Sunday, 24 December 2017


As regular readers know, I never exaggerate. Much. But with each succeeding moment my lower limbs are falling into a state of atrophy. No yomping, you see. A heavy winter cold, a couple of snowy days and the onrush of the Christmas celebrations have kept me off the fields and out of the churchyards. I'll return to the paths in 2018, but I'm missing it already. I hope you'll continue to share the Walk with me. Come by and see me again sometime soon.

In the meantime, I hope you've found the Christmas you were looking for. Friend Brendan Read Jones and I recorded a sad Christmas song. Brendan ( a talented film-maker) and his crew then shot a video for it which you can find at:

If you like, please use your favourite social media to spread the word. And perhaps even buy the album when it surfaces later in the year ('Old heads and young hearts')?

One of the things we've been all too aware of this year is how many people face loneliness at Christmas. It's a theme which has been picked up countrywide, by the relatives of the late Jo Cox M.P. amongst others. Our own parish has faced some  tragedies of its own: there'll be some who are hurting right now, and maybe you're among them. Everything we say and do as Christians is in the context of a narrow divide between earth and heaven, of passion and redemption. All I can do, rather helplessly, is wish us all peace and the surprise of joy when we need it most.

Crash edit: a reprise of a seasonal poem I wrote last year:

Sprouting for boys (and girls)

Raise three cheers, give up a shout
For the humble, hardy Brussels sprout.
Be you Brexin or be you Brexout
They're cool.

Let's have a British Board to tout
The merits of the Belgian sprout
If Brussels objects, then dare to flout
Their rule.

Gregg Wallace says you shouldn't doubt
The vitamin value of the Flanders sprout
If you say nay, then you learned nowt (or should that be nuffink?)
At school.

Some folk rave over sauerkraut
But cabbage v. sprouts is an absolute rout.
Serve al dente with lardons all about
And drool.

Stave off the 'flu; ward off gout
With the iron-rich, good-for-you EU sprout.
Banish obesity! You won't grow stout on
Sprout fuel.

Kids will moan, kids will pout about
Something, so let it be the put upon sprout.
Tho' it makes them sigh I wish them (and you)
Sprout Yule.

I was very touched that Malcolm and Dot White used the following in their Christmas Letter this year. I wrote it for the 2016 Advent Blog at St. Peter's, Weston Favell.

Joseph on his death bed

One regret?
Always the outsider, me.
Mary and the boy
Like twins.
A family within a family,
Knew what the other was thinking
Before it was ever said,
And me alone on the edge of the room,
Or passing through with a nice piece of wood or two;
Looking in on their world,
Private and mysterious.

It went way back.
I didn't know her
(silly coy word)
Until after he was born.
Thereafter dutiful intercourse
And so along came James and Joses,
Jude and Simon.
But no, I never knew her,
Not really.
However that boy was conceived
I was always an anti-climax.

When he was small,
He helped in the yard,
Watched and asked questions.
In that sense,
Now I'm dying,
The business is safe.
He'll do the accounts,
Manage the difficult clients.
The others will do the work.

There was that moment,
Up in Jerusalem,
The year before his bar mitzvah,
He ran wild with the Zealots,
Pretending he was working for me.
I ask you!
'I must be about my father's business'!
I was incandescent,
Mary emollient,
And after that,
If such a thing is possible,
They were both even more unreachable.
Perhaps he'll end up a rabbi:
It runs in the family.
I suppose that's OK
Provided it doesn't turn his head.

Well, I'm curious to know
What will become of him,
But I'm like Father Moses
Looking over the golden, longed-for land,
The fulfilment of an adolescent exile
Not mine to enjoy.
He and I
We'll never share a pie and a pint
At the close of a profitable day.

The lad has an aura,
A strange unworldly kind of promise.
That's as much as I can say...


Help me to drain every last drop
From the cup of Christmas;
To relish the singing of every carol;
To be like the child I once was,
Wide-eyed at the Christmas tree magic;
To be properly sentimental
About the family and friends I see,
And those who live only in the memory;
To treasure each moment
Around the manger;
To be grateful that You have let me share
This precious gift of Being.

R.I.P. Ian Topp: December 2017.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Pay me what you owe me...

I arrive at Canons Ashby's NT car park just after ten, the opening time, and ask the gentleman on the gate, who works from a slightly more solemn version of an old-fashioned traveller's caravan, what time the gates will shut at the end of the afternoon. He tells me four o'clock, and I hum and hah and decide I'll get round today's walk before then. "Well, it'll be pretty well dark at four", he adds gruffly. Indeed. I'd put a new battery in my torch before leaving this morning just in case. Getting stuck inside their car-park overnight would be a disahster darling, and no reprisals. It's a fair step back to Northampton.

I shuffle up the main road until I can turn briefly south on Oxford Lane. There's still a little ice in the crevices of the mud, the kerbsides of the road are slippery and I'm wearing four layers on my top half plus gloves. In the first field I find a bull and a single cow. He gives a desultory snort, but it's cold and he's not much bothered with me. Or her, by the looks of things. In another field the sheep are all lying down, minimising the amount of body they're presenting to the chilly air, or so I suppose. Sue and I were saying the other day how little one knows about sheep. How many can you graze per acre? Depends on the time of year, perhaps? And what about the idea that they can't feed in long grass for fear of foot rot? We seem to see a lot of them enjoying pasture more than nine inches or more in height.

In Adstone's back lanes the deeply comforting smell of woodsmoke hangs in the winter air. The humble, low, little church of All Saints is open. The exterior shape is reminiscent of a Roman building, apparently two storied, nicely in proportion. Inside there's a harmonium ( a rarity these days) in addition to a more contemporary keyboard. I wonder if the harmonium's ever used? Works for some Victorian hymns of course, and possibly some more modern stuff (Stuart Townend!) and good for drones on folkier music (Syd Carter's 'I come like a beggar') but not much good for anything baroque or Wesleyan or briskly twentieth century English IMO. From a leaflet in the church I learn what doesn't surprise me, which is that originally the church was a chapelry for Canons Ashby, and the monks would have walked across the fields to take services for the locals. With such a fine foundation to stay at home for, all class and cloisters, I can't think it was for their own benefit, but maybe it was nice to get out into the fresh air, away from the Abbot's beady eye. The village may then have been 'Adsun' which if one thinks of today's name rendered into Northamptonshire dialect works just fine. On the other hand maybe it was a monkish joke, the name approximating to the Latin 'adsum' ('I am present') which is what the boys of Billy Bunter's fictional Greyfriars intoned at the morning register as did real life pupils in schools with pretentions (not the one I went to!)

I have to take the main road in the direction of Maidford, but actually there's not a lot of traffic, and the verges are sound. Once over the stream in the dip, tracked by a foraging buzzard, I take the footpath which heads steadily for St. Peter and St. Paul's church on the diagonal before it finds King Street, where there's a nice view of the church's handsome saddle-backed tower.

A few years ago at the Maidford turn I thought I saw a panther as I drove swiftly past towards Banbury. I expect it was only a black Labrador. And I was certain I glimpsed a wild pig once too, disappearing into the hedge by the main road south over the Oxfordshire border at Deddington, though no one has ever admitted to their existence east of the Forest of Dean. I think that was probably a muntjac. More credibly Matt and I once saw a cat, much larger than a domestic one, skulking among crops in a field by the railway in Bexley, Kent. There'd been sightings of lynx-like big cats not far away in the previous year or two, and there are various zoos in the county. And there was something distinctly uncuddly about the way it watched us from a distance of maybe a hundred and fifty yards.

The inhabitants of Maidford are charmed to think that the origin of their village's name has something to do with fresh-faced gals leaping across the waters of a stream which once flowed more generously than it does today. But in medieval times it was spelt Merdeforde which makes me think the ford may have been a less commodious place, for whatever reason. That said the village is nice enough today, although the Queens Head has long since become a private house, as have the buildings which might once have served as dormitories for 'convalescing monks', though why they were ferried over from Canons Ashby to recover from the 'flu or scurvy I don't know. Surely not to take the waters, though if my innuendo about Maidford's derivation is wrong, the ministering of its sundry virgins may have been an attraction.

There's a list of Maidford parishioners printed on the church notice board at St. Peter and St. Paul's (i.e. those on the annual electoral roll). There seem to be about thirty of them. The 'Lambfold Benefice' paid its Parish Share in full last year, all £52k of it, and the folk at Maidford shelled out their contribution of about £9k to this, the slightly smaller congregation at Adstone putting in £6.4k. This entitles them to the continuing presence of a clergyperson to serve in the benefice. The parish share is going to continue to rise at above the rate of inflation. The demographic of the parishes hereabouts is likely to suggest a preponderance of pensioners. Getting younger people into church, let alone getting them to chip in financially is difficult. The younger generations won't sign up and the sums don't add up. I played for an 'all age' Sunday morning service the other day where in a congregation of about sixty the vicar reckoned himself to be the youngest person present, and he's possibly 40+.

We have to be candid about this, and face the arguments that ensue equably. Young people feel hard done by because it's said they will be the first modern generation whose standard of living will never advance beyond that of the previous one. Yet people my age (mid-sixties) reflect that they themselves often started adult life with precious little in the way of material goods, and had to fight their way to a level of comfort which everyone today takes for granted. It may not - I'm being generous, it won't -  work for the Church to expect seniors to carry the increasing ecclesiastical burden into their extreme old age. We oldies are thinking about the costs of care and how not to be a trouble to our sons and daughters.

It's not only the Church where a lack of candour about money seems prevalent in Britain. The whole Brexit debate continues to be fogged by spurious/dubious financial argument and counter-argument. I don't need to tell you that, do I! Central government has been devious and pusillanimous in transferring uncomfortable public sector costs to the local level so that it can be free of electoral disadvantages. And amidst the recriminations and reduction of local services that are the consequence (bye-bye libraries, bye-bye monitoring of rights of way, and judging by the potholes in the roads these are the least of our problems) neighbouring councils are right down in the dirt with each other. Daventry is foisting an extra development of 1050 homes onto the very edge of Northampton at Boughton, picking up the financial rewards for so doing but leaving the larger town with all the infrastructural problems. If they were nation states, war would have been declared. Most of the population remain blissfully unaware of these matters, or opt for what suits them in the short term. How do we educate about such Big Issues?

Buying a lucky lottery ticket would be one option. And treasure trove has been found in the fields north of Maidford, so I keep my eyes peeled as I walk across springy sheep pasture towards Farthingstone. No luck. I'm not looking closely enough at the contours on the O.S., so Farthingstone surprises me by appearing below me in the valley as I approach. To my right the long view opens up to reveal Northampton and the Express Lifts Tower a dozen miles away. The bright morning sun has given way to an overcast lunchtime and I sit and eat my Waitrose sandwich on the bright lavender coloured seat outside the pub.

There's good and bad inside St. Mary's church. The good is most obviously the beautifully polished cabinet of the distinguished late seventeenth century organ, and the 'Joy' window in the south nave which has connections to William Morris's design team and depicts St. Dorothy, patron saint of gardeners, in the guise of the 'Flora' motif, a rarity in pre-Raphaelite stained glass. I like these. I'm more worried by some of the inscriptions in the visitors' book. As often seems to be the case, a few random Australians have pitched up in St. Mary's in recent months looking for ancestors (this seems very popular with Antipodeans just now), but some other visitors have thought fit to declare in capital letters (no doubt they'd have used green  ink if they'd had it to hand) that they're British. And across the top of the page is a cryptic reference to the evils of Monsanto. Just say you've been there, guys, and write something nice. Or relevant. Preferably both.

Looking for the Macmillan Way, I come across a wounded squirrel on the road out of the village, run over by a car. His fur is still pristine and bushy, his eye bright, and he looks at me and squeaks as I pass. I should have put him out of his misery with the blunt end of my staff, I know I should have, but to my shame I funk it. What kind of a countryperson am I? I feel troubled by this poor decision most of the way back to Canons Ashby.

I'm in time for a cup of Earl Grey and a piece of cake in the empty tearoom. Martine serves me and we talk. I say if I ever come back as a farmer I want to be a sheep farmer. Apart from the disinterested bull and his paramour encountered at the outset, I've seen no cattle all day, apart from a single cow and her jet-black new-born calf, hunkered down out of the wind near Maidford. Martine's a farmer's wife. Their kids, seeing the long hours their dad works, won't follow him into farming, nor would she want them to.

What would attract young people into the fields? Love of animals, in some limited cases, maybe. Greater financial rewards for sure. More respect? Company as they do the job? (It must often be a lonely life) We owe farmers, and may need them more in the post-Brexit years. But this must mean paying more for our food too.

Dents on the fence: 17 km. 5 hrs. 11 stiles. 25 gates. 9 bridges. 4-6 degrees C. Sun, then cloud, then brighter again. Moderate breeze northerly, shifting easterly. None of my photographs to share this time. I left the camera's card in the slot on my laptop. Bother!

As a Good Anglican
I'm very confused about what I should give.
Financially I mean (though I worry about what I've done with my life too...)
Filthy lucre.
The word is:
'5% of income'.
But is that before or after tax?
And is that to include all 'charitable' giving?
Or is that just Mother Church's share?
And what if I think what the diocese gets
Isn't being used well?
And, with the idea of tithing in mind,
Should I be thinking (and everyone else too)
That the taxes I pay the government
Are a form of giving
to the poor, needy and dispossessed?
So should I automatically
Be inclined to greater redistribution
by those means...?
So more taxes, please, and less in my pocket?
Doesn't that mean
(sorry Theresa...)
that despite all the window dressing
Christianity = Socialism?
So what about entrepreneurialism and motivation and Alan Sugar?
Am I then
(Matthew 25
A sheep or a goat?
I have thought about this all my life, Lord.
I know I am self-deceiving,
But I'm also puzzled.
As you can see.
Help me to be more honest,
More decisive
More courageous,
So that your Kingdom may be better built.
And finally,
Forgive me my lack of mercy to your squirrel.
It still troubles me.