Sunday, 24 December 2017


As regular readers know, I never exaggerate. Much. But with each succeeding moment my lower limbs are falling into a state of atrophy. No yomping, you see. A heavy winter cold, a couple of snowy days and the onrush of the Christmas celebrations have kept me off the fields and out of the churchyards. I'll return to the paths in 2018, but I'm missing it already. I hope you'll continue to share the Walk with me. Come by and see me again sometime soon.

In the meantime, I hope you've found the Christmas you were looking for. Friend Brendan Read Jones and I recorded a sad Christmas song. Brendan ( a talented film-maker) and his crew then shot a video for it which you can find at:

If you like, please use your favourite social media to spread the word. And perhaps even buy the album when it surfaces later in the year ('Old heads and young hearts')?

One of the things we've been all too aware of this year is how many people face loneliness at Christmas. It's a theme which has been picked up countrywide, by the relatives of the late Jo Cox M.P. amongst others. Our own parish has faced some  tragedies of its own: there'll be some who are hurting right now, and maybe you're among them. Everything we say and do as Christians is in the context of a narrow divide between earth and heaven, of passion and redemption. All I can do, rather helplessly, is wish us all peace and the surprise of joy when we need it most.

Crash edit: a reprise of a seasonal poem I wrote last year:

Sprouting for boys (and girls)

Raise three cheers, give up a shout
For the humble, hardy Brussels sprout.
Be you Brexin or be you Brexout
They're cool.

Let's have a British Board to tout
The merits of the Belgian sprout
If Brussels objects, then dare to flout
Their rule.

Gregg Wallace says you shouldn't doubt
The vitamin value of the Flanders sprout
If you say nay, then you learned nowt (or should that be nuffink?)
At school.

Some folk rave over sauerkraut
But cabbage v. sprouts is an absolute rout.
Serve al dente with lardons all about
And drool.

Stave off the 'flu; ward off gout
With the iron-rich, good-for-you EU sprout.
Banish obesity! You won't grow stout on
Sprout fuel.

Kids will moan, kids will pout about
Something, so let it be the put upon sprout.
Tho' it makes them sigh I wish them (and you)
Sprout Yule.

I was very touched that Malcolm and Dot White used the following in their Christmas Letter this year. I wrote it for the 2016 Advent Blog at St. Peter's, Weston Favell.

Joseph on his death bed

One regret?
Always the outsider, me.
Mary and the boy
Like twins.
A family within a family,
Knew what the other was thinking
Before it was ever said,
And me alone on the edge of the room,
Or passing through with a nice piece of wood or two;
Looking in on their world,
Private and mysterious.

It went way back.
I didn't know her
(silly coy word)
Until after he was born.
Thereafter dutiful intercourse
And so along came James and Joses,
Jude and Simon.
But no, I never knew her,
Not really.
However that boy was conceived
I was always an anti-climax.

When he was small,
He helped in the yard,
Watched and asked questions.
In that sense,
Now I'm dying,
The business is safe.
He'll do the accounts,
Manage the difficult clients.
The others will do the work.

There was that moment,
Up in Jerusalem,
The year before his bar mitzvah,
He ran wild with the Zealots,
Pretending he was working for me.
I ask you!
'I must be about my father's business'!
I was incandescent,
Mary emollient,
And after that,
If such a thing is possible,
They were both even more unreachable.
Perhaps he'll end up a rabbi:
It runs in the family.
I suppose that's OK
Provided it doesn't turn his head.

Well, I'm curious to know
What will become of him,
But I'm like Father Moses
Looking over the golden, longed-for land,
The fulfilment of an adolescent exile
Not mine to enjoy.
He and I
We'll never share a pie and a pint
At the close of a profitable day.

The lad has an aura,
A strange unworldly kind of promise.
That's as much as I can say...


Help me to drain every last drop
From the cup of Christmas;
To relish the singing of every carol;
To be like the child I once was,
Wide-eyed at the Christmas tree magic;
To be properly sentimental
About the family and friends I see,
And those who live only in the memory;
To treasure each moment
Around the manger;
To be grateful that You have let me share
This precious gift of Being.

R.I.P. Ian Topp: December 2017.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Pay me what you owe me...

I arrive at Canons Ashby's NT car park just after ten, the opening time, and ask the gentleman on the gate, who works from a slightly more solemn version of an old-fashioned traveller's caravan, what time the gates will shut at the end of the afternoon. He tells me four o'clock, and I hum and hah and decide I'll get round today's walk before then. "Well, it'll be pretty well dark at four", he adds gruffly. Indeed. I'd put a new battery in my torch before leaving this morning just in case. Getting stuck inside their car-park overnight would be a disahster darling, and no reprisals. It's a fair step back to Northampton.

I shuffle up the main road until I can turn briefly south on Oxford Lane. There's still a little ice in the crevices of the mud, the kerbsides of the road are slippery and I'm wearing four layers on my top half plus gloves. In the first field I find a bull and a single cow. He gives a desultory snort, but it's cold and he's not much bothered with me. Or her, by the looks of things. In another field the sheep are all lying down, minimising the amount of body they're presenting to the chilly air, or so I suppose. Sue and I were saying the other day how little one knows about sheep. How many can you graze per acre? Depends on the time of year, perhaps? And what about the idea that they can't feed in long grass for fear of foot rot? We seem to see a lot of them enjoying pasture more than nine inches or more in height.

In Adstone's back lanes the deeply comforting smell of woodsmoke hangs in the winter air. The humble, low, little church of All Saints is open. The exterior shape is reminiscent of a Roman building, apparently two storied, nicely in proportion. Inside there's a harmonium ( a rarity these days) in addition to a more contemporary keyboard. I wonder if the harmonium's ever used? Works for some Victorian hymns of course, and possibly some more modern stuff (Stuart Townend!) and good for drones on folkier music (Syd Carter's 'I come like a beggar') but not much good for anything baroque or Wesleyan or briskly twentieth century English IMO. From a leaflet in the church I learn what doesn't surprise me, which is that originally the church was a chapelry for Canons Ashby, and the monks would have walked across the fields to take services for the locals. With such a fine foundation to stay at home for, all class and cloisters, I can't think it was for their own benefit, but maybe it was nice to get out into the fresh air, away from the Abbot's beady eye. The village may then have been 'Adsun' which if one thinks of today's name rendered into Northamptonshire dialect works just fine. On the other hand maybe it was a monkish joke, the name approximating to the Latin 'adsum' ('I am present') which is what the boys of Billy Bunter's fictional Greyfriars intoned at the morning register as did real life pupils in schools with pretentions (not the one I went to!)

I have to take the main road in the direction of Maidford, but actually there's not a lot of traffic, and the verges are sound. Once over the stream in the dip, tracked by a foraging buzzard, I take the footpath which heads steadily for St. Peter and St. Paul's church on the diagonal before it finds King Street, where there's a nice view of the church's handsome saddle-backed tower.

A few years ago at the Maidford turn I thought I saw a panther as I drove swiftly past towards Banbury. I expect it was only a black Labrador. And I was certain I glimpsed a wild pig once too, disappearing into the hedge by the main road south over the Oxfordshire border at Deddington, though no one has ever admitted to their existence east of the Forest of Dean. I think that was probably a muntjac. More credibly Matt and I once saw a cat, much larger than a domestic one, skulking among crops in a field by the railway in Bexley, Kent. There'd been sightings of lynx-like big cats not far away in the previous year or two, and there are various zoos in the county. And there was something distinctly uncuddly about the way it watched us from a distance of maybe a hundred and fifty yards.

The inhabitants of Maidford are charmed to think that the origin of their village's name has something to do with fresh-faced gals leaping across the waters of a stream which once flowed more generously than it does today. But in medieval times it was spelt Merdeforde which makes me think the ford may have been a less commodious place, for whatever reason. That said the village is nice enough today, although the Queens Head has long since become a private house, as have the buildings which might once have served as dormitories for 'convalescing monks', though why they were ferried over from Canons Ashby to recover from the 'flu or scurvy I don't know. Surely not to take the waters, though if my innuendo about Maidford's derivation is wrong, the ministering of its sundry virgins may have been an attraction.

There's a list of Maidford parishioners printed on the church notice board at St. Peter and St. Paul's (i.e. those on the annual electoral roll). There seem to be about thirty of them. The 'Lambfold Benefice' paid its Parish Share in full last year, all £52k of it, and the folk at Maidford shelled out their contribution of about £9k to this, the slightly smaller congregation at Adstone putting in £6.4k. This entitles them to the continuing presence of a clergyperson to serve in the benefice. The parish share is going to continue to rise at above the rate of inflation. The demographic of the parishes hereabouts is likely to suggest a preponderance of pensioners. Getting younger people into church, let alone getting them to chip in financially is difficult. The younger generations won't sign up and the sums don't add up. I played for an 'all age' Sunday morning service the other day where in a congregation of about sixty the vicar reckoned himself to be the youngest person present, and he's possibly 40+.

We have to be candid about this, and face the arguments that ensue equably. Young people feel hard done by because it's said they will be the first modern generation whose standard of living will never advance beyond that of the previous one. Yet people my age (mid-sixties) reflect that they themselves often started adult life with precious little in the way of material goods, and had to fight their way to a level of comfort which everyone today takes for granted. It may not - I'm being generous, it won't -  work for the Church to expect seniors to carry the increasing ecclesiastical burden into their extreme old age. We oldies are thinking about the costs of care and how not to be a trouble to our sons and daughters.

It's not only the Church where a lack of candour about money seems prevalent in Britain. The whole Brexit debate continues to be fogged by spurious/dubious financial argument and counter-argument. I don't need to tell you that, do I! Central government has been devious and pusillanimous in transferring uncomfortable public sector costs to the local level so that it can be free of electoral disadvantages. And amidst the recriminations and reduction of local services that are the consequence (bye-bye libraries, bye-bye monitoring of rights of way, and judging by the potholes in the roads these are the least of our problems) neighbouring councils are right down in the dirt with each other. Daventry is foisting an extra development of 1050 homes onto the very edge of Northampton at Boughton, picking up the financial rewards for so doing but leaving the larger town with all the infrastructural problems. If they were nation states, war would have been declared. Most of the population remain blissfully unaware of these matters, or opt for what suits them in the short term. How do we educate about such Big Issues?

Buying a lucky lottery ticket would be one option. And treasure trove has been found in the fields north of Maidford, so I keep my eyes peeled as I walk across springy sheep pasture towards Farthingstone. No luck. I'm not looking closely enough at the contours on the O.S., so Farthingstone surprises me by appearing below me in the valley as I approach. To my right the long view opens up to reveal Northampton and the Express Lifts Tower a dozen miles away. The bright morning sun has given way to an overcast lunchtime and I sit and eat my Waitrose sandwich on the bright lavender coloured seat outside the pub.

There's good and bad inside St. Mary's church. The good is most obviously the beautifully polished cabinet of the distinguished late seventeenth century organ, and the 'Joy' window in the south nave which has connections to William Morris's design team and depicts St. Dorothy, patron saint of gardeners, in the guise of the 'Flora' motif, a rarity in pre-Raphaelite stained glass. I like these. I'm more worried by some of the inscriptions in the visitors' book. As often seems to be the case, a few random Australians have pitched up in St. Mary's in recent months looking for ancestors (this seems very popular with Antipodeans just now), but some other visitors have thought fit to declare in capital letters (no doubt they'd have used green  ink if they'd had it to hand) that they're British. And across the top of the page is a cryptic reference to the evils of Monsanto. Just say you've been there, guys, and write something nice. Or relevant. Preferably both.

Looking for the Macmillan Way, I come across a wounded squirrel on the road out of the village, run over by a car. His fur is still pristine and bushy, his eye bright, and he looks at me and squeaks as I pass. I should have put him out of his misery with the blunt end of my staff, I know I should have, but to my shame I funk it. What kind of a countryperson am I? I feel troubled by this poor decision most of the way back to Canons Ashby.

I'm in time for a cup of Earl Grey and a piece of cake in the empty tearoom. Martine serves me and we talk. I say if I ever come back as a farmer I want to be a sheep farmer. Apart from the disinterested bull and his paramour encountered at the outset, I've seen no cattle all day, apart from a single cow and her jet-black new-born calf, hunkered down out of the wind near Maidford. Martine's a farmer's wife. Their kids, seeing the long hours their dad works, won't follow him into farming, nor would she want them to.

What would attract young people into the fields? Love of animals, in some limited cases, maybe. Greater financial rewards for sure. More respect? Company as they do the job? (It must often be a lonely life) We owe farmers, and may need them more in the post-Brexit years. But this must mean paying more for our food too.

Dents on the fence: 17 km. 5 hrs. 11 stiles. 25 gates. 9 bridges. 4-6 degrees C. Sun, then cloud, then brighter again. Moderate breeze northerly, shifting easterly. None of my photographs to share this time. I left the camera's card in the slot on my laptop. Bother!

As a Good Anglican
I'm very confused about what I should give.
Financially I mean (though I worry about what I've done with my life too...)
Filthy lucre.
The word is:
'5% of income'.
But is that before or after tax?
And is that to include all 'charitable' giving?
Or is that just Mother Church's share?
And what if I think what the diocese gets
Isn't being used well?
And, with the idea of tithing in mind,
Should I be thinking (and everyone else too)
That the taxes I pay the government
Are a form of giving
to the poor, needy and dispossessed?
So should I automatically
Be inclined to greater redistribution
by those means...?
So more taxes, please, and less in my pocket?
Doesn't that mean
(sorry Theresa...)
that despite all the window dressing
Christianity = Socialism?
So what about entrepreneurialism and motivation and Alan Sugar?
Am I then
(Matthew 25
A sheep or a goat?
I have thought about this all my life, Lord.
I know I am self-deceiving,
But I'm also puzzled.
As you can see.
Help me to be more honest,
More decisive
More courageous,
So that your Kingdom may be better built.
And finally,
Forgive me my lack of mercy to your squirrel.
It still troubles me.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

A different lens

In her interesting book, 'Britannia Obscura', Joanne Parker explores some of the differing ways in which we can 'map' the UK. She takes the reader on an exploration of the caves of Great Britain, its waterways, its air lanes and ley-lines. Here's another way of mapping ourselves:

So far I've treated the Diocese of Peterborough as if it were co-extensive with Northamptonshire, but of course that's wrong. It also comprises the county of Rutland and a little bit of Cambridgeshire, where Peterborough itself is deemed to sit (Ely diocese actually 'owns' a portion of the city).

There are forty-two dioceses in England, each of which has a presiding, metropolitan bishop, each of them operating from 'their own' cathedral. In the case of Peterborough, take a bow, a round of applause please, for Donald Allister. As if he didn't have enough to do, he gets to sit in the House of Lords. Some dioceses (most of them? all of them?) have a suffragan bishop to help out. John Holbrook is the current Bishop of Brixworth. It's an apt title, given Brixworth's ancient pedigree as a place of worship and its geographical position, halfway along the Diocese's long north-east to south-west spread. If there weren't two bishops to share the work, no one could expect the inquisition or indeed any episcopal visit at all in the distant south.

The Diocese is also divided into archdeaconries, Oakham and Northampton. And in this case each archdeaconry is subdivided into six deaneries, which in turn are divided into the parishes which most members of the Church of England experience as their day to day spiritual/practical/pastoral/cake-eating reality. Is it coincidence there are twelve deaneries?

I can sense a yawn coming on (yours not mine) so I won't bother you with what Bishops, Archdeacons, Deans, Rural Deans etc. etc. do to earn their daily bread. Astute and intelligent readers that you are, I know you can perfectly well look this up if you don't already know.

So you can better see where I've been and where I'm going, I'll occasionally throw in some maps of the different deaneries from now on. I did ask the Diocese if they'd let me use theirs, but they said no, and offered the thought that they didn't know who owned the copyright. you'll have to make do with my own, I'm afraid. As you can see they have more in common with the Mappa Mundi than the OS in terms of precision or artistic merit. Well, let's say nothing about the artistic merit. I haven't sussed why I can't coax a better resolution out of the image. Sorry.

Channel 4/BBC4 have thus far missed a trick. You know how they like to enliven their schedules intermittently by grouping programmes round a particular theme? What a brilliant thing it would be to give us an evening of hallmark episodes from the major TV comedy series about the Church! The Vicar of Dibley would have to be included of course, and certainly Rev but also the venerable black and white of All Gas and Gaiters and possibly Derek Nimmo's subsequent Oh Brother! Room would have to be found too for Father Ted whose charms have always passed me by, though my friend Jo, who's Roman Catholic swears by it. As a study in contrasting views of Archdeacons (allegedly the hatchet men/women of the Church) compare Robertson Hare's sherry swilling Henry Blunt in All Gas and Gaiters ('I don't mind if I do, Bishop...') with Simon McBurney's scheming Mafioso in Rev haranguing Tom Hollander's hapless antihero Rev. Adam Smallbone in the back seat of a cab, before expelling him carelessly into an inconvenient, damp London street.

Not a word of truth in any of these caricatures. Surely not.  Not even in John Barron's 'Dean of St. Ogg's'. Great fun, though.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

I would walk five hundred miles...

Amongst other things, when the bell rings for November it's usually time for me to do my annual accounts. So in a spirit of reflection and totting up, eighteen months or so into my Long Walk to all the churches in Peterborough Diocese, here's an interim report on the story so far. For walks 1-28, please look at the post for March 28th 2017 ('Anniversary').

The recitation of village names brings back many happy memories of beautiful and holy places, charming people and aching feet.

In all I've dropped in on, or walked and prayed around, 187 churches, and covered a distance of 905 kilometres, which approximates to 565 miles in old money. If I'm right that there are maybe four hundred churches in the eventual itinerary, well I'm almost half way there. So far it's been a blast...

If you're going to retrace any of these routes, then the usual health warnings apply, and in any case you do so at your own risk. Vaya con dios but also adequately shod and clothed. Take some water, an OS Explorer map and your mobile. A compass is nice. Tell someone where you're going, particularly if you're walking solo or you're like me and not as young as you once were. Observe the 'country code'. Shut gates behind you. Keep your dogs on a lead. Be wary of any cattle you encounter. Be nice to farmers. And vicars. Do not steal the lead from their church roof.

Walk 29:   Croughton - Evenley - Juniper Hill - Cottisford - Tusmore - Croughton ( 30.03.17)
                    ( 22.5 km.)

Walk 30:    Overstone - Sywell - Mears Ashby - Hardwick - Overstone (10.04.17)
                     ( 17 km.)

Walk 31:    Great Doddington - Wilby - St. Mark's Wellingboro' - St Barnabas' Wellingboro' -
                    All Hallows Wellingboro' - All Saints Wellingboro' - St. Mary's Wellingboro -
                    St. Andrew's Wellingboro' - Great Doddington  ( 16.04.17)  (19 km)

Walk 32:    Hardwick - Orlingbury - Pytchley - Isham - Little Harrowden - Great Harrowden -
                    Hardwick  ( 26.04.17)  (20.5 km)

Walk 33:     Irchester - Higham Ferrers - St. Peter's Rushden - St. Mary's Rushden -      
                     Whitefriars - Irchester  (08.05.17)   ( 17 km.)

Walk 34:     Higham Ferrers - Chelveston - Stanwick - Raunds - Irthlingborough - Higham
                     Ferrers  (17.05.17)   (22.5 km.)

Walk 35:     Raunds - Hargrave - Raunds  (23.05.17)    (14 km.)

Walk 36:     Irthlingborough - Little Addington - Great Addington - Finedon -
                     Irthlingborough    ( 12.06.17)  (23 km.)

Walk 37:     Isham - Burton Latimer - Cranford St. John - Cranford St. Andrew - Barton
                     Seagrave - Isham ( 18.06.17)   (17.5 km.)

Walk 38:     Holcot - Old - Walgrave - Hannington - Holcot ( 08.07.17) (17 km)

Walk 39:     Old - Scaldwell - Lamport - Hanging Houghton - Lamport - Faxton - Old
                     (16.07.17)   ( 14 km.)

Walk 40:     Great Addington - Woodford - Islip - Thrapston - Denford - Ringstead  -
                     Great Addington  ( 24.07.17 )  ( 21 km.)

Walk 41:     Thrapston - Titchmarsh - Aldwincle - Lowick - Thrapston ( 01.08.17) ( 18 km.)

Walk 42:     Farthinghoe - Warkworth/Overthorpe - Middleton Cheney - Thenford -
                     Farthinghoe  ( 18.08.17 )  ( 21 km.)

Walk 43:     Middleton Cheney - Chacombe - Coton - Wardington - Thorpe Mandeville -
                     Middleton Cheney  ( 28.08.17 )  ( 21 km. )

Walk 44:     Thorpe Mandeville - Culworth - Sulgrave - Greatworth - Marston St. Lawrence -
                     Thorpe Mandeville ( 25.09.17 )  ( 18 km. )

Walk 45:     Culworth - Eydon - Chipping Warden - Edgcote - Culworth (01.10.17)  ( 18km.)

Walk 46:     Chipping Warden - Aston le Walls - Byfield - Upper Boddington - Appletree -
                     Chipping Warden ( 06.10.17 )  ( 20 km )

Walk 47:      Eydon - Moreton Pinkney - Canons Ashby - Woodford Halse - Eydon
                      ( 29.10.17)   ( 19 km. )

Walk 48:      Moreton Pinkney - Plumpton - Weston - Weedon Lois - Woodend - Blakesley -
                      Moreton Pinkney ( 04.11.17 )   ( 20 km. )

Walk 49:      Woodford Halse - Preston Capes - Fawsley - Church Charwelton - Woodford
                      Halse  ( 11.11.17 )  ( 16 km. )

I know you are with me as I journey.
I ask for joyful feet,
A sensitive eye,
And a prayerful heart.
I pray you will comfort me
As my feet grow weary
My eye dims
And my heart becomes sad.
Be with me, Lord,
All the way to the end of the walk.
I ask it in Jesus' name

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Northamptonshire Gothic

I puff up the hill away from Woodford Halse and ponder whether it's a good thing or not to begin a walk with the longest and steepest climb of the day. Anyway, I'm making a fuss. The valley floors in the Northamptonshire Uplands lie at about 125 metres, and the tops are at about 190, so that's only a rise of about two hundred feet. The very highest point in the county (as we were reminded the other day in a Parish Quiz) is a few miles away at Arbury Hill - 225 metres, 738 feet. A Wikipedia article I read just before writing my previous post said of Blakesley that its altitude is 1400 feet, which just goes to show. Don't trust what you read in Wikipedia articles.

                                 Hellidon in the distance - but you'll need a magnifying glass.

I pass the happily situated Woodford Hill Farm and turn down the narrow metalled lane towards Preston Capes, before detouring on mud and grass to approach the village opposite the pretty descent of the High Street. The year's last roses are dead heads now, courtesy of the first country frosts of the season. A solitary bee makes a final forage as the sun breaks out to lend soft brilliance to the honey stone of the cottages. Norman St. John-Stevas, Lord St. John of Fawsley, lived with his partner in the Old Rectory beside St. Peter and St. Paul's. There's a grey carved memorial stone to the two of them overlooking the valley beyond, just next to the one for Sir Norman's mother, Kitty. I'm somewhat moved. I never met him but he seemed a man full of life, a regular on radio as well as a force in Parliament, an eccentric, a historian, an authority on the law as it pertained to the monarchy, smart and patrician. He was often very funny about Margaret Thatcher, christening her the 'Blessed Margaret' at the time when she brooked no opposition from without or within. At his hands she also acquired the soubriquets 'Tina' (There Is No Alternative) and 'The Leaderene'. Unsurprisingly, despite his many and great talents, he didn't last too long in her cabinet. She tolerated him as Leader of the Commons before he retired to the Lords in 1987. I'm struggling to think of contemporary politicians who make me smile so much. I suppose Johnson has the potential, but usually it's too much like a car crash, as evidenced by his mishandling of the case of Iranian detainee Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe during the last week. Sir Norman was explicitly a Christian. I've always associated him with Catholicism, but perhaps he was an English Catholic for whom the continuity of the Faith was more important than partisan identity with a denomination. I cannot think of a more perfect setting for a country seat than the church and rectory at Preston Capes

                                           These are two friends whose lives were undivided 
                                           So let their memory be now that they have glided
                                           Under the grave. Let not their bones be parted.
                                           For their two hearts in life were single-hearted. 

The winter crops are just greening the fields. I clamber over a loamy hillside and descend to the sheep pastures which surround the lonely church at Fawsley. Sue and I used to escape here when we were young teachers, to give ourselves an occasional Sunday afternoon holiday from the exacting routines of comprehensive education. Back then the Hall was a sprawling ruin around which the wind cried Heathcliff (to merge Kate Bush and Jimi Hendrix). We vaguely used to wonder how the money could be put together to turn the place into an Arts Centre for the county's young people, and wished we had the odd half million to invest. I suspect it would have taken a figure twenty times as large to do the job. It's now an expensive hotel in the middle of perhaps the loveliest landscape in Northamptonshire. As I walk round to the front door of St. Mary's, two ladies meet me coming the opposite way holding what I at first think are baskets of decorations, I assume perhaps for a forthcoming wedding. Jo is from Everdon Field Studies Centre. She's shortly expecting twenty nine Year 4s from Middleton Cheney who are out for a long walk with some birdwatching and church studying thrown in. The baskets actually contain house shoes so that the kids won't totally mess up the church floor. Inside St. Mary's everything is very different to what I remember. The church furniture and the tombs to the Knightley family are all very spruced-up, clear and clean. I say so to Jo, who remarks that the wedding income, given the proximity of the Hotel and Spa (and not much else: there are no domestic houses here) has probably made a big difference to the way the church looks.

What price does one put on a day out for kids like this? How would you successfully evaluate such a thing? - though someone will certainly have to. When you consider the hassle it causes in terms of risk assessment and logistics, you'd have to wonder why teachers still do it - except that in one of the ironies of contemporary education it's of course compulsory that such experiences are offered. Yippee that it's still recognised such moments have the potential to be life-changing. Sir Norman, with his successive briefs for Education and The Arts, would have approved. Let's hope no Singaporean or Korean models of education ever prevail such that this extramurality is deemed too expensive or superfluous to needs.

Notice to non-religious readers. Feel free to skip the next para. I'm off on one...

And you, the Church, what do you think? Are you personally satisfied that we're often only of interest (completely justified interest) as a series of ancient monuments? How do we connect what the kids see at Fawsley - tombs, brasses, dudes in chain mail, altars, baroque organs - with notions like service, sacrifice, the love of God, the community of faith? Are C. of E. schools there to offer a selfless, mute service to the underprivileged kids of Britain, or to proclaim Christ crucified to a Godless nation? To put it another way, should our National Church's logo be a cupcake or a cross? Sue and I were joking this morning that in the way utility companies were sometimes re-branded during the noughties, perhaps the C. of E. should restyle itself 'CAKE' to properly mirror its more usual current public-facing self. Cake's what we seem to offer more than we offer salvation. Discuss.

                                                        St. Mary the Virgin, Fawsley

Are we all back together and sitting comfortably? Good, then I'll resume and briefly turn into Trip Advisor. After Fawsley Hall re-opened as a hotel, we ate there a couple of times, and sadly neither was memorable for the right reasons. The first time round something must have gone Pete Tong with the stock, and the onion soup tasted like nothing before or since. Bad, but no Donald, Really, Really Bad. The second visit, after an interim of many years, was a celebration afternoon tea. When we finally got to the cakes and petits fours, they were OK, but, my dear, the other guests... I'm sure things are different now. But apparently the 'art' on the walls remains horribly the same.

Up the road past the Hall, with one of the lakes to the right, I pass what is marked on the map as 'Little Fawsley', a huge barn of a place shouting for renovation. Smoke rises from a chimney so someone's living there. I turn onto a bridleway where there's a sign to the 'Granary Hotel' and 'Tea Room'. I think to myself: 'Thursday in November?  It'll never be open at lunchtime!' but it is, and I get myself served Earl Grey and delicious scones. There are two other diners. We get talking about local history. They clearly know Northampton well, and we chat about St. Peter's Marefair and the town's Saxon origins. One of the two chaps is a landscaper and he knows Roger and Muriel Clarke - fellow-worshippers and friends at Weston Favell. The other slightly younger guy seems to be the one commissioning the landscaping. It's only when they're about to leave, and the latter has just shown me a lovely, ancient, glassed map of the Fawsley estate which he's produced from somewhere on the first floor above the cafĂ©, that it becomes apparent this is Ben Gage, heir of the entire Fawsley shebang (though not the Hotel). I rapidly review our last fifteen minutes conversation to see if I've said anything rude, but think I'm OK. Ben is obviously a very nice chap and one with a task and a half on his hands. The Dower House, formerly derelict, has recently been restored. There are plans to make flats of 'Little Fawsley', but finance will have to be found. Firmness of purpose, boundless energy and a selective eye for enterprise must be daily requirements. Ben asks if I'm going to visit the church at Charwelton, and I say I am. He tells me I'll need to knock on the door of the stately farmhouse in order to get a key, but as it turns out there are other visitors there before me when I arrive.

It's a day for romantic, film-set, Austen/Bronte churches. Charwelton with its ancient packhorse bridge on the A361 Daventry road hasn't one of its own. Church Charwelton is more than half a mile way across the fields, near the lumpy bumpy nineteenth century railway spoil heaps along the route of the Jurassic Way. I find that if I were free on Christmas Eve, I could get myself a gig: they have no organist for the Midnight Mass. They have an electronic organ to which can be attached one of those gizmos which allow the operator to pick a tune, any tune, and deliver it for congregational accompaniment. However, last time out the system failed to work, so the little knot of people now assembled is hoping to find a solution. Which, judging by the Sounds of the Wurlitzer I hear a few minutes later while I'm sitting on the bench outside, they have. Christmas Eve is safe in the hands of the computer. It's better than nowt. But I think to myself how magical a midnight winter service could be here in this pluperfect setting, with a hard frost on the fields, a crystalline sky, and a few snowflakes falling as we emerge to embrace and welcome the Christ-child once again. It's quite tempting.

There are sheepy fields to be crossed under lowering skies on the return to what the fingerposts still describe as 'Woodford cum Membris'. A study this week purports to tell us that sheep are cleverer than we knew. Apparently they've shown great skill at recognising the faces of Barack Obama and Fiona Bruce. Given the above averagely baleful News of recent days, I'd have thought a better headline might be 'Humans more stupid than previously thought'.

Rings among the bling:  16 km. 5 hrs. 11 degrees. Weather: variable but not as sunny as forecast. No precipitation. Light wind. 5 stiles. 14 gates. 3 bridges.

Remembrance 1939-45

I think
That if not for the final sacrifice of so many
And a few miracles from You
I would not today be able to walk where I please
Or write what I think
Or worship freely with my family and friends.
I thank them.
And I thank You.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Landscape challenge

                                                  What a difference a week makes...

How I miss Channel 4's Time Team : the stripey enthusiasm of the late Mick Aston, the puppyish bounce of Tony Robinson (maybe at his best here, as with Blackadder, part of a distinguished team), the dry cynicism of John Gater, the amused rationalism of Carenza Lewis, the folksy charm and surprisingly solid academic values of Phil Harding, and yes, the insightful, thoughtful input of Stewart Ainsworth, assessing a landscape for what it might have been rather what it seems to be now.

I'm assessing a landscape too in this blog, though a human one - the landscape of the Church of England, trying to see what might lie under the surface of an institution I think I know so well, dropping by all the churches in the Diocese of Peterborough one by one. I'm trying to place them in context, and see what may become of us all as the twenty-first century progresses. There are more than 400 churches to visit, and I'm nearly half way through my Long Walk.

Part of the fun along the way is the sheer pleasure of map-reading - getting from one place to another by the best route for me on a particular day, matching the printed page to the unfolding landscape of my adopted home county. The Ordnance Survey Maps in all the glory of their detail and reliability are an absolute treasure.

Going south-east on a characteristically wide Northamptonshire lane from Moreton Pinkney, the metalled road turns right at the magnificently named 'Grumbler's Holt'. I'd like it to be a place where someone lugubrious once took a  breather, but apparently the reference is more prosaic: a grumbler was a badger, and a holt was its sett. I say the lane is wide, but by that I mean the width between the hedges on either side. The tarmac road is less than half the width: the carts of previous centuries could only make progress through the mud with a greater space, and if two happened to pass each other, it was more difficult to manoeuvre the ancient wagons than today's cars. Mind you, the gigantic articulated Calor Gas tanker which has just drawn up by the building where I turn left onto Banbury Lane would have proved hard to squeeze past on any single track country road. The driver's leaning on his cab as I approach. He's looking woebegone. Someone's stood him up. He's of eastern European origin. I say hello. "Is of you?" he asks, gesturing at the building and its locked gates. I regret that it isn't, and he sighs. He looks as if he could badly do with a smoke, but unfortunately, given his occupation, this possible is not.

In a couple of hundred metres I turn onto another old drover's road, the Oxford Lane, which winds pleasantly through the trees. That this was once a significant route can be seen by the deep ditches set back in the undergrowth on either side, although these disappear as the bridleway emerges into fields. I hold close to the left hand hedge before clambering over a stile and heading on a diagonal over a lumpy field to the little church of St. John the Baptist, Plumpton, with its scrubbed, boxy pews. If there was ever much to Plumpton, there ain't much now: just a manor house survives. There must have been enough of a village to make it worthwhile for Jesus College Oxford to invest fifty quid in the rebuilding of the church in 1822. It looks like a Conservation Trust church, but there are hymn numbers on the board: someone has been singing O Jesus I have promised recently, which seems apt. There's an electronic organ too.

I have a soft spot for Jesus College Oxford. When I was a teacher, the Northampton School for Boys would send a cricket team of masters and boys to Oxford one Wednesday each May, an inheritance of the days when it was the 'Town and County Grammar'. Those mid-nineteen seventies were gentler times, dear readers, although even then, Mayhem was often found stalking the corridors at Billing Road. But that's another story. I made the trip a couple of times. The first occasion saw my off-stump clinically removed before I'd scored by a rather good quick bowler called Meehan who was playing Minor Counties cricket as well as for his college. The second time I redeemed myself by scoring fifty on a lushly wet and humid day, but I have a feeling Meehan wasn't playing, and anyway the match was abandoned at tea. But I digress.

I can either walk on from Plumpton to Weston by lane or fieldpath, so of course I choose the latter. At the third field a herd of cattle blocks the way, so I revert to Plan A, arriving in Weston by the road which skirts the Hall where once the Sitwell family lived, Sacheverell and Edith of that ilk. I know I should have but I haven't. My education is lacking in respect of all those very English writers of the mid-twentieth century, but I'm not giving up hope. I read Jane Austen's Persuasion on holiday a fortnight ago, and for the first time her humour and style opened up for me. Perhaps I shall be a late-flowering Bloomsbury.

I know there's a good pub in Weston, but shucks, it's not open. Because the clocks have gone back, I'm walking earlier in the day, and the fish van's only just arrived: The Crown's not into serving morning coffee. Well, you wouldn't, not out here. There couldn't possibly be enough takers to make it worthwhile: Weston has a somewhat isolated air about it. The isolation is an illusion however, because really the village is part of a ribbon development which leads up the hill into Weedon Lois.

I love this moniker. There's that thing about American names, isn't there, where it seems a bit random as to which is the given name and which the family name. Anstruther Pyewackett III or Pyewackett Anstruther III? It could be either. Well, so it is with Weedon Lois, which is sometimes referred to as Lois Weedon - who you might suppose to be a Superhero's moll. At one time the village was Weedon Pinkney. Before you get into the village proper, you pass through Milthorpe which is interpreted on the ground as 'Middlethorpe' - presumably halfway between Weston and Weedon. Weedon apparently means 'temple on a hill' and the Lois part I at first think might be a dedication to St. Eligius, a French bishop and friend of the poor.

On the web there are references to the Weedon Lois 'temple' as Anglo-Saxon in origin, but that seems rather unlikely to me. I suppose it might be a reference to an early Christian church hidden under the current one, but more appealing is the thought that there's a folk memory of a Roman temple, part of an earlier settlement where the medieval church now sits by the castle mound. The present day road describes a neat semicircle around the site. As I walk into St. Mary and St. Peter's - an unusual combination - I surprise Sue who's been arranging some flowers. She apologises unnecessarily for the slight derangement to the church interior. It's having a minor post-quinquennial makeover. Sue sheds some light on the church at Plumpton. Her husband was involved with a Trust which has kept it open. There are half a dozen services there each year. We talk a little about how history, tradition and finance interact, and the difficulties our long, rural diocese faces.

Inside the church, you instantly know there's a bit more to this place than an average parish church. The proportions are wrong. The nave's short, the chancel too long, such that for contemporary worship the 'working' altar with its lovely, lively altar cloth has been pitched forward, leaving a narrow choir which stretches onto a space before the high altar. This was a Priory church, and looking it up later on, the village name may be a later dedication not to St. Loy (Eligius) but to St. Lucien, an earlier Romano-French saint whose devotee monks pitched up in Weedon in later medieval times. The nearby spring, which one could speculate might have been the occasion of any putative Roman temple, became a place of healing pilgrimage. Opposite the church, across the road, is a 'new' cemetery, where a memorial to Edith Sitwell looks out over the wide valley beyond. This has been an evocative, holy place down through the generations. I love the overwhelming sense that I now worship as a representative of the great cloud of witnesses who've celebrated and struggled with their faith in a place like this over the centuries.

Up the hill, over the road, onto a bridleway, down the far side with sweeping views to left and right following horsey and human footprints to the stream at the bottom. There's a bridge, and through the gate on the far side another herd of cattle. A bull is facing me full-on, horns and all, head lowered. He even gives a little paw of the ground, to make sure I know he means business, or perhaps just to show off his manliness to the host of adoring female companions. The field is long and thin. It stretches away to either side of me along the stream. I need to cross the short way to the continuation of the path beyond another gate fifty metres away. I pause. Consider options. I retreat and track along the stream, hidden behind the hedge. I can see the herd follow me on the far side of the thorns. Bertie the bull is making good speed with the kind of jaunty, bouncing trot you see in rhinos on the move. They're going much faster than me. I suddenly change direction, double back to the gate, and am satisfied to see the herd has now taken residence at the far end of the field, a couple of hundred metres away. I can safely cross into a field of brassica where the bridleway mysteriously disappears. Did I dupe my bovine friends, or were they just seeking a little privacy to do what Noel Coward suggested? I don't know. Nor do I know why you'd leave a bull in a field through which horses and riders regularly pass. Maybe Bertie's a really friendly chap, as bulls go, and had just spent a bit of time in acting school, mugging up personal presentation skills, in order to become a higher net worth individual.

Woodend is where the wood once ended (duh!), in this case Whittlebury Forest. Not much louder than a mosquito whine, the sound of the Silverstone race track is just about audible on this very still day. There was a Baptist chapel here, now remade into a house with a nod at its former life in the shape of some bright stained glass windows. The cemetery next door remains well-kept, with some graves as recent as the early nineteen nineties, so I guess there was still a congregation meeting here then. Beyond Woodend the road curves downhill with the Hall on the left until the traveller reaches Blakesley over the redundant railway bridge. When there was still a station here, there was at one time also a miniature track to convey lordly visitors and their luggage back to the Hall.

Blakesley is quite a place. It still has a Post Office, always a mark of superiority. It used to have a rather famous annual soapbox derby down its sloping main street. There's a charming little Reading Room, a large village school by the green, a garage with a separate showroom, a business offering personal training and clinical massage, and a lady who makes soft toys under the title of 'Blakesley Bears'.  As I walk to St. Mary's church her car draws up beside me with a very large fluffy example of her handiwork in the passenger seat. A young chap is hauling a flag of St. George up the church tower supervised by his gaffer, a man in his sixties. 'Well, you've got to, this time of the year', he remarks to some workmen doing a bit of walling by the dame school in the churchyard. I think to myself:  'Do we have to?' What price the Church of England?

One thing Blakesley hasn't got at the moment is a pub. The sign outside The Bartholomew Arms promises food and drink every day at lunchtime, but at a moment of need for me and another passing motorist, the doors are locked and bolted. According to the Blakesley Bears lady (who judging from their website may be called Lizzie), the new owners have taken fright and given back the keys. In Moreton Pinkney the story seems superficially similar. The Four Candles - oh, what a lot you have to answer for Ronnie Barker! - opened in July 2016 after years of dereliction, but closed just a year later. So in six hours of walking today there wasn't a single hostelry to be found open. It's not only churches that have difficulty in getting people through the doors.

Marks on the bark: 20 km. 6 hrs. 11 degrees C. No breeze at all. Sky a pearlescent grey with occasional tinges of muted purply blue. Happy morning birdsong. Squirrels and rabbits. 3 stiles. 16 gates. 3 bridges. More walking on lanes and hard bridleways than usual.

I'm becoming confused
And I wonder whether my confusion is shared.
I worship You each week in church.
With others.
And I try to keep up my own apology for a prayer life.
Just me and You.
In the age of
The Internet and of
Time Shifted Television and of
Constant Worldwide Reflexivity of
Fake News
What does all this 'shared experience'
Mean for our celebration of You?

Bind us together, Lord
Bind us together
With cords that cannot be broken.
Bind us together with love.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

The Third Way

Last week it was a soul-warming 25 degrees where we were holidaying in the Vaucluse. They've had little or no rain down there for months: the rivers are dry when they shouldn't be. As I set out to walk the weather's fair in Eydon but the temperature's down by eleven points and it's a bit cool around the knees.

I like walking in shorts, although the risks of the tick-borne Lyme's Disease - about which I've written before - are increasing. Matt Dawson, the one time Saints and England scrum-half was a recent victim, and a more resilient individual it's hard to imagine. I'm of the age when 'short trousers' were the established male mode of dress for school or leisure until at least the age of twelve. The transition into 'longs' was a pubertal rite of passage, slightly weird to our contemporary way of thinking. I wonder to myself whether my fondness for shorts is regressive behaviour -infantilism - and then start to contemplate the New Testament contrast between accepting the Kingdom of God 'as a child' and the labyrinthine twists and turns of intellect-defeating Pauline theology. Transactional Analysis has it that most of us still play at being both children and adults depending on any particular relationship or encounter and the side we get out of bed in the morning. I suppose as a Christian I can identify with that. Sometimes I display the petulance of a spoiled child to God, and sometimes, Him and me, we're best adult-to-adult buddies. Is either completely appropriate?

Down the bottom of the hill near the stream, the bridleway becomes very muddy indeed, and I slipslide along it holding the fence, trying not to hate horsey people. Tolerance and compromise are required in the countryside as everywhere else. I didn't hear very much of those qualities from the mouth of Andrew Gillett of the Country Land and Business Association on BBC's Countryfile last Sunday. The problem he was addressing is real and painful enough. Every year many farmers suffer financial loss and emotional turmoil when their sheep and cattle are attacked and sometimes killed by uncontrolled dogs. Most walkers will be able to cite supporting evidence for the claim that a minority of dog-owners are blind to the less attractive nature of their pets, and take insufficient measures to restrain them. Gillett's solution (he's a lawyer) is that farmers should be able to ban walkers from long-established rights of way for substantial periods of time. It's a Trojan Horse, folks. This is a lobby for those who would wish to permanently exclude all of us, whether we have dogs or not, from places we have an ancient right to be. I hope Members of Parliament listen politely and say 'no'. I've written to Angela Smith M.P., one of those being lobbied, expressing that hope. Perhaps others will do the same.

The Macmillan Way becomes rather vague as I head towards Moreton Pinkney. Two late teenage girls are bouncing around the old railway embankment in a 4x4. I say that I've missed my path, and ask if they know where it might have gone. They look at me as if I've dropped in from Planet Stupid: they obviously haven't the foggiest what a 'long distance footpath' is, although they're locals. I clamber down through the embankment thicket and locate a lane which turns out to be the right route. Again, I'm afraid one has to suspect that a landowner has wilfully removed signs. On a 'named' footpath. Disgraceful.

Morteon Pinkney is a straggly, green and pleasant village. Forty years ago, Stuart Marson used to celebrate it as a representative icon for the whole of Northamptonshire. He gave it its very own Blues. One of the verses referred to the perennial likelihood of the Cobblers, Northampton Town's football club, being relegated. Famously, the Cobblers are the only team who've ever gone from the bottom division of the Football League to the top division in successive seasons only to sink back whence they came with similar speed. They're currently in Division 2 (the old Division 3) and guess what? Yup, they're back in the relegation zone again.

I drop in on old friend Jane, but she answers the door looking very poorly. Jane's a teacher, and she's made it to half-term only to succumb to the 'flu. We swap greetings at arm's length on her doorstep, and I go off to St. Mary's church to offer up a prayer for her recovery well before Sunday evening, so that she gets some proper holiday before returning to the fray. St. Mary's is a dinky little church with lots of interest. There's a nineteenth century clock on display with connections to a Canadian bishop of the time, a lovely piece of wall art recording donations to the church during the eighteenth century, and a Platonic quote by the organ console.

Amen. The church gate asks visitors to keep it shut because of grazing sheep, and indeed you can walk straight into the fields beyond via a kissing gate. Keeping your back to the church there's a lovely view of what I presume to be the Georgian Old Rectory. The touches of humour in a church building, the way its pews are polished, always speak to me of a community's character, and its feeling for the place of worship at its centre.

Across the fields on the other (north) side of the road is Canons Ashby, a National Trust property, which was in ruins until 1981, when Gervase Jackson-Stops pulled off a coup in seeing this Elizabethan manor house gloriously restored using government money. It's small but perfectly formed: a quiet architectural and horticultural pleasure. Over the far side is the Priory church, one of only four private Anglican churches in the country, or so it says inside. I'm not sure what this means. What I do know is that there was once an Augustinian foundation here until Henry VIII and his team pulled it to pieces, leaving the very truncated building we can visit today. Gervase is fittingly commemorated with a wall plaque.

As is the case with many NT properties at this time of year, much is being made at Canons Ashby of all things Hallowe'en. Pumpkins adorn every wall, and children, some of whom are far too old for this kind of stuff IMO anyway, scamper around dressed as witches warlocks, zombies and all the rest of their undead friends. I don't like it, though as 'Peter Simple's invention Dr Heinz Kiosk often used to remark in his long-running Daily Telegraph column, 'Ve are all guilty...'. I'm afraid I too have contributed a smidge to the broomstick industry, writing music to accompany audio books of Valerie Thomas and Korky Paul's 'Winnie the Witch'. Seeing the way fireworks, all purpose spookiness, Diwali, Disney etc. etc. have now combined into a rootless, new age, amorphous, autumn retail-fest, I repent. Apart from boosting the economy ( and would we do this at any moral cost?) what's any of it really about? Weston Favell has resounded to explosions of one sort or another every evening since October 23rd. Is it communal guilt that we aren't living in Aleppo?

Away from Canons Ashby to the north-west the countryside begins to feel increasingly remote - for Northamptonshire. I wind up a little valley to a bridleway and in time climb to the highest point on the ridge overlooking Woodford Halse. A kindly farmer hangs back from spraying his crop for a couple of minutes to let me pass - a nice courtesy. In the town I climb Scrivens Hill to find that St. Mary's church is swathed in scaffolding - major repairs - and that all services are being held in The Nest, a children's facility back down the hill. I know that The Nest has something to do with children because a few hundred metres on I'm hailed by Judy who tells me so. She's curious to know why I'm photographing the houses. Judy's the sacristan at St. Mary's and still holds a grudge against Henry VIII for what he did to Canons Ashby. I ask her how long she's been sacristan. Thirty-five years, she says, and I repress a smile. You'd have to be a fan of the BBC's ancient comedy show Round the Horne to understand why. A running gag in this 60's creation was Horne as BBC reporter interviewing a hoary-voiced local. 'How long have you been mowing the lawns/ringing the bells/dwile flunking/etc.' he would ask. 'Thir-ty five years!' would come the invariable answer. It was easier to get laughs in those days...

Is there a town of comparable size (max 3,500) more indebted than Woodford Halse to its railway past which today has no trains or track? I doubt it. It was once a four-way junction on the Great Central Line, the third way of Britain's north-south railways. Now what's left is a monumental pair of railway bridges, and between them the sad, bricked up entrance to the station which once stood there. There's a raised pocket park too, which follows the line of the 'permanent way', and rows of terraced houses for the one-time railway workers which was what Judy discovered me photographing. Chiltern Railways once had dreams of extending from Banbury to Leicester through here, but those sketchy plans were abandoned as late as 2012. New housing and lack of demand killed off any prospects. There was a substantial engine shed here once, visited regularly by the biggest of the post-war steam locomotives. All sheds had a code. Woodford Halse's was 1G, but I never made it this far as a (shorts-wearing!) sub-teenage loco spotter.

A thing I love about the late autumn is the quality of the light on a day like this, as beautiful as the most subtle stage illumination, casting a golden glow across grass and stone. And so it is as I cross to West Farndon on the Jurassic Way through a succession of sheep fields helpfully waymarked by a farmer with boards warning me that there's a bull on the loose. I haul myself up the incline back into Eydon and the day is book-ended by a pretty young woman on a bicycle. In the morning she'd smiled at me as I was putting on my boots by the tailgate of the car. We meet again at a gate, and she smiles again. 'You're brave', she says, indicating my bare legs and tee-shirted top. The sun has just set, and yes I suddenly think, it is rather chilly, isn't it. I return to the car, an old man foolishly affirmed by a brief encounter.

Scrawls on the wall: 19 km. Just under six hours. One piece of toffee-apple cake and two cups of Earl Grey courtesy of the N.T.. Three churches. 15 degrees C. and bracingly beautiful 12 stiles. 21 gates. 5 bridges.

When I misunderstand
Or am misunderstood,
Help me to see my fault.
Renew my ways of being;
Give me a kinder language;
A wider repertoire of mercy;
A more generous appreciation of difference.
So may I do my little part
In moving forward your Kingdom
Here on Earth

Friday, 6 October 2017

Who knows where the time goes?

As I'm driving just past Trafford Bridge a white van's coming towards me at speed. I take avoiding action. There's an almighty thump from the front near side as the Polo's wheel drops into a chasmatic pothole. I swear and nurse our little car the last couple of miles into Chipping Warden, lest the suspension be warped or broken, but the VW's German technology seems to have survived intact. Country roads whether in West Virginia or West Northamptonshire are under stress these days. I expect they receive as much attention as they ever did i.e. about once every fifty years, but they were never intended to take the weight of HGVs or today's farming behemoths.

It's a rude shock emerging from the Polo into today's bright sunshine. The breeze from the north west is keen and chilly. I'm glad to have three layers to put on. Autumn really has arrived. Most of the way to Aston le Walls I'm walking round what's left of the perimeter road for the defunct Chipping Warden airfield. In its Second War heyday this must have been a state-of-the-art facility with its concrete runways and spread of buildings. All gone now, of course. There's an industrial estate to the south side, and where I am to the north arable farming has returned. They flew Ansons and Wellingtons here in wartime, and there were a number of fatal crashes, including the one I mentioned in the previous post. Another Wellington hit the roof of the Manor at Boddington, killing some of the house's occupants as well as the crew. Perhaps close proximity to the village of Chipping Warden was one reason why the airfield was never promoted to post-war duty, and so abandoned after service as a communications station.

Some days it's impossible to avoid the day's news as one walks. Unwanted images and anxious thoughts about events rattle round the head obsessively. The old catchphrase 'What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas...' (too frequently adapted to other situations e.g. 'What happens on tour...' ) manifestly isn't true now. The place is almost a suburb of Woking or Todmorden. When asked, a large percentage of Pointless quiz contestants will say that if they win the jackpot they'll spend it on a trip to Nevada. Even the Crosses have been there (although not to gamble, he said hurriedly, just to see the gondolas and the Chihuly glass...) and wasn't that a very strange, disorienting experience. Thankfully we were only disconcerted by the heat, wind and dust but the questions raised by this week's appalling massacre at the Mandalay aren't just for Americans and aren't just about gun control.

   A universe away from Vegas, Aston le Walls is a pretty place. There are two churches. In addition to St. Leonard's, there's the very perky looking Catholic chapel of the Sacred Heart and Our Lady, which has a particularly attractive mezzanine for coffee and chat. I visit both places of worship, and hope that their clergy and people get on: it's a small village. It interests me to wonder how far widespread the Catholic congregation is - but from the nameboard of incumbents I can see that a John Gother, the first priest, was appointed here in 1688, so at any rate there's a long tradition. Invoking the 'persistence principle', perhaps there's still an above average number of Catholic families in the neighbourhood. Even in Tudor times recusancy flourished where the roads were bad. The newsletter for Sacred Heart has Father James, the current priest, explaining that he's slowly recovering from a prolonged and distressing loss of voice (all very New Testament, thinking of what happened to John the Baptist's dad - though I'm not suggesting any lack of faith on Father James' part!)

The walk from Aston to Byfield along a verdant lane sometimes more, sometimes less distinct as it runs in the lee of the ridge, is sheer joy on a cheerfully sunny day, the path inhabited by what ee cummings called the 'leaping greenly spirits of trees' and 'the blue true dream of sky'. Bouncing over the grass at a good pace, I notice what I've experienced before: what I assume to be a reduced flow of oxygen to the brain alters my state of consciousness. Ideas, thoughts, fragment of tunes become more diffuse, less translatable into words. And so, with Father James' difficulty fresh in my mind, I start to think about the mysterious phenomenon of glossolalia - speaking in tongues. It feels to me, in this blissed moment of one-ness with nature, as if the reason more of us don't experience this 'gift of the Spirit', is the internal inhibition I'm detecting now. In the ecstatic, beyond-words grip of the moment I feel a tightness in my throat as I strive to reach for a different expression of joy and praise. But me, I can never pivot beyond that self-revealing point of release, even when I'm out here alone. My loss? I don't know, because I've been in congregations where a lot has been made to hang from the necessity of speaking in tongues as a test of true spirituality, or of even being a real fully paid up Christian, and I don't buy that idea for one moment. But I think the role of our voices' use in worship is a deep, multi-faceted subject, and it's something I could think about more. Is the phenomenon of glossolalia supernatural at all? Is it even distinctively Christian?

                                                    Del Boy's country scrapyard: Byfield 

Holy Cross in Byfield seems to be in what one might call that village's 'Sports Quarter' (for those living outside Northampton, you need to know that our town is blessed with a 'cultural quarter' and a 'shoe quarter'. For all I know there may be a 'slum quarter' and a 'get-bladdered' quarter too. It's just that they haven't put up the signs. I pass Byfield's very swanky tennis club, cross the grass between the football and cricket facilities, and then up on the rise I glimpse the high and handsome spire of the church hidden among trees. Byfield is a larger than average place - its population tops a thousand - and the church's size reflects the ambition. I don't particularly enjoy the pub where my GB is served with a positive scowl. The Lounge Bar's two other occupants are middle-aged ladies, one of whom is maybe a district nurse. They're discussing a daughter's new tattoo with approval - as long as it's only one, mind.

Byfield was for some years the home of the late Sandy Denny, whose utterly individual voice pinned me to the wall when I first heard her sing 'Tam Lin' with Fairport Convention on the Prefects' Room radio some time in '69. The band were experimenting by putting British folk songs into an electric context. Bob Dylan had done the same thing for Americana to cries of 'Judas' from his hardcore post-Woody Guthrie audiences. There were some who felt the same sense of betrayal about adding Gibson 335, electric fiddle and drums to songs like 'Matty Groves' or 'She moves through the fair'. I didn't of course, because I was only 18 and although I knew some of the repertoire it was from Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears performing it, and not from being down the local folk club. If you've never knowingly listened to Sandy Denny, I urge you to find the Fairport recording of her own song 'Who knows where the time goes?'  It's intimate, tender, achingly beautiful, and so sad, because now we know of her tragic, early and accidental death. I saw her sing live only once, at the Albert Hall, when her later band Fotheringay were supported by Elton John, gold painted boots and all, in the first years of his illustrious career. Elton, Reg, the support act!

When a fingerpost for a footpath tells you where you're going, it's a good sign (ha-ha!) I drop down the hill, skirt round the cows munching peacefully in my way, and come up to Boddington reservoir through a spinney near Byfield Pool. I never knew there was a large stretch of water here, but it's lovely. Sufficiently big that there's a flourishing sailing club, but remote enough for me to disturb a lot of bird life on the far side. Two cormorants flap away, struggling to make height, their shape resembling SR-71 spy-planes - which were indeed generically named 'Blackbirds'. A family of jays squawk noisily from the path in front of me: these days I don't see many of these gaudy birds when I'm out and about. A huge grey heron rises majestically to find a new fishing pitch in the marsh. A pheasant whirrs away in panic from the other side of a hedge. As it takes off it makes a reverberating sound like one of Richard Greene's Robin Hood arrows thwacking into a straw target. As I climb the hill a red-sweatered jogger with his dog crosses in front of me. I see him again a mile further on. I suspect he's probably gone three times as far as I have in that time, as I sweat up towards the balcony road to Upper Boddington, treading the verge of Oxfordshire, 'anxious fears subsiding'.

                                The common cormorant (or shag)
                                Lays eggs inside a paper bag
                                The reason you will see no doubt
                                Is to keep the lightning out.

                                But what these unobservant birds
                                Have failed to notice is that herds
                                Of wandering bears may come with buns
                                And steal the bags to hold the crumbs

I never knew this was written by Christopher Isherwood. It gives a quite different slant to his black polo-neck, Berlin avant-garde image. We sang a version of it at primary school, and its quirky humour has been an influence on my children's songs, for good or ill.

A mentally challenged Friesian (I said Friesian not Franciscan !) bellows at me and lifts its head aggressively as I slip into the churchyard of St. John the Baptist, Boddington by the back way. It's a church which is taking God's creation very seriously; the parishioners have noted in great detail the flora and fauna seen around the church grounds. They've taken their meticulous recording one step further when it comes to the graves. A bound booklet of a hundred or so pages of A4 takes the curious visitor through each and every burial. As Richie Benaud would have said in a different context: 'Good effort!'

Coming down off the ridge it's a long walk along the valley before I turn uphill again to the messy agglomeration of buildings at Appletree, once a much larger medieval settlement. Part of the route follows the line of the Millennium Way, also encountered in the last couple of posts. It's sketchily marked, and never won sufficient hearts and minds, I think. Good ideas and innovations in the leisure countryside need ongoing support or they wither, be they pocket parks, cutesey wooden exercise trails or full-blown 'long distance' footpaths. This is a sad feature of routes like the 'London Loop' where one often finds local council enthusiasms discontinued under a subsequent regime and left unloved,  ruined by a plague of vandalism.

Just past Appletree, a Jensen Interceptor, automatic version, purrs past me. A strange design, I've always thought, with all that rear-end weight pulling the bonnet up towards the sky. And unless you have your own personal mechanic, how do you get such a classic serviced? I have enough trouble with the Audi/VW!

Scores on the doors:  20 km.  6 hrs.  14 degrees C. Sun, then cloud., Brisk, blustery wind at times, cool in exposed spots.  22 stiles. 23 gates.  5 bridges.

Great Father of us all

I pray for a melting of hearts;
A freedom from fear;
A recognition that strength comes from within
And not from any weapons we carry.
I pray for those who use guns professionally
To protect people
At home and abroad.
I pray for victims of gun violence
That against the odds
They may find it possible to forgive.

Take from us all
Including me
The fantasies of revenge we rehearse
The hatred of difference we harbour.

I ask these things
In the name of the Prince of Peace,
Jesus our Lord,

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Who is on the Lord's side?

The sheep suddenly scatter left to right up the field across the dapply pasture, and as I round the field edge I see why. Vernon Phipps and his dog are walking up towards me. Vernon's a little younger than I am. Rugged, fit and ruddy of face, he looks the way you'd expect a sheep farmer to look. I ask him if the sheep belong to him. They do. How many has he got? Lots. What's it like as a job? He laughs...good days and bad days. And has life in Culworth changed very much? It's pretty much the same. This is rather reassuring. But later, when I look up his name on the web, I learn of a dreadful day in 2011 when Vernon discovered rustlers had shot and carried away some of his flock. They couldn't remove as many as they'd killed, and he had to clean up, and bury the dead. I can only imagine it was a bad financial loss, and a huge emotional blow. I remember a conversation with a sheep farmer of about the same age in Kent and the evident affection he had for the animals he'd birthed and reared. I was polemical about some farmers in my previous post. It needs saying that the majority are the beating heart of our countryside, and that gratitude should be the lot of the Vernons of this world. I hope their sons and daughters are able to afford to follow in their stead.

It's rather a lovely day. A band of overnight rain has swept through, and now it's calm, quiet and warm, although the grass will stay wet all day. Compared to last autumn, this one's distinctly soggy. The other side of the old railway the paths are mostly well-marked on the diagonal across the fields. At one point I duck into a ravine through a small bog caused by a spring, and cross the infant Rover Cherwell on a plank bridge where there's a life buoy - there's a small, apparently permanent campsite a hundred metres away. On the far side of the stream is the rise to Eydon. First one sees the Big House through the trees to the left, and then there's a short path up to St. Nicholas' church, which is open.

Inside there's an old-fashioned, handsome bier, as might once have been drawn by a horse. It's not unusual to find them in the corner of country churches, but I feel I've seen quite a few in this neck of the county. Are they still used? Perhaps they are from time to time. I'm also rather touched by the simplicity of the few chairs arranged around the altar in St. Nicholas' side chapel, and of course think of the text about the 'two or three gathered together'. I can't see any heating in the church around me, and even on this benign day it strikes me as chilly. How would I feel about my worship if I were cold most of the time I was doing it? Well, actually this is a rhetorical question. I find it well-nigh impossible. This poses a personal challenge insofar as while I'm fit and warm and in the prime of life I know I must do my best to wholeheartedly worship God because when I'm old, ill and fragile, I'm afraid I won't have the spiritual staying power to connect when I perhaps most need it. But cutting away from that individual perspective, finding a way to heat our churches adequately is often a struggle, and perhaps ought to be more of a priority. From time to time last winter I played the organ in a barn of a building where I constantly shivered and shook for reasons other than spiritual ecstasy, except when I was actually on the organ stool, where a large sheet of chipboard shielded me from being charred to a cinder by the fierce heat emitting from the radiator running at my back.

My Glaswegian father-in-law would have been justified in describing Eydon (appropriately pronounced 'Eden') as a 'doozy' - meaning something outstanding or extraordinary. It's a little rectangular shaped village of about four to five hundred people sitting at 550 feet with a stonking view out towards Moreton Pinkney and Canons Ashby to the east. The architectural range within the village is impressive and beautiful, and there's every reason to believe that Eydon is imbued with a community spirit to match the splendour of its rural craftsmanship. I'm first into the pub after it opens at lunchtime, and am followed in by a man over whose genial German Shepherd I have to step repeatedly when ordering my GB or using the facilities. We say 'how do', particularly when I have to re-enter the bar to collect the hat I've left behind. Eydon not only has a Morris side but a Mummers group too, because the village has its own Mummers' Play. I wonder if they perform it in the church? The acoustic in St. Nicholas' is a marvel all of itself.

I pick up the Macmillan Way which has very sensibly included Eydon on its scenic walkers' route from far away Lincolnshire to distant Dorset, and follow the bridleway back down to the Cherwell, and then up the other side of the river valley until the Jurassic Way runs in from the north-east to join us. I tell myself that I should remember the path - I certainly walked here some years ago - but it rings no bells until I've descended to the 'Welsh Road' (the other locus of predation by the Culworth Gang). Then looking behind me my memory's jogged by the shape of the hill and the loneliness of the largely discarded lane, once so important to the local rural economy. Across the field I pass through the spinney where sit the rather creepy remain of the huts and shelters which once served the wartime Chipping Warden airfield. On the sunny far side a song happens, and I sit on a bench to write a first-draft lyric about late-flowering love into my I-phone, hoping that when I need to later, I'll be able to remember the tune that's playing in my head. I'm looking for a final song for the album I'm recording with friend Brendan, and maybe this is it. The musical sequence (I'm old-fashioned enough to want our album not  just to be a random collection of songs - like, man, a concept album ?) is too maudlin as it stands: we need something positive and cheerful with three chords to finish things off. In the pub down the road I find the same bloke with the German Shepherd I encountered in Eydon. He looks a bit sheepish, as if I have him pegged as a toper. He explains too quickly that they serve food in Chipping Warden: new management means you can't get anything to eat in Eydon. Yeah, yeah, I say. And order my second GB of the day.

There's an air of faded grandeur, a certain...atmosphere...about SS Peter and Paul, Chipping Warden. It's a large building in an imposing position. I can't get in, but beat its bounds. It's one of those encounters which leaves me hoping that everything's all right with the place, but unsure that it is. A gentleman unloads the boot of his car by the church, whistling the Old Rugged Cross, a curious counterpoint.

My walk will take me up to Edgcote House, and by the gates on its drive there's a sign which explains that this point marks the beginning of the 'Battlefields Trail'. The trail describes a semicircle past the site of the War of the Roses' Battle of Edgcote, before moving west towards Cropredy Ridge and Edge Hill, where two Civil War battles were fought.

I know a lot of people are really enthusiastic about military history. Me, I'm ambivalent. You can't really 'do' history without understanding who won what when. But I never want to become desensitised to the horrors of war, and suspect some of being too 'objective' just because these events are way in our past. I think it doesn't sit well to be too jolly about atrocities, whenever they were committed. This can of course raise problems when reading the Old Testament. When we returned from our first visit to Israel in 1977, at a time of tension in the Middle East, our consciousness had admittedly been raised somewhat - armed presence at one kibbutz gig, and another performance brought forward because of shooting at the theatrical lighting during a previous evening etc. etc. Back in Blighty, the first hymn the following Sunday was 'Who is on the Lord's side?' and I remember getting very cross at the maintenance of military metaphor by a Northampton congregation who seemed very comfortable and complacent in their own security, thank you. This was unfair of me, but my sensitivity remains, even in the face of Paul's injunction to put on the 'whole armour of God'. I get it, just about, but wish we could find better word pictures. As if to point up these matters, a few hundred metres further on there's a quiet memorial to the crew of a Wellington bomber, who didn't quite make it back to base, crashing a couple of miles from their destination with the loss of six crew.

Hard by Edgcote House, the handsome little church (very close to Chipping Warden's) isn't open either. Three men with cameras will be similarly disappointed.  It's Graham, Lewis and, goodness gracious, Andrew, who worships at our own St. Peter's in Weston Favell, twenty five miles away. They go out to walk every Thursday. We swap info about routes and pubs. Edgcote is very photogenic. Round the back of the House is the Mill, where it looks as if the water-wheel's still in working condition, and further on is the intriguing Roman site at Blackgrounds where a bath house was discovered in 1849, though fears were thereafter expressed for its continued integrity because of ploughing. I can see two possible locations for it on the slightly higher ground overlooking the stream and close to the springs there. The most likely looks to be some considerable bumps in a field which is now fallow (and has been for some time?)

Another wayside legend shortly tells me I'm near the Edgcote battlefield (or Danesmoor, as it's sometimes called). We're talking 1469, we're talking Edward IV (he of wooing and then marrying Elisabeth Woodville near Grafton Regis), we're talking Shakespeare's impossibly bloody, nay unwatchable, Henry VI, although I can't remember whether it's part I, II, or III. This is England as Afghanistan, riddled with internecine strife and double dealing, the playground of warlords. Pembroke is for the King, Warwick for the rebels. Warwick wins the day. Pembroke and his henchmen lose the battle because of treachery on July 26th, and are executed on the 27th. When the event is commemorated these days, a wreath is laid to the fallen at Trafford Bridge over which I now walk.

                                                                  Near Danesmoor

As I pass beneath the railway arch on green Banbury Lane, I disturb whole families of pheasants which chuck chuck noisily up and away from their hidey hole on the overgrown banks. A hundred metres or so up the track I nod to a young woman and her nine year old son who are having a short post-school ride. They've seen the birds scatter, and she's telling him about the game pie she'll make for the family at Christmas. They turn at the bottom by the bridge and walk the horses up past me again, still talking about the meal. I say, 'I think I'm coming to your house on Christmas Day!' ' Sounds delicious, doesn't it?' the young woman answers with a laugh. Culworth. Peaceful. Normal.

Stats man.  18 km.  6 hrs. 20 degrees. Sun. 7 stiles. 12 gates. 4 bridges. Kumar Sangakkara: over 2100 runs in all matches for Surrey this season, and averaging nearly a hundred. A master batsman of impeccable technique: feisty during his early career, statesmanlike later on. Perhaps a career to come in Sri Lankan politics?

Dear Lord
Let me flame red in the autumn of my years.
May my opinions remain sharp:
Tempered with kindness and wisdom.
Let me not be conservative
Because I am frightened
But may I dare to believe the impossible
And so follow
The calling you have gifted us.