Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Town and Country

                                                              Crown of thorns: Pytchley

Today I could do urban or I could do rural. In light of the beautiful sunshine would I prefer to contemplate grimy windows or the moderated ordure of the farmyard? I opt for things pastoral and park in front of the little church at Hardwick.

Where do you feel more comfortable? Do you like to look out over a vista of brick and tile, concrete and clay to the blocky shapes of the city, or over dappled greenery to blue remembered hills? I used to work with a good colleague who said that the countryside made her feel insecure - mildly agoraphobic I suppose - whereas she felt safe in the enclosed spaces of the town. I can recall the panic of being lost in the Great Outdoors, but I've more often felt threatened in stressed urban environments - Peckham, Deptford, the 'wrong' bits of Paris, Bethlehem, the suburbs of Eastern European cities, townships in South Africa. I can readily identify with that character in Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities  : a single wrong left or right in the city, and the whole world turns upside down: his life unravels.

The Roman poet Martial gave us the phrase rus in urbe which Virgil had already traced out as an ideal some decades before. I have no evidence, but have always wondered whether the strange changes in (and even abandonment of) Roman British cities in the second and third centuries AD was an improvisation around this theme. Did the citizenry act out on their desire to get back to the land, and reject the Forum for the fields?

Until I began this long walk, I'd never really considered the differences between the urban and the rural in terms of the Diocese of Peterborough. The cultural gaps feel substantial. The financial contributions between Town and Country may be skewed. There may be unspoken differences in attitudes to faith between the two, mirroring political and social views. Things that seem important in the one may seem trivial in the other. It may actually be harder for individuals to believe  depending on where they are. Are we certain we know where the shadows of conservatism and radicalism are falling just now? The pattern may not be the same now as twenty years ago, and the forthcoming election may give us new information. If you had a free rein (country metaphor?) where would you want to put the resources. Go on. Choose! In this blog I'm saying I'd like us all to feel united of purpose. But is it remotely possible?

As I turn onto the field path which will carry me towards Orlingbury, I can hear a woman's voice savagely rebuking someone: 'Just because you're a bitch on heat, it doesn't mean...' As I check my map she continues to chunter on in like fashion at - ah, her poor pooches! - but she doesn't see me until I round the hedge end. As I come into sight, her demeanour changes on a dime. We nod familiarly at each other as country lovers should and smile civilised smiles. Presumably as I recede into the distance, her invective resumes.

It's perfectly dry now on the fields, apart from the remnants of this morning's heavy dew. I cross a series of rivulets, each trickling down their own little mini-valley, with Orlingbury's church tower clearly in view. But on a rising field there's a sign on the gate telling me to watch out for a bull. Like you do, I peer anxiously up and down the pasture, but there's no audible or visual evidence of bullishness. As I cross on the diagonal however, I see a herd of cattle the far side of the next fence/hedge. There are a lot of new calves among them too. The cattle eye me up as I walk towards them, raising their heads to sniff out friend or foe, and as I approach the field end, they move decisively and strategically, shielding their babies, and blocking my way through the gate. It's an impasse. They stare me out from a couple of metres distance, and no matter how I wheedle, cajole or threaten, they ain't goin' nowhere. I consider, and then decide I'm not going to risk it. There are too many of them, and they're too nervous. The consequence is at least a mile of detour, possibly more, and a tedious road trudge, but if in doubt, leave it out!

The road has me walk past Little Harrowden's 'The Lamb' - a Charles Wells pub, which takes me back. A long time ago, I wrote and recorded a number of radio commercials for this brewery. In fact their continued existence is probably entirely down to the sterling work I put in on their behalf! Me and The Prince of Wales Rattlers we should have a pint on the house every time we pass for singing Charles Wells, Charles Wells, CHARLES WELLS! with such gusto. I don't put this notion to the test. It's too early in the day anyway.

When I finally get there, the churchyard of St. Mary's Orlingbury is idyllic, even though the church itself is closed. A parishioner is doing some gardening. The sun is warm, the seat south-facing. I eat a chicken sandwich, and a trifle reproachfully a single freethinking brown hen appears from nowhere and walks delicately around my feet. It's only when you take the time, and have the sun in the right place that a chicken's glossy plumage can look so perfectly beautiful (although I suspect mescalin might have the same effect, judging by Aldous Huxley's experience with his corduroy trousers - the infinite in the ordinary!)

The current St. Mary's isn't enormously old: it's a replacement of the medieval church. It's locked, but inside there's an effigy reputed to be the likeness of a hero of local folklore: Jock of Badsaddle. The story has it that in the fourteenth century Jock dispatched England's last wolf. If this lacks a tad in the historical authenticity department, it's still a fantastic name. The man deserves a country ballad all of his own. And yes, there's still a Badsaddle Farm in the vicinity.

                                                        Inside Pytchley church: Easter   

It's not very far to Pytchley. I like the view as one approaches, with the Overstone Arms pub set directly underneath the church on the rise. Of course the village name makes me think of hunting, but since the passing of the Great House, I don't think any part of the Pytchley Hunt is still resident there.
Personally, I'm ambivalent about this strand in the British countryside tradition. I don't care for the class connections of the Hunt ( any Hunt!) and have never thought the environmental arguments in favour were up to much - it doesn't seem logical to me as a way of controlling the fox population - but there's something fascinating and involving about hunting as symbolic of the history of our countryside. At the age of fifteen I was very taken with Sassoon's Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man even though it was an 'O' level set text. But I really don't like the yah and boo between Hunt supporters and 'Sabs'. I suspect both sides enjoy too much the chance to scrap, and to caricature each other as the epitome of all they hate in contemporary society. Perhaps, a bit like the monarchy, we should retain hunting on its current basis for ceremonial purposes, an anachronism to remind us of our roots. By the large I think it's a practice that unhelpfully divides Town from Country. (By the way, lest I offend royalty-supporting readers, one doesn't necessarily get rid of 'anachronisms' unless one has something better to put in their place, and in the case of the monarchy, I for one haven't.)

The church and the pub are both open. I do the holy thing first, and enjoy the wide open space of the All Saints nave. There's a bit of room in the lounge of the Overstone Arms too. The patron and the chef are discussing the selection of the Lions team for New Zealand. No slot for hooker Dylan Hartley, England captain and club skipper at Northampton Saints, which doesn't go down well. It's actually a bit too empty in the bar ( no other conversations to overhear) so I sup up and leave quickly, moving on towards Isham across the very lumpy fields to the east of the village. British History Online mentions all kinds of Roman and later discoveries in the vicinity. I cross an obvious 'hollow way. In these kinds of places you always wonder how much archaeological work has been done. There's so much under our feet. Not everywhere can be dug, but if it hasn't been it would be worth getting the shovels out here, I reckon. Interestingly it seems lots of stuff has been found under the church.

Soon I cross garden land in front of an industrial scale battery farm where HGVs deliver foodstuffs to hoppers, and then the Weetabix factory appears on the horizon dominating the Burton Latimer side of Isham. Weetabix have been in the news in recent days. The Chinese have sold them. Americans have bought them. It seems Weetabix (how do you pronounce that in Mandarin?) products proved a hard breakfast sell in Beijing and Shanghai. I'm supposing there'll now be many local people worried for their jobs: these kinds of take overs often don't work out so well. Remember Cadbury's?

Gigs in Isham. Twenty or so years ago there was a festal evensong when we took our choir over from Weston Favell to sing. I recall a rather recalcitrant, creaky organ, and a somewhat uncertain reception from the small congregation. The church was cold and, well, not really very festal. And I know I did an evening with friend Brendan and band at the pub, which I'm fairly sure was then called the Monk's Head or somesuch. It was one of the last occasions before legislation from which I had to endure the 'spilt beer and fags' effect on my gear (the smell would last for weeks and repeated exposure would make it permanent which is one reason why fastidious old me did so few pub gigs. These days one leaves with the merest whiff of eau de Watney hanging about the person. The same hostelry now appears to have become the Bear and Beignet. This gourmet pairing sounds like one of the weirder concotions whipped up by aspiring Masterchef contestants before John and Gregg have knocked common sense into them: infinitely resistible. Well, I don't fancy a beignet and St. Peter's is locked, so I march on, contemplating the signs decorating the trees and fences of Isham.

                                                                Drivers need a by-pass!

It's true, the main road here, the A509 has become as they used to say, arterial. It's an obvious and necessary connection between the A14 (itself an A1/M1 east-west link) and the A45, so there's a steady stream of cars and lorries through the middle of Isham. But O Denizens of the Bear and Beignet/St. Peter's Church you pays your money and makes your choice. If you get your by-pass, you also get an infill between the by-pass and your village (see my posts re: Towcester). You'll lose your countryside and fresh air, and is that what you really want? Already Isham is very nearly part of Burton Latimer which is very nearly part of Kettering and Rushden, which will soon be joined to Wellingborough. I have to brave a quarter mile of a pathless A509 before I can veer off on the track to the Harrowdens. The traffic is bad. If you're contemplating this walk, don't consider it with children or in bad weather - more dangerous even than a field of cows!

St. Mary's, Little Harrowden lost its spire in 1703, but it's a pretty church in a parish that's apparently one of the 'longest and narrowest' in the diocese. Why? Geographical accident, I suppose. I go through the Romanesque doorway into the church past a parishioner who tells me a meeting's about to begin. And indeed within a couple of minutes more folk arrive. I briefly explain why I'm there, but no one's interested, so I leave them to do their thing, whatever it is. Should they have shown more concern?  I don't know: the whole world doesn't revolve around me and my obsessions, but perhaps a smile wouldn't have gone amiss. We're not a private club, are we? That said, solemn and sad things are part of church life, and maybe that was the content of their agenda. It doesn't do to jump to conclusions, though I frequently do.

There's a 'Doom' painting in All Saints, Great Harrowden, but the church there is locked so I don't get to see it. I spot the grave of Dorothy Darlow in the churchyard. Earlier in the day I'd read a piece she'd written remembering former times in Pytchley, and spend a moment contemplating the changes she'd have witnessed up to her death in 2014. When we came to Northampton in 1973, it was still the case that younger teenage children from town were frightened by escalators when taken on trips to London. If you lived in Rushden, for some Wellingborough was still the big place you visited only on special occasions. We were incomers, and the 'Eastern Development' of Northampton had just been built, to the consternation of established townees who thought it signified the End of Everything. These days I spend a lot of time thinking whether like them I've just become more conservative and scared as I've got older, or whether the nature and scale of societal change is now greater. Of course, I think the latter...

Statty man: 20.5 km.  6.5 hrs. 15 degrees C. 5 churches. One open. Two advertisements for axe-throwing as a pastime.

When I was little
Someone claimed the words:
'Bind us together, Lord, Bind us together,
'With cords that cannot be broken...'
For the Baptist 'National Anthem'.
I like the ideal
(the Baptist bit somewhat less)
But I can't live it.
'Do I love these people?
'I don't even like them!'
I once heard someone say.
I know what they meant.
We're so polarised.
Pro Brexit - Anti Brexit
Capitalist - Worker ( yes, still, apparently)
Monarchist - Republican
Town - Country
North - South
And I haven't even got onto
Race, Gender or Religion.
Help me each day, Lord,
To find humility
To remember my creatureliness
To show love
To go 'one down',
And so (perhaps) find Eternal Life.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Revival hour

I love the slow-television reveal of the landscape as I breast the rise on Wilby Lane out of Great Doddington and watch the spire of St. Mary's on the far side of the valley increase in size as I approach. The drop down to the Swanspool Brook is steep for thirty metres or so, but up the other side I'm immediately into Wilby. I push open the church door as quietly as I can. There's still a loud creak. The Rector, Jackie Buck, is nearing the climax of their once monthly weekday Eucharist. For a few moments I sit on a chair at the back, and then go up to share communion with five church members surprised to find themselves suddenly a congregation of six. When the service is over, there's coffee and home-made cake. I introduce myself to Janet, Eileen, John, Margaret and Julia. They tell me a bit about the parish. I confide to Jackie that, looking at the long prayer list on the church notice board full-time ministry was never a vocation for me. All that giving of oneself, I say. She replies that it's a two-way process. I don't follow through on that. I'm thinking, but don't say out loud, that even Jesus felt the power drain away when someone in the crowd touched him. I know this is a rather introverted response. What personality type was Jesus? The benefice works well, Jackie tells me. There's a lot of sharing between Wilby and her two other churches at Ecton and Great Doddington.

Away from Wilby, I zig-zag through the Wellingborough housing estates to St. Mark's on Queensway. As so often with churches, its hall hosts a pre-school playgroup. Their Lenten meetings have been using a Rowan Williams text as a study focus - tough and intellectual stuff. Mandy Cuthbertson, the vicar, is moving on to be the Diocesan Advisor for the Healing Ministry. In the relevant pages on the Peterborough website Mandy says: '...I believe the Healing Ministry is not a sideline of the Church's ministry and mission, but an integrated part of it, for it was at the heart of Jesus' own ministry and teaching...'  The footnote to the page adds 'If you are concerned about any unusual, puzzling or troubling incidents, please contact the Bishop's office'. I very frequently am of course, but I suspect they wouldn't appreciate me phoning up every five minutes about the things which trouble me!

Off the hill and closer to the town centre is St. Barnabas'. It represents a slightly earlier period of church building than St. Mark's sixties' small-scale functionalism. I guess St. Barnabas' to be a creature of the nineteen thirties, massively brick built, like a holy relative of Cambridge's blank-faced, monolithic University Library, though in a much nicer material. It's no surprise to find that both churches are closed to visitors today. How could it be otherwise in this untidy, needy town? The descent into Wellingborough down Oxford Road is bleak, although it's personal memories which colour that. There to my left is Westlands Care Home where lovely Joan, my mother-in-law spent her last months declining into a largely benign dementia, which for all its benignity was immensely distressing for those of us who watched. She'd always been an energetic, kindly soul, known to many in Weston Favell because she believed you ought to be nice to and interested in everyone you met, even if you merely passed them in the street. Her talent for creative play made our Matt the man he is now, capable of deep thought, possessed of an amazing, compassionate work ethic, and a capacity for the best kind of silliness.

I stop by the Tithe Barn, and think of the monks of Croyland Abbey who founded an outpost of their fenland House here by the Swanspool and were rewarded by having a car dealership named after them. Because of them ancient Waendelburgh grew to become today's Wellingborough. The old name survives in the annual Maytime 'Waendel Walk' which beats the bounds of the town.

                                                                    Open for business?

Behind the Market Square (the medieval regulations permitted a Wednesday-only market here, but commerce got the better of that notion yonks ago) is the oldest extant building: All Hallows church. Behind heavy duty, firmly closed gates across the porch I can just glimpse a sign welcoming visitors. It's the second hostage to fortune I've encountered today. Earlier I'd smiled at a Borough Council notice which shouted across a derelict parade of shops that it was working in partnership with the local community (in vandalism? in bankruptcy?)  You can't only blame the clergy, there are all kinds of risks with open churches, and it's too easy to stand from afar and be critical, but isn't it obvious that if Christians want to make a favourable and lasting impression on the public, a church like All Hallows has got to be at the forefront of our presentation during working hours? At the moment it's too easy for people to ignore us.

The Victorian churches in this town are all huge, none more so than the URC: a huge temple of a place just up the hill. There was once a great deal of money sloshing around, and now it's all gone. I go to look for the Kilburn School of Dancing in Rock Street, now resident in a low profile, low rise building. When I left teaching, during the transitional year in which I slowly emerged as a professional musician, I drove once a week to Kilburn's former building in a vain attempt to enthuse the ten or so full-time students about singing. I hadn't a clue what I was doing, and I shouldn't think they benefited one iota from what I said, but I was cheap and I probably ticked a box for Kilburn's prospectus. I remember one of the girls was a junior lion-tamer. The one boy (poor, or lucky?) was called Kriss, though I assume that was a nom de guerre. To cheer myself up I used to play a cassette of Springsteen's 'Hungry Heart' on the way there and back. Quite loudly, drowning out my sorrows and doubts.

I have an appalling pulled pork wrap at the newly re-opened Castle Theatre. It's not the wrap or the pulled pork that's the problem, it's the mayo, the BBQ sauce, the coleslaw, the strange things in the salad they don't tell you about that combine to make it so dreadful. And all for a fiver. It gives a new meaning to the idea of 'take away' food. Please! Just take it away! Boom boom. I'd have paid more for them not to muck the meat about. However, I'm very glad that the funding has been found to give Wellingborough back its cultural heart.

Round the corner is another vast palace of religion, All Saints Church, whose nineteenth century architects probably had in mind a Roman-style basilica. Its geographical proximity to All Hallows means that they function as twin stars in Wellingborough's central ecclesiastical firmament. It's here that young Harrison Cook from our church has recently found a home for his enthusiastic musical talents. And again, within a half-mile or so is St. Mary's. Now I know from Simon Jenkins' 'Thousand Best Churches' to expect something special here: it's one of only three four-star rated churches in the county, which puts it in his UK top one hundred. So rather exceptionally, I knock on the keyholder's door, and ask if I can look inside. Peter Walker slowly and carefully establishes that I'm not going to steal the family silver and opens up. As Jenkins notes, the exterior isn't remarkable, but the interior is truly staggering. The Gothic inspired design is by Sir Ninian Comper, dating from 1908, under the financial patronage of the three Misses Sharman, and there are echoes of Italy all around the worshipper, though the ornate rood screen is British tradition incarnate. The money ran out, of course it did, so what Comper intended as a final decorative result is best seen in the lavish gilt and colouring of the side chapel. But even as eventually finished in the nineteen fifties, the main body of the church invokes in me a great sense of calm, something to do with the size of the space relative to the number of seats. This was a late-flowering part of the dreams which once existed for Wellingborough in the decades after the coming of the railway, when the tree-lined Midland Road would enable elegant folk to walk with their parasols (to provide shade from the sun not the rain - Wellingborough has less precipitation than almost anywhere in the UK)  up to the town centre. And to their right as they walked would be the splendour of St. Mary's, which now sits incongruously among the growing urban deprivation of Knox Road.

Peter tells me that the church is full each week. It's a centre of Anglo-Catholic ritual so intense it undoubtedly eclipses the Roman Catholics round the corner, and so people come from far and wide to participate - or perhaps just to be present - amid the grandeur of procession, incense and music. Do they have a choir, I ask? Peter tells me they have a Cantor, who was in the West End in 'Chess' and 'Phantom of the Opera'. It fits somehow. Peter smiles at the thought that the Bishop probably doesn't entirely approve of what goes on within the walls of St. Mary's. I'm unsure that I do either, but then, I'm reminded of Christ being anointed with spikenard, and think to myself that back when there was all that dosh in Wellingborough, this wasn't the worst use of it. But how to go on caring for it now? Ninian Comper wanted to be buried here, but they stuck him in Westminster Abbey, which is what you get for being good at art.

Before I go, Peter and I talk about Wellingborough's future, which is in a dramatically expanded housing stock, most of it to the east of town, where presumably it will become one with Rushden.
And so this is a little local test of the theory that building houses gets you out of the financial doldrums. Will Wellingborough's struggling economy recover and return prosperity to the place? The politicians believe so. I hope as the French say 'ca vaut la peine'. But the police will tell you that the EDL are strong around here, so something must be done.

The last Wellingborough church I visit today is St. Andrew's, up on the estates around the western edge of town, where friend Michelle runs the show. I hum and hah about phoning her beforehand, but decide to leave it to chance. In the event she's in the middle of talking a couple through a forthcoming funeral, but leaves them considering hymn options for a few minutes to show me the compact, friendly, neat space which is the church. Things are on the up. The congregation is increasing in number, and they're working with her to make the parish more effective. Michelle is lovely, so I'm not at all surprised, but it's good to see that she's in good spirits. Here's a parish which in some respects is the polar opposite to St. Mary's. Belief-wise they probably share a catholic perspective, but the manner of expressing what they believe is very different. If Revival is to come to Wellingborough, all hands are needed on deck, financially, culturally, and in terms of faith. Nationally the same is true. Can a Phoenix arise, post-Brexit, post post-modernism?

Stats Man:  19 km. 6 hours. 15 degrees C, and sunny most of the day. A chilly breeze. Six churches: entrance effected into three of them, by invitation or request. One eating experience, regrettable. One fly tip (avoided). No stiles (unsurprising). Nine gates. Sundry bridges across the Swanspool.

These rhythms all around us:
The way the Church ebbs and flows:
In fashion/out of fashion:
Waxing and waning:
It probably seems insignificant to You.
But down here on the ground,
It's so easy to be worried,
Caught up in the preoccupations of today,
Anxious about the way things seem to be going.

Thank You for the faithful people I meet:
Trying to make sense of the Gospel:
Trying to follow You.
Add me to their number
By Your grace.
So may Revival come. Or not.
Whatever You will.
I ask it in Your name,

Monday, 10 April 2017

Palm Court and Palm Sunday

It's going to be warm, so the weather pundits say, and indeed it's been dry and mild right through these last few days. And so that strange thing happens as the British give themselves permission to cast off winter clothes and live the dream, hood down, club music hitting every beat squarely, flesh and bling well on fat n'fun display. Driving along the multi-ethnic, multi-pubbed Wellingborough road on Thursday evening it felt like the Boys were back in Town. There were tint-windowed, suspension-lowered GTIs everywhere. People were spilling off the pavements even at nine o'clock. A vague suggestion of menace and 'who are you looking at?' hung in the air. Is it me that's changed or Northampton. A bit of both, probably.

But let's hear it for the sunshine. Clear blue skies today, every bird busy and singing its heart out, blossom to the maximum. Since I was last walking in Overstone, the builders have moved in. Readers will think I'm making this up to ride a familiar hobby horse, but we only noticed a few months ago how the fields towards Moulton are being gouged out by earth-movers. A large new housing estate is to be constructed there, with little infrastructural provision as far as can be seen, except that the A43 is to be dualled close by. That apart, the roads, the schools, the health services - they'll all just have to cope. It was announced back in 2014 apparently - but we didn't know, of course we didn't, because Northampton no longer has a daily paper, and we choose not to listen to local radio. The problem is there's always something useful among the junk in your inbox.

Overstone and Sywell run seamlessly the one into the other. There's Overstone Heights in Sywell, and I've just parked off Sywell Road, Overstone. I buy a copy of The Times in the village Post Office.  Mr. Murdoch's proxies are discussing pruriently the prospects of the US and Russia going to war, but that all feels a million miles away as I walk east along the straight road up to Pie Corner, a little close of modern houses next to Sywell's pub. I can find nothing to tell me why it was so named, unless the hostelry was (still is?) renowned for its steak and ale. The only reference I can find on the web has Big Ade, whoever he is, tell the world he thinks he'd fit in well there. A stile takes me into a lumpy field. I walk down to a dried stream bed and then up to the church of St. Peter and St. Paul. The handsome cottages to the far side of the church look like estate houses, sturdily and prettily built in an artsy and crafty Edwardian way.

The rapeseed is brilliantly in bloom in the fields. At first the path to Mears Ashby neatly cuts a broad swathe through the sea of yellow, but where it pulls up the other side of another little valley, it's narrower and I'm pushing through plants that are as tall as me and slightly damp on my shorts and bare legs.  It's dustily dry underfoot now. Too much more of this nice weather and the water companies will be crying drought. Perhaps I could have gone back to my Merrills today.

I would have said I knew Mears Ashby - we pass close to it weekly - but I find I don't. It's a severely square shape on the map, which if we were in France might suggest fortifications, but this is Northamptonshire and such things don't exist here. Inside the square there's another dip to the next stream on its way down to the Nene, and a little nest of roads with many distinguished houses representing a number of moments from the last four hundred years or so. A couple are up for sale and I talk to Maria from Jackson Stops, who's just been showing prospective clients around a little cottage. Too small for us, I say, but she smiles a charming smile and presses a business card upon me - Jackson Stops were the agency who negotiated our current house. All Saints church hangs solidly above a flowery ravine with a pond at its bottom. On the far side is the large Manor House. I stop and honour the name of Callis on some of the gravestones.  I was at college with Charles Callis from this local farming family. His brother Richard and wife Veronica worship at our St. Peter's.

I ignore the path which runs northwards from the village, fearing more wet rapeseed, and go by road instead, because I want to drop into the Beckworth Emporium for a drink and the loo. Beckworth is a tremendously successful business attracting hundreds of people every weekend (and many weekdays too) to its garden centre, cafĂ© and fine foods shop. The staff are unfailingly pleasant and helpful, the ambience cheery and at Christmas you can watch the skating and buy a reliable well-priced, needle-fast tree. It's a regular breakfast treat for us. It does the simple things very well, and so has flourished. And after that endorsement, I'll expect 10% off all future transactions. The downside of my call on them today is a dodgy walk along the back road to Wellingborough, and I have to take conservative care, stepping into the ditch when in doubt until I can pick up the streamside bridleway to Hardwick.

Hardwick is the sort of nominal village equivalent of the Smith family name. You can find Hardwicks all over the shop. This one is a small collection of houses and farms around St. Leonard's church, with a postage stamp green and one tree. It was probably always a tiny settlement. Wikipedia tells me that there's an additional shade of meaning to wic  of which I was unaware: a village so named was dependent on another community close by - in this case I suppose probably Mears Ashby, although the expanding girth of Wellingborough creeps closer year on year. A youngish man is testing out a pushbike for his wife, who arrives back from work while he's doing so. They play with their pretty little, laughing pre-school daughter. I wonder if they ever have anything to do with the beautifully tended church. Perhaps they cut the grass. There's a notice in the porch to say that the benefice has been suspended. One reason that this might have happened, though not the only one, is that one of the churches in it may have been unable to pay its way. They still have a priest-in-charge though, Duncan Beet, but he's on his way elsewhere, so from now on there's an interregnum. I wonder what will this do for the churches of Overstone, Sywell, Mears Ashby and Hardwick? People can grow - in the modern parlance 'step up' - at such times, or they can decide to jack it in and go somewhere else, or nowhere at all. We are a supermarket culture, or so we're told, and the church is competing for trade. Is that right?

The lane takes a right angle in the village, and I walk up it towards the woods trying to ignore the lacework of litter beside it. Near Grange Farm two Transit vans pass me. There are three up front in the first and a single bloke driving the second. This is no statement of his marital status: there is just one of him! The gate to the farm is opened and they go on down the track towards it. They don't look right to me. Looking at the livestock around me, I think, 'Sheep rustlers?'

Generally speaking, compared with the west of the county, there are few footpaths around here. Why is that? I suppose the communities may be slightly more scattered, and in times past the population may just have been smaller. Or maybe rascally landowners shut them down long ago. Or maybe it's something to do with field use. Or perhaps wartime experience - airfields and so on - changed necessary permissions. It means more road walking for me, but round the back of the farm there are bridleways, a bit knobbly now that the ground has dried out. And horses obviously exercise on them regularly, because at one point I come to a little series of well-organised jumps. From the west side of the wood I can hear the sounds of shooting and I recollect that I've seen directions to a range off the A43 to Kettering. The fields are full of sheep, with winsome, just-past-gambolling lambs. It's hopeless trying to get pictures: I could be there all day. As soon as the camera comes out, the mummy sheep herd their little ones out of the way in a way that's truly very endearing. No human mother could be more protective.

Then I hear loud voices over the fields and raucous, revving engines. I can see the two Transits again, over to my left. Evidently not rustlers then. The blokes are standing, admiring trials bikes which have exited the rear doors of the vans. Soon they're racing them around a field very close to the sheep. I look for a verifiable phone number for the farm, but can't find one, and so have to leave them to traumatise the animals. Are they doing this with the farmer's connivance, or illegally. I don't know but I find it peculiarly distressing.

Up past the solar farm, I come back to the road near Beckworth, and walk back towards the car past Sywell Aerodrome, winner of several awards for being the best UK 'General Aviation airfield'. I have a drink at the bar of their fashionably Art Deco hotel, and study the clientele hanging out to watch the planes take off and land on the grass strip. It's a jolly place on a regular Saturday afternoon (there's no special event today, though next week their little aviation museum will re-open with a bit of formation flying, re-enactors and weather permitting, 'the appearance of a friendly war bird or two'). On this day before Palm Sunday, in this slightly Palm Court setting (no band though: just cheesy pop on the stereo), I reflect that there are as many people sitting in the sun as there will be in church tomorrow morning. Are we so much less attractive than this as a place to be?

Statto: 17 km. 5 hrs. 20 deg. C. Light breeze. One stile. Nine gates. One bridge. Three churches: all shut. One garden centre. One kestrel. One estate agent, mildly predatory. One Hawker Hunter, now toothless, proudly displayed. Countless lambs, universally appealing, some sooty. And on my I-phone, goodness, Northants C.C., winning their first county match of the season by an innings. On April 8th!

Walking in the Sunshine of Your Love today
I found it hard going.
Everywhere looked
(here we go with the cliché )
'achingly beautiful'.
Pain in my heart, you see,
And fatigue in my muscles.
I was thinking about Trevor,
Whose life we'll celebrate on Wednesday,
Returned to heaven so early.
And these things I report:
All so transient.
The life of those lambs:
So short.
I ask you again to help me understand this,
And to accept all that we have
So fleetingly
As precious gifts from You to us
And to find a proper response
To Your kindness and generosity.