Wednesday, 28 November 2018

A million small kindnesses

Opposite Loddington church is a finger post and a tiny aperture in the hedge by a drive. Sometimes I'm the walking equivalent of a fundamentalist, so I squeeze through the prickly opening.  A wall blocks the way. I re-route. At the bottom of the short drive by an industrial unit is a neglected stile which leads by muddy descent to one of Messrs. Linnell's ubiquitous field gates. There's renovation going on in the building. A decontamination cabin sits beside its open door. Asbestos? I hold my breath and stumble quickly through the gate and onto the grass on my way to whatever Orton will bring. A hymn tune from yesterday morning's service is running through my head on repeat - 'Coe Fen' to 'How shall I sing thy majesty?' It's not even a tune I particularly like - preferring 'Kingsfold'. I deliberately swap it for something else, but the something else turns out to be a Stuart Townend song which ends with a phrase reminiscent of S Club 7's 'Reach'. This is all so much worse, so I instruct brain to return to 'Coe Fen'. Marching up over pasture under a brittle sky, I have the chance to admire some pretty highland cattle and a flock of curious Christmas turkeys before a black lab sees me off Manor Farm. (I mean the turkeys are curious about me. No reflection on their size, shape or table-worthiness!)

                                        Turkeys - or on second thoughts maybe guinea-fowl?

What I find in Orton is a minor puzzle. There's a church all right, closed and under the care of the Orton Trust, whose moniker is also carved on the door lintel of a dusty hall to one side. But the emblem seems to be Masonic. Surely that can't be right?

A tiny bit right, and yet oh so wrong! The Orton Trust was formed in 1968 and exists to 'maintain and encourage the traditional stonemasonry skills used in the restoration and conservation of historic buildings'. And All Saints, now redundant, has been turned into a workshop and lecture room. How creative. How absolutely perfect!

England's cricketers should be about to beat Sri Lanka for the third time in a month under the sub-continental sun, but the mobile won't co-operate in feeding my news hunger. Sighing, as one does so often these days when technology won't immediately perform a miracle and accede to a pernickety wish, I take the road onwards to Rothwell. Down the hill a black bull is confined in a side field with a single cow. She seems bored. He carries a mournful air. From the look of him he may well have sired the calves up on the Loddington side, and if so should be pleased with his work - a proverbial quiver full of arrows. Can't win every one.

I can't access Rothwell by my chosen path, which would have conveniently taken me under the A14 into town. Earthmovers are still at work around the periphery of what will soon be a new supermarket ( another Lidl? How many more can the world take?), so I have to go the tedious way over the roundabouts, past a freshly crunched Ford Focus. It's the second RTA consequence I've seen this morning. The weather's been blameless: it's just drivers getting used to the November darkness. Is this an argument for or against BST?

I've been known to knock the parochialism of some parts of the county, but OK, it's time for confession. In forty-five years I've only been through Rothwell on a handful of occasions, and stopped off just the once ages ago for a Northampton Chamber Choir concert when the excellent Stephen Meakins was still in his conducting prime. The town is twinned with Droue, which I have to look up - it's in the Loire, not far from Blois, but of course in terms of county commonplace, the only real twinning for Rothwell is with Desborough, a mile or so up the road, as durable a combination as 'fish n'chips' or 'Mick n'Keef'.

The town is sometimes pronounced 'Rowell', to rhyme with 'towel', and you know this by the sign on the pub near the centre on the old A6 coaching route. The church of Holy Trinity is totally splendid. As I walk through the glass doors, a light, bright riot of colour greets me. There's a servery to the left and a comfy, kiddie-friendly area to the right. Four ladies are sharing the dregs of their Monday morning coffee. I say hello and tell them they have a lovely church, with which they agree monosyllabically: they're grooved on their own conversation. For once I don't feel like interrupting them. This isn't a criticism. Knowing what to do with casual visitors who wander into church has occupied thousands of PCC hours. Too much interest can be as bad as too little: sometimes people are just looking for untrammelled peace and quiet. And here the home team have their own business to transact. Human interaction can be so simple, and so endlessly subtle and complex, can't it?

The most singular thing about Rothwell's church is its ossuary, which can only be seen every other Sunday afternoon. I'd assumed I wouldn't get a peek today, and to be honest wasn't entirely sure I wanted to spend time alone with a big pile of bones. There's something terribly atavistic about such a collection - itself perhaps something of a relic of ancestor worship. It's also a 'memento mori', which at my age I really don't need, thank you. As it is, at some point most days I find myself thinking with reluctance of a world without Me. As Shakespeare wrote: 'what's to come is still delay there lies no plenty...then come kiss me sweet and twenty...'

 Up the hill I go, past the 'Faith and Fabric' shop, and the Old Bank which now hosts a Turkish restaurant. I pass two ladies who look dyed-in-the-wool Northamptonshire, but are chatting away in Polish. Near the Eastern European carwash I hang a left round the back of the cricket ground, and wander over fields towards Desborough. For the first time this autumn, my boots properly clag up - and that's before the days of rain we're promised this week as the wind switches to the south-west. The approach to St. Giles is through a long field where hairy horses (which might belong to travellers) graze with fierce concentration, and then up a steep bank into the churchyard. At the north door some ladies are hanging decorations over the porch. They encourage me to go inside, where they tell me there's a cup of tea on offer. I enter, and am amazed. Preparations are in full swing for the church's, for Desborough's 'Christmas Tree Festival'. Alan's in charge today, and he gives me a tour of the building with its moved and preserved rood screen, its nice looking, funkily-piped organ, and its collection of Green Men, all of which this week take second place to a display of over eighty Christmas trees, decorated in various styles, traditional and contemporary. Each one's the work of a different individual or concern in the town, commercial and organisational. Alan tells me this is the oldest Christmas Tree Festival north of Watford, which amuses me. What the Festival does so splendidly is to bring the town together, focused on the church. It gets people inside. It creates opportunities for ministry and care. The locals will be queueing to get in, come Friday evening.

 Going eastwards out of Desborough the skies darken. Eventually I have to admit defeat and raise my umbrella. The lane is busy. I repeatedly hop up the nine inches on to the verge to avoid the oncoming 4x4s while a) not dropping my stick b)not having the brolly turned inside out c)not getting soaked by uncaring motorists. Could be an audition piece for Strictly. It's a relief when the perimeter wall for the Rushton Hall estate begins because there's a thin strip of sidewalk beside it to keep me safe.

Rushton Hall once belonged to the Treshams. They were Catholics, and one of them, Francis, ended up in the Tower of London in 1605 for his role in the Gunpowder Plot. Now it's a top-end hotel/spa, which seems distinctly laisse-majeste. Apparently Dickens was a regular 19C visitor and for Great Expectations 'Haversham Hall', read 'Rushton Hall' or so the story goes. By the road is one of Northamptonshire's defining landmarks, the 'Triangular Lodge' folly. Not only did it feature on the front of one of the OS maps, but it also adorned the cover of  Pevsner's 'Northamptonshire Buildings of England', so you can tell how important it is. The whole building is a religious allegory, and had it been open, I could have paid my money to English Heritage and spent the rest of the afternoon trying to decode the symbolism. It's triangular for Trinitarian reasons, but it doesn't end there. There are inscriptions and mysterious numbers which reveal, for instance, the supposed dates of the Flood, the length of Jesus' and Mary's lives and much else besides.

                                     You'll find much better pictures elsewhere on the Web...

I'm desperate for a drink by the time I reach Rushton, and head for the Thornhill Arms (the Thornhills were later owners of the Hall. It was Clara Thornhill, whom Dickens came to visit.) When I emerge, there's been another shower, and the light on the cricket field behind All Saints is brilliant. You wouldn't need to be Ben Stokes for a good hit down the ground to threaten the church windows. I wonder if a ball has ever been sent through the glass. Sue's old college in Cambridge, Hughes Hall, has a new building contiguous with Fenners' cricket ground such that high netting has had to be installed to ensnare any big hits. The upside is that the Common Room has a peerless view of play. Just a pity there are fewer county matches with fewer stars of the game on show against the undergrads these days.

Local village names persist as family names. Sue and I both taught 'Desboroughs'. Bill Rothwell is a stalwart of our church community, a doughty walker and organiser (though he's an Ulsterman so maybe that's another Rothwell!). And then there's Rosie Rushton journalist, writer of children's books and lay reader at our church. I don't know any Ortons personally, but of course playwright Joe comes to mind, and so does Beth of that ilk, a folktronic singer better known in the US than over here.

There's another lengthy bout of exposed road walking as I approach and pass Glendon. There was a church here once, St. Helen's, and in 2006 Time Team went looking for it, only to conclude that it had disappeared under later revisions to Glendon Hall. Likewise there was once a Rushton St. Peter's, but it too was pulled down at the convenience of the landowners. It seems that past centuries were less sentimental (or superstitious?) about removing redundant places of worship. I turn into Violet Lane, lovely of association, which is now a pair of dead-ends for traffic either side of the A14. By using a path that at one point is intimidatingly close to the onward rushing traffic, I cross under the trunk road, and walk up to Thorpe Malsor past the point the map marked as 'Potted Brig'. (tiled lock-up??)

As I walk into Loddington, a school coach driving furiously along the narrow road misses my head by inches with one of its sticky-out wing mirrors, although I'm walking securely on the thin pavement. Near the pub a man walking his dog smiles and says hello. He lets me past and prevents me from having to step into the lane. We are a royal priesthood, a holy nation, yes we are. And we are here to spread the Good News. But we the Church are also distinct and different in our commitment to do good everywhere we go, each day, 24/7 with a million small acts of kindness. Aren't we?

At Loddington school, the lights shine brightly from inside as twilight falls, and for a few seconds I capture again the magic of approaching Christmas as a child, the hand-numbing cold, the scent of decaying leaves, the foggy drama of December afternoons and trains cancelled, the school carol concert, the mystery of a child born to bring new hope in the fading of the year.

Cathartic Herald:  21 km. 6 hrs. 2 stiles. 17 gates. 2 bridges. 2 showers of blessing. Bird of the week: Blue Tit. 6 deg C. A very light, easterly breeze.

Look, I know you're not idiots. You're reading this for a start. But if you've got eyes as bad as mine, try clicking on the photographs, if you want to see more detail...

I read the inscription
On that strange ancient building
'Consideravi opera tua, Domine, et expavi...
I thought about all you have done, Lord,
And I was terrified...
Because maybe I haven't been a good steward
Maybe I've contributed to spoiling your creation
Maybe I've failed to use my talents
Maybe I've chosen to be
Careless like the bus-driver
Rather than kind
Like the dog-walker.
Make me a clean heart, O God
And renew a right spirit within me.

Saturday, 24 November 2018

Understandeth thou what thou readest?

I've always loved this story from Luke's Book of Acts. An Ethiopian on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (..Is he a Jew?...Or just curious about the Jewish religion?) is sitting in his carriage in the desert, scratching his head over the book of Isaiah. Perhaps he's sheltering from the heat - or wrapped up against the cold! He manages the treasure of his Queen so he's a rich bloke, hence the carriage and the faith tourism. Philip (the deacon and evangelist, not the apostle) pops up from nowhere, and asks him if he understands what he's reading. Now I know the Ethiopian's carriage didn't have windows, but I imagine Philip played by Marty Feldman, the insistent face, suddenly there, banging on the glass, demanding an answer, wanting to do his evangelist thing. This is a two thousand year old story, right? Astonishing!

I'm the Ethiopian, you see. So often these days I find myself reading stuff, and not having a clue what's going on. This week, as the first phase of Brexit, the withdrawal agreement, is paraded before our faces on a 24/7 schedule, I don't know what's up and what's down. More's the point, apparently neither do some of the major players in this ghastly but fascinating Match of the Day. Both David Davis and Jeremy Corbyn have spoken in profoundly logic-defeating ways about the matter during the last twenty-four hours. Philip ( May? Hammond? Any old Philip!)...where art thou?

And as I continue to plod my way around the Diocese, there are many occasions when I come across an artefact or person, and am left in a state of puzzlement. Well, I suppose that's OK. Socrates famously claimed to be the wisest of all people, because at least he acknowledged that he knew nothing.

Chilly and grey the morning as I walk down past Kettering's fire station and Bishop Stopford School. A fire appliance, all blues and twos, tightening of belts and girding of loins, hurtles up towards the town centre. Yellow high-vis jackets loiter at the top of the school drive, hoping there'll be some customers to shepherd into the Saturday morning Craft Fayre (at least they spelt it with a 'C' and not a 'K')

Were you a pupil at this school, you'd find yourself in one of eight 'houses': Canterbury, Durham, Ely, Gloucester, Peterborough, Salisbury, Winchester or York - so it won't surprise the out-of-county reader to learn that BS is an Anglican foundation, or that Stopford himself was a Bishop of Peterborough who graciously consented that the school be named after him at its inception in 1965. That last sentence sounds a bit crabby. In his position I'm sure I'd have had my arm twisted too.

                                                                  Near Mawsley...

Kettering suddenly opens on to fields just here, but first I have to cross the A14 on a bridge and then navigate a scrubby, nasty path round the back of what was once one of the most celebrated eating places in England. Now it's just another Starbuck's. Not so long ago it was one of the three Little Chef restaurants whose menu and décor were given a makeover by Heston Blumenthal (himself named after a service station on the M4 - only kidding, Hest!) Up to then Little Chef fare was straight out of 1969, when food in roadside cafes was mostly inedible (although didn't you just love their e-number-laden 'Jubilee Pancakes' c. 1977). HB was brought in and zapped the high calories and low nutrition. The star of his new show was definitely the Braised Oxcheeks and Mash.  For a couple of years we regularly drove the fifteen miles from home to indulge in this heavenfood while the traffic from Felixstowe to Manchester whizzed by. But it is no more. Only the ubiquitous Starbuck's coffee and muffins remain.

Up the field I see two things I 'read' but fail to understand. The first is a multi-coloured cone by the side of the crop, pictured above. Is it to mark a stash of animal feed, or does it cover stuff to kill weeds? Then on the far side of the adjoining, busy lane, an MOD site, owned by the RAF. It's poorly defended, so what's it for?

There's a hint the sun's coming out to play as, pursued by a dog, I walk up through the rough pasture into the large village of Broughton, which perhaps unfairly I've always thought of as rather untidy and sprawling, but only because I've been passing through on the main road. The area around St. Andrew's church is refined and pretty though, and I sit in the churchyard with a chicken sarnie, viewed suspiciously by a couple using the gate into their back garden. The church is being renovated, and so is closed to all for a few weeks. It has a broach spire. Wikipedia tells me a broach spire starts from a square base and is carried to a tapering octagon by means of triangular faces. Now you know. On the western side of the village I cross the by-pass with difficulty and drop to the stream bridge on the road to Great Cransley. A left turn at the Three Cranes gives me

a good peek at swanky Cransley Hall, which was on the market for 2.6 million in 2013. OK, so there's a name link between Cransley and Cranes but why are there always three of them? (cf. The Three Cranes at Turvey).  Daddy Crane, Mummy Crane and Baby Crane? Frasier, Niles and Martin? There's another St. Andrew's church here, also shut, and so close to the western end of the Hall that it either tells you something about the relation of the Church and the toffs at a certain point in history ( the enclosures and all that) or the original location of the village centre.

The OS map is great, but it's not absolutely 100% infallible. Very occasionally odd distances or angles on footpaths surprise one or seem slightly askew. On this occasion my 'Explorer 224' edition must be more than fifteen years old, because it doesn't show Mawsley village at all. Perhaps I should get the OS app...

I keep going south-westwards from Great Cransley along a bridle path to New Lodge Farm. On the way I'm passed by a small boy driving a buggy with his dad and some manure on the back. The family look happy enjoying a little bonding time, and I get a cheery wave.

                                                            St. Andrew's Cransley

Beyond the farm I can see the modern houses of Mawsley across the fields and the path begins to veer in unexpected, diverted directions until it emerges at a road near the entrance to the village. The place surprises me. It has the spacious, organised feel of some parts of Milton Keynes. Everywhere seems very well-ordered. The planting is mature. There's a mixture of housing, all of it smart, some of it surprisingly capacious, though there are also rows of two-up two-downs. The architecture nods in the direction of various vernacular styles without being fussy or over-severe. As I lean on the fence beside a recreation space, I say hello to Steve and his two small terriers. I ask him what Mawsley's like as a community, whether it is a community. Steve's enthusiastic. He, his wife and two daughters love it. The kids have been through the village school and thought it a great experience. Some of his friends tell him off when he jokes that they all live in a 'housing estate in the middle of fields', but Mawsley's clearly gradually developing an identity despite not having been provided a pile of amenities at first. Now there's a Community Centre, and some shops, and even a café. Steve's involved in Am Dram, and the same people turn up at most community-related events. But that's the  same everywhere, isn't it?

The C. of E. has an outpost in the village, bundled with  Broughton and Cransley, and I presume it must meet either in the school or the Community Centre, so mentally I sprinkle holy water over Steve, his family and the village (pop. 2320 in 2011) and move on, spirit lightened.

It seems a long old drag up the lane and then back across the fields in the direction of Loddington. After a certain time walking I'm feeling a touch of Jon Pertwee's 'twingeing screws' down both thighs. I hope the pain's referring from my back and not from decaying hips, but at this point in the day my pace and agility are well reduced. I creak into Loddington, and admire the solid polished wood around St. Leonard's porch. I was a Bishop's Visitor to Loddington's Primary School for a while. On its somewhat constrained site on the main street just down from the church and up from the pub it does very well for its hundred or so pupils, dealing with more social deprivation than you'd credit in such a rural place, although sometimes these are kids sent from  nearby urban environments to somewhere that might calm them down.

As of quite recently, Bishop's Visitors are no more. It was always hard to recruit new ones, and these days, with the plethora of checks and balances, the various triangulations on performance that are all part of 21st century education, it's been decided BVs have no useful function, quite correctly IMO. Of course if this were to mirror any dilution of the distinctive nature of Church of England schools, it would be a great loss, but as a Church we have to work out whether we're offering a service without reward in our schools, or recommending and representing a particular way of life. Can we do both? I'm not sure I understand the way ahead for this in a multi faith/no faith society.

Minor rant coming...but kind of related to the above. This week Radio 5 had a #sextakeover day, during which any moral position (as opposed to any other kind of position!) your grandma might have taken was routinely tutted over, and the contemporary sexual supermarket repeatedly advertised. I don't think there's the scintilla of awareness at the Beeb that in the way Five Live's presenters talk and react they're projecting the strongest of let-it-all-hang-out moral attitude, rather than maintaining the objectivity they claim to inhabit. It's a mistake from first year undergraduate philosophy, babe.  Rant over.

In Thorpe Malsor, down the road from Loddington, it sounds like there's Diwali and Bonfire Night going on at three o'clock in the afternoon. I'm surprised the villagers haven't all got PTSD. It's just the wealthy blowing up a few hundred brace of pheasants for tea. I like pheasant. It's just the evident pleasure in killing I hate. In Netflix' Good Wife a senior lawyer, Diane Lockhart, convinced Democrat and liberal, has a lover/husband who's a gun-toting Republican ballistics expert (you know it's going to end in tears...) The writers elucidate the fascination with firearms very cleverly over many episodes. Eventually they have Diane exclaiming: 'My, don't I look good with a gun...'

So another village, another locked church - All Saints. In this central belt of the county, very few PCCs are prepared to take the risk of being open to all. I stop in the village and look at a strange monument by the side of the road. Is it a seat? Is it a memorial?

There's a Greek inscription which gives God the glory, and there are some dates, but I can't interpret the significance, and unusually nothing on the Web will tell me. Thorpe Malsor was where some of the local ironstone quarrying was undertaken in the mid-twentieth century, supporting the war effort. Seventy years on I daresay one could reconstruct the locations and find superficial evidence of the activity, but generally speaking you'd never know what had taken place. Part of the line of the narrow gauge Kettering Ironstone Railway is still discernible on the map, as is the site of Cohen's breakers' yard near Great Cransley. Woodham Brothers in Barry, South Wales, is celebrated as one of the most ghostly, evocative railway venues. As British Railways disposed of its stock of ageing steam locos in the early sixties, replacing them with the nice, new, clean (!) diesel motive power, they were sent for scrap to various places. Woodham's was the largest, but Cohen's played its part too, down in the dip near the junction of the A43 and the more recent A14 trunk road. I never knew.

The re-entry to Kettering isn't a pleasure. I pick my way through a new housing project where, unlike at Mawsley, there'll be very little landscaping, and absolutely no community infrastructure, the assumption being that the residents will use the town centre. The houses are crammed together, the references to traditional housing styles crude. There are already people in some of them, but the roads aren't finished, and it's clear there isn't enough parking. It's a future slum staring us in the face. I think I do understand this: if an environment is barren and bleak, so will be the minds of the inhabitants. Why are we repeating this mistake? And how can we square my complaint with the need not to build on green field sites all the time?

Christian Sciatica Monitor:  25 km.  7.5 hrs. 9-13 deg C. Light but chilly northerly breeze.  2 stiles. 16 gates. 4 bridges. 2 nurofen. Wrens much in evidence (now the leaves have fallen). One conversation. Four churches (all firmly shut on a Saturday morning/afternoon & no sign of life in or around them).

We're not understood, are we?
Most people out there
Think we're deluded fantasists
Working out our own inadequacies.
And yet...
Like a friend of mine said the other day
'Why can't people just be nicer to each other?'
So they see there's a problem
They just don't think we have the answer.

Help me to help them understand
And keep me coming back to you
To have my sight checked
To test my assumptions
To acknowledge my faults
And be made whole again.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

Spoiled for choice

                                                  Memorial to the fallen: Weekley

How do we choose where we worship? (If you watch Channel 4's Grand Designs, think Kevin McCloud's voice here...) For some it may be less a question of choice, more a matter of habit. Some will have a strong preference for a particular style of service (drums and/or incense, anyone?) while others will think only one place represents their core beliefs (transubstantiation, an absence of uppity women, the Literal Word of God?) Loyalty and duty play their part. The presence of friends or the age of a building (either Ancient or Modern) may be key factors...and so may be where a family's three year old hopes to go to school. Today's journey enables me to sample a single town's churches all in one go. That town is, ladies and gentlemen...let's have a big hand for...Kettering. Of course, my Big Walk takes in only Anglican churches. In Kettering (pop. approx. 93,500) the Kaleidoscope of Faith also comprises places of worship for Catholics, Methodists,URC, Baptists (rather famously!) plus more contemporary foundations such as The Vineyard and Open Door, and groups on the fringe of the Christian mainstream too, such as Jehovah's Witnesses. There's something for everyone, you'd think, but the majority don't care and go shopping or to football instead. Just as they do everywhere else.

Is there too much choice? Do our divisions weaken our Brand? And can you be a Christian if you're generally nice to people, read your Bible, and stay at home on-line?

I park on the green next to St. Botolph's in Barton Seagrave, and stroll down past the dog-walkers into the green space by the earthwork remains of Barton Seagrave House. Over the road I meander into the parkland of The Wilderness which runs roughly parallel to Kettering's river, the Ise. On my right is a housing estate where the luckiest occupants have a green view. The ends of their closes are marked by blocks of stone so large they'd cost you a small fortune in your local garden centre, a protection against invasion by Travellers. Two men are standing around a heat exchanger on the outside of a community building. I catch a fragment of conversation: 'I was born in Kettering, you know...grew up in dad was in the Forces...' In another half mile I come to a road and there's the Church of Christ the King. The door's open...

Jo Batch is tidying up after Thursday morning Mums and Tots and now she's preparing for the afternoon session. Around the large modern space which sits under Christ the King's canopy is a cheerful clutter of toys and chairs, drum kits, music stands and keyboards. It's all very bright, warm and welcoming. Jo tells me there may be 300 in on a Sunday morning, split between two services. A Friday evening club for primary age kids will attract 50, and there are perhaps 30 in their teen group. You see, it can be done! Do I like everything about Christ the King? No, of course not.  A leaflet about their men's ministry says: 'for too long Church has often been seen as a place for the ladies, the children and the older generation...Kingsman Men's Ministry aims to allow a very real environment for real men to be real about their spiritual lives...' (my underscoring). I agree with some of the diagnosis, but worry slightly about some of the language. But should this matter? What this church is doing works, doesn't it, and if I lived close by, I'd worship here, though perhaps I'd miss Choral Evensongs.

                                 Jo Batch + assistant aka Mr. Sheepy. He has his own song...

After a month of not-blog-walking, it feels a bit strange to be on the hoof again, the kind of disorientation one feels returning to familiar software after weeks away: the hands/feet move instinctively, but don't quite know why. What's this all about? Am I doing things the way I should? Will I break the machine?

There's time for a little countryside in among the urban today, and I follow a bridleway across the fields towards Warkton. In this mildest of Novembers I'm still in shorts, but have kicked my Merrills in favour of boots, because it's slightly greasy underfoot on the paths, although the ground is still firm. This last week has seen a sudden end flame of autumn, the colours at their most vivid, but even over the most recent 48 hours, the leaves are giving up their struggle against the inevitable. There are squirrels everywhere among the overhanging branches. I like their cheekiness out here in the open, but we think we have squirrels inside the walls of our house. I have threatening conversations with the Weston Favell brethren concerning their fate if they don't clear off.  A puzzle. I pass a badger sett, where some of the holes have been covered with hollowed out pumpkin skins. Have the badgers developed a taste for this most gastronomically drab of autumn vegetables, goodness knows why, or has some human individual tried to stop up their various holes? Or, nasty thought, has a farmer poisoned the pumpkins in an effort to prevent the spread of TB?

I shelter in the porch of St. Edmund's, Warkton and eat a sandwich. Yesterday was a sapping, depressing day, six hours on the road to and from London, holding back resentment against clients, fellow-drivers, politicians, radio presenters, you name it and I've got a grudge. So as I sit, I allow myself the luxury of praying for me as well as the parishioners of Warkton, for what I should be doing with my life, to know how much slack I should be cutting myself at the age of sixty-seven and whether I'm entitled to enjoy my preferences in expressing my faith. I look at the stones around me, and feel the challenge of being a 'living stone'. In short, I'm feeling a bit Weekley and Warkton, as Les Dawson might have said.

The two villages are spread either side of the Ise, linked by the Boughton estate, sharing a cricket team who are lucky enough to play on the pretty ground which sits beside a grand drive of trees close to St. Mary's church in Weekley, by a long chalk the more picturesque of the two settlements. It was sufficiently photogenic to find a starring role in the Keira Knightley film of Pride and Prejudice, the seventeenth century Montagu Hospital hard by the church becoming Mr. Collins' rectory. Weekley's a lovely, calming place, and though I'm sure the monuments inside the church are fascinating, I don't regret for one moment not seeing them. I could have done though, because as I pick up my stick and rucksack to move on, a gentleman in a Mercedes is just arriving. He winds his window down. It's Brian Giles. He's the lay worship leader in the benefice. He has a group coming in for a tour this afternoon, and it wouldn't be a trouble to let me inside. I decline, thinking I have only so much time before dusk (I started late today!) The parish has a new incumbent arriving in February, Brian tells me. I leave him with a card, and he leaves me with a leaflet. Over the lintel of the Montagu Hospital door is the legend: 'What thou Doest, Do Yt in Fayth'.

                                                   Bats: to be found in many churches...

The main road back towards Kettering is vaguely familiar. Once upon a time it was the only way out to Stamford and the A1. Now there's a Kettering by-pass. Inside the town limit a right turn takes me up Weekley Glebe Road into fifties' housing estates, which after a mile or so shade into terraces from an earlier era, for Kettering is largely a Victorian shoe town, building on a wool trade from the centuries before that (Stamford cloth was once famous Europe-wide, according to Trevelyan) and diversifying into iron ore for a time as the cutting of the railway revealed deposits which remained economically viable until the late nineteen-fifties. Here is the still barely beating heart of old Northamptonshire. Opposite the Midland Band Club lie the Rockingham Road Pleasure Gardens, complete with bandstand and lovers' walk, and tucked away in one corner is All Saints Church. A chalk board sign by the Club tells me that the Pensioners' Parliament isn't meeting there today: they've gone to Weekley - to be entertained by Brian  Giles, I presume. 'Pensioners' Parliament'! What a fantastic name!

All Saints' patron is the 'Society for the Maintenance of Faith', which I think has its roots in the Oxford Movement, and has some ninety parishes under its wing up and down the country. I associate this Catholic tradition with mission to the working classes, the Arts and Crafts Movement, and an invigorating, robust, no-nonsense approach to living the Christian life, which to the outsider can sometimes seem at odds with its mystical, complicated liturgy. All Saints has been on the ground here since 1898, and the current building since 1916, which must have been an interesting moment to be developing a church community. Their website invites and encourages, and stresses community involvement. And it seems puppets feature in the preaching ministry here too...

The pattern of church building in Kettering follows the town's historical development: an ancient town centre foundation, satellite churches from the Victorian housing boom, and Christ the King as the twentieth century outlier. What, if anything, will the 21st century bring? I wander down the Rockingham Road. They're pulling up the town centre, to further improve the road system. My first impression is that sadly where Northampton has led, Kettering is now following into a soul-less, character-less abyss of political failure. No one knows what the middle of a town should be. On the corner is an interesting church - St. Andrew's, which says that it hosts various congregations, and has become the venue for Kettering's Arts Centre. Perhaps a place to try if you're from the radical Christian left? Recently it's seen a memorial service for Morey Gompertz, a formidable, pioneering headteacher at Northampton's only Anglican Middle School, back before three tiers became two again, educationally speaking.

I walk on through the mazy back streets, the untidy terraced houses dotted with small businesses, and think how this kind of environment was a part of my family past. In Erith's Emes Road, my grandparents brought up six children in a two-up, two-down, with scullery and outside toilet. I and millions like me are so lucky to live in the more spacious accommodation which is so widely available and desired now. Other upwardly-mobile populations are moving in here. A head-scarved North African woman gives me a lovely smile as she wheels her pushchair towards the distant sound of children playing. An Indian couple argue as they move in on their front door, juggling keys and offspring. A black British postman says a cheerful hello. I find St. Mary's on the slope between light industries. It's a Forward in Faith church 'under the care of the Bishop of Richborough'. It looks sad and beleaguered, the windows defended with metal and plastic, the stonework blackened and dingy. However, the cliché about books and their covers must apply: like St. Andrew's, St Mary's proclaims a welcome to all. This next question may seem provocative, even offensive. How do the attitudes of this wing of the C of E stack up against #MeToo, hate-crime, and anti-discrimination legislation? Law and Spirit? (The same questions would have to be addressed to Muslim and Jewish congregations where there's 'separate development' for men and women. Ditto for some Evangelical groups.) A recurrent challenge to all Christians is how to respond inclusively to those who tell us aggressively we're wrong, from outside the Church, and within it.

                                          A Saturn 5 of a spire: SS Peter & Paul, Kettering

The spire of St. Peter and St. Paul's was built on a grand scale. There are beautiful buildings in the town centre, but they've become somehow disconnected from the commerce. A banner proclaims a Kettering Cultural Quarter, but appends the word 'Shopping', and two doors up there's a large Tattoo Parlour and a 'Private Shop', which I shouldn't think is the kind of culture the town councillors had in mind.

As I approach the entrance to SS. Peter and Paul, a bell sounds, and a man hurrying past exclaims 'they've been doing that for days...' as if to say to me 'go and sort it out, will you?' According to a woman sitting patiently inside by the bell tower, a thirteenth bell is being added, and although the company hanging it have been testing to make sure it doesn't come crashing down through woodwork and stone to wreak havoc on Kettering heads, today is the moment when the church team get to take their new toy out for a walk. Her husband is one of the ringers. The church is long, solemn and dignified. I light a candle for my family, and think with amusement of my friend Lynda Hayes who was once a parish administrator here, and is a very long way from being solemn. Lynda's a wonderful session singer, with a command of all pop styles, but she didn't style herself Crazy Hayes for nothing!

I walk away through solid, prosperous villas once built for the managers of the shoe factories, past the surprising, green painted, corrugated shack of St. Michael's and All Angels. Humble St. Michael's shares a vicar with the town centre grandeur of SS Peter and Paul, and it's only ten minutes away on foot, so why is it there? There'll be a reason, and there'll be a congregation who love the place. In deepest winter, I bet it's the warmer of the two buildings!

So, if you re-located to Kettering, where would you go to church?

Postscript.  'A cloud no bigger than a man's hand'. Manfred Weber has just been elected as the European People's Party candidate for the post of President of the European Commission. He talks a lot about the fact that a unifying, defining symbol of 'Europe' is the presence of a Christian church in every town and village. For this reason, some see him as a person to be feared, and his Christian beliefs may prevent him from the highest office. Through this prism, what does it mean that we're about to extract ourselves from the European family? Clouds sometimes pop up and then disappear again as quickly as they came. And sometimes they're harbingers of cataclysmic meteorology, for good or evil.

Factsheet: 16 km. 4.8 hrs. 1 stile. 15 gates. 2 bridges. 13 deg. C. Sunny at first, clouding somewhat in the afternoon. A warm south-westerly breeze. Roses still blooming in Weekley, as well as in Picardy.

We are scattered limbs
Torn apart by the wars of religion
We do not speak each to each
Or share
Or respect
Retaining bare, ghosting memories
Of how we were made.

God of miracles
Knit us together
Breathe your Spirit into us
Make lovely what is dry
Fashion a new body
Which though scourged and wounded
Is triumphant
In its resurrection life

                                                                                               Remembrance 2018

Saturday, 27 October 2018

Holiday! Cornish Interlude

                      I think you can probably tell we're not in Northamptonshire this week....


The ferry that takes us from Padstow across the Camel estuary to the straggly village of Rock is built like a mini WW2 landing craft with a cabin stuck on the rear end, a roll on-roll off for pedestrian tourists who've eaten too much at one of Rick Stein's many foodie outlets. I don't much care for watery excursions, but on a bright and shining October day, I like this a lot.

From the slipway we walk along the curving beach and then clamber into the dunes, but can't see the path we want near the pretty house where the mounds of sand and grass briefly become proper cliffs at Brea Hill. We ask the way of two teenage girls, apparently straight off the Doc Martin set, though evidently less dippy than their TV counterparts. They suggest we follow them if we don't want to try the steep descent on the far side of the Hill, but they're too fleet of foot; in a very few moments they've left our careful treading of the narrow path well behind. At Daymer Bay, Gresham School Holt's First Fifteen are improving their fitness by enthusiastically running up and down the dunes. An Israeli once told me that's how their defence forces train too, although I expect they do it in 37 rather than 17 degree heat.

After a false start we find the right track up towards the golf course, and there's the church with its odd stumpy little steeple, nestled down among the undulations, St. Enodoc's, the talisman of John Betjeman's childhood and his final resting place. His mum's buried there too, and there's a memorial to his father on the south wall, the plate spelling the family name with the extra terminal 'n' which they later discarded to protect themselves as the twentieth century became politically complicated.

I love Betjeman's writing and his melancholic delivery to camera in those period piece documentaries, all now so anachronistic, the rhyming patterns and the slow, careful pace. I read 'Summoned By Bells' when I was eleven years old, and still think it a masterpiece. He searched for faith to the end, pushing his way through obscuring curtains of doubt, sustained by the beauty of the natural world, and God's gifts of creativity to humanity in word and physical form. Much is made of the quality of light down the coast at St. Ives, where artists past and present gather, but it's pretty special around the Camel Estuary too, as the sun-coloured sand surfaces into a caerulean sea and the foamy Dulux surf, a far cry from Metroland and Northampton.

There's nothing within fifty miles of the Nene much like St. Enodoc's tiny church with its low-vaulted roof and offset bell tower. There was a fishing village here once, and the church guide book tells us there's a tradition that where a Cornish church has a spire, it's built on a heathen burial ground. But eventually the shifting sands couldn't be denied, and the church had to be rescued from them in the nineteenth century. At one time, the vicar had to gain entry by a trap door set in the roof. A friend tells me that according to the archaeologists, a Roman settlement in Alderney was abandoned for similar reasons.

Impermanence is built into history. Physics tells us so. We Christians assert the unchanging-ness of God as a comforting antidote (tho' why do we believe this, rather than a God who is master of flux?) because I suppose 'change and decay in all around (we) see...'  The loss of any current circumstance is disconcerting, reminding us of our mortality and impending loss of faculty and agency. Is the Brexit phenomenon a secular by-product of these fears?

St. Enodoc's antecedents are obscure. It seems he may have been a son of the Welsh king who gave his name to Breconshire. In the times before Aelfred, England (let alone the 'United Kingdom') was a collection of warring states and tribes between whom conflict was probably endemic. The following view will seem extreme and dubious to many readers, but I sometimes think Brexiteers may be unwittingly pushing us towards an analogous contemporary situation rather than (as they would have us think) re-establishing a single nation standing proudly in resistance to alien cultures.

The most permanent feature of life I'm capable of grasping, is the requirement on all humans to yield to the law of love as best described by Jesus of Nazareth. In my limited slice of space/time, that's quite enough of a challenge.

We pull ourselves away, and avoiding the golfers who co-exist uneasily with the rights of way winding across their fairways, stroll back to The Mariners in Rock for ginger beers and shandies. In one corner hangs a telly with coverage of a 20/20 cricket match from the Indian Premier League. In the other an identical screen gives us Charlton v. Millwall. Mysterious Cornwall always was a place unto itself, but these days you can't keep the world out. What role is there for sport in drawing Britain (and the World) together politically? Or for the Church of England?


This is possibly my favourite walk of all, a hug from a long-absent, much loved friend.

The road from Wadebridge towards Padstow, busy, walled and narrow, drops into a ravine at Little Petherick. On the one side of the stream lies the Village Hall and the dark church of St. Petroc Minor. On the other is the lovely house where once upon several times we happily holidayed. We park by the hall. A Zumba class is grinding away as we don boots and anoraks. Sweaty bodies are on show through the open door. The tides are a consideration for this walk. The Wadebridge side of the path along the creek can be impassable at the highest tides: there's always a little squelchiness even when the water's low. Through the five bar gate, cows used to graze the grassy bank on the right, but it doesn't look as if they've been there in a while. We skirt the fields and then come to a wood and stone stile by the plantation we remember from its very early days. Now there's dense undergrowth and the trees are pleasingly mature. The path drops down to the margin of the creek, and we look across the ripples of chocolatey mud, glistening in the sun, to the slit trench of grey water. A single snowy-white egret hears us and takes flight to a new pitch further down. There's not a sound apart from the wind and the calls of the wading birds, their plangent cries bouncing off the wooded hillside. By Seamills the slow reveal of the creek's exit into the Camel Estuary becomes complete, broken only by the arches of the old railway line. We round the low shale cliff with its ancient iron moorings and enjoy again the low slung Georgian houses with their splendid views to the sparkling open water beyond. We speculate again as to whether we'd buy one, if we had the money. Too vulnerable to flooding for someone as cautious as me! Further round is a more modern house where a wooden causeway crosses a little bay. It's being further updated with one of those glass fronted balconies which are so fashionable at present. The workmen whistle along to Radio 2: they're enjoying their labour in such a beautiful setting and under such gorgeous weather: it'll all be done and dusted in a couple of weeks. We climb through the field to Tregonce, and then drop down to the cyclists' and walkers' 'Camel Trail', which follows the old branch line. What romance it must have been to decant from the London train at Wadebridge, and puff along the seven miles of single track to the terminus next to the harbour, almost in the heart of Padstow. Real Famous Five stuff! B&B for the more budgetarily constrained, The Metropole for the toffs. Some of the station buildings survive, but now just there, opposite the Lobster Hatchery, it's car park city, though amongst a plethora of foodie delights, The Metropole's still available for cocktails if you've got the yen and the cash.

Up in town is the gracious parish church, like Petherick's dedicated to St. Petroc - the town's name is derived from him too: 'Petroc-stow'. He founded a monastery here in the sixth century, and a second one in Bodmin, and has come to be seen as one of Cornwall's patron saints, although he seems to have wandered across a selection of 'Celtic' lands during the course of his life. From the accommodating harbour at Padstow, a long distance footpath known as 'The Saints Way' lollops across the peninsula to Fowey in the south. It marks a convenience of ancient days in avoiding the extra sea miles round Land's End for travellers perhaps en route from Ireland or Wales to Brittany, and we follow it down the lane out of town and up steep Dennis Hill to the Victorian Jubilee obelisk which overlooks the Camel Estuary, the creek and the exit to the sea, flanked by the sharp, dramatic line of Pentire beyond Polzeath. For me it's a place of pilgrimage in its own right.

The Saints Way switch-backs from there onwards along field margins, across causeways, through ancient woods, with views of the creek, now from ground level, now from the balcony of the path, and finally descends to the car park at Little Petherick again. I once found a fatally wounded crow at its highest point, and could do nothing for the poor bird, but commemorate it in a sad chorus. The beauty of places like this can make the heart sing or reduce one to tears, and which will happen on any given day, it's impossible to know.

In a world shot full of tragedy and pain
In the presence of such unutterable wonders
I find myself saying
As I have said before
'It can never be so good again'.
Thank you
For times of holiday and recreation.
Help me feed off this experience
To tackle the rest of life
With courage and creativity.

Sunday, 7 October 2018


                                                    Yelden (Yielden) church: Bedfordshire

I once got caught at a posh dinner between two biochemist Munro baggers (male). It wasn't a very entertaining evening and that, folks, is an example of the classic English understatement. Why are we men apparently the gender most likely to collect obsessively and be completist about it? I own the tendency. I was a teenage trainspotter. I am a hoarding philatelist. I do have an unhealthily in-depth knowledge of cricket stats. Most women I know do not indulge such whims, or maybe if they do, they sensibly keep quiet about it.

Relations between men and women have been much in the news again this past fortnight. One sleepless night I found myself transfixed by CNN's coverage of Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh's testimonies to the Senate sub-committee. Some problems that arise between the sexes may be a matter of body chemistry ( as well as dodgy morality!) But where does the apparent difference in obsessiveness come from. It may be socially acquired, but why? If it isn't, what are its origins and seat?

All of which brings us to the matter of Newton Bromswold. Somehow I managed to avoid going there when I was in the vicinity of Rushden a year ago, but today it's in my sights as a single target, because the point of this project is to visit every church in the Diocese of Peterborough, right? This is a completist initiative, every bit as much as the Munro-baggers' self-imposed task, and here I am writing at you about it! Aaaargh! Freud famously asserted that no mistake or omission is ever unintentional. So what's with my previous denial of Newton Bromswold?

I park near the Baptist church in Rushden and stroll down through the back streets to the Wymington turn. Say what you like about Rushden, but at least there's a mighty strong Christian presence at this end of town. No more than a hundred metres from the Baptist Chapel (itself not a small building) is the imposing pile of the Heritage Chapel and Halls. This looks a very interesting proposition. Formerly a Methodist church it's now an 'Independent Non-Denominational Christian Church serving the local community', and from the weekly activities listed, it's clearly practising what it says on the tin. As I pass, a disabled young person is being assisted from a car and welcomed inside by a worker. The church's website commends itself to me by mentioning that the author H.E.Bates was  born close by and baptised here. There are descriptions of the collection of First War-inspired artworks by John Frederick Black which it holds. Moving on a few hundred metres further, I come to the Full Gospel Church, whose own website amuses me just a little by showing a graphic of a 'Help' message in a bottle on its 'Home' page. I know what they mean, but there've been plenty of times that's been my sentiment while actually sitting in a pew and being 'ministered to' from the pulpit - though not in east Rushden.

I don't want to make my walk to Newton Bromswold a simple out-and-back affair, so most of today will be spent in the diocese of St. Albans. Up the road out of Rushden, I pass the sign that tells me I'm in Bedfordshire. Climbing the little (wooden) hill to Bedfordshire was a childhood evening mantra, but still, topographically speaking, it feels a bit weird to ascend to this new, flat county. A path by fields is a more pleasant alternative to the suburban road but a few steps along it my Merrills slip on a tree root and I fall, rolling onto my left side, clunking my shoulder on the bone-dry ground and grazing my knees to a soundtrack of oath and imprecation. However no one but me is scandalized by this literal and metaphorical tumble from grace, and (check) my phone is undamaged and (check) my camera is intact, so I limp on until I meet a lady picking sloes from the hedgerow. They're better after a frost or two, she says. You put them in gin, I ask? She doesn't exactly make a sign of the cross but replies, rather judgmentally, that she doesn't touch alcohol. I'm thinking Full Gospel or maybe Unreformed Methodist. What she does is to make up a syrup and add it to lemonade as a sort of squash. Alternatively she pours the syrup on ice cream. Remembering a mouth-shrinking sloe mousse served to us by a friend long ago, I observe that it must take a lot of sugar. She admits that this wayside fruit is an acquired taste.

 St. Lawrence's Wymington, all clean stonework, turret and tower, isn't quite shut. A man and (perhaps) his father are just exiting from the priest's door, but I don't like to detain them, so merely say hello and pause for a few moments. Up the road I pass the sign to Wymington Chapel and Meeting Place - a mini conference centre - but the 'Meeting Place' idea triggers thoughts of Bunyan and Bedford, and I'm struck by how just a couple of miles out of Rushden and the world seems different.

The kids in the village school call out to me in friendly fashion, but times being what they are, I ignore their greetings lest I be reported as a funny man showing inappropriate interest (well, I do look, shall we say, casual). A woman in a high-vis jacket is spearing litter in the street by the New Inn. I say, probably rather patronisingly, that she's doing a fine job. She says ruefully that it's a thankless task. I reply as graciously as I can that she has my thanks anyway. She thanks me for thanking her. A blue plaque on the wall opposite St. Lawrence's commemorates Jean Overton Fuller, a biographer whose most celebrated work tells the story of WW2 betrayed SOE agent Noor Inayat Khan. Fuller also came up with the notion that the painter Walter Sickert may have been Jack the Ripper, a theory not widely accepted, even if some of Sickert's work is a touch on the lurid side.

Turning off the road by a waste disposal plant, a young guy, also in a high-vis, but this time officially employed by the environmental services and not a volunteer, sees me consulting my map, and asks where I'm headed. I try to explain, sounding like I'm doing Samuel Beckett, that I'm going to Newton Bromswold. Oh, you want to go that way he says (as opposed to the way I'm actually going). He looks puzzled at the notion of a circular walk for pleasure, but I think he's got it by the end of the conversation. Newton Bromswold's on his itinerary too, so I'll probably see him there. From over the fields comes an intermittent ear-splitting dragon's roar. I'm near Santa Pod, the drag-racing facility behind the village of Podington, where improbable looking cars light up their engines for a few fiery seconds to accelerate to two hundred miles an hour. As with Towcester race course (for which I may now be too late) I've never been to this celebrated local sporting venue, and watching it on telly, I'm not particularly drawn, though I have a penchant for the first few minutes of each Sunday lunchtime Grand Prix...but perhaps the latter's just chauvinism, Lewis Hamilton and all. Probably if someone gave me free tickets, I'd get hooked on Pod-ing and would be able to discuss the intricacies of fuel mixtures and drag coefficients with the best of them, though I think I value my ears too much.

A grey heron, which seems not to mind the engine noise, still has hearing acute enough to register my presence and flaps away from the lake-sized pond in front of North Lodge. I reach the crosspath which is the Three Shires Way and join it. In a few metres a notice tells me that if I want to go the other way, towards Odell, the path under the railway won't be available for the next six months, so hard luck, mate. This is uber-annoying Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy 'planning department in Alpha Centauri' kind of stuff . The notice quotes unsupplied maps allegedly showing the diversion and all kinds of footpath numbers no OS map shows. What's a walker supposed to do? How would she or he know of this potential hindrance to their day's enjoyment?

Over the A6, the path skirts a new biogen plant and some nice woodland. I'm welcomed to Manor Farm and invited to keep to the waymarked paths. The waymarks promptly disappear, and the faintest imprints on the soil lead me in the right direction towards the Knotting road by walker's instinct. There's nothing to Knotting, except the tiny church dedicated to St. Margaret of Antioch. It's cared for by the Historic Churches Conservation Trust, and truly it's a little marvel, the kind of place you have to tear yourself away from because it radiates such holy charm. It could never remain viable of course, because the people living in the parish now number less than fifty. But how grateful we should be that it survives to be enjoyed, open still as a beautiful house of prayer for the few like me who drop by. There are two boards in the porch, which together make me nostalgically sad. The first records the gradual rationalisation over twenty years of the local parishes into benefices, to the point at which Knotting became 'redundant'. The other records the rectors of the place back into the thirteenth century. Yes, of course this speaks to a history of wealth and established power in the English Church, and also to a pattern of employment for privileged families, but it also tells a tale of decline and failure which is painful to those of us now of retirement age. We don't want to go to our graves believing we've closed things down and watched valued institutions wither. We'd rather leave a thriving, dynamic exciting heritage of faith without recourse to fashionable extremism. Question: how do we achieve this?

  You want to know about Newton Bromswold, I know you do, so although the next leg of today's walk is perfectly pleasant, and the village of Yelden pretty (and served by an excellent guide, priced £2.50, available from St. Mary's church) I won't hold you up with tales of its castle or its wold.

It's a bit of a slog up the road from Yelden back into Northamptonshire and towards Newton. St. Peter's is up behind the pub along a tree-lined lane by a horsey field. In the churchyard I find Verdon Pope and his friend Bob who've come with Bob's daughter to tidy things up a bit. Verdon is 86 but looks ten years younger. He was named after the First War battle, although they got the spelling wrong, so he's now known as 'Vern'. Vern has cycled to St. Peter's, as he does regularly, although he says he's not really one for churchgoing. He takes me round the church and does a good job as a guide, making up in hospitality and welcome what's perhaps lacking a little in detailed knowledge. We share a cheery ten minutes. I admire the high and lifted-up organ
and the tapestry of the Last Supper. There was a Harvest Supper

here a week ago. In the summer there's a festival (patronal?) and Handel is played on the organ with the Rushden Band in attendance. Vern was born in Acton and went to the Grammar School there in its heyday. His parents brought him back to West London during the Blitz (not an uncommon, though counter-intuitive thing) and he remembers walking from school past the still-smouldering wrecks of buildings. I tell him that I work in Acton quite frequently. We agree it must have changed a great deal.

The word 'Bromswold' is said to be a corruption or version of 'Bruneswald'. Frank Stenton wrote a former generation's standard work on Anglo-Saxon England in which he has the 'Forest of Bruneswald' stretching from just south of Lincoln down across Northamptonshire and into Bedfordshire. Personally I have a few doubts about this, which might be the splitting of hairs over what constitutes a 'forest', and might generalise into discussion about human fertility and exactly how many people lived in pre-Conquest Britain. Anyway, legend has it that Hereward ('the Wake'), having looted the plate from what was to become Peterborough Cathedral, eluded his foes by retreating into the fastnesses of Bruneswald Forest. Sounding rather like a Welsh footballer, there's also a Leighton Bromswold not so far away, in West Cambridgeshire.

                                                           Chancel arch: Knotting

Sometimes a single event can almost come to define a small place: the most exciting or tragic thing ever to happen there. Both Newton Bromswold and Yelden are adjacent to the wartime airfield at Chelveston, later adapted to the needs of the USAF's strategic bombing capability. In 1943, two B-17 bombers returning from a training mission collided mid-air over Newton Bromswold. Both crews of ten young men were killed. Ghost stories hang in the mist around the crossroads just outside the village. And there were a further twenty-one deaths when a similar plane crashed on take-off and ploughed into an RAF billet at Yelden. The plane slid on into a farmhouse near the church, killing two children. The village school was badly damaged, and it's said that the school clock stopped at the exact time of the crash, shortly after midnight on March 24th 1944. Nowadays an incident of this sort would lead to calls for a public enquiry, and assurances that such a thing could never again occur.

21 km. 6.5 hrs. 19 deg. C. Warm with hazy sunshine. 2 stiles. 8 gates. 8 field bridges.

Dear Lord and Father
Tomorrow we shall hold another Harvest service.
I thank you
For John Arlott
Who wrote the hymn
'God whose farm is all creation'.
Thank you for what he gave me
As he gave others...
A love of the English countryside
And of the English Game of cricket.

Father, in him
I sense a Poet of Doubt
Called to write his faith
(Or the lack of it)
To meet the needs of the day.
May we all grow in grace
As through prayer
Through discussion
Through our music
And through all our written and spoken words
We struggle to meet you
And express our love and thankfulness.

John Arlott (1914-1991) was the doyen of radio cricket commentators, but he was much more than that. He was once a policeman, and was recruited after the war to be a BBC poetry producer. Various celebrated poets were asked to contribute hymns to the BBC hymnbook ( think of that!) in the early fifties, but their submissions failed to make the grade. Arlott wrote four lyrics around the theme of the changing seasons. Three were published, and 'God whose farm' is the one which has stuck.

Monday, 17 September 2018

A Band of Angels coming after me

                                                              All Saints: Brampton Ash
                                                             'Help thou my unbelief...'
                                                             So let's start with an easy one...
                                                             How much of The Creed do you need to believe
                                                             to be a Christian?  This bothers a lot of people.

I used to positively hate the arrival of autumn. My soul would wear black, my body would get sick as I mourned the loss of sun-warmth. These days I'm quicker to see the virtues of the year's final third. I particularly like the lower-angled light for the definition it adds to the contours of landscape and vegetation. Beauty accrues through shadow...

On a sparkling September morning I park near the foot of Great Oxendon's Main Street. Its telephone box may or may not still function as a communication device, but it now contains a few shelves of second hand books for sale or swap. Where I cross, a plastic watering can sits in the middle of the A508. I move it to the grass verge, thinking at first it's a car's lost silencer. A hundred metres down the lane two builders prop on their spades and agree it's a great day to be out and about. The sheep in a scrappy nearby field look unhappy on their poverty pasture: one of them might actually be dead. There's a pleasantly raspy sound from the engine of an approaching car, and I step off the road. An XK140 in smart navy blue accelerates past with a wave. I've always thought Jags of the 50s and 60s a total design classic - curves to match Marilyn's, sweep of bonnet and wheel arch. If I had a million quid spare and to invest, the plot on the right hand side of the lane might be worth a punt: space for two five-bedroomed houses with land a-plenty and a duck-pond for one of them.

I'm on the ridge now with expansive views of chocolate-cake soil and light straw stubble to the north and south. At the end of Long Spinney I turn down the lane towards Braybrooke. There are kennels on my right: I can hear the dogs. As with the sound of a baby crying, repeated barking trips a distress fuse. When my dad took an oil-man's tour to 1958 Iraq, leaving me at home with Mum, a pretty but unbiddable black and white fox terrier was bought as a consolation and to be a nightwatchman. Later, when Dad came home, his work disrupted by a revolution, a regicide and nationalisation of the petroleum asset, we took a holiday and Pedros went into the local kennels for a week. Re-united with us seven days later, the poor animal had lost his voice, completely barked out from incessant vocal competition.

There are some nice houses near the Braybrooke village limit. Anything built before the year 2000 has an open aspect. I can admire the owners' gardens and envy their good fortune. Anything from this millennium is hidden from view, defended by fences, walls and hedges. Is this fortification born of fear, or from a relentless assertion of individualism - I am an island?

Beyond Braybrooke my route follows the path held in common between the Jurassic Way and the Macmillan Way and sometimes the Midshires Way as well ( I-Spy score of at least 30, I reckon). Sometimes it's well waymarked, and sometimes not. It takes in ploughed fields and nettly ginnels, before beginning a lengthy step alongside Hermitage Wood.

What I frequently find difficult about prayer is the vain attempt to clear my mind of the day's clutter. I peer through the mental detritus to the people and causes for which I want to intercede, losing concentration and shape. It can be every bit as good an aid to falling asleep as counting woollies - but I don't think I'm alone in this. Today's baggage includes: (from the drive out to Great Oxendon) dialogues on women's reproductive health and rights broadcast simultaneously on Radios 4 and 5 and (from the Kingsthorpe Waitrose café), The Times' headlines about Justin Welby's speech to the TUC *.  Walking clears the mind wonderfully.

Where I turn north on the bridleway to Brampton Ash, the OS suggests I may be detained and amused by 'The Red Hovel'. Pictures available on the Web suggest this is now just a collection of farm buildings, but since I'm in the vicinity of a 'Hermitage' and Historic England tells me there was once yet another daughter house of Pipewell Abbey close by, I like to think of an ancient and lonely monk praying for the world's redemption from a woodland cell built of red sandstone.

On the lane at the top of the rise into Brampton Ash there's a very obvious worked-out quarry site, but from the village's handsome buildings, I guess the stone it yielded was Northamptonshire yellow sandstone and not the red sort you find in the proper Midlands. The neat church of St. Mary's sits right on the A427 Market Harborough road, so the nice way to reach it is across the lumpy bumpy field. The north door's open because there's a chap on the porch roof doing this and that. He doesn't see me, or pretends not to. His workperson's radio is playing what sounds like 'Radio Leicester, News Talk and Music' Man fell off bicycle in Blaby yesterday etc. He's only the fourth person I've seen since locking the car (the third was walking her dog in the field near the Hovel). I won't see another all day. Where has everyone gone? Has The Rapture occurred and no one told me?

I like the interior of St. Mary's: tidy, well-organised, broad in the nave and intimately arranged for the congregation, not the choir, in the chancel beside the pretty chamber organ, but the chap on the roof is inhibiting me from reading a psalm out loud (why?) I pause, gather myself, and trudge up beside the main road until I come to the straight path across the field to Dingley. These few hundred metres aren't dangerous, just unpleasant, although there's always the thought in the back of the mind that one of the thundering HGVs might lose control on a bend and put a premature end to this blog. Halfway across the field is a surprisingly deep culvert where the trees have recently been burnt out by the landowner ( ash disease?) I shouldn't be surprised by the cut: the Dingley name apparently implies a landscape crossed by ravines.

More recently 'Dingley Dell' has lodged in our pop culture consciousness thanks to Noel Edmonds and Mr. Blobby. Not in yours?  Lucky you. To Dickens' fans it's more properly placed in the fictitious Pickwickian Kentish firmament as one of the village protagonists in a cricket match with 'All Muggleton'. Locally to Market Harborough it's been claimed that since Rockingham Castle is thought to be the inspiration for Bleak House and 'Muggleton' is a characteristic Leicester/Northants border family name, at some point Dickens travelled through Dingley and 'borrowed' it. In real 19C  life the Muggleton family were known for being able to put out a cricket XI of their own, much like the Kingstons in Northampton Tch! These authors! Always on the lookout for unconsidered freebie trifles.

And here's something I didn't know, and you probably don't either. The Muggletonians were a seventeenth century Protestant sect formed by two London tailors who claimed to be the last two prophets mentioned in the Book of Revelation. According to the Wikipedia article, which you now don't need to look up, they avoided all forms of preaching and worship, and met only for 'discussion and socialising'.

  The church of All Saints is at the end of an unadopted lane near the delicious Dingley Hall. now subdivided into private flats. As I walk down there's suddenly one of those half-forgotten, elusive scents from childhood, placing me back in our Bexley garden or on Dartford Heath or I don't know where. I see a blue painted door in the wall, open it and find myself on a yew-bounded path, where to the right hand side there are drifts of the cyclamen which are doing so well this year. At the path's end is a stiff little gate and the well-maintained churchyard. The church is closed, but I sit in the porch and now do read out loud the first verses of Psalm 78:

      ...I will utter dark sayings from of old,
          Things that we have heard and known,
          That our fathers have told us...
       ...The glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
           And the wonders which he has wrought...
       ...That the next generation might know them,
          The children unborn..                                                                     
       ...So that they should set their hope in God,
          But keep his commandments
          And that they should not be like their fathers,
          A stubborn and rebellious generation...

Like my father before me I take comfort in these words, in the congruency of my own hopes and fears with those of the psalmist writing two and a half thousand years previously. I often think that in terms of faith the game's up with our generation and the one which will immediately follow us: we have to trust that like the cyclamen, Christian belief and integrity will be reborn and flower in abundance decades after our death.

                                                             All Saints, Braybrooke

I walk back towards Braybrooke with the pleasant, sun-dappled bowl of the valley to my right. By woodland the lane drops and climbs again quite steeply for these parts (is this the 'Dell'?) - what we might once have labelled a 1 in 7 or 1 in 8 gradient, in the days when motorists needed to know whether their car would manage an ascent without an awkward, heart-stopping, double de-clutch into first gear. On the far side of the main road, a bridleway veers to the right with Braybrooke's spire dead ahead across the Midlands Main Line. At three o' clock in the afternoon the railway's not unduly busy. A seven-car multiple unit streaks north, probably bound for Sheffield. A couple of freight trains rattle by. Next to All Saints' church are the remains of the Manor House, on which a herd of cattle graze, inconveniently, because ideally I'd need to pass right through the middle of them. I avoid the issue and shin over a fence. The church is securely locked, and as far as I can see there's not even anywhere to sit in the churchyard, although there are a couple of benches along the road nearby, next to rubbish bins. I feel excluded, and indulge in an outsider's mental strop, which is mitigated by the sign to Braybrooke's 'River Jordan'. The Baptists were active around here in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. When I was baptised by 'full immersion' in 1967, it was in a neat pool sunk into the floor of the church's sanctuary. I remember that being quite cold enough, thank you, but there were no such luxuries a century or so before, and maybe the little stream - for that's all it is - got its romantic name by association as new converts were dunked in its chilly waters, symbolically dying and rising with Christ.

 I lose my way on the path out of Braybrooke, and lose my hat too. It's been one of those days when one's either too hot or too cold. In taking off my sweatshirt, I must have left my titfer on a bench somewhere. I hope it finds a good home, but I needed a new one anyway - the brim had followed my brain and gone floppy. On the approach to Great Oxendon the sheep still seem unhappy and listless. But rumours of the death of one of their number turn out to have been exaggerated. The rising breeze is pushing the watering can back towards the kerbside with every passing second...

Archbishop Justin's speech to the TUC may or may not have been well-judged - prima facie it was troubling to have news the next day that the Church Commisssioners have invested heavily in Amazon, who were the subject of some criticism by him - although it could be countered that perhaps shareholders are the best-placed to offer advice about the ethics of a company's business practices. And then came the initiative from Frank Field to buy Wonga's debt, in full or part. Be that as it may, my attention was drawn to the Archbishop's assertion that his words were 'political but not party-political'. I think he's right and wrong...though perhaps in any case naïve, because a call for re-unionisation seems pretty party-political at this point in time. However, I'd argue that the Christian agenda is a true Third Way. Our vision of a society under God is a challenge to the orthodoxies of current (or any?) human politics, although superficially it may resemble a left-ish perspective more than one of the right. Tom Wright's book on Paul is rather good in making a similar point about the apostle's view of things in the first century Roman world.

Tenors in the choir:  21 km. 6 hrs. 15 stiles. 22 gates. 2 bridges. 19 deg. C.. Sun with cloud slowly gathering. An intermittent breeze to surprise one in exposed spots. Pigeons: I don't give pigeons a shout-out because they always seem arrogant and lazy to me. This is probably unfair. At any rate there are a lot of them. They are probably among the eventual inheritors of the earth.

When I see something amiss in your Church
Please help me not to be disputatious or divisive.
Give me grace to use the brains you gave me
To draw people together,
And by your Holy Spirit
Pour into my heart love and compassion
For all your struggling children.