Saturday, 15 October 2016


'The rich man in his castle/The poor man at his gate/God made them high and lowly/And ordered their estate...'

I walk out of Gayton on the Eastcote Road, passing the allotments on the left, marvelling at the industry of those who tend them, thinking of the evident pleasure that's shown by some of our friends who have one. Gardening isn't really for me, but I love that it's still deep in our nation's psyche. John Arlott once said that he'd only met one professional cricketer who was a 'wrong-un' (he didn't name a name!) and sadly he might have to revisit his opinion now, but one feels something of the same about the community of gardeners.

Everywhere I've driven in the last couple of months, there seem to have been temporary traffic-lights and diversions as the councils try to get the roads in shape for winter. Walking up the little lane, the tarmac's breaking up at the sides, and if you're a cyclist you'd better beware. However insignificant the highway, it inevitably gets a terrible battering from heavy farm vehicles, HGVs misled by their satnavs and increased traffic. At a certain point the Eastcote Road makes a right angle turn, but the lane goes straight on, now a single path bridleway without a surface, although in the undergrowth to my right I can see the ditch continuing so that the 'real' width of the road is as it was before. There's a certain randomness to the way country roads are. In half a mile the metalled lane swings in again from the right. People move. Needs change. But the half mile of good honest dirt between the close hedgerows was very nice.

Just before Tiffield, I cut a diagonal across a lumpy field towards the old Stratford railway line encountered two walks ago, here on a short embankment. Perhaps the lumps are the ghostly remains of houses long gone, or maybe it's spoil from the old railway workings. Apparently, when the line was built in 1869, an 'experimental' railway station was put in, but because this was the 'summit' of the line with a relatively steep gradient either side, there was an alleged tendency for the halted trains to break away, so by 1871 the experiment was deemed a failure and the makeshift wooden platforms removed. More likely there weren't enough passengers from Tiffield even then and lack of profit was the motive for the closure.

Tiffield isn't a large place, although it straggles a bit, rather as if two communities were crashed together and told they'd better just get along. St. John the Baptist's church is roughly in the middle. I sit, read a psalm and pray for Marion the priest, and for the people of the village. Whenever I drive past the Tiffield turning from the A43, my brain automatically flashes up 'Approved School', because in my time as a teacher in Northampton that was where all the really bad boys were sent in the hope of repentance, or cure, or just to keep them off the mean streets until their hormones had settled down. Originally it had been a Victorian reformatory, with what I imagine to have been an even harsher regime. Now in more thoughtful and kindlier times, there's still a residential special needs unit here, in a setting away from the pressures of urban life. Today, head in pocket bible, my imagination is arrested by the musical information to be gleaned from the beginning of Psalm 33: 'Praise the Lord with the lyre, make melody to Him with the harp of ten strings. Play skilfully on the strings...with loud shouts.' And I think fondly of my friend and colleague Robin whose 12-string guitar has often, for all the right reasons of excitement and approval, made me want to give issue to 'loud shouts'.

I pick my way out of the village, up a hill and over an earthy field, skirting some light woodland and down to the dual carriageway, the new Towcester Road. Having girded my loins, checked my shoes for slippery mud and chosen my moment, I make the far side safely, and follow the signs to Hulcote.
At first I'm walking up the Old Towcester Road, which is not the same as Ye Olde Olde Towcester Road which was diverted centuries ago, when the Lords of Easton Neston cleared the land of any minor inconveniences like peasant villages, roads etc. etc. to make way for their Lovely Dwelling. What Hulcote was like then I don't know, but today it's mostly a collection of neat, Gothicky, late Victorian workers' houses, which to be fair would have been extremely superior places to live by the standards of their time. All I can get from the web is that the church of St. Mary's, Easton Neston is somewhere at the back of the great Hawksmoor house: all I have to do is to follow the signs.

I feel like a trespasser, but telling myself I've been thrown out of better places than this, and adopting the attitude one is suppose to strike when confronting a bear i.e. make yourself look as big and imposing as you can, I stride up the various nicely laundered drives in the direction I think I should go. In fact I encounter no red-faced Wodehousian lairds with twelve-barrelled shotguns in the crook of their arms, just an elderly Chinese couple who look as if they might just have stepped off a sightseeing coach. I say 'Good afternoon'. They mumble a puzzled, incomprehensible reply.

I'm out of date. I had the owner of the lovely Hall as Alexander Hesketh, he of the James Hunt, sex and champagne era of yesteryear's Formula 1. He still retains ownership of Towcester Race Course, although Easton Neston is now the property of Leon Max, Russian-American fashion entrepreneur. I don't meet him either which is perhaps a good thing, He might have at his disposal weaponry even more deadly than a shotgun to stave off  unwelcome intruders. Were the Chinese couple house guests, buying clothes for export? Or independent travellers like me? Or did they miss the bus? The Hall is a wonderfully proportioned building, not ridiculously large: just big enough to impress.

I find sylvan St. Mary's. It's closed, which is a shame because I've read that there are some beautiful, ancient box pews inside. Its parish now includes a small housing estate on this side of Towcester, and there are regular services. It even contributes to the Tove Benefice's Parish Share - just under 4k of the total £77k. So I suppose from that we can deduce that Mr. Max doesn;t put his hand in his pocket to any great extent, although of course he may donate to the church's upkeep and well-being in other ways, which so he should, because after all, this is a holy building mostly for the benefit of the estate, if only for historical reasons. The priest is Father Ben Phillips, whose principal care is for St. Lawrence's, Towcester. He's a sort of colleague of mine, although oddly we haven't yet met. He has responsibility for the excellent C. of E. primary school in the town, for which I'm the Bishop's Visitor. More of them anon!

As I walk back through the autumn leaves and past the gorgeous shrubbery, I try to put myself in the shoes of someone who owns all this. You probably know the verse at the top of this post. It's from Mrs Alexander's original version of 'All things bright and beautiful', and has long since been erased from every right-thinking hymn book version. As I walk, I'm in a state of na├»ve confusion, thinking back to those allotments in Gayton. How can there still be such huge divisions in wealth - which have by all accounts become greater since the year 2000? And of course, like me, the allotment holders are themselves among the rich of the world, comparatively speaking. It doesn't help to have the bad examples of Donald Trump and Phillip Green so often before us in the news, in all their pomp and contempt for the rest of humanity. Mrs. Alexander's view was that the rich were entitled in more ways than one, but I don't think most of today's Christians would agree with her, if what she meant was that this was the 'proper' order of creation. I used to see bright green Porsche 911s screech to a halt outside our studios and wonder 'which rules is he bending?' 

So whether by accident or design, I'm glad that Easton Neston parish comprises the housing estate with its young families, although I wonder how messy church works in ancient box pews! If lovely St. Mary's were just a decorative adjunct to the Hall ('we have our own church, you know...') I'd have to be lobbying for its closure, for reasons of historical symbolism if nothing else. The fact that the Queen is head of our Church already stamps us as allied to the rich and powerful in the minds of many: we have to be the Church of all people, notwithstanding.

The path away from the hall is very pleasant, woody and pastoral by turns. Beyond the 'new' houses I have to cross the A43 again, even more perilously this time. My chosen route on to Pattishall takes me initially by fieldpaths running and rising parallel with Watling Street towards the collection of small Saxon villages that flank the Roman road. There's Caldecote and Asctcote, Eastcote and Dalscote, and on the far side of the road, Grimscote and even Potcote. The paths are a bit obscure at first, and at one point, not spotting an inordinately green shade of grass,  I carelessly advance into a small mere, retreating as squelch and ooze begins to overwhelm and suck my boots. It's much colder today, with a stiff easterly breeze whipping in over the open fields. As people around here have been apt to remark, there's nothing between us and the Urals. I'd never asked the question before, but 'Watling' may be related to the Saxon word for wattle: 'waecelinga'. Perhaps it grew by the slowly decaying road, or could be easily gathered there, or the experts at wall-making lived beside it.

At Pattishall, Holy Cross, my third church of the day, is also shut. Traffic speeds through the thirty limit down the old drover's road, 'Banbury Lane', here briefly 'Butcher's Lane'. I return to Gayton, surprised by the number of small hills I have to ascend and descend. Marion Reynolds has to shepherd the flocks at Gayton, Tiffield, Pattishall and Cold Higham. I ask again 'How does she do it?'
Dusk falls over the allotments.

Stats man: 20km. 12 degrees C., with an easterly breeze gusting up to 25kph. Occasional spots of rain, but a mixed sky with some sunny periods. 5.5 hrs walking. One water vole. One buzzard. Two kites. One yaffle. Countless game birds: I'd be a good 'beater'. One conversation - with Jim, just out of hospital. He walked two miles today and was justly proud.

Health warning: These crossings of the A43 really weren't fun, particularly coming back at OS reference 695499 (Explorer 207). If you're silly enough to follow in my footsteps, what you need to know is that on the far side the path is hidden up the embankment over a stile approximately 20 metres to your left once you've crossed the road. But really, a second time I'd avoid the issue and go the long way round by road.

In her ecstasy
Mary sang your exaltation of
The humble and meek
And your dismissal of the rich
Even by the standards of J. Corbyn.
Forgive me that
Often I'm not at all humble or meek.
And I can be ridiculously proud
Of my puny riches.
Help me not to make this
A routine confession
But one that truly touches my heart.
Help me not to be envious
Of the self-made or high-born,
But to understand
That only from
Knowing my creatureliness
Can I see and follow you.

Friday, 7 October 2016

Hobby Horse

In mid-morning Moulton, the blue and grey primary school children are distributing harvest produce to the town's houses. I say 'town' because Moulton has a complicated and quite congested street layout, which makes it feel bigger than it is. As I try to park in a residential street, the kids have just been knocking vainly at the front door next to me. The owner of the house is 'out' and they turn to look expectantly. But no, I'm sorry, I'm not the intended recipient of their apples and carrots. Up and down the streets mini-crocodiles of children with their assigned helpers continue criss-crossing, laughing and pointing, and doing a little local geography. An autumn Breughel.

After no more than a couple of hundred metres I'm passing the JGallery and am drawn in by the chalk-board blandishments to drink their coffee and eat what turns out to be very splendid cake. I've not been in before. It's a great space with pictures upstairs and downstairs. From the current exhibition I'm quite taken with Lee Burrows' work. There are some lovely low-lit evening pastoral images of Northamptonshire, particularly one of Nobottle and another of Harlestone. They make me think of some of the early dusky work of Piet Mondriaan before he started to break down his landscapes into the building blocks which eventually became his primary colour trademark. Then suddenly I realise I have company: it's Graham and Donna. Graham's a guitarist/singer with 'The Prince of Wales Rattlers', Moulton's very own folk group, and has recently had a triple heart by-pass. He looks very well, and good conversation is added to my coffee. The last time I saw Graham was when amongst others we played a very noisy gig just before his op. He really shouldn't have been doing it. Anyway, we all survived, though I was deaf for a couple of days afterwards.

Out of Moulton, having passed the Carey Baptist Church, the road winds past the site of 'The Hollies', where children with behavioural difficulties were once sent more or less under lock and key, and where once I foolishly applied for a job (didn't get it, and good thing too: they'd have eaten me alive!) There are houses there now, and up the lane much else has changed as Moulton Agricultural College has expanded and expanded. The verges of the lane are broad, although not as extensive as they are beside one of the other ways out of Moulton. I love these reminders of what the roads were once like before they were properly surfaced, with a wide track so that carts and carriages could find purchase among the cloying winter mud.

After the road has forked at Boughton Fair Lane, there's a straight stretch and then I turn right along a field path in the direction of Pitsford. Opposite me is 'Spectacle Lane' which the books suggest is called that because one of a number of follies in this area is built across it further down, an arch between two towers, which is said to resemble a 'spectacle'. There are seven follies in all, including the castellated 'Fox Covert Hall', now a private house. As a family we visit Stowe regularly, and Boughton is chicken feed compared with the assorted eccentricities to be found there, but these have their own Gothic charm. However, and I'm probably quite wrong, since Spectacle Lane leads down towards the site of the ancient fair, I wonder if its name doesn't have an alternative meaning. It would have afforded a good view of the goings-on.

Across the fields I reach Pitsford and am reminded what a gracious village it is. The church is in the care of the Rev. Stephen Trott, whose other place of worship I encountered in Boughton. There's a nice view down towards the reservoir and sailing club. In his younger days, Stephen was instrumental in providing the possibility of unionisation for clergy and church workers through the MSF, now absorbed into Amicus. Churchgoers will think differently about this idea, I fancy. All I'll say is that perhaps it's good if clergy are aware of union and labour issues, and maybe a good way in is through consideration of their own rights and privileges. Now with all due respect to my excellent friend and colleague Ralph Salmins, my own union, the M.U. (musicians, not mothers!) has done very little for me personally apart from being a source of cheap musical instrument insurance, but I suppose unions only come into their own when the chips are down, and the case for musicians is always difficult to make. Society could probably do with a better balance between Labour and Capital, if that doesn't sound too Galsworthy. Oh yes, to quote Billy Bragg, 'there is power in the union', which of course on occasion will be abused by the likes of the RMT. But we need that power, nonetheless.

On the way down the hill to the water, I'm passed at speed by two hottish-hatches filled with twenty-somethings, and don't understand why. But there they are again in the reservoir car park, spliffing up, which they surreptitiously hide from me, like Year 10s with their ciggies behind the bike sheds. In a way it's rather charming. Do they come here regularly to indulge their mildly illegal pastime? Or like man, the water, the dancing sunlight, those trees, it's all so...spacey, y'know...and so...beautiful! Maybe they're just enhancing their appreciation of the countryside.

The paths around Pitsford Water, which I haven't walked for fifteen years, have been suitably tarted up. You can ramble dryfoot or cycle, as if in an urban park, and there are frequent benches from which to enjoy the long views of the lake. In a while I'm seduced by a sign on a footpath to the right which promises me Holcot in a mile. I hesitate, and then follow it. But then there's a deviation, and I eventually find myself beside a beautifully appointed cricket ground, and then the path's direction becomes uncertain and I have to trudge the long way around a big field to emerge, as others have done, not far from the Holcot village limits sign. The cricket ground is 'Northfields', laid out by building entrepreneur and philanthropist Lynn Wilson, who met an untimely death in a 2008 car accident. Apparently it's used a lot for 'age-group cricket', and what a nice airy place it is to learn the game, with what looks like a flat wicket and a cultured outfield.

I don't know whether there still is, but there used to be something called the 'Holcot Hobble' which was an annual walk roughly around Pitsford Water, covering something approaching marathon distance, so hiking's in the village blood. But actually, I'm a bit underwhelmed by Holcot today. The pub is shut, and I could do with a drink, though the website tells me it should be open. Like many country pubs it's perhaps finding the lack of lunchtime trade problematic. The millennium memorial stone has a legend which hasn't been cleaned in yonks and I can't read it. The church is shut and there's scant information on the notice board. And in the churchyard of St. Mary's with All Saints, there are many plastic flowers around the more recent graves.

I see the virtue of artificial flowers. But when they become tired as eventually even they will do in the wind and rain, who will dare remove them? And if plastic flowers, why not other ornaments, teddy bears, pictures and so on? These modern day grave goods can quickly become tawdry. And even at their best they compete and shout at each other, and in the end subtract I think from what most people want of a graveyard, which is quiet serenity and peacefulness.

But Dora and David live in Holcot: lovely people who when we worshipped there enlivened the URC in Northampton's Abington Avenue with a powerful social conscience and an enterprising attitude to life and faith. I'm glad to see David's still involved in Holcot's Tennis Club. From the lane in which they live I strike out around a barn and follow the field edge south east before turning south-west at Rectory Farm towards Moulton again. I'm annoyed with the farmers today, and that probably includes the owners of Rectory Farm. There've been too many ploughed out fields, and lack of signs when there's clearly a right-of-way somewhere to be found. Farmers, we want to support you, so give us some incentive! Near Moulton there's a huge field with an ominously scrappy strip of fallow at its eastern side next to where a new development of houses is just being completed. It feels uncomfortably as if another slice of greenfield is about to be sold off for phase 2 of the project.

Sorry, I may have gone off on this one before: back on a hobby horse! According to the BBC, there are 25 million homes in the UK. Let's say that there are 65 million people. So that's an average of 2.6 people per home. So considering all the other factors involved, yes, all the single people, but also all those homes with multiple children, and seniors' homes and so on and so forth, what possible justification is there for the rhetoric which talks of government failure and a need to build 300,000 homes per year for the next 20 years, or whatever the next inflated claim is? Isn't there a case to answer that this is about reviving the economy by boosting the building trade rather than actually giving people what they need. Particularly when there are lots of empty homes not being used.

What may be meant is that we have lots of the wrong sort of properties. Everyone wants their four bedroom with ensuite, even if they're essentially single, divorced, and seeing the kids at the weekend. I know. Just saying it makes me sound crusty, anti-liberal, anti-aspirational, fascist even. And Sue and I own...a four bedroom, more or less detached house with ensuite. Hypocrite!

And on the other hand, doesn't Brexit, hard, soft or runny in the middle, show us that we need to think about our own national food production? If we're so concerned with getting fracking going in the UK so that we don't import gas, why aren't we equally concerned not to import farm produce by growing our own? But as Holcot David would remind me, the world is wider than just Europe...

And the role of the church in this should be?  Hmm, I really don't know. What should we be saying and to whom?

FTSE Report: some gains approaching record levels as the pound falls. Footie Report: Wales manage a good draw away against a strong Austrian team. Footsie Report: back in Berghaus boots again for the winter, but blisterless so far, from using elastic tape wound tight round the ankle. Nice one!

Stats man:  17 km. 17C. Wind: 25 kph  (gusting higher). 2 churches, both shut. Game birds a-plenty. A flock of Canada geese. Three cyclists by reservoir, one walker other than me, earnest and head down. Don't talk to people in a Country Park!

Lord God
About speaking out...
When I was younger:
You remember that?
Well, in a time of student protest
I said I was a moderate.
What I might have meant
is what I now see
which is that
making a lot of noise about something
sometimes has the undesirable effect
of making the thing you don't want
paradoxically more likely.
And this is true
at work
at home
and in The Church.
These days everyone
does P.R. and spin.
I now confess
that sometimes I'm simply scared
to raise my voice.
And sometimes I don't know
how to speak effectively.
I expect Amos felt the same
(not that I'm putting myself in his class of beard, you understand!)
and the courage of Jesus
humbles me.
That strength;
That humour;
That love.
Revive in us the gift of prophecy, Lord,
Together with charity.