep.

I climb to Doddington and enjoy the calm and prosperity of the long village. St Nicholas' church lies behind the exceedingly plumptious and desirable Manor House. The church is open because the boiler man is at work. Inside all is very well-ordered. There's a servery and a café area. A loo and a vestry are wrapped in matching blond woodwork. There are bibles in the pews and Nicky Gumbel books on the bookstand, but the service sheets are conventional. Parish news is set out for prayer, discreetly, often using Christian names only. Some choir members from the benefice are going to Peterborough for next month's Diocesan Choral Festival. Only the large projector screen which partially obscures the view of the chancel strikes a jarring note. But there's something here for everyone. As the boiler man leaves, job done, Jim the churchwarden shuts up the church with a little regret that it can't remain open. He tells me they've recently lost a lot of lead, nicked from the roof, despite the rectory being a stone's throw from the south porch. I see Jackie Buck, the rector, in her garden but leave her and Jim to chat. She deserves a lunch hour without me bothering her.

Back down to the scrappy remains of Doddington mill and across the valley. On the far side of the river the paths once again fail to match up to the OS, although perhaps for good reasons. The whole area is now a de facto country park for walkers, twitchers and anglers, all of whom are in evidence, and as in an old Forestry Commission wood, the OS can't keep up with the changing pattern of trails and firebreaks. On the far side of the lakes I have to crawl through a hedge to gain the tarmac road back to Wollaston, straw in my hair and scratches up my arms, but it could have been worse. My timing is good though: I make it home with ten minutes to spare before Skyman II arrives. Prior to his appearance we have the internet, the wrong Sky package and no phone. When he leaves, we have televisions that work, a working landline, but no internet. This isn't his fault - it's probably BT Openreach's but don't want to hear all this: you've troubles of your own. So instead (doing a Victoria Coren- Mitchell on 'Only Connect' here) let's all sing along with D. Bowie (more or less):

I had to phone someone so I picked on you
Hey, that's far out so you heard him too
Switch on the TV we may pick him up on Channel Two
Look out your window I can see his light

(Altogether now)

There's a Skyman waiting in down the street
He'd like to come and meet us
But he thinks he'd blow our minds
There's a Skyman etc.

Stats man: 17km. Max 25C. Mist then hot sun under a cloudless sky. Two churches. Four herons (although one can never be certain: they tend to hop ahead of the walker up a river). One piece of (Roman?) roof tile in a field, left for you to find.

Lord Jesus
What about thieves then?
You knew some.
You were crucified with two of them
And promised eternal life to one.
I remember
With something approaching affection
The kids I taught
Who went on the rob in the dead of night
And the band members I worked with
Who weren't averse to a spot of poaching.
But then
I also remember
The headbutt that sent me sprawling
From that drunk guy
Casing the studio in Milton Keynes
And the wreck of our house
Once the burglars had been in
And I feel angry.
Love the sinner and hate the sin?
It doesn't add up.
So Lord, once more
Help me leave judgment to you
And for my own sake
Help me to learn to forgive
And forgive
And go on forgiving.

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Notes for Walkers

As autumn approaches, I hope you won't mind if I rattle on a bit about sensible walking? There are plenty of obvious clues in my various posts about the routes I've taken, but I'm not recommending them to you, or endorsing their appropriateness for your personal level of fitness in any way, shape or form, should you attempt to replicate them. I'm a 65 year old male, with a reasonably sound pair of pins, but otherwise of distinctly average fitness. You are you! I'm a relatively experienced lowland walker, for whom mountains (or indeed hills above 300 metres) are a thing of the distant past. In other words I'm a rank amateur whose advice should only be a starting point.  You have been warned!

I'm calculating my distances on the basis of a clip-on pedometer that you can buy in any outdoor pursuits chain, and then reckoning that each of my paces is three quarters of a metre. Since the pedometer regularly misses a few steps here and there, any over-calculation of distance is probably roughly cancelled out. As you've gathered, I get lost quite a bit too.

As the fields become muddy, the grass gets longer and wetter, the daylight hours shorter, and I have to contend with blistering caused by the interaction of my Berghaus boots and my fallen arches, just watch my distances reduce! Don't you just love winter!

I used to think that one could reckon to walk three miles in an hour. But at my current pace, this is down to no more than 2.3 miles in an hour, and sometimes a lot less if the terrain is unkind. So allowing for time to stand and stare, an average of two miles an hour throughout a day is my rule of thumb. Don't be macho.

Here are some other things you might like to consider before and during walking.

Take the relevant 1:25000 OS map (Explorer) with you. 1:50000 isn't good enough. If you haven't before, become proficient at reading it. You'll be amazed at the fun things it will tell you. Learn to take a grid reference from it.

Carry a mobile phone. Then in emergency you can ring someone and tell them exactly where you are with the grid reference, even if you also combine that information with clever GPS technology.

Even when embarking on softie-walking of the sort described here, but doing it solo, always tell someone where you're going. If you're older, like me, or nervous, send texts to someone to let them know your progress. Even if you're walking as a pair or in a small group, it's a good idea to reveal your plans in advance to A.N.Other.

A compass is a useful tool. Learn to use it with your map, so that if you need to improvise a route, you can. Sometimes one field can look awfully like another. It has been known for waymarks and finger posts to disappear!

A stick is a good thing - to clear away brambles and nettles if nothing else.

In summer, wear a hat, and use sunblock. I've had heat/sun stroke, and it ain't fun: in fact it's potentially fatal. Be conservative. Pack some rainwear. Treat thunderstorms seriously. Like golfers, get off the course, if there's the risk of being caught in one.

In winter, like you were always told, wear lots of thin layers. If you think you're getting cold, again, be conservative. Plan ways to short cut your intended route in emergency. If you're of increasing years, don't ignore the possibility of hypothermia.

Ask yourself what constitutes appropriate footwear for the day. Ankle support is always good. And I suppose these days, since the risk of Lyme's disease is increasing (although Northamptonshire is not yet high-risk) cover your legs, and know what to do if you think you've been bitten by a tick.

When walking along a road, wear high vis clothing if possible, and as a rule face the oncoming traffic. But if there are bends in the road, and you're aware that traffic speeds along it, you may need to adjust this policy from time to time. Common sense. Say thank you to the nice drivers and wave. Actually do the same to the not-nice ones. That biblical thing about heaping live coals on their head! You never know, it may get them to change their behaviour.

If you're walking as a group, walk at the pace of the slowest if you can. As you've gathered, that'll be me. If they're really painfully slow, try not to invite them next time.

Maybe carry a small first aid kit and a space blanket. Some mild painkillers too?

Be wary of all animals. If in doubt, find a way around them. Do not stick your fingers near their cute little mouths. No matter how small and cuddly, do not pick them up. Particularly snakes. Do you know for sure the difference between a grass snake and an adder? Or a 'slow-worm'? No, I thought not.

Close all gates behind you. Be nice to farmers, even the grouchy ones. Do some P.R. for all of us.

If you take your pooch with you, keep him/her on a lead, particularly in the presence of other animals. This may actually protect you. Herds of cattle can turn very nasty, even homicidal, if provoked by Rover's unfettered fun and games, particularly if there are young animals around.
Other non-dog-loving humans may not appreciate being jumped on or snapped at either. Well, I don't, for one.

And finally brothers and sisters in Christ, please collect Rover's poo, and take it away with you, however irksome this may be. Though you may find it hard to believe, it may harm other animals or humans. And if you feel the need to hang plastic bags containing dog excrement in trees or bushes along our country paths, please seek prompt psychiatric assistance. You may have unresolved childhood issues which need attention. Although it seems you are not alone...

Old Macdonald had a (wind) farm

Quinton churchyard is looking very Iris Murdoch this Monday morning: not a piece of rhyming slang - it's just wet, green, lush and mournful in the Scotch mist - an atmosphere which makes me think of her novels. I retrace my steps ( see post: Tuesday 19th July ) through the lovely Old Rectory garden past the pond and down the road opposite until I pass under the motorway before turning left towards Courteenhall up a narrower lane, which apart from indicating it's a dead end, also injuncts against 'grain lorries' and 'wedding traffic'. I've been to the tiny estate-dominated village just once previously and some decades ago when a young colleague of Sue's rented a house here. It's as I recall: a collection of workers' cottages in two rows, with a view of the big house through a tastefully arranged gap in the hedge, and the church of St. Peter and St. Paul on a little rise. One of the two churchwardens is Julia Wake. Julia is the lady of the house: her husband is Sir Hereward, and their family claim to be descendants of Hereward the Wake. You remember him: he stoutly resisted the Norman conquest up Peterborough way - how very fashionable! - and so has become the stuff of legend often retold. He even gets a mention in songs by Pink Floyd and Van der Graaf Generator. In the twentieth century, Joan Wake was a doughty and important local historian, to whom we owe the preservation of Delapre Abbey in Northampton. I'm thinking tweed skirts and brogues.

If one's wedding is to be 'exclusive' (strange phrase, if you think about it), it seems one can hire bits of the great house and stroll across to the church for the religious stuff at strict C. of E. rates, unless the humanist option is preferred in which case one could get spliced in one of a number of aristocratic bowers minus the energising walk, with the additional benefit of not sullying the bride's wedding train on the way over the dung-free field.

I mustn't be sour, however much fun it is. People should get married, and of course they should have a lovely time, and of course it's valuable income for the upkeep of an undoubtedly expensive estate, but hasn't the wedding business got a trifle out of hand, and over-indulgent, and all rather fin-de-siècle? The answer you're reaching for is...yes!

How distant tranquil (and dare I say it, slightly feudal) Courteenhall is from some other far reaches of the C. of E.. On a recent 'Pointless' appeared Fr. Robb and his wife. He's vicar at Holy Nativity church in Mixenden, Yorkshire, where once a month there's a Rock Mass. Fr. Robb carries a fair old amount of steel embroidery around his face and has long hair reminiscent of Hawkwind c. 1970. I quote from the HN website: 'The Rock Mass is a monthly service for people who love it loud...At a typical service you can expect to be singing songs you're more likely to hear on the Kerrang channel or Planet Rock Radio. As we come together around God's table to meet Him in bread and wine, there are smoke and lights, processions, incense - everything you need to give the authenticity of stadium rock...'

We the church are truly all things: we are all people everywhere.

A bridle way (not a bridal way!) curves up from the village to a flat and open plain. To my left is the wind farm which is now so visible from the M1, and to my right is the large and growing settlement of Roade. The railway bisects the village, trains whistling through to Manchester, Liverpool and Scotland in a deep nineteenth-century cutting which is also a SSSI. I spot that it's 'drop-in' morning at St. Mary's church, so I do. Karen and Pauline serve me coffee and lemon cake, and I chat to various jolly people. Peter is a sprightly chap in his early seventies who explains what's going on. To each 'drop-in' are invited friendly agencies who may be of help to villagers. The CAB have been recently: advice has been dispensed regarding switching fuel bills to lower tariffs from different suppliers and the completion of tax returns. Today Vivienne is representing the local surgery and making sure health support is available and understood to/by those who need it. Another Karen is talking about the 'School of Life' which brings young and old together around the county to swap skills and encourage each other. What good initiatives! Well done, St. Mary's!

Inside the nicely furnished church, one looks down a tunnel through the mid-placed bell tower to a distant high altar: it's a mini-cathedral but with the bells where the 'crossing' might be. The parish style seems to be thoughtfully evangelical. I notice the name of Will Adams cropping up among the clergy, and remember that he was one-time head at Roade comprehensive school, now re-named 'The Elizabeth Woodville School' after the wife of Edward IV. The two of them memorably courted beside an oak tree not far away in the Tove valley.

I stride away across the fields to meet the line of the canal mid-way between Blisworth and Stoke Bruerne. It's underneath me in its famous tunnel right now: a triumph of industrial-age engineering. I pick up 'Boathorse Road' and walk down through the woodland to where the waterway emerges by Bob Nightingale's smithy, a few hundred metres from the village of Stoke Bruerne. Bob is walking up the towpath in his leathers and I say hello. This is tourist Northamptonshire, with celebrated pubs and gardens, a tea-room (much improved!) and lots of information about canal-building. The trick the village has managed is to retain its dignity: there's not a hint of 'kiss-me-quick'. This coming weekend is 'Stoke Bruerne at War' - not internecine disputes in the Parish Council - but a remembrance of the village in WW2/1. The moorings have been allocated in advance, there's a campsite in a field with the first Union flags appearing above VW hippie-vans. I imagine a good time will be had by all, only slightly incommoded by troublesome roadworks on the A508 to put in new drains. I walk up the hill to another St. Mary's, and marvel at the sheer number of dedications to her in this part of the world: I'd never thought of Northamptonshire as a Virgin-cult centre, but maybe it was...or maybe the whole of England was, and I'm just becoming aware of it.

In theory the village of Ashton is very close by, but I miss my path, and it takes me longer to finally arrive by the Mens Own rugby club on the village limits than I'd hoped. I've been to Stoke Bruerne many times, but Ashton only rarely and never stopping to look, although it crops up in my Civil War story about Grafton Regis. It's the first day of the autumn term, and in the church school the kids are having a great time playing catch with their P.E. teacher. (Now don't be silly: they're throwing a ball, not her!) Beside the playground is the little church of St. Michael's, which I regret I can't visit more fully - it's closed of course. I understand how it is. As I passed I saw that someone had pinched the village sign so that the metal surrounds were left standing high like a Barbara Hepworth sculpture, as it were, drawing attention to the space beyond. As the government has recently pointed out, the security of our churches is an issue in so many ways. How do the evangelical and catholic wings of the church think about the spaces in which we worship? Do they feel differently about the sense of the numinous to be found there? Do they also feel differently about 'community'? How can these things be brought together?

Onwards and slightly upwards to Hartwell across fields which have been ploughed. The drizzle has relented, and the soil is still friable and unclaggy, so it's not too much of a nuisance. I always confuse Hartwell and Hanslope. Hanslope has a marvellous spire with flying buttresses and is visible for miles. I shan't be visiting it because it's out-of-diocese. Hartwell's St. John the Baptist is nineteenth century and low-slung, of no great architectural merit but sitting right in the centre of the village. I take the weight off my feet in the churchyard while Hartwell sprawls around me. It stands on the southern edge of Salcey Forest and like Piddington somehow feels like a woodman's town: I suppose the name helps the suggestion along.

The pocket park is having its annual big mow. I pass it and walk on up the bridleway with the wind farm now dominating the skyline to my right. There's a slight whine from the turbines if you're downwind, but otherwise they wheel away silently. Underneath them are sausage rolls of hay, newly harvested, so old farming and new have been successfully combined. Given the density at which they appear in the local countryside round here i.e. there aren't too many of them, personally I don't mind the new generation of windmills. I worry more about the solar farms, from the point of view that some sneaky government may one day deem them to be 'brown-field sites' and slacken planning regulations to allow building on land which otherwise would never have been thought appropriate.

Nevertheless, the windmills evoke for me images which aren't entirely comfortable. When I was small, a young and beautiful Susan Hampshire acted the humanoid face of aliens in the TV series 'Andromeda'. The reality behind the aliens was eventually revealed to be a far less benign and blankly-staring set of massive proto-computer pods.  And in Bill Bryden and Tony Harrison's game-changing National Theatre trilogy of Mystery Plays, the final 'Judgement' play had as its startling centrepiece a steely-lit whirligig, portraying perhaps the circularity of all things, or an alternative perspective of time, or a giddying crucifix. All of this I sense in the powerful machines turning above my head, a rival narrative to the towers and spires of our lovely churches.

Stats man: 24 km (seems to be my distance!). 7.5 hours. Max 22 degrees. Drizzle and cloud. One postman (not knocking twice, but seen twice in two different villages). Two pieces of cake. One yaffle. Three mini-goats, charming. One parrot in a house in Ashton, whistling loudly.

I thank you for the variety of your church.
For Drop Ins
And complines
For the Mothers Union
And breakfast clubs
For church choirs
And Rides and Strides
For village shows
And heavy metal bishops
For fetes and carnivals
And worker priests
For eucharists
And Pentecostal hands
For all the countless creative ways
Your people serve and worship you
And try to explain
What faith and community mean.

Sometimes I feel bathed
In the warmth of loving welcome
And the next moment I am
Even within the walls of the sanctuary.
O Lord, bless us all
As we lead your people in worship.
Grant that what we say and what we sing
With our lips
We may believe in our hearts
And that what we believe in our hearts
May show in our lives.