Monday, 28 August 2017

Them and us

I walk west and then north away from Middleton Cheney along the Jurassic Way. I know this particular section rather well, an old friend I haven't seen for a couple of years. As with human friends, there are new delights to be discovered on re-acquaintance, and there are things I've forgotten.

A farmer has sown a field of maize. I process up a narrow aisle between seven foot plants whose corns are just beginning to show, a jungly, childish pleasure. I enjoy as I've done before the remnants of the old green lane from Warkworth and Banbury as it wends its way between an avenue of low trees on the descent towards Chacombe. In the imagination I'm keeping company with Pride and Prejudice era young ladies out for a walk under parasols, off to do good to the poor folk.

And then I'm caught out as I've been before near here by my faulty direction finding where the path emerges into open pasture. It's the orientation of the South Cherwell Golf Club that does it, this time compounded by the presence of a large herd of frisky, mildly delinquent teenage heifers. I try to steer a path around them, but they're curious and dangerously playful, following too closely on my heels, bounding down the field. I do as you're supposed to do, turn and stare them out, while saying things in tones alternately emollient and authoritative. But this has perils of its own - walking backwards across a tussocky field isn't easy, and falling over would be a very bad idea. For a few moments I'm genuinely frightened. I can't read the heifers' behaviour accurately enough: there's too much head-shaking going on for my liking. I see a patch of worn earth surrounding some dead tree stumps ten yards away, and put these old hedge remains between me and them. The animals do as I hope, and confronted by a psychological barrier they lose interest, returning to making their own entertainment rather than taking the rise out of me. I try to settle my accelerated heart rate. Through a bosky corner, under an ornamental arch and over the next (thankfully livestock-free) field is a cracking view of Chacombe's Big House, half a mile away in the valley.

I like combes. I like the way the word crops up countrywide, and becomes the Welsh 'cwm', denoting a bowl in the landscape at the ending of a valley, often gentle in England as here, but imposing or even minatory in say, Snowdonia. Chacombe is charming and not just because it alliterates. St. Peter and Paul's is hidden behind the shrubbery in Church Lane beside a parcel of common ground. The churchyard is currently being attended to, and pieces of coloured plastic on strings - old supermarket carrier bags - warn the too-casual visitor against falling into the gaping cavity of a broken tomb. The plastic carries odd inter-faith overtones: the scraps superficially resemble Buddhist prayer flags. A notice by the church gate warns me that the path has been treated with a TV-advertised farm grade weedkiller, though it doesn't tell me what I should do about that. I suppose eating my sandwiches off the  paving wouldn't be wise. The church is shut. Had it been open I could have seen the wall painting of St. Peter being crucified upside down, one of only two such depictions in the country. Gory stuff, but perhaps painted in gory times.

The New Testament epistles paint a picture of an early church in which individuals have forgotten they're supposed to be following Jesus of Nazareth, and have latched onto a particularly glamorous disciple as the concrete embodiment of their faith. Peter and Paul were two such focuses of attention. I guess churches dedicated to both of these old-timers, such as Chacombe's, are making an ecumenical statement about seeing all sides of an argument. Trouble is, whereas perhaps Jesus continues to exert an attraction to people in every place and time including ours, Peter and Paul are difficult for the contemporary world to identify with - and maybe becoming more hard to understand with every year that Time puts between them and us. Which of the two would have dealt better with Facebook?

                                                          Parable of the Sower 2

There was once a priory in Chacombe (the Big House is also called Chacombe Priory but it's a more recent building) and on the web I've seen a suggestion that perhaps the old monks' chapel survives. I plan to go across the field to its likely site, but more cows block the way and with my last close bovine encounter too recent a memory, I decide to pass on the opportunity. Moving up the hill I come to the farm at Coton, once a hamlet of about seventy people until a nineteenth century fire destroyed some of the cottages.. Maybe too many painful memories clung to the place: the inhabitants left. The paths are vague but I pick my way round  the farm buildings and rejoin the Jurassic Way as it climbs towards Wardington and the Oxfordshire boundary. I'm making one of my periodic out-of-diocese visits, partly because it suits today's route, but also because Wardington is a gem. It's a village of two halves. The loveliest buildings, including the handsome Manor House, are in Upper Wardington, but the church is in the lower half. Along the back path between the two are some grassy ramparts above the stream. They look like a castle mound. At any rate they're serious fortifications, but I can't find any reference to them in British History Online.  There was activity around here in both the Wars of the Roses and the English Civil War: the ramparts might date from either time, but the lack of information's puzzling.

St. Mary Magdalene's church shares a benefice with one in neighbouring Cropredy, where indeed a Civil War battle was fought on the ridge, but that's not the reason the latter village name might sound familiar. Two Sundays ago it was 'Fairport Sunday' in the benefice, because each year the revered elder statesmen of folk-rock 'Fairport Convention' hold a weekend festival there. Bass player Dave Pegg lives and works in the village, and I once recorded a couple of tracks with Stuart Marson at his 'Woodworm' studio. I first saw Fairport at the Corn Exchange Cambridge on firework night 1970 and was transfixed. They were playing a music I recognised from the works of twentieth century classical composers like Britten and Vaughan Williams, but in a new, exciting and loud way. I loved Richard Thompson's dangerous guitar playing and Dave Swarbrick's impish fiddle work. Dave Mattacks' spare and sensitive drumming was a revelation. Sometimes one can be a bit too quick to say that such and such a musical moment sealed one's fate, but this really was an epiphany, and there's been a bit of me that's been walking round with a finger in one ear ever since. (For less musical readers this needs explanation. This digital tic isn't about hearing protection. It's the way folkie singers self-tune when delivering interminable ballads on the usual subjects of traditional music i.e. cuckolding and/or murder. It's usually mandatory to hold a pint of something Old and Peculiar in the other hand.)

                                                            Wardington from above

Climbing the steep slope up to the ridge beyond Wardington, I come across Anna who's helping her friend Ellie with some 'A' level geographical fieldwork. When I first see her I think she may be burying a beloved pet but actually she's measuring the water infiltration. The view from the top back towards Banbury is truly lovely in the afternoon sun and the walk along the ridge to the east should be a pleasure. But though the farmer doesn't want us to walk along the track on the northern side of the boundary, he can't be bothered to clear the path to the south, so I have to hack at the nettles and maither when I should be enjoying the vistas beneath me. Things slowly deteriorate from a path maintenance point of view the closer I get to Thorpe Mandeville, and particularly as I drop into the deep railway cutting and try to find a way up through the tangles on the other side. Overhead a single-engined jet plane performs some gentle aerobatics - an old Canberra or a Jet Provost? - something relatively ancient with straight wings. I chunter at the sheep who very sensibly run away so that they don't have to hear me swear. It's the combination of farmer behaviours I object to. If you can't be bothered to support me in my best efforts to keep to the rights of way, don't waste your money on notices telling me how private your land is while you neglect the proper care of finger posts and stiles.

At Thorpe Mandeville I head for a restorative GB at the Three Conies pub, served to me by Siobhan. She asks me if I'm walking and I explain. She remembers a church in her native Cork where everyone likes to get married - St. Finbar's: there's a waiting list of two years. I ask if she's put her name down yet. She says she'll have to find a man first. Amanda is having a drink with her family, overhears our chat and comes to the bar to join in. She's from Culworth, just up the road, and we talk about local churches, and how there's always something to be seen, and how they make us feel. When I say goodbye, I walk the length of the village and enter the little church of St. John the Baptist. A wall painting survives, and it's particularly touching. An infant Jesus is being carried on the shoulders of St. Christopher, who of course is the patron saint of travellers. Thorpe Mandeville sits on the drovers' route known as Banbury Lane, which I encountered twenty-five miles away on the outskirts of Northampton. Each year the sheep-minders would have passed this way, perhaps sheltering overnight  at the Three Conies, perhaps taking communion at the church if they were so minded. They would have seen the painting on the north wall of St. John's as they entered by the south door, and perhaps its tender symbolism gave the seventeenth century church-whiteners pause as they stripped the parish church of all other things by their lights idolatrous.

A copy of the church accounts for 2015-16 is attached to the noticeboard in the church porch. There are eleven contributions to the Planned Giving at St. John's totalling some three thousand pounds. Casual giving runs at about eight hundred pounds p.a.. There are a few other contributions to church funds, notably a harvest supper raising four hundred or so. The diocese asks the church for somewhere around £4.5k annually, for which the church will receive about a sixth of a vicar's time. They can only meet their 'parish share' by dipping very slightly into reserves. This is not sustainable.

How could the financial and pastoral resources of a church like Thorpe Mandeville be improved? Without patronising the parishioners, some of whom may be elderly and not so well off, could some church-twinning assist in promoting growth? What about the  church and the pub working together? Is the urban scene always the way to think about reviving the Church's fortunes? What if 'Revival' were to come from Britain's villages?

The way back to Middleton Cheney takes me along the 'Millenium Way', a Rotary inspired project from 2000. No doubt it seemed like a good idea at the time, but the waymarking of the path hereabouts has become sketchy with time, and it requires a bit of native wit to work out the walking line. Just a thought, but I wonder if the installation of second-rate 'Long Distance' paths means that less care is taken with the overall pattern of 'rights of way'?

Stats man: 21 km. 6.5 hrs. 22 deg. Breezy. 26 stiles. 21 gates. 3 bridges. Some leaping about. Some scrabbling under. Good rabbiting and craic at the Three Conies .

Thank you
For sunny summer days
For good people
For the beauty 
Of stone and wood
For the sense of physical well-being.
Help me to cling to these memories
In the dark times
When they come.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Earlier on the West Wing...

Hello everyone

This is the fifty-first post on this blog, since I began writing in March 2016. It's a small book already!

I'm hobbling from St. Peter's, Weston Favell to the Cathedral in Peterborough by a long series of roughly circular walks, visiting every church in the diocese on the way. So far I've passed through about 160 parishes, which means that sadly I'm almost halfway and a thousand kilometres through my travels. If you have been, thank you very much for following me thus far. But, good news, there's still much excitement to come before the final party - I shouldn't think we'll be done until the summer of 2019. Will my boots last that long?

The holy purpose behind the project is to suggest that as Anglican Christians we're better together (actually even the word 'Anglican' could go into brackets in that sentence.) Despite our different traditions and nuances of belief, IMO there's not enough money or numerical support for us to indulge our theological purity. I think we need each other, in a rainbow coalition of gender, race, and ability, lay and clerical, evangelical, catholic and everything in between, even if it means learning to disagree vigorously but in love. Steve Biko once wrote a book with the double-meaning title 'I write what I like'. I'm sure some of my preferences and prejudices are only too clear. I hope readers will stay with me. Perhaps we all need sometimes to consciously 'read what we don't like', me included.

Enough of the preaching. Only a proportion of the blog is devoted to matters of faith. I'm also trying to record an impression of Northamptonshire as it appeared to one person at a certain point in time, to be added to the tapestry of historical record. It's tempting to think the world is becoming weighed down by too much trivial personal opinion, but it's for others to decide whether the information and comment found here is worth preservation. In the first place I'm simply trying to understand what I see and hear. Inevitably there's personal reminiscence too: fragments of a stuttering autobiography could be disinterred.

A big continuing thank you to Sue and Matt for their support and lively debate about so many fascinating things. Sine quibus non.

Friday, 18 August 2017

A Dilemma

I leave be-locked Kelvin carefully attending to the interior decorating of our downstairs. For his pleasure Kelvin likes to spend his spare time hanging off mountains, putting body and soul at mortal risk. We both like the great outdoors, but by comparison, I am pure soft-core, and as in matters financial, ultra low-risk.

Driving to Farthinghoe, two straws in the wind from Radio 5. Firstly, during an interesting conversation between the presenter and an expert on university choice (it being the day of the 'A' level results), the presenter says, 'So what you're saying is, that although it's Old Skool they should pick up the phone and talk to the universities to see what can be done for them...' (meaning that students could potentially 'trade up' their university choice if they found they had better 'A' level results than expected). So, says I to the radio, is it now really 'Old Skool' to think that we should engage people one-to-one in real-time conversation, rather than texting or e-mailing them? Duh!

Secondly, Ashley Giles, the ex-England left arm spinner, these days a coach, asked whether day/night cricket is a good idea opines, 'Well, something has to be done to keep Test cricket alive. Young people these days have only a thirty second attention span...' To which I would reply that at that rate even 20/20 cricket, let alone the Test Match variety, is destined for society's dustbin along with most everything else we hold dear. Thirty seconds is not enough. For anything at all, really.

And you ask: 'Your point?' Simply that this is what the Church has to grapple with, along with the rest of society. And that giving in to technological fashion may not be the right thing to do - for either society or the Church. How should we Christians deal with this? My later visit to Middleton Cheney puts the matter in stark focus.

                                                       Bringing in the sheaves...

At Farthinghoe I park up by the pub, and walk out to where I can see the land fall away below the fields on the edge of the 'hoe'. The paths marked on the map are a little bit 'suck-it-and-see' on the ground, but the general idea is to walk parallel to the scarp until the ha-ha at Great Purston, which is a very handsome manor house next to a horsey farm. A path seems to have completely disappeared here, but I walk around the manor grounds and cross a derelicted field to a lane, and on, until at a right angle I pick up the track which will take me to Middleton Cheney. The early morning dreakh has dissipated, and now it's warm despite the brisk westerly breeze. No one seems to walk this way much, a state of affairs somewhat encouraged by the local land-owners. Two or three times I have to slash my way through nettles and other undergrowth at stiles, but then by way of a clear path through a cut field I cross the overgrown line of the old railway and climb the other side of the valley to the trench of the A422.

I have a decision to make. Shall I go on into Middleton, or make an out-and-back to Warkworth and Overthorpe, the westernmost parish in the diocese? I do the second thing and pick up the Jurassic Way in the direction of Banbury where it begins its journey back behind me to Stamford and the north-east of the county. The Jurassic Way claims to follow the line of the escarpment, and to have ancient lineage: a sort of cut-price Ridgeway. I've walked the entirety of this minor long distance footpath on a previous occasion and it's quite fun. Today this section seems to be better cared for than I remember. Out of Middleton it dives into what in Northamptonshire terms can almost be described as a ravine: there's a drop of about eighty feet down and up again crossing a cute little bridge at the stream. My previous walk entailed grappling with a field of extremely blue, extremely wet borage on the far side, but this time progress is unimpeded. The church of St. Mary's is halfway between the two villages. Overthorpe implies a place looking down on something, and the thing I assume it's looking down on is Banbury. But then, people from Northampton habitually look down on Banbury.

I'd never really properly looked at this lovely little church in its isolated position. Its sandstone has crumbled away in a most beautiful and photogenic way. Here let me show you...

It's one of six churches in the Chenderit benefice, currently seeking a new incumbent. Ms./Mr. Out of Work Clergyperson, you could do a lot worse...

I retrace my steps, and then cross into Middleton Cheney on the Astrop Road. I have previously thought to myself that Middleton's a bit of an enigma. The Dolphin pub's closed at lunchtime, there are kids hanging around the fish bar, it's all a bit of a mish-mash of the artisan and the posh. And then there's All Saints Church. I knock on David Thompson's door and he gives me the north door key with an apology that the inside might be untidy - there's been a summer holiday event this week. In fact everything is serene, and ah! the glass...

This is pre-Raphaelite, arts-and-crafts heaven. Burne Jones, Morris, Rossetti, Gilbert Scott, they've all had a hand in the stained glass, the painted ceilings, the general Victorian refurbishment of the design. One could spend considerably more time than I have today, taking in each of the artistic lovelinesses in this building. I said I would write a coda to the last entry about St. Peter's, Lowick, so highly rated by Simon Jenkins. Well, we did go back, and knock on Mrs Halifax's door, and look at the interior there, but to be honest it left me cold. True it was a dull day, and perhaps its lucent quality, so much admired by Mr. Jenkins, might have been more obvious had it been as brilliantly sunny as today, but really I think St. Peter's is one for the connoisseurs. A bit like Wagner, perhaps one day I'll grow up to like it more. It's a matter of opinion of course, but I still think more people walking into All Saints, Middleton (only two stars in Simon Jenkins!) would go 'Wow!'

                                                       East window: Middleton Cheney

And yet. The legends on the wall speak of a modest congregation struggling to make ends meet and of an incipient crisis, made much worse by the theft of lead from the roof (such a churlish crime!) They need three quarters of a million to make things right, and it's much beyond their resources to raise such a sum. What the display on the north wall also shows is that this is a congregation with its head firmly screwed on: they understand what the Church's mission is, and they clearly don't want just to be a museum space. Yet along with St. Mary's Wellingborough, of all the places I've so far visited on my Long Walk, this is the one which stands out for exceptional interior beauty. Even Kelvin couldn't have done better

                                                        Seven theses: Middleton Cheney   

I'd never realised that really Middleton is a two-centre place. Just out of Lower Middleton Cheney a path turns off through not particularly electrifying fences and eventually fetches up in Thenford. If the village name seems vaguely familiar it's because this is where Anne and Michael Heseltine live, and every now and then they open their grounds to those interested in dendrology and planting. The village is quite perfect in itself, and St. Mary's church is open by both south and north doors to any passing visitor. It undersells itself a little by describing itself as a hodge-podge. I'm chiefly charmed by the remnants of medieval glass, which picks up a faint echo of the glories back up the road in Middleton. Thenford too is one of the Chenderit churches: they still manage one service a month here: it would be very cold in winter.

I had sort of hoped to run into Lord Heseltine in the village. I don't share his politics, except in insofar as I detect a one-nation compassion in his advocacy for business and technology. Whatever one feels about the occasional excess of his actions in his younger political life, I feel there's always been an honesty about the opinions expressed even when they've been unfashionable, or unpalatable to his party colleagues. And he was always notably entertaining when interviewed on Radio 4's 'today' programme. Definitely a person to invite to the fantasy dinner party along with say, Bill Clinton and Judi Dench.

I pass by Ottily's flower stall at the top of Thenford, and leave her 20p as requested, although I do not carry away one of her posies. I suspect Ottily to be of quite early primary school age (although I could be badly putting my foot in it here!) I feel sure Lord Heseltine would heartily approve of her enterprise culture. He and she may even be related for all I know.


Stats man:  21 km. 6.5 hrs. 22 degC. Stiff westerly breeze at about 20 mph max. Sundry dog walkers in the villages. Not a soul along the country paths. 24 stiles. 35 gates. 4 bridges. One unavoidable ford. (See the difference to the east of the county in these respects!) What with all the slashing and hacking, quite a strenuous afternoon. Maybe the 3000 metres steeplechase should have been my event.

We are custodians
Of so much beauty.
Despite their Fall
Our ancestors made marvels
Which inspire and teach us
(Also fallen)
to this day.
Help us to preserve what is best,
And record faithfully what we must lose,
And fashion new glories
From our own skill
To enrich our children
And their children
As we pass on the truths
We believe we have learned.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

And did those feet in ancient time...?

Sue tells me I'm obsessed with the Romans. She's probably right. I am. Not majorly obsessed as I am with recording and cricket. More at the level of e.g. cakes or J.S.Bach's Forty Eight Preludes and Fugues. Here are a few reasons why.

The Romans' interest and presence in Britain is so sharply defined for such a relatively remote historical period. We know to the year when they arrived, and we know to the year when they left, although there are some mysteries about what happened in between. And because of the problematic nature of British history in the later 5th and 6th centuries, there's a sort of 'Was there once a civilisation on Mars?' feel about the whole thing (I don't mean to suggest there really was, or that the Roman occupation is just a conspiracy theory!) But the sophistication the Romans lent British society pretty much disappears when they packed their bags, or so it's alleged, and although their remains and artefacts are all around us and under our feet, most of the time we're unaware of it. Baudrillard would probably therefore demand that they were never here. 17th century sceptics likewise!

The Romans were perhaps the first to bring Christianity to Britain. I was brought up close to Lullingstone Villa in Kent where clear evidence survives of Christian worship during the 4th century. How much further the Christian presence in Britain goes back before that no one knows, though I'd be as sceptical as the next person about Joseph of Arimathea ever pitching up in Glastonbury.

Studying 'Classics' at school heated up an interest I'd had from quite a young age. A few years later I was able to indulge myself teaching Latin before the subject fell off the curriculum at Billing Rd's Northampton School for Boys. With that school's renewed gentrification, it's probably back on the menu now.

So here I am, walking along the old railway line out of Thrapston through the linear 'Town Park' towards the place where two Roman roads intersected - the one from Godmanchester to Leicester and the lesser one from Irchester to Water Newton which more or less follows the line of the modern A605 towards Peterborough. I study the fields for signs of an agger or 1800 year old building rubble and watch my feet carefully lest I miss a denarius glittering in the sun, but of course apart from a suspiciously bumpy field the other side of the hedge when I turn up towards Titchmarsh, there's nothing Romanoid to be spotted. British History Online tells me the crossroads were unusually configured, but what that actually means they don't say. No doubt there was a mansio - there are a number of known settlements close by - so I imagine a lot of drinking, swearing and wenching, and we're close to the River Nene, so maybe some water-related religious stuff as well.

                                   Looking for Romans: Thrapston to Peterborough railway

The 'Crossroads' idea has obvious metaphorical power. For many it will conjure memories of sixties' television through the fictional Crossroads Motel, which brought awareness of the Brummy accent to those living south of Watford. No doubt the writers were hinting that the itinerants passing through the motel, or even those running it (ah, Sandy and Meg!) were often at points of change in their lives. Would they take the 'right' or 'wrong' direction? For me, I'm immediately thinking of the 30's black bluesman Robert Johnson, who's said to have made a pact with the Devil, so rapidly did his guitar technique improve, and so young did he die. His 'Crossroads Blues' became an icon of modern rock blues through Eric Clapton and Cream's definitive live cut, recorded in San Francisco somewhere around 1968. The best guitar solo-ing of its type? I don't know of a better: it still thrills me now whenever I hear it. As with Mahler's Eighth, I don't want to listen to it too often lest the appetite may sicken and so die.

I walk steadily uphill towards the Polopit end of Titchmarsh. I can't find the origin of this striking name, but I do know a 'polo pit' is a place where a novice polo player sits on a wooden horse and practises swinging their mallet. I shouldn't think the name's got anything to do with that, but you never know! Just up the road before Titchmarsh proper is the house where the poet and dramatist John Dryden lived when he were a lad (He was born in the Rectory at Aldwincle where I'm going next).

Dryden spent his adolescence during the turmoil of the English Civil War. He could be interpreted as a rather 'Vicar of Bray' character, saying nice things about the late Oliver Cromwell shortly after his death, but wholeheartedly embracing the Restoration. Mind you, I shouldn't think he was the only one to do that. Perhaps it was in the light of the terrors of the war that he subsequently wrote: 'The sword within the scabbard keep/And let mankind agree/Better the world were fast asleep/Than kept awake by thee/The fools are only thinner/With all our cost and care/But neither side a winner/For things are as they were.'

I don't personally have a feel for this period of English literature, but given that Northamptonshire isn't exactly flush with great writers, you'd think a bit more of a fuss would be made. Go to Eastwood and you can't avoid D.H.Lawrence. The route I'm walking today might make part of a nice 'Dryden Trail', if anyone were bothered.

Apart from a carrot, there are some interesting things to look at in Titchmarsh including the ruins of a castle (probably rather a domestic one) dating to the time of Richard III, when its owner, John Lovell and others of the great and good were parodied thus: 'The catte, the ratte and Lovell the dogge, rulyth all England under a hogge'. I wander past the village shop (opened in 2007 by Alan Titchmarsh, natch!) towards the church of St. Mary's. Outside the shop a woman leaning on her bike offers me a biscuit which I rather churlishly decline by replying that I try not to eat 'junk food' on my travels. She's kind enough not to hold this rudeness against me and when her husband joins us we chat for a full half hour about this and that. We discover we have much in common in the places we know, and in our fears about the world and politics, although we don't share the same nationality - X and Y are mainland Europeans. I walk on to the church animated and cheered by an unexpected encounter. If you get to read this, thank you guys!

St. Mary's is a welcoming place. Like other churches with a wide nave, it provides the worshipper with air and space, and in the contemporary manner allows room for a café area without compromising the spiritual focus of the building. They're very proud of their restored organ. It cost a lot of money, and they're still short of a bob or two. How much is too much for the preservation of such tradition? Compared say, with the costs that might be incurred in evangelism or outreach to the poor? Spikenard anyone? Or can high end/high cost music be evangelism in itself?

A couple of decades ago I produced an album for a Celtic band called 'Chanter'. It may not have been the most successful project in the world. I was ill while we recorded it, and I'm afraid I imposed too much of my own restrictive template on a free-spirited bunch of musicians who combined liberal quantities of liquor, bombards and Mongolian throat singing with the more conventional mix of Irish jigs and reels. The jolly raggle-taggle included an Ulsterman called Brian Aldwinckle who claimed his forebears came from the Northamptonshire village of (almost) the same name. Sadly I see from the band's website that Brian passed away a couple of years ago.

Aldwincle has two churches. All Saints church is in the care of the Historic Churches Conservation Trust, and is where Dryden's dad was in charge. I cross the Nene by the end of the lovely Titchmarsh Nature Reserve, and creep up on All Saints from the village end. It's open and inside I find Kay who's clearing up after an overnight 'Champing' visit by a Wellingborough youth group. 'Champing' is camping in a church, but of course you'd worked that out for yourselves. Kay is friendly and chatty: there are champers in here many days out of the four or five months of summer. I should think it gets a bit chilly at other times of the year. Bats and spiders are all part of the fun. Readings of Dryden's plays might be distinctly optional. Further up the village road is St. Peter's Aldwincle, the regular worshipping village church. It's shut, but there's a children's party going on in the adjoining community hall, and I enjoy the kids' gaiety as I chomp (not champ!) on a sandwich.

Some old fashioned walking ensues. I navigate broad byways through fields of ripening corn with the woods never far away. Apart from the deep, muddy ruts being caused by the heavy duty tyres of modern tractors rather than horses and carts, I could be back a couple of hundred years. Underfoot it's rather squelchy. After a couple or three very dry months, the weather has broken down and there's been a lot of rain. Near Lowick there's a pong in the air from the 'Compost Site', but the village and its church of St. Peter's are ample reward. Lowick itself has that rather architecturally spare feel of Eastern Britain: the warm, honey-coloured sandstone of the west has been replaced by a harder white variety which seems bleached by the wind. St. Peter's rates four stars in Simon Jenkins 1000 Best Churches, one of only two to receive the accolade in the county. Seen from far and wide, the tower rises majestically to command the fields. Jenkins describes the building as 'eccentric perpendicular'. I don't have time to search out a key this time, but if I get back in the next week or so, I'll add a coda to this post about the inside.

Down towards the lane towards the stream is a cottage with a stunning garden which would have done credit to Gertrude Jekyll. It belongs to Gill. I tell her how lovely it is, and we fall into conversation. She apologises for not stopping her pruning and cutting back, and of course I say how great it is to see someone else doing the work. She and her partner haven't lived here long. She's a garden design professional, and if you look up 'Lowick Design' on your web browser of choice you should find her. For the second time today, there are coincidences. They used to live in a village halfway between Den Haag and Amsterdam (our Matt lives in DH), and their daughters went to the British School in Voorschoten where friend Carole Waters taught until very recently.Gill's family name is 'Gardiner', which given her current profession is a bit of a gift. I laugh and tell her that the designer who has so beautified our own garden over the years is Jay Pink - also a suitably flowery name. Gill started her working life as a child psychologist before her second calling took over. Jay has gone from garden design into psychotherapy (practising  not receiving it!)

As I return towards Islip, Thrapston and the car, an older gentleman emerges from a side turning on the track maybe forty yards ahead of me, along with his sandy coloured lab cross. The dog bounds down towards me, barking, growling, jumping, generally being objectionable. I tell the dog loudly to desist. The owner does and says nothing. As I draw level he mutters 'He's young and excitable'. No apology. With all the compressed, potential-mad-axe-man-fury I can summon, I hiss, 'Not everyone likes dogs!' I can't abide rude and unacceptable behaviour in the over-sixties. How can their sons and daughters, grandsons and grand-daughters ever be expected to turn out couth and polite?

As a footnote to my comments on Thrapston last time out, the brown tourist info sign on the city limits advertises the 'Victorian tea-shoppe'. This place of pilgrimage proves elusive. Let's ignore the historical solecism in the spelling. According to Google I later find it's permanently closed. Oh, Thrapston!

Stats man:  18 km. 6 hours (I spent a long time chatting!) 20 deg C. 2 stiles. 7 gates. 5 bridges. One great crested grebe. Numerous kites scouring the newly shorn fields looking for rodents. One idiot dog walker. And to be fair, several other courteous and pleasant ones!

 What didn't I see? Roman coins. An adder. A slow worm. Not even a toad - perhaps more surprising given how wet the surface was. Where are all the toads these days?

Dear Lord

Thank you for the surprises of life.
Thank you for the people I meet
Who raise the spirits
Who show me new things
Who suggest new angles
On old problems
Who remind me not to be cynical
But to be hopeful always
And to enjoy the beauty
Of the world you made
And which we try to maintain.