Monday, 25 September 2017

Having it all

                                                         Tower: Marston St. Lawrence

As I drive down the 'B' road to Thorpe Mandeville I pass a sign advertising Tanks A Lot and laugh. Neat name. Not so sure about the premise: going one-up on the old hat of paintballing for jaded execs who need to revive their testosterone by hauling retired vehicles of death around a 'challenging off-road course'. For extra money (quite a lot of money!) you can enjoy the fun of running over an old banger. There are two levels for this particular speciality. I wonder what the VIP experience might offer - please supply your own suitably outrageous supplement.

Past TM's St. John the Baptist church and the huge Manor House, the lane drops away downhill to Lower Thorpe. This pristine view won't remain unspoiled for much longer. HS2 will sweep across the green valley in front of me. Even if the vein of the railway eventually sits back into the skin of the countryside the scars will take a long time to heal. If you're a returning reader you know what I think about that. At Culworth Grounds a jet-black spaniel cross bares its teeth under the misapprehension that the right-of-way forms part of its territory, and is called off by a small girl who emerges from the nearby cottage to shout. She says sorry. I say no problem. Her mutt was only bite-size. A large murdering gang of crows swoop and dive overhead as I puff on uphill. Avian intelligence is undervalued. Last week on a Dutch quayside, Sue and I watched a gull have lunch on a mussel it had pulled from the harbour wall. The gull picked up the mussel in its beak and twice essayed Barnes Wallis bombing runs bouncing the shellfish onto the concrete underneath with maximum violence. The first run was for softening up. Second time round the mussel shell cracked and rolled. The gull pounced, the meat was forensically extracted and eaten in hasty relish before any klepto colleague could intervene.

At the top of the rise I turn right onto an unmetalled section of the sheep drovers' ancient 'Banbury Lane' and in five minutes find myself looking left and right down Culworth's Queens Street. No jokes please. Time was Culworth was a pretty macho place, synonymous with its 'Gang', softly celebrated in Stuart Marson's song Close to the Wind. Culworth was then quite remote, and its roads were easy pickings for this group of eighteenth century footpads. They threatened ultimate violence, but preferred to knock their victims on the head rather than shoot them. At least one of the gang was a regular churchgoer. They eventually got their comeuppance, going to the gallows on what is now Northampton's 'Race Course' just opposite the White Elephant pub, a mile or so from our house.

Before I go to see St. Mary's church I wander down opposite the green to admire the range of nice buildings. In the old Forge, Miki and Georgie have no Saturday morning customers in the calm, welcoming space of their gallery. Georgie's part-time, Miki owns the business, but a change of personal circumstances means she's looking for someone to buy it. As for so many of us with right angles in the directions of our lives, she's been humming and hahing about whether she really should sell up. They offer me a coffee (probably a Nespresso - nice!) and in twenty minutes we laugh and chat and cover a lot of ground about the dynamic of relationships, personal preferences, clergy, galleries and so on. It's a lot of fun but I have to move on. Thanks, ladies! Since Miki's sorted, Georgie asks me to mention that if there are any well-mannered single men in their later prime of life out there...

I walk up the front path of St. Mary's. The Rector, Brian Fairbank, is just shutting the bird screen door. He's been preparing the church for the wedding of Catrin and Mark. He assures me I'm welcome to have a look round. I do, but I don't twig that he's the Rector until I see his face in the Now we are six monthly benefice publication later on.

Culworth and Sulgrave share a relatively unusual feature in having a mound and ditch remnant of a Saxon manor house plonked right next to the church. I'm put in mind of a similar arrangement at Earls Barton. We look darkly through our glasses at the likely wooden structures of these villages at the beginning of the second millennium, and imagine the astonishment of those early inhabitants were they to see what grew up in succession to their labours. Outside the church door is a particularly touching gravestone. The inscription reads: 'In memory of Charles Bacchus (an African) who died March 31st 1762. He was Beloved and Lamented by the Family he Served. Was Grateful and Humane and gave hopes of Proving a faithful Servant and a Good Man. Aged 16' On the back the initials CB and ED are intertwined. A storyteller's hairs stand on end...

The sun has come out after a dreakh start to the day. The quality of the light and the September warmth make the short stroll to Sulgrave a delight, particularly the walk down the dappled path from the old Windmill (now a posh house, but minus its sails) past the orchard where the pears wait ready for picking just as golden as if they were lacquered Christmas decorations. Everyone knows about Sulgrave and its connections with the Washington family so I won't detain you with that here. The church naturally reflects the transatlantic theme, nowhere more than in the Visitors Book. St. James the Less, like the rest of the village, is always going to be a place of pilgrimage for Americans, but what amazes me is the number of people who trace lineage back to George and beyond. Just in recent weeks I note Trumar Atkins from Tennessee (11th Great Grandson of Laurence Washington), and Andrew Washington from Karori, New Zealand (Robert Washington was his 11th Great Grandfather) and a Mrs. Pargeter from Somerset (George Washington's 7th cousin 6 times removed). Now I know these are perhaps tenuous relations - the six degrees of separation thing, whereby one can feel connection to almost anyone ever comes to mind - but at least these folk have taken the trouble to find out and make the call.

                                                   Inside St James the Less, Sulgrave

The dedication to 'St James the Less' is slightly more problematic than I'd have thought. He may be the apostle James 'the son of Alphaeus'. Or we may be talking about James the brother of Jesus. Or both. Or someone else. I wander round to the Hall by the back lane where I encounter the lady at whom I'd scowled when her dog defecated on the Castle Green (where one is specifically injuncted not to allow such a thing). Since then she has acquired a second dog, and she's now scooping up its doo-doo from the road. Strange priorities. I don't have to pay to get access to the Hall's tea-room, so I have a cup of Earl Grey and a piece of gluten free Orange cake, served at a glacial speed. But I don't mind: it's a sunny space, only slightly marred by the coughing and hacking of other elderly diners. On my way back through the village I pass another dedicated (from the size and professionalism of his backpack) walker going in the opposite direction, He replies with no more than a grunt to my hail-fellow traveller-well-met greeting. Honestly, if you can't enjoy it on a radiant day like this, just find something else to do with your valuable time (Bad Karma: I'll need reminding of this later!)

If I'm honest, after the loveliness of Sulgrave, it's a bit of a trudge to Greatworth. There's a long maize field to be pushed through - though the path has been kept quite clear. Then it's up and down near Stuchbury (another in the long list of deserted Northamptonshire villages), through a farm, across a road and then there I am with slightly stressed legs sitting on a bench opposite St. Peter's. Inside there's a sweet little one-manual Baroque-y organ on which I tootle an improvised tune. It's a very pleasant instrument to play and listen to, but absolutely no use (IMO) for accompanying a congregation. Perhaps I should modify that and say it's an acquired taste. I move on, and keeping the slope to my right, eventually find a hole in the hedge which leads me via a horsey field and a crab apple littered lane to Marston St. Lawrence. It's warm enough for the horses to be sheltering from the heat. Their owner arrives in a 4x4 to dispense water. They ignored me, but as she climbs the stile, they neigh and whinny an affectionate greeting to her.

                                                          On the way to Marston

St.Lawrence' church is spacious and broad of beam, on this day brightly lit by the stained glass above the altar and on the north and south walls. The main door's ajar inside the bird screen. I seize on the pile of music underneath the organ stool and, yes, the blower starts up when I push the button. I blow the mice out of the pipes for twenty minutes with some Bach, and write that I've done so in the Visitors' Book, then immediately reflect that this sounds a) superior b) nerdy. Oh dear! I can't scratch out what I've written now: it will either look messy or draw attention to my snootiness. They have occasional folk concerts in St. Lawrence's, which speaks well of the place. I should think the keening voices and feisty fiddles sound great ringing around the church's airy spaces.

Up the hill out of the village I see the fingerpost for the path I want leaning uselessly, drunkenly askew. From the angle of the nearby metalled lane, the approximate direction of the path's clear enough, but there are no marks on the ground. The field's been sown recently, but in a 'sod you' frame of mind I push up the rise following the line where the path should be. At the top a multi-combine thing is cutting the crop in the next field and decanting it into a trailer. There's no sign of any path cut through the standing crop. Clearly the farmer just couldn't be bothered. Very ostentatiously I take a snap of the situation, making sure that the  bloke in the combine can see me - though he's probably only a contractor. Then I do the decent thing and rejoin the lane, even though I know this will mean an extra two hundred metres walking along the fast and dangerous main road at the top. On the opposite side of the main road, where I want to turn right, the same situation occurs. Fingerposts actually removed this time. No visible path. I walk two sides of a field hoping to pick up the track where it should cross a gullied stream. Nothing. I scramble through a hedge and, confronted by a maize field, try to pick my way round it, looking for a gap to cross the stream further down. No gap. No path. No room at all in fact because the impenetrable maize has been planted right up to a narrow border of nettles which sting me repeatedly for another four hundred metres as the field frustratingly but surely turns back towards the main road. Another two hundred metres of ditch dropping to avoid speeding BMWs, and then I gain the safety of the lane back to Thorpe Mandeville.

I know. You've heard me on this before. But how irresponsible of farmers when they ignore their statutory responsibilities and actively attempt to destroy rights-of-way, thus putting legally entitled countryside users to hazard! It's really not OK. And as I've said before, it erodes support among those of us who'd naturally want to applaud them for what they do. And that's my harvest message to the nation. Grrr!

Statto: 18 km. 7 hrs. (but allow for the tea at Sulgrave, and the organ playing interlude at Marston, and my little local farming difficulties. 21 degrees C. Breezy and sunny after a damp start. 16 stiles to be clambered over. 17 gates to be prised open (and of course closed carefully again afterwards). 6 rickety rackety bridges negotiated (no trolls were harmed in making this programme). A marked absence of wild life, if you don't count the sadly deceased hare on the path at Stuchbury. I wonder what got him?

I know that I am in the autumn of my days.
I really hate that.
Please stick with me every step of the way
And give me courage and peace as the shades lengthen.
And, I earnestly pray you,
Deal with me kindly at the end of the run.

Now what follows is going to sound like a somewhat rambling Thought for the Day. Miki and Georgie and I were talking about how difficult it is to put it all together. Miki wondered aloud whether she was really suited to 'retail', and I echoed that feeling from my own business's point of view. Lucky the person who has the whole package, with both the artistic creativity and the financial acumen. I guess most of our churches are the same: strong points and weak areas. Stuff we do well, and stuff we just don't get - except we very rarely go out of business. Me, being a glass half-empty person, I find it difficult to accentuate the positive, and am so often critical of and worn down by the things churches don't do well. Which is unreasonable. Or is it? Now off you go: break into groups and discuss. Not that it'll get you anywhere. The clergy still make the decisions. And we poor bloody foot-soldiers are still there carrying out their wishes. So eighty year olds are literally still scrubbing the stone floors of church porches (and who will do this in their place once they pop their clogs?)  As Bishop Donald put it recently...clergy are there in an overall leadership role. Well, come on clergy and 'licensed' lay workers, tell me I'm wrong. Who's going to issue accreditation for the real work like floor-swabbing, or tithing? Argue with me. there anyone out there?