Monday, 20 February 2017

Citius, altius, fortius

It's an equestrian life, Henry. Or at least it is west of Towcester on a February Saturday morning. My drive along the back road to Wappenham is funereally slow. I sit behind a horsebox which apologises to me every metre during our sluggish progress. But hey, relax, there's no hurry. What's an extra minute or two?

In the field beyond the church I can see an agglomeration of horsey clutter. I assume there's a point-to-point in progress. And shortly after the beginning of my walk a smart young woman nurses her bay past me up out of a muddy little ravine near the fishponds, smiling beatifically. A lot of the route today is along bridle paths. As a result the walking is slightly awkward because of the shared space. But that's OK, providing everyone's considerate. I still like Sassoon's 'Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man' a lot, even though it was an 'O' level set text. It encouraged a teenage predisposition to be warm towards equestrian society, even though my one young experience of actually sitting on a horse was alarming. My mount that day was large, grumpy and recalcitrant. Shortly afterwards I endured a frightening episode on a remote Yorkshire path with a hungry animal curious about the contents of my rucksack. And I was several times annoyed by the high-handedness of hunting people in their seventies pomp around the Northamptonshire lanes. They seemed to me to be toff-ish, privileged vandals whose anti-social behaviour was actively condoned by the great and good, in contrast to the urban kids I was teaching whose equally obnoxious activities were roundly condemned by press and population. But that was then. It's different now, I think. And I was much moved the other evening while watching Madam Secretary when Tea Leoni had to say goodbye to her much loved steed, now racked with cancer.

More worryingly, a mile or so along the path, near the farms at Astwell Park, another young woman, more informally dressed, has difficulty controlling her pony as they pass me. I stand very still and utter soothing words, but even so she has a job staying aboard. It's one of those moments that gives pause for thought, and consideration of whether a first-aid course might be a good idea. A few years back I actually came across the aftermath of an equestrian fall in a field to the north of the county, where a rider and her companions were waiting anxiously for the chopper ambulance to arrive. There was nothing to be done that day, but my mobile phone apart, I'd have little to contribute now if confronting an accident.

Meteorologically it's rather a cheerless morning, and it feels like a long haul over the neglected fieldpaths to Syresham. Once upon a time this was very much a forest village. The church of St. James the Great is a little isolated from the main part of the settlement, and unusually distant from the pub, the King's Head. I imagine that with time and the establishment of the turnpike from Northampton to Brackley the village straggled out towards the road away from Church End. The inside of St. James is very welcoming, and I sit and rest my feet prayerfully for a while, before retiring to the King's Head for a ginger beer and a natter with Henry, whose chatting-up of the barmaid I probably interrupted. Henry works on local farms. We talk about the local byways and the churn from incomer, recreational 4x4s, and how he's been involved in making good some of the routes. I do not overstay my welcome, hating to be an impediment to courtship.

The shape of Syresham is intriguing - a bit more than a simple two street scheme, and also comprises a short, broad High Street - paradoxically wider than the adjoining Broad Street. I misread the map and wander down to the stream passing a house which has a justifiably outraged notice at the end of its drive complaining about the dumping of multiple plastic bags of canine excrement on their property. If this is a random act, it's of course an astonishingly horrible thing to do. Well, even if there's some unknown vendetta going on, it's still horrible! But on my way back up the street, I notice that horses have passed this way recently, leaving their mark on the road. Is dog poo in principle or practice worse than horse poo? Or does the tolerance of the latter render the former somehow more acceptable in the blinkered eyes of some dog-owners?

My onward route skirts the football field, and takes me west towards Pimlico, where I have to traverse a 'bio-secure' battery farm without spotting the facility I'm assured has been provided to wash my boots clean. Shortly afterwards I find myself in a large farm garden with an extensive (and expensive!) model train network running hither and thither through the grounds. I guess the RMT or ASLEF must have got to the workforce. No trains running today. Or maybe it's a case of  'leaves on the line'. Or a winter timetable. Pity!

Radstone was once a two-fold village. There was Nether Radstone and Upper Radstone. Since a couple of hundred years Nether Radstone is no more: just a memory under the fields, courtesy of an aristocratic clearance. There's something left of Upper Radstone on the far side of a noble bridge which carries me over the defunct Great Central Railway. Once upon a time the Great Central did what it said on the tin, providing a third alternative to the routes from the North to London. It was carefully engineered to allow fast running, but even so, as an idea it never really caught on and became a principal casualty of Beeching, leaving Marylebone Station as a Monopoly venue and a trainspotting and travelling afterthought (unless you live in the Chilterns!)

I'm caught unawares by St. Lawrence's church. The approach is along a shady path of leaf mould, and it's clear 'summat's oop' by the state of the two lamp stands which should light the way for night-time visitors. They're yellowed and uncared for. Although the church is open, a sad notice on the door tells me that entrance would be injurious to my health because of bat droppings and urine. I push the door ajar. Inside the pews are covered in plastic and although the church furniture looks OK, it's clear long term work is being undertaken (the web later informs me this is a problem going back some years). I don't understand. I've now visited so many churches I'd like to have been able to access but couldn't. Here's one I can easily get inside, but whose doors should probably be firmly locked shut.

Admiring the splendid purple brickwork which lines its route, I cross under the Great Central (why has no one reclaimed them?) and press on to the hamlet of Falcutt and then to the outskirts of Helmdon. St. Mary Magdalene's, Helmdon is also set apart, up on the rise, hedging its bets as to whether it serves the big house at Falcutt or the people of the village. Although none of the supposed medieval decorations survive, the sanctuary with its stained glass and flowers is an enlivening, colourful focus for worship. Don't we need our churches to be a stimulus to all the senses, sonic, visual and olfactory, to the greatest degree possible? Surely anything else is a covert denial of God's creative power? Miserabilists please note, it cannot be Lent all the year round. Helmdon was Northamptonshire's best village in 2016, but I'm running out of daylight and puff, so can't go to check the centre of town for evidence.

I decide to take the easier option back to Wappenham, and choose what claims to be a gated road towards Astwell, although in fact there's not a gate to be seen along its length. I'm glad I do this because the track hugs the slightly higher ground to the south and gives me lovely prolonged views out over the upper Tove valley. Eventually it brings me down to Astwell, the house and hamlet from which the benefice comprising the local churches takes its name. There are two things about Astwell, The first is the remains of the castle: the tower is very obvious, standing above the house and farm complex, looking younger than its real age. The second is the tragic and mysterious story of the WW2 plane crash which killed ten USAF personnel at 8.19 a.m. on November 30th 1943. It could have been even worse. As the B-17 bomber came down in flames, with pretty much a full complement of bombs apart from the one which had apparently exploded mid-air, it narrowly avoided the farm cottages. What I can't quite understand is what it was doing there. It had taken off from RAF Podington on the Bedfordshire border (now the Santa Pod raceway) to bomb targets in Germany. The weather had forced the mission to be aborted. But what were the planes doing so far to the west, thirty miles away?

A coda to the Radstone visit. I hadn't realised exactly where the proposed route of HS2 lies. I suppose I'd always thought it would fall somewhere to the west of Brackley. Not so. The line will pass within 250 metres of Radstone, and so of course has been the subject of challenge, alarm and despondency among residents. I shouldn't be surprised. There was a logic to the route chosen by the Great Central back in the nineteenth century. As it happens I'm not personally in favour of HS2. It's extremely expensive. It's meeting a 'need' which is unproven. It's a Trojan horse for development along its length, because the government will be able to change the criteria for building on adjacent green fields. Of course, it meets the government's largely unchallenged belief that we can build our way out of economic difficulty. Whereas I think that we're merely feeding obesity, and that better answers lie in eating (consuming) less. Gaining half an hour on a journey from Manchester or Leeds to London (or vice-versa: which is the desideratum?) is no more sensible than some idiot in a BMW risking his life and mine by overtaking inappropriately for the sake of a few minutes extra in a meeting or the pub.  And anyway the cost of a seat on the train will probably be extortionate. This will not be travel for the people, who will still sit in queues on the M1 at Luton going doo-lally while the motorway is upgraded to ten, twelve, fourteen, lanes.

However, from a brief perusal of the objections submitted by Radstone locals, it would appear that the preservation of the Natterer's bats in St. Lawrence's church has been included as an argument. How exactly high speed trains and bat colonies interact with each other seems baffling to me, but as a microcosm of 21st century Britain, it seems somehow significant, viewed from a faith perspective. The church it seems, has its uses, but not as a place of worship, only as a refuge for an allegedly endangered species. Very Franciscan.

Stats man:  21k: 6 hours: 10 degrees C. Initially cloudy, but some occasional afternoon sun. Slight westerly breeze. 11 stiles: 19 gates: (the gates often stiff, sometimes locked, thus requiring gymnastic ability, the stiles often rather high -ouch! - for a bloke of my stature!) Two riders. No apocalypse. One aggressive farm dog, satisfyingly cowed by my loud pack-leader's rebuke.

Father God

I know I'm a Big Consumer.
I have had a large appetite.
Too much petrol and diesel.
Too many cakes and biscuits
(as Doctor Tiffany would tell me, if I let on).
Too much plastic.
Too many painkillers.
At one time, too much alcohol.

It's not as though I haven't been told.
I used to recommend Bishop John Taylor's
'Enough is Enough' to students.

I can diagnose the problem in others.
I seem to be unable to do much about myself.
Lord, save me from weakness of will.
Help me to do better.

And not just so that I
Can preach about it


Thursday, 2 February 2017

What a whoppa

Lowering clouds, a very damp atmosphere and an uncertain forecast, but that's January for you. I set off due south from Abthorpe towards Bucknell Wood, and join a byway that skirts the forest. It's difficult walking. The broad path, which in theory could host riders and road traffic as well as foot-soldiers like me, is churned, rutted and very wet indeed. It rained most of the second half of yesterday, and now in places the track is like a no-man's land and almost impassable. It's four by flippin' fours which have caused the problem, and after a mile, having been puzzled by a firmly padlocked five-bar across the way, I see a sign (facing the other direction) which declares that as of August 25th last year the track is forbidden to everyone, pedestrians included, for a period of six months. Oh, and hard cheese, there's no alternative route, so sod off back to where you came from, it gleefully observes. The suggestion is that this is all in the interests of public health and safety, although it doesn't qualify that statement. This is very peculiar. Firstly, were things already so bad back in the summer (not a particularly wet one) that Something Had To Be Done? Secondly, why weren't there any notices saying the same thing a few kilometres ago at the Abthorpe end? Thirdly, wouldn't it be possible just to forbid and prevent yuppity owners of Jeeps and Landcruisers (I heard some yummy mummy describe them on the radio yesterday as a 'sort of Kingston upon Thames thing'!) from spoiling everyone else's enjoyment of the countryside. And if they insist on disobedience and continue to pollute the environment, let's take their Chelsea (Kingston) Toy Tractors away and crush themOf course it's possible I missed the most important clause in the notice and the government has been conducting chemical warfare experiments in Bucknell Wood.

If the reason for the prohibition is simply to allow time for the track to recover, I guess this is OK although I don't quite see why walkers like me are the problem here (as opposed to somewhere like Kinder Scout, where clearly we are), but my paranoia runs at such a level these days, I'm always looking for sinister motives. It doesn't help to read Matt Ridley ( Viscount Ridley!) in today's Times ('Brexit will boost our green and pleasant land') trumpeting that leaving the EU means a golden opportunity for the countryside, but only by paving over swathes of it. He quotes/claims an extraordinary stat I've never seen before, which is that less than 2.5% of England is built upon. I'm fairly sure these are weasel words: it could be that this is the figure for the square meterage of actual buildings, and it may be that gardens, yards and car parks etc.  aren't included. I always understood the proportion of built environment to be about 10%. But then, in this week when 'fake news' is the news, who exactly do you believe?  Urban wildlife, says Mr. Ridley, is thriving. 'Towns and cities are now exporting surplus peregrine falcons (my italics), hedgehogs and foxes to the countryside...'

This is pure spin. It's true that peregrines have been encouraged at least into Manchester City Centre by the RSPB, although I can't offer an opinion as to whether it was a balanced or helpful idea to do so. Foxes, yes, can be a source of anxiety to some town folk, particularly when there's a hysterical reaction in the press (compare attacks by domestic dogs, to the occasional isolated incident with aggressive or hungry foxes), but have always found ways of making a quiet living in cities. From observation and anecdote, hedgehogs are everywhere in decline at present, though this may be only a cyclical change.

Turning right where I think the path should go (although there's no sign to say so, and here the ground is relatively dry, well-drained and undamaged), the tower of Wappenham church is absolutely straight in front of me about a mile away. Such is the logic of country paths, now disguised by the changed needs of the local population - but once upon a time a number of folk regularly needed to get from here to there, if only to bring kindling for the fire.

The other side of a minor road I cross a clayey field and pass some old fishponds to come up alongside the Victorian school building into the village. In Saxon times it was 'Wappa's place'. Perhaps he got his name because he was a big man, or told fibs (Whopper?)  or because he habitually administered a clip round the ear to small boys, ne'er do wells and newspaper columnists. Wap! Take that, Ridley! And here's one for you, Rees-Mogg! And you Farage!

My old friend and colleague Nigel Pegrum lived in a beautiful and ancient Wappenham cottage when I first knew him. It was an exciting, pioneering time for us in a regional recording studio that was trying to be professional in its attitudes and achievements. The project was very much Nigel's. When I first came upon him he was helping an urbane chap called Oliver, a craftsman chippie, to construct the studio's interior. I brought in an idea for an album, it was one of the first things recorded there in Neath Hill, and I gradually made myself useful at a time when Nigel's previous keyboard player Andy Richards was making waves elsewhere. Andy was an early adopter of the Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument and went on to success with Frankie Goes To Hollywood and The Pet Shop Boys. Meanwhile Nigel and I had a lot fun in Milton Keynes for a decade doing just about everything you can with recorded sound until Nigel's band Steeleye Span hit a bad patch and he glimpsed a future in Australia with Carmel, his new wife. If by any remote chance you live in Queensland and need to make an album, Nigel's the man to sort it out for you. But those early days at the beginning of the eighties were very precious. As with childhood, and it was a sort of second childhood, I can easily recapture the sights, sounds and smells of the time, and Wappenham's right there in the mix. Except now I can't remember where Nigel's house was. Was it this one? Or that one?

The church, St. Mary's, is open and I take off my mud-caked boots to peek inside. Very plain and with a broad white-washed little sanctuary, the visitor moves from darkness to light as he/she moves up the aisle. I light a candle for Nigel and his family, for the parish and their priest Carole Peters, and then after ten minutes snuff it out again, because I'm slightly candle-phobic and don't like leaving naked flames even in a safe place like this.  Carole bravely makes reference to the Vicar of Dibley in a nice piece on the village website, but suggests that in appearance she looks more like Alice than Geraldine. And how are you with jokes, Carole?

It's very gloomy today, and there's no one about except a self-conscious power-walker who thrusts wordlessly past me as I turn off down the field to the engorged stream which will later become the River Tove, and say hello to the old Stratford railway line again. From there the ground rises stickily until I find firmer footing on the drive which leads in the direction of the nice farm spread at Green's Park. Despite the notice, it's the wrong time of year for there to be a bull in their nearer field, and soon I'm on a broad upward track to Slapton Hill before dropping down to the village of Bradden. You could take the mud straight off to a pottery for working at this point and every hundred yards or so I have to stop to remove pounds of clay from my boots and stick. A man is having a good bonfire just by the road, and if I'd been bold enough I could have taken a great picture of a 'burning bush' for the archive, but he clearly doesn't want to talk, and I don't want to have to explain my thought process. (...well, you see, I'm on a sort of pilgrimage, and whenever I see something that might have religious significance or some future use, you know, for Messy Church or something, well I try to get a snap of it...You don't like having your picture taken?  Oh, you're a Muslim convert! Sorry, it's just that I wasn't expecting...Well you have a nice day now...) 

I am an alien in Bradden. According to the estate agent, it's only 9.8 miles from Northampton (convenient that, it being just the tad under ten miles, although I reckon it would take forty minutes if you were dropping off little Emma-Louise at Northampton High School during the rush hour!) but I don't believe I've ever been here. It's immediately obvious that there are a number of old, very high status houses here, more than a tiny village would usually have, so there's a story to be told. The church of St. Michael's is low slung and quite dark inside. But the one-manual organ is a reasonably recent restoration with pretty pipes. St. Michael's is one of Ben Phillip's churches (Towcester): the last in the benefice for me to visit.

The buildings of Manor Farm have been developed. One of the properties is up for sale. It would be a lovely place to live, and the village website is comprehensive to say the least, so even in the absence of a village pub, life here could be involving and full.  I nearly wrote 'lovely safe place to live', but one of Northamptonshire's most notorious murders involved a victim now buried in the churchyard here, although the crime occurred in Wood Burcote, five or so miles away. It was a mid-Victorian event, and the details were grisly, and all the more shocking because there may have been a random element about them. Of course, in those days, a capital punishment was incurred. The perpetrator went to the gallows unrepentantly, even cheerfully so. Rural crime isn't a new phenomenon.

It's a short road walk to Slapton. On the way I encounter my second dog-walker of the day, and this one is ready to forgive my tramp-like state and greet me hey-fellow-well-met-style. Tiny St. Botolph's church is locked, but I'm going to have to come back when I look more normal. There are wall-paintings inside which were merely washed over in the 17thC.  I'm speculating of course, but perhaps someone at the Manor took precautions and did it themselves before crueller, more enthusiastic hands could get at them. Now they're restored, but in my grimy condition and at the end of a trudge, I didn't feel like disturbing the keeper of the keys at the farm.

The walk back to Abthorpe past the Mill takes one through small, intimate fields, the remains of an ancient landscape, where the sheep look curiously at the visitor as if assessing him for suitability. I feel strangely at home between the close walls. I don't know whether Matt Ridley would approve, but I like it a lot.

Stats man.  14k. 4 hours. 7 degreesC. 21 stiles. 18 gates. 6 bridges.  One young man going door to door with leaflets, possibly a window cleaner: ignored me in Bradden: acknowledged me in Slapton: might have bought me a drink in Abthorpe, if I'd found the pub.

This experience of being a stranger...
I see it can be a privilege;
To be welcomed to someone's hearth;
To feel the interest and enquiry;
About how one looks;
About how one talks;
To be able to explain
Where one came from;
Who one's parents were;
What one does;
What one believes;
All very affirming.

But there's another side, don't you think?
The suspicious looks;
The conversations behind hands;
A reticence;
At worst, a turned back
Or a locked gate;
And then loneliness.

I'm just as bad
When a visitor, an alien,
Pitches up on my doorstep.
I too feel the fear.

So is this now a lost tradition:
Welcoming foreigners?
Is it a crazy thing to do,
As some people claim?
OK, let's name the elephant in the room.
I mean Trump
And his many followers.

Forty years ago
A friend once sang
Of being a stranger in the world.
I understand better now what this means
And haven't the foggiest
What to do about it.
Please help me, Lord.
Be my friend and companion.
Share your fireside with me
And let's talk about it.