Saturday, 13 January 2018


February's supposed to be the fill-dyke month, but January's stealing its mud. Everything today is very slippery and squidgy underfoot.

I park outside the Fox and Hounds in Charwelton as the morning murk clears and walk over the three foot wide packhorse bridge (one at a time please...) to pick up the Jurassic Way towards Holy Trinity church. H.T. used to serve the vanished medieval settlement when the current village was 'Over Charwelton' by virtue of about ten extra feet in elevation. Across a field I briefly join the lane which carries traffic above the long-gone Great Central, and just before the bridge, Gordon stops his little blue car to chat. Gordon describes himself as a hillbilly, because he's lived in this Himalayan part of Northamptonshire all his life. He was born in the farm at Ryton Hill, by Arbury Hill, and before coming to Charwelton lived on the Attenborough estate opposite the Red Lion in Hellidon, another lofty place. I say to him that I've found a website which claims Arbury, at 225 metres (738 feet) the highest point in the county, to be the 13909th tallest peak in Britain. Things change, we agree, even if the landscape around here remains much the same as it was. Gordon doesn't use his computer a great deal but the other day, courtesy of Google, he was enjoying a nosey look at his friend's house in Canada. And just this morning I've been watching my son doing his lawyerly thing in a Dutch courtroom in more or less real time, so I'm also in a mood to be amazed. Gordon would talk for far longer - he even offers me a lift - but I explain this would break The Rules, and that I'd better get going if I want to be home before dark.

Avoiding a hopeful group of heifers, I push through the kissing gate at the church and re-trace my November amble towards Fawsley. The light's brilliant now, all traces of mist burnt away, the sky spectacularly caerulean. The view across the broad valley is heart-lifting. I very much enjoy my squelch across the sodden pasture. Outside Lower Fawsley House a young couple are loitering, fag in hand. They make a show of ringing the bell when I shout hello. I wonder to myself if they're casing the semi-derelict mansion with a view to a squat, and then am self-reproachful for being so nasty and suspicious. Behind me there's a fine view of Houseground Clumps, a curving stand of trees set up on the top of a hill. Last year we visited the Paul Nash exhibition. Houseground calls to mind the Wittenham Clumps down near the Thames which fascinated Nash so much both pre- and post-First War, becoming for him totemic of the landscape's antiquity. And there is something altar-like about Houseground too, in the way the bare branches project power in a place 'high and lifted up'.

Near St. Mary's church in Fawsley I turn up the hill towards Badby Down. If you're going to try a bit of the Knightley Way, somewhat abused by me for its lack of waymarking and charitable investment earlier in the Big Walk, then this is definitely the bit to try. The view from the top's excellent, and actually the path is signed very clearly just here. The Down carries a particular memory. Maybe thirty years ago I was out for a walk from Badby, when I started to feel suddenly unwell, so unwell that I began to experience in small measure what I'd only read about in books about e.g. polar explorers. I was instantly so fatigued I could have cheerfully just laid down and given myself up to the elements. I know that all sounds rather melodramatic, but it was an alarming and extraordinary feeling. Somehow I dragged myself through the woods back down to the village where the car was parked, and drove home in a daze. It turned out I had chickenpox. I don't recommend it.

I'd caught the horrible bug from the late Ben Markus, who'd been recording in our studio. Ben was a fireman who'd been retired early on health grounds, which gave him the chance to pursue his passion for the blues. I can't honestly say there was a lot of authenticity about his playing and singing, but Ben gave the music his very all, from a Fender Strat and a frighteningly large Marshall stack. Friend Nigel and I produced a single, which then became an album, and before we knew it there were the three of us posing for a photo shoot beside the Peace Pagoda in Milton Keynes, the proposal being that we market ourselves to a grateful nation under the soubriquet Gastank. I even dressed up in in a rock n'roll hat and appropriate Motorhead black for the occasion. However a few days later both Nigel and I took fright and the gas tank blew up, just another instance of expectations between collaborating musicians differing widely. Nevertheless the album was released and achieved a five-star review from Hi-Fi magazine, though quite how I'm not sure. Ben continued to follow his bluesey star for another couple of decades, but sadly cancer got him a few years ago. His unquenchable enthusiasm is what music-making's all about, whatever the genre.

Badby's a terrific place, but not really very Northamptonshire. It's more like a village you'd find in the lower part of a Yorkshire dale, solid, even slightly rugged. The county's only Youth Hostel was once here, thatched to boot, which is suggestive of the vibe the place evokes. The Nene (remember to rhyme it with 'Len' please and not with Maureen!) rises near here, and the woods are one of the best places locally for bluebells in late April or May. I'd not been in St. Mary's church before, but I like it. The interior is full of light, aided by the fifteenth century clerestory which faces you as you enter. There's a small carillon by the tower - an unusual feature. And by the door is a board which tells of an 18th century bequest by Thomas Coles of bread to the aged, poor and impotent of the parish. Do they still queue up to receive benefit in kind after divine service, I wonder, the impotent of Badby?

I've been re-reading Richard Giles book 'Re-pitching the tent' (Canterbury Press 1996) which was used by our church as a study guide one Lent when Colin Wake was our Rector, hence probably in the early noughties. The book's a game of two halves. The first has as its thesis that we are - or we should be - a 'Pilgrim Church', and that our inheritance of ancient fixed buildings is at best a mixed blessing. The second is a series of suggestions as to how, in spite of our 'plant' we can stay light on our feet. This may involve getting rid of a lot of physical stuff to which we've become too accustomed. To that extent, the drift of Rev. Giles' writing is at times a trifle too Luddite for my taste - or so I was thinking as I was sitting in the pews at Badby. There's so much to love in churches like this, so much to aid worship and inspire action. (I have other criticisms of Re-pitching the tent too. I think it smuggles in a personal aesthetic preference for the spare and the clinical under the guise of objectivity, and it's also a bit muddled in preaching democracy whilst wishing to maintain clerical control - but if you can, find a copy and see whether you think I'm right.)


I pass under the lee of Arbury Hill, fortified in pre-Roman times, and plod my way through a succession of very muddy and wet fields to Hellidon, another favourite village. I'm hoping to be in time for a GB at the Red Lion but it's being refurbished, and though the front door is nominally open, builders' materials litter the yard and I don't think they'll welcome my custom this particular day. So I make do with my bottle of Waitrose spring water (other brands are available) and climb the short hill to the church of St. John the Baptist.

Inside, the experience is the polar opposite to St. Mary's. It's the darkest church interior this side of Byzantium. Even with a few lights on, it's a very dismal, depressing welcome. This was a building 'improved' by various designers during the nineteenth century including Matthew Holding, but somewhere along the line they forgot the usefulness of windows. So why hasn't the lighting been overhauled as a priority? I wouldn't have thought they're short of a bob or two hereabouts.

The visitors' book says it all. Though I'm straining to read it in the gloom, relatively speaking there are only a few entries during the last couple of years, and they're all downbeat and non-committal. A number speak of curiosity in returning to a place folk had known earlier in their lives, though none do so with approval. The notice board implies that services here run at the level of one a month, though the flower rota suggests a renewal every fortnight.

As regular readers may have noticed, as far as possible I try to be positive and constructive about the diocese and its churches, and I know the above is an exception to that rule. I'm sure it's not the fault of the new team vicar, the excellent Canon Mary Garbutt (she's only been in post a couple of months), but the presentation of the church doesn't fit the rest of what I think must be a lively and well-off village. There's a Village Hall, there was carol-singing at Christmas, a recent quiz in church...

So why does St. John the Baptist stay open? It's the residents of Hellidon who'd have to justify that, or else I'd be with Richard Giles on this one, and seek to close it down. Or why not pull down the Village Hall, sell the land, restore the church interior with the profits, and have all village functions, sacred and secular in the one place. That would be the 'missional' thing to do...but there are probably many good reasons why it couldn't happen, in terms of who owns what.

I descend the steps at the back of the churchyard, taking the short cut. A notice bids me beware that they're very steep. I go down slowly, holding on to the handrail. But so slippery and greasy are the stones that two stairs from the bottom my feet go from under me and I slide painfully into an undignified heap on my backside. My legs shoot out horizontally under the gate at the foot of the steps just as the one car an hour that passes through this point of the village drives by. No worry, they'll just have assumed that another drunken vagrant has fallen into a stupor by the church. At any rate they didn't stop to ask if I was OK. Bad karma all round?

With scarred shins but luckily, no broken leg, I climb the hill where I expect Gordon once exercised his dog opposite the pub and trudge back towards Charwelton across the bog. Towards the end of the walk a ploughed field causes me to detour around its edge beside the line of the Great Central close to the opening of the long twin-barrelled Catesby tunnel. Later I find that this is possibly to become a wind tunnel for the testing of Formula 1 cars, a startling apposition of technoflash with the intensely rural. As Gordon agrees, everywhere changes, and deciding whether it's good or not is sometimes almost impossible. Which also applies to questions of church order and fabric.

Splashes on the dashes: 16.5 km. A shade under five hours. Max 7 degrees C. Bright sun after heavy overnight rain. Little wind. Mist returning by mid-afternoon. Bunnies, squiggles and friendly sheep. Cheeky daffs poking through outside Badby church. One sore bum. 11 stiles. 32 (!) gates. 2 bridges.

O God
In your Book
There are mountains everywhere.
People are forever
Goin' up and comin' down
To meet you high in the clouds
Or to tell other people
(More or less)
What you've said.
I can see why.
Israel isn't exactly flat
And anyway
It's easier to imagine you
Sitting on a summit cairn
Dispensing tablets
Than toiling down in the dusty plain
With the rest of us.

I'm a fan of  mountains.
All that space around one.
The magnificent views.
The sense of achievement.
But then I think of the hairier moments.
The sudden mist.
The disorientation.
The cold that so quickly goes to the bones.
The recognition of disaster
Just a mis-step away.
I'm a sucker for a good metaphor too.
Yes, I'm still hauling myself up the rocks
Still a Beginner
As far as Hill-climbing goes.
Help me as I go, O God,
And teach me to look for you everywhere
Among the peaks
...And the troughs.

'Hill Climbing for Beginners'  was 'Water into Wine Band's first album  (1973 Myrrh Records) Original vinyl very hard to find. CDs still available from the band. Let me know if you want one.