Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Such a perfect day...

The hardest frost of the winter so far, evident on the grass and windscreens, but absolutely no wind, so in the sun it's comfortable to walk under a beautiful ideal of blue sky.

I park for free near Waitrose in Towcester, and rather than confront the possibility of their café surreptitiously adding strychnine to my tea ( see previous post!) I try the Towcester Tea Rooms, which (immediately!) serve me a nice cup of coffee and a piece of Bakewell Tart. Two men in dayglo jackets are trying to pretty up the outside of the café Christmas-style, but their cables fail to reach the power points by a metre. The two other customers, ladies of a certain age, flirtatiously add a running commentary to the affair. 'Will it stretch? No, it never will. Isn't that a shame...'

I walk south beside the A5 up the hill out of town, peeking through a side gate at the race course, and then enjoying a full view of the facilities through the main entrance. I've never been to a meeting and really should sometime: it's a lovely airy situation with a long down slope towards the rest of the estate. From my right comes the sound of another kind of race track. The Formula 1 season may have ended yesterday, but the noise of Silverstone is very, very disturbingly obvious through the dry, quiet air.

I open a black door in the wall and follow a fence down to a road, before turning right into Heathencote. As so often, please someone, tell me the story! Who were the heathen who used to live here, and what did they do to be so labelled? Or was this merely a settlement of cottages situated on a piece of heathland?

It's a great walk over to Alderton from here, or at least it is today, because the frost has made the going firm (after the race course I'm thinking 'osses) I'm glad I bought a replacement compass yesterday, because the paths are particularly sketchy, and I just have to keep bearing east rather than trying to interpret the few uncertain waymarks. At one point the journey is enlivened by the loud rat-a-tatting of a hovering chopper. The level of noise rises markedly and then an Army Chinook appears, skimming the trees, flying off purposefully to the south. I don't know what that was all about.

Alderton looks lovely in the sunshine, but little St. Margaret's church is firmly double padlocked. There's a small consolation to be seen in an alcove to the left of the south door which I can't understand...guerrilla decoration? A green man? Some unknown contemporary pagan ritual?

Alderton figured in a 2001 Time Team, and opposite the church is the occasion of their interest. It's a motte and bailey earthwork, known as 'The Mount'. I climb the steps and nose around. It's an evocative spot, probably originally more of a status symbol than a defensive structure. Eventually there may have been a stone building of some sort before it all fell into disrepair and disuse in the 14thC. The Black Death was a terrible scourge on medieval society and no doubt it affected the powerful as well as the powerless. I remember that Alderton is an arty place. It's hard to imagine in deepest November, but the rather overgrown and nettly top of the mound has been used as a venue for summer theatre productions in recent years, courtesy of its owner, Derek Batten. I still miss Time Team, but the repeats on outlying TV channels don't do it for me. Like many people, the idea of archaeology appeals to me though I haven't the energy or stamina for the real thing, unlike our friend Ruth who writes Roman fiction, and has actually taken the trouble to do some hard yards of digging to make herself more acquainted with her subject matter. That's dedication to your writer's craft! To go back to Time Team, the production team managed the trick of making you feel that Mick, Carenza, Stewart, Phil, Tony and the gang were all friends you saw occasional Sunday afternoons. Clever and informative television, even if the archaeological fraternities were at times sniffy about 'three days to discover...'

Away from Alderton, I'm beset again by iffy waymarking, particularly by one landowner who's gone in for solar in a big way. But I make it to the A5 in the right place, opposite the turn to Paulerspury which is where I'm going next. Not far up the lane, I see a sign which says 'Keep Paulerspury rural', and I can see the concern. There's the threat from the possible north-south Towcester by-pass whicih I mentioned in the previous post and the Great Maw of Milton Keynes isn't so far distant. And Paulerspury already straggles in the way some East Anglian villages do, lengthwise, with a lot of modern infilling. The church is at the far end, overlooking the still separate community of Pury End. It's dedicated to St. James the Great, who was the other son of Zebedee, a Son of Thunder, though I don't think we know whether the presumed fiery temperament was the sons' or the dad's. I can't get in, so sit on a handy bench and read the beginning of Psalm 37, which tells me to be patient, the evildoers will get their comeuppance, and getting angry and confrontational with them rarely works. I know the sense in the last part of that: 65 years of experience leaves me unconvinced about the previous bit. We all like to believe that cheats and bullies never prosper, but, ooh, hello Donald, and how are you today?

I associate Paulerspury with the Vine House Restaurant, which I'm glad to see is still going strong. I also have a notion that accordion player/multi-instrumentalist Jaye Woodfield, once of the Celebrated Ratliffe Stout Band also lived here for a while. And in Pury End is the house of old friend Elizabeth who we haven't seen for decades. I knock on the door, but she's not in, so I leave a card to say hello. Truth to tell, I'm now so disgustingly muddy from the walk that I'm not in a fit state to stand on anyone's carpet: you did well to miss me Liz - I look more like I've just been caving. She and John live in Careys Road, where the famous missionary William Carey, who's cropped up in this blog before, was born. I have my only conversation of the day hereabouts, with an Irish chap who's looking for somewhere I can't see on my map. 'She sends me to these peculiar places...', he says plaintively, without explanation of the identity of 'she'. All in all it's a thoroughly Irish dialogue, because my opening gambit (at about two o'clock) has been 'Good morning,no, sorry, it should be good afternoon...' to which he replies 'Well it depends which world you're in...'

                                                        St. James the Great: Paulerspury

From Paulerspury back to Towcester is mostly on the Grafton Way, which if it still counts as a long-distance path at all, must surely rank as the poorest specimen in Britain. There's no point, you see. Either there's got to be riveting historical interest, or special scenic beauty, or some other great idea, and really this footpath has none of that. So few people walk it, and the cash-strapped farmers can't be given a reason why they should mend stiles and fences and waymarks, so it just goes from bad to worse. Can one also sense a lessening of enthusiasm within local authorities for supporting countryside amenity projects (which could also be to do with 'belt-tightening')?

But I mustn't carp. If one was ever going to tread the Grafton Way, this is the day to do it, when even the rather tedious traverse of Towcester's housing estates is lent a golden glow by the late, low afternoon sun, as I follow the Silverstone Brook back to Waitrose. I tell you something though, If I lived here, the incessant 3k sonic interference of tuned engines changing gear and accelerating around the Burcote corner on the race track would drive me ab-so-flipping-ly potty. Triple glazing essential.

Stats man: 19 km. 5 hrs. 2-4 degrees C. No wind. 5 stiles, 8 gates, 8 footbridges big and small. One buzzard. A flock of starlings. But the Irishman apart, no one to talk to apart from the beautiful clear-blue sky.

Here I am
With all this weight of history around me:
The Romans:
The Saxons:
The Black Death:
The Civil War:
I know the dreadful things that happened in the past.
I can read it in the landscape.
I can see it in the buildings.
I am so fearful of what may happen to us next:
Of what our children may face.
May our lives continue to be
As blessed as they have been so far.
If it is possible, Father,
Let this cup pass from us.
But whatever,
I will try to do the thing I find so difficult,
And put my trust in You.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Slithy Tove

After two days of nearly continuous rain everywhere is oozing and squelching - as it should be in late November. I park up outside the Post Office in Greens Norton (Wow! They have a Post Office!), and cross the green to the Bradden Road, before turning left up the lane towards the seventeenth century house known as 'Bengal'. A couple of bored horses are sitting by a large puddle the other side of the first stile, but can't be bothered to stir themselves as I clamber past. As I always do, I say hello, to reassure myself as much as to make new equine friends. The path leads on through a newly planted copse (good on you, landowner!) and out onto sheep fields, crossing the just discernible line of an old railway, until I'm forced to muddy myself thoroughly in a soft loamy sog which takes me to a second disused line - the one which used to chug from Towcester to Banbury via Wappenham. To my left is the River Tove, and in front of me is Abthorpe. St John the Baptist's church is on on a mound, dead centre of the lovely village green: a mystery of a building really, because it's very obviously largely Victorian, although the siting speaks of a long history. I divest myself of my caked boots and spend twenty minutes inside, eating my sandwiches at a craft table laid out behind the organ.

I notice that very early in his clerical career, during the nineteen fifties, the Reverend Pat Hamerton was an incumbent here. I knew him when he was in charge at Abington, and for the craic used to invite him into my classroom from time to time, not because he was particularly riveting in what he said about being a vicar, but because he was the living spitten image of Ronnie Corbett, visually and in voice tone. The kids were inevitably stunned by my apparent show-biz contacts, which was always very childishly gratifying. At least it got me half an hour's peace while they worked out what was going on. Later on, my friend Liz Legge was in panto with the real Ronnie who was exemplarily delightful and chivalrous. And since they had to dance together (she principal girl, he, inevitably, Buttons), he was perfectly matched to Liz's diminutive stature.

Another Abthorpe resident, still evidently going strong, is John Riches, who writes up the village news on-line. John was the headteacher of Emmanuel church school in the era when Northampton boasted Middle Schoools as part of a three-tier system. I was one of his governors for a while. Amusingly contrasted to Hamerton/Corbett, John is immensely tall - probably six feet ten in his prime. If we were both standing up, I remember conversations were always a strain on the neck muscles. Avery nice and good man.

Beyond Abthorpe, attempts at maintaining the footpaths in the direction of Towcester seem to have been abandoned. There are occasional vague waymarks but it seems no one walks the fields hereabouts, so no one bothers to help the few of us who do. Rather than give my quads a work-out treading the tilth, somewhat in the manner of a knight on a chess board I use the field margins to make my way to Handley Park Farm and then onto Mileoak. This is a land of horsey-culture, with many horse boxes and much electrified fencing('busbars' seem to be the name for the familiar fabric 'hot' boundary markers) and the occasional show-jumping course arranged around a paddock. But in the nineteen fifties Mileoak was celebrated as the site of a huge Roman villa, possibly built in three storeys like the more famous one at Chedworth. Since then, several other better preserved villas have been found in the West Country, and now there's nothing on the surface to betray the existence of Mileoak mansion, not even a reference on the OS map.

As any schoolgirl would guess from the name, Towcester is an ancient Roman town ('Lactodorum'). The pronunciation of the modern name is perhaps eccentric though well-known to many British people because of the adjoining race course, but for any readers from further afield, please show your local savoir-faire by saying it as 'Toaster'. The Electricity Board pulled down the last bits of free standing Roman wall in the nineteen eighties, which they should never have been allowed to do, but there's lots of archaeology close to the surface here, and of course Watling Street, now the A5, runs slap bang through the middle of town.

I go to Towcester from time to time in my capacity as Bishop's Visitor to the splendid C. of E. primary school. The school is a joyful place, buzzing with good endeavour and humour. It's losing its excellent headteacher, Richard Camp, next summer, but I'm hopeful the school will survive the loss and go on brightly into the future. I've never been into St. Lawrence's church before, and when I do, I'm hugely impressed by the building and its atmosphere. It's an imposing, even stately edifice in the Perpendicular Style, built on a Roman site which may itself have been a temple. As Peter Ackroyd has observed, there's often a very persistent continuity in the use to which geographical sites are put. As at Earls Barton, there's a bury very close to the church, both of them lying on the very edge of town because of the contiguity with Easton Neston Park. Inside the church I read a psalm, and say hello to two casual visitors and a lady tending the flowers, whose name I forget to ask (the lady, not the flowers!)

I have a coffee at the Waitrose which is tucked behind the first row of shops on Watling St., near the rather good museum, and have a brief, annoying spat with the woman serving me. The details are unimportant, but once more raise questions for me about the willingness or otherwise of supermarkets to employ sufficient staff, and therefore how hard those that are employed have to work, and what one should expect in terms of courtesy when a business makes special play of how wonderful their people are. I come away alarmed by how angry I am, particularly when I'm ignored. It doesn't take much to get me going.

I'm sorry if I've rabbited on about this before, but I wonder how widespread such anger is among us all now. It's in me, because I'm the age I am, and therefore dealing with the disappointments of late middle-age and incipient old age. I also feel powerless in the face of local and national forces beyond my control, and my constant awareness of what's going on through the various media. It's one thing to feel shocked when I hear from nice Jackie my hairdresser of yet another audacious but un-nerving burglary in the village by a gang of men, but then there's the knowing how often this pattern has been repeated and being able to see on the net pictures of masked individuals attempting the same thing in another local garden last year. And then of course there's the grim, relentless litany of international events. None of this excuses bad behaviour on my part, but in order to improve, I have to understand.

Does any of this ring bells with you?

As a town, Towcester, odi et amo. I love the history, but deplore some of what I see, without having much of a solution. On the northern edge, the A43 by-pass is being upgraded, but it's taking an age to complete, and woe to any pedestrian attempting entry to the town by the route I took today, There's new development on the fringes and bits in the town centre too: I hope it'll be sensitively done. The town exists because of the road, but the A5 is often congested, and hopelessly so when used as a diversion because of trouble on the M1. There's talk of a north-south by-pass too, but if that happens, as can be seen elsewhere, it'll give the planners carte-blanche to infill and develop inside the new road, which will further devalue the town's character as surely as it may superficially boost its economy.

And when I try to leave town today to return to Greens Norton, it turns out to be rather difficult to achieve. I can see a path on the map which might do the job: it turns out to be footpath S30 or some such. The entrance is elusive but eventually I find a waymark beside the fire station pointing through a piece of waste ground, In a hundred metres or so the path peters out round the back of Sponne School. I retrace my steps and see a notice attached to the fence. The path has been stopped, by order of the Council. No reason given. I attempt an exit another way, but am confronted by a locked gate. I walk back to the crossroads, fuming, and go west on the road until I see a sign to the Pocket Park. The map shows another path taking me where I want to go, but the signs give out in the middle of a new-ish housing estate. Before engaging with this problem, I catch sight of a second notice attached to a lamp-post. This repeats that S30 has been stopped (quite recently - only this autumn) but also gives me a reason. It is apparently 'unnecessary'. Out loud I cry 'Well it's pretty (expletive deleted) necessary to me right now' , but fortunately there's no one to hear. Necessity, it seems to me, is not always an appropriate quality of footpaths.

One last thing. In order to finally escape the clutches of Towcester, when I eventually locate the vestiges of S30, it deposits me on the verge of the A43, where yet again I have to risk life and limb to gain the fieldpath beyond. How very American. There is now no need (official!) nor reasonable possibility of safely walking the two miles from Towcester to Greens Norton except in the face of oncoming traffic up the main road. So, go by car.

Stats man.  16 km. 5 hours. 6-8 degrees C. Dry. Weak but chilly occasional easterly breeze. Two open churches. Nineteen stiles, ten gates, three footbridges across the Tove. One green woodpecker. One particularly cheeky young male blackbird. Three unsolicited happy greetings en route. One apparently demagnetised compass (how did that happen?)

Dear Lord
I am struggling with the idea:
This 'Kingdom of Heaven'.
I don't relate to our royal family.
I mean, I like the Queen, I think.
But even then I can't imagine
Her sitting down to tea at our house
Or sharing a joke about Alexander Armstrong.
And with one or two exceptions
Her predecessors were a rum bunch
Bad, mad or incompetent.
I like the idea of a perfect King
And if there were such a thing
Maybe I'd be happy to be a loyal subject
Although knowing how stroppy I am
Maybe not.
So what do I do
with this powerful Kingdom metaphor?
Back to the Bible I suppose.
The kingdom of heaven is like...
Fill in the gaps.
I'm sorry this is more of a letter than a prayer.
Expecting your answer.


Missed on a previous walk: St. Augustine's: Caldecote.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Who won?

Banbury Lane, the old drover's road, crosses Watling Street at Foster's Booth, which these days is pretty much a single settlement with Pattishall. Who was Foster? And why did he have a booth? (It conjures up the image of someone handing out tickets to A5 travellers: 'This way for the amusement park', and actually I suppose it may just have been the site of an early toll booth!) Disappointingly for some, Foster's has nothing to do with lager. It's probably just a corruption of 'foresters', and a 'booth' is a bothy. This was once an important crossroads as people driving animals on the east-west route met with the traffic travelling from London to Holyhead and-all-points-between. The inns hereabout must have done great business if they were up to snuff. And the bothy was probably a bit intimate and smelly!

A couple of short field paths to the west lies the hamlet of Cold Higham. St. Luke's church has an attractive saddleback tower, and as I'm sitting on a churchyard bench contemplating it, I get a cheery wave from Pauline the churchwarden. She's done the job for quite a few years now. She invites me inside, which is something you do if you're proud of your church. And quite right too: it's lovely. Because it's the Saturday morning before the fifth Sunday of the month, she's making preparations for the service tomorrow, which will be the only one in the benefice - which as you'll recall includes Pattishall, Gayton and Tiffield. I ask her if there'll be lots of worshippers from those other parishes. She thinks perhaps not many: people tend to stay put, particularly if they're more elderly. I wonder to myself if, when the benefices were designed (not just here, but more widely) there was too great a spirit of optimism that parishioners would embrace the full range of worshipping options. It's not going to suit everyone, being peripatetic. Since Cold Higham is as compact as it is, children don't figure largely in its ministry: there are virtually none. Here I especially like the cosy southside 'Potcote Chapel', complete with its oak effigy of one time Lord of the Manor, Sir John De Pattishull.

I strike out across the field, which has until recently hosted a crop of maize. Now cut to about six inches, the rigid, bamboo-like stalks are a considerable hazard when walking through them. I stumble and curse. Needless to say the right of way isn't matched by a path on the ground. I eventually avoid the issue at the expense of a few hundred extra metres and enter Grimscote by road. Grim it may be by name, but Grim reality it isn't: the little village is very pleasant. The name 'Grim' crops up a great deal across the Home Counties and East Anglia, and one can find various explanations of its meaning. Does it refer to a person, or series of persons, or does it have a theological, pre-Christian religious significance? I know 'Grimsdyke' on the Harrow Weald, which as a house is now a relatively fancy Best Western hotel, though it was once the home and nemesis of W.S.Gilbert. But the reference is to the ancient earthworks which meander across the Weald with no clear constructional purpose. There are similar ones hidden among the woodland near my old family home in Bexley, Kent. The suggested dates for them range from 300 B.C. to 800 A.D., and most likely they mark territory rather than having any defensive function. In Norfolk one can visit the Neolithic flint mines which are called 'Grimes Graves'.

From Grimscote there's a straight westerly path which climbs gently out of an impressively deep 'hollow way' until it becomes a broad track crossing between fields of brassica with (today) a beautifully grey view of the village of Stowe-Nine-Churches to the north. In a while I turn right onto the Towcester Road into delightful Litchborough. St. Martin's sits amid a number of highly desirable properties. It's open. Inside I discover I'm in a church of the 'Lambfold Benefice' (nice name!). I'm writing a version of the 'Mak the Sheep Stealer' Mystery Play at the moment, so I'm thinking a lot about sheep. St. Martin of Tours was a good European. He was born in Hungary, served in the Roman army, and ended up in France, and here he is with a church dedication in Northamptonshire. Pick the bones out of that, Brexiteers!

Litchborough church seems very well organised. On one wall there's a comprehensive selection of photographs showing the important people of the parish, lay and clergy. Many of the lay representatives are women, and many appear to be over fifty, and quite a few have titles which suggest specific training for their roles. Is this 'credentialism' always a good idea? Could it be argued that it amounts to a colonisation of the (approved) laity by the clergy? As a trend is it more or less pronounced in evangelical circles, and if so why? And how do our concerns about safeguarding interact with all this? As I leave I notice that a previous rector here was John Knight who succeeded Michael Glover as Team Rector of Emmanuel, Northampton. I'm sure John wouldn't mind me characterising him as a formidably, and sometimes fiercely evangelical priest.

Litchborough cricket club used to hold a regular Boxing Day match, but I don't think it's played any more - what a shame! I loved the Dada-ist eccentricity and enthusiasm of that. Afterwards they used to retire to the Red Lion for winter warmers, which is where I go for a sit down and a ginger beer.

From Litchborough I pick up the Knightley Way, walking roughly south-east towards Greens Norton. I remember walking the northern section of this supposed long-distance path many years ago and not being much impressed. It's named after a famous Northamptonshire family, and I'm sure they were worth more than this succession of notional field paths, ignored by both the farmers through whose land they pass, and sensible walkers who can find better ways of spending their time. Half way to Greens Norton the path skirts the manor house on which was centred the Caswell Research facility. Caswell has an honoured place in the history of computing. If I was a conspiracy theorist I'd observe that it's quite an out of the way situation for a 'research facility', but far be it from me...I wonder what else went on there?

As the spire of St. Bartholomew's appears ahead of me, I recall I once wrote a Morris tune called 'Greens Norton' for a library album of 'folk music'. It featured the splendid melodeon playing of folk celebrity Simon Care, who was born in Moulton. (A 'library album' contains incidental music designed to be used in advertising and on the telly: the users pay a royalty, some of which is passed on to the composer. If you get lucky, and your tune is picked up to be, say, the theme for all BBC snooker programmes - which happened to one composer for the same record company - then you get very rich. 'Greens Norton' has thus far only earned me a few quid over twenty years, but it's still out there, and who knows, one day it may make my fortune. But I'm not holding my breath.)

Before I make my way up the rise to the church, I try for a coffee at the Butchers Arms, but the best they can do is instant, though to be fair they only charge me a pound. It's Hallowe'en weekend and the pub is festooned with cobwebs. There are creepy Victorian-style reversing portraits on the walls, prim ladies and gentlemen from one angle, skeletons from the other. The door to the gents is unmarked except for a covering of ghostly ephemera. Further up the hill past the church a bloke with green and mauve face paint scuttles out of his house and gives me an embarrassed wave. He knows he looks an idiot.

I wasn't expecting it in such a busy village, but St. Bartholomew's is open too. I stand in the church on my own and for the first time in this series of walks feel how I miss the presence of other people in there with me. Maybe it's something about the fading afternoon light: the clocks fall back this evening. On the stand at the back of the church, there's a good leaflet drawing attention to features of churches in general (organs, pulpits etc.) and the quirks of this one - a stained glass window with a set of cricket stumps, a heavy old parish chest, and so on. And the Black Death is mentioned, as it was in Litchborough. There it carried off three incumbents in 1349 alone.

On the way back to Pattishall, almost at the top of the rising ground I pass Astcote Thorns, a large rectangular stand of trees with thicket in between, and am curious about its position. I suppose anyone with a historical interest always surveys the two sides of Watling Street anywhere between St. Albans and Wolverhampton and wonders where exactly the enraged Boudicca made her last stand against the Romans. Up to then she had been winning the battles. Now she lost the war and her life.

With the American presidential election looming, I'm thinking a lot about winning and losing. It feels as if there are significant seismic shifts occurring in public life, including religion, as people begin to absorb the implications of the internet and the nature of contemporary communications. In particular no one under the age of thirty really understands how profound the change since 1980. Maybe one could once easily discern the winners and losers in any social contest. Not now I think. The rapid movement of ideas, and the asserted right of each individual to their entitlement (whatever they think that might be) has complicated the issues which confront us to a massive, possibly an ungovernable extent. No one knows what to do, and the first step to our recovery might be to admit it.

The Church appears to be losing all its arguments hands down - which is partly why I'm walking and writing this blog. But never bet against 'Revival' in a spiritual sense, though whether that would necessarily have beneficial effects might be open to question. Think of the inquisition, or Salem. If we began to win the moral and spiritual war, would we oppress and persecute those who disagreed, just as surely as the Daesh have done in Syria/Iraq?

Stats man:  19km  s hrs.  15C. Little or no wind.  22 stiles.  12 gates.  53 names in the St. Martin's visitors' book for 2016 so far. They came from Finland, Poland, and Australia amongst others, as they walked the Knightley Way (poor things!) or repaired the loo, or researched their ancestors, or just enjoyed a beautiful place.

You are our strength and salvation.
We pray for this divided world;
For what we will become;
That individual desire
May not Trump the common good.

That nationally and locally
In and out of church
We can grasp
That we are members of one another.

We ask it in Jesus name