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.

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