Saturday, 28 April 2018


Big Hill

Is everywhere the same as everywhere else?

I've been putting off this walk for a while. It looks like hard work: a slog up the Leamington road into Daventry, and then navigation of the town's Milton Keynes-like periphery: roundabouts, grass verges, commerce, boxy houses and all. In the event it turns out to be less intimidating than a first, careless study of the OS made me think.

The old road out of Staverton soon winds back onto the modern highway. The trees and bushes are bursting into green life on every side. It's that exciting week when winter really turns into spring, although you wouldn't know from the ambient temperature, nearly twenty degrees down on last week's exceptional maximum. I'm swathed in sweaters. The tarmac roadside path takes me past the Staverton Park Hotel and golf resort. It's clearly a favourite with the conference crowd. The large car park is rammed with Sales Rep transport on this Thursday morning, Insignias and Focuses by the score.  I'd have thought the 'De Vere Staverton Estate' would have demanded a re-branding of the prosaically named 'Big Hill' on the opposite side of the road. How about 'Trump's Head' or 'Mount De Vere' or  'FTSE Top'. So much classier.

I leave the main road through a layby and cross to a brief diversion along the remains of the older way out of Daventry, now just a footpath. I pass six or seven individuals walking the other way, perhaps workers at the De Vere. At home we've been watching BBC TV's 'Civilisations' series - with rapture when Simon Schama's presenting, somewhat more desultorily when Mary Beard or David Olusoga have been in charge. From our Gogglebox critical cheap seats we find Olusoga's style anachronistically didactic and his arguments sometimes less than convincing, although great as discussion starters. Oh my, how highbrow life is at the Crosses. Why not drop in sometime for an evening seminar on Derrida or String Theory. Such fun. Anyway...

Last week Olusoga mentioned a painting by Caillebotte neither of us knew: 'Paris Street: Rainy Day'. It shows  people hurrying through the city, heads down and avoiding eye contact, against a striking backdrop of Hausmann architecture. Today none of the people I pass on the road to Daventry want to make eye contact either. This isn't the countryside default. Just a few hundred yards back in the village I'd swapped the cheeriest of greetings with two women on horseback. In towns people are scared, and sometimes with good reason. We too have been burgled, assaulted and sworn at. It was probably always so. Is it just over-close proximity that makes us mean? Or an enhanced awareness of what we have and haven't got?

The old Staverton road takes me across a pedestrian flyover into a traffic-calmed urban street, the houses going increasingly upscale as I approach the town centre, through an underpass to a previous era of building, and then past the old  'Coach and Horses' travellers' inn. It's being gutted, earth movers where the horses once lodged, perhaps for part-refurbishment as a pub, abut also partly because it's soon to be reborn as an apartment complex. As Daventry's road plan changed, the 'Coach and Horses' lost its function as a hostelry. Now it's on a road to nowhere.

Say 'Daventry' and I think 'radio station'. On Bakelite wirelesses of the fifties it was one of the many exotic-sounding locations printed on the dial along with 'Hilversum', 'Sundsvall' and 'Allouis' etc. etc. Until fifteen years ago, going north on the M1, the motorist passed an extensive array of radio masts all now dismantled - tho' I think the town is still a radio marker for Britain's busy air traffic control. Daventry strikes me as a liminal town, looking west more than east, an outlier in Northamptonshire's geography. The town's shops are the usual contemporary mishmash, at least in the older streets. In the arcade by the bus station you can find Boots, Waitrose and Greggs as you would in any comparable place. Elsewhere it's charity emporia, tattoo parlours and takeaways. The buildings are a bit of a jumble too - here a bit of handsome sandstone Georgian, there workaday nineteenth century and nineteen-sixties utilitarian. I order an Earl Grey and a slab of Cherry Bakewell from the cheerful women in the Courtyard Tearoom (alas too sweet even for me!) and fiddle with my latterly unpredictable I-phone to no great effect. I notice a chap with a clerical collar in an adjoining comfy chair. It's Nigel Fry, the incumbent at Barby and Kilsby. I explain myself briefly, and leave him with a card and the threat that I'll be 'down his way' soon. He deserves his peace and quiet (I thought I detected a certain hunted look in his eye when I said hello), although I suspect like me he'll find it hard not to tune into the intimate domestic details being shared with the world by two ladies-who-cake on another near-by table.

Up at Holy Cross church, the front door of the splendid Georgian edifice (1754) is open. I'm welcomed by a be-gowned steward who explains there's a funeral shortly. I'm sorry not to be able to spend more time looking around. Everything about the church's décor and presentation is friendly and enthusiastic in an embracing kind of way. Recorded music is playing quietly in the background. A discreetly positioned sound desk is tucked in behind the back pews. Fe-fi-fo-fum, I smell the amps of a worship band ( but Holy Cross's website begins its 'music' section with a great - and clean - Thomas Beecham quote, and they have a church choir too!) The whole place sparkles with light and warmth. Leaving aside any human element, why wouldn't you want to worship in a place like this?

I follow my nose downhill looking for the Ashby road out of town ( not Ashby-de-la-Zouch: Ashby St. Ledgers!) It's still really chilly, particularly when the sun's hiding. A brisk west wind has got up. I recall the one time I played cricket in Daventry, also in late April, the first game of a season with a rather smart-alick team, all manly exhortation and diving around in the outfield. The wind was positively howling across the ground. It was right in my face as I opened the batting, the pitch soft and wet. I made a big lonely blob, tamely prodding the ball to a waiting catcher in the first over. It was one of the most miserable afternoons I ever spent on a cricket field. I played a few more games in that lot's company without any discernible distinction, sliding down the batting order week by week, confidence shot to pieces, until finally I brushed the dust off my cricket boots and moved on. I have to like the people with whom I'm spending time. The activity is never enough by itself.

After three quarters of a mile I find what I'm looking for, the converted path of the old branch line from Long Buckby, heading north-west, now a green corridor for cyclists and walkers through the housing estates. Daventry is expanding, like all the other Northamptonshire towns, pushing out on all sides. On the way from Northampton out through Weedon, there are roadworks on both flanks of that village, part of the Daventry development plan, as if the countryside in between and beyond will one day soon be quite consumed by housing. And so Daventry will no longer be an 'outlier': it will be one with the Northampton Megalopolis as it pushes forward to Coventry. And Oxford. And Cambridge. The bones of the structure will soon be in place. The detail will follow and nothing now can prevent it, outside economic collapse, and even then, that possible disintegration would be offered as the rationale for the 'necessary' destruction of the countryside. I'm sorry to bang on endlessly about it, but if this blog is to add to the historical record in any tiny way, this has to be recorded as one of the most important national trends of the early twenty-first century.

 I'm looking for a cross-track which I eventually find, but it's running along a viaduct fifty feet above me. I scramble up the steep and slippery sides of the old railway cutting, and walk a newly-made grassy way skirting the farthest extent of the housing. It eventually delivers me to the lane which once carried horses and people over the Braunston Tunnel on the Grand Union Canal. Below them the boats were 'legged' by their operators, who lay on boards and from an inverted position walked them from end to end - in this case through almost a mile and a half of tunnel. Not great for the digestion I wouldn't have thought. Apparently there's a bit of a wiggle in the middle, as there is at Blisworth, either because of difficulties with the soil, or miscalculation. At ground level the spire of Braunston's 'Cathedral of the Canals', All Saints, is dead ahead as I look down the green lane where it descends to meet the tunnel at its western portal.

Braunston is a first real taste of the Midlands as the traveller goes west. There's a lot of nicely weathered red brick, and much less yellow sandstone. The ginnels on the north side of the canal meander pleasantly between the cottages and eventually I gain the High Street, passing the old windmill, and arriving at All Saints to find Pat Milner one of the churchwardens waiting inside, drumming his fingers. A colleague has forgotten a promise to meet. We chat about this and that. They've just been through an interregnum: their new incumbent Nat White will be installed this Saturday. I say that we've just lost our lovely curate Allison who is to be installed this weekend too, and Pat and I get confused about dates. At any rate, the Bishop's working hard ( as I expect, creep, creep, he does every weekend!) Pat and I swap news about Marion and Keith Thomas, our former members at Weston Favell, who many years ago felt a calling to minister to canal folk, and made a temporary new home among them at Braunston, as you would.

I spend a few minutes just sitting in the beautiful breadth of All Saints' nave, looking around me. You could spend hours here, and still find new detail to stimulate and excite. The sheer quantity of symbolism in form, colour, fabric and glass is dazzling. This wealth of suggestion has been taken for idolatry, here in England and more widely around the world. As we know, courtesy of IS et al, wanton destruction is still going on. The Baptist church of my younger days would have been uncomfortable with what I see around me now. But for most of us, finding God in the desert is the hardest thing to do. My soul is relaxed and revived in this forest of images.

I walk back along the south side of the canal. Near to the entrance to the extensive marinas is a narrow boat café, the Gongoozler. I had no idea, but a gongoozler is a person who enjoys watching activity on the canals, but doesn't participate. That's me then! But there's no time for tea today.

                                           Legend on the wall by the Marina at Braunston

Did the people of Braunston not get on with their counterparts in Staverton? The Jurassic Way follows a more or less north-south line from the one village to the other, but it was never metalled, and at times is no more than a one person path. Just to the north of Staverton, two-thirds up a two hundred foot climb from the stream at its bottom, there's a civic seat. It looks out across miles and miles of uninterrupted country patchwork, a glorious view, a national resource of food and emotional sustenance. For how much longer?

So is everywhere the same as everywhere else? (I'm asking myself!) Yes and no, Superficially, all Mozart sounds the same - and some music-lovers never get past this. Superficially all sheep look identical, except perhaps to the farmer. At first glance every town and village look alike to the world-weary traveller. But, as I remind myself, the more we look and listen, the more we identify difference. And then it strikes me, as if a new and revolutionary thought, the only near-clones are those we produce through our own human industrial processes - knives and forks, cars, photo-copies, 3-D printed artefacts, robot-produced books. Or am I still not looking closely enough? And what conclusions should I be drawing from this?

Snoozes on the pews: 19 km. 5.5. hours. 9-14 degrees C. Wind: 15 mph, gusting 25. No stiles, Ten gates. Maybe four bridges. Countless new-born lambs: a shout out to numbers 19 and 13 in a field near Braunston.

Ignite our land
With the gift of discernment
So that we can tell apart
False prophets from truth-tellers;
Disingenuity from integrity.
And then give us courage
And opportunity
To speak as you would have us speak.

Sunday, 22 April 2018


At baptisms, at weddings, at funerals, every organist knows he or she may have to give their own good account of Lord of the Dance. But Syd Carter wrote a lot of other lyrics too and, mischievous and free-thinking chap that he was, they still frequently tend to polarise opinion, none more so than Every star shall sing a carol:

'Who can tell what other cradle/High above the Milky Way/Still may rock the King of Heaven/On another Christmas Day...?'

Some people hate this. Others love it. I'm with the latter group. And I particularly love Donald Swann's recording of the hymn. Donald and Sydney served together in the Friends Ambulance Unit during WW2. We had the great privilege of knowing both these great men, eccentrics and holy doubters both.

As I drive out to Everdon, I ponder again the possible theological challenges raised by TESS (NASA's 'Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite'). Well, it's an alternative to considering the relegation woes of Crystal Palace or Southampton as the morning's intellectual exercise. TESS is a Falcon 9 powered launch to replace the Kepler probe. It'll assume an elliptical Earth orbit to allow a survey of stars of relatively close proximity across the full spectrum of sky, with a view to gathering data about their planets, particularly those within the so-called 'Goldilocks Zone' i.e. where distance from their own 'sun' makes the possibility of life - extraterrestrial life - greater. A database will be assembled which scientists can then interrogate for details of atmospheres on those planets and so on. This is amazing and hugely clever stuff.

Well then, Christians of this world, what do you think? Are we humans unique in a universe chock full of galaxies, which in turn, like our Milky Way, are chock full of stars? And if we're not, how do we account for this in our soteriologies? (...which was the problem Sydney was contemplating fifty years ago!) Did Jesus die for the little green men and women too? Some will see this as a fundamental challenge to their faith. Personally I think we may end up with no alternative. We'll just have to embrace it some day, just as we embraced the notion that the Earth isn't the centre of the Universe. (Although strangely, Andrew Flintoff and many others apparently still cling to the notion that the Earth is flat. Stick to fast bowling and TV presenting, Andy!)
As Sydney said:

'Who can tell what other body/He will hallow for his own?/ I will praise the Son of Mary/Brother of my blood and bone...'

Because it's all I can do.

It is, to nick a lyric, such a perfect day, but for the duration of this walk I'm mostly spending it by myself. I take the risk and swap my boots for Merrills, then walk down the main street and over Everdon's stream, before climbing the hill towards Everdon Stubbs. I pass the gated road to Snorscombe, a hamlet whose name is a favourite of mine. The Stubbs are managed by the excellent Woodland Trust, and although my route takes me along its perimeter, I can see dog walkers enjoying the bosky paths in the shade of the trees. Whereas I, out in the open at 10.30, am hot already. There's a charming little fenced viewpoint looking out towards the distant A45 across the expanse of valley. The bench there is new. It's a good place to take on water. A rosette is somewhat randomly pinned to a tree, declaring the cattle who perhaps sometimes graze in this field as 'best in show'. Right at the top of the climb, the path very briefly ducks into the wood before setting out across a field of corn six inches high and growing taller by the minute. A couple are resting on a log. We swap jolly hellos as I try to incompetently reassemble a recalcitrant gate. I say that it's nice to see the bluebells. The gentleman draws my attention to the anemones. He's never seen so many and so large just here (they're locals). For some reason I think of Elvis Costello's 'It's been a good year for the roses'. Has anyone written a song about anemones? Difficult to scan...

I skirt farm buildings and emerge on a lane which follows the ridge towards Upper Stowe. To my left are the Castle Dykes. There was a castle here in medieval times, and the earthworks are well-preserved. Were there the money and opportunity for archaeology a lot more might be discovered (but you can't dig up everything). Antiquarian reports suggest hidden underground rooms, and pre-Roman antecedents of the later fortifications. Given how well it commands the view on both sides, I guess this shouldn't be surprising. Past the divide in the lanes, I come across an elderly gentleman close to the gates of his house at the end of a morning constitutional. He says he wishes he could walk as well as I can, which is a nice compliment since I'm apt to feel pretty decrepit myself at times. I'm forced to admit how lucky I am to be relatively fit and well.

I'm in the vicinity of Stowe Nine Churches, a little collection of small hamlets, but if you come looking for nine places of worship you'll be out of luck. I'm indebted to Mike Rumbold, writing on the village website: the explanations of the name are various and entertaining. If you're into folklore you'll like the idea that there was a little local difficulty in building the church because the Devil came out night, and threw down the building work eight times before God's Workers prevailed at the ninth attempt. An alternative but historical explanation might be that a new church was built on the site of the old one (French: neuve) but that this was misunderstood and corrupted to neuf (i.e. nine). Or how about a geographical interpretation whereby the 'Nine' is a corruption of 'Nene', the river being relatively close by? I think the latter probably gets my vote, Stowe being a common village name.

In Upper Stowe is a Chapel of Ease, St. James. I walk up the path and shelter inside from the sun. My intention to read a psalm aloud is forestalled by the arrival of Patsy and Ann. They're with a coach party the rest of whom are currently finishing morning coffee in the farm café opposite. Patsy and Ann et al are on an outing from Peterborough. They're spending the morning here, then having lunch at a Toby Carvery in Northampton, before giving Corby the once over during the afternoon. Ann attends St. Mary's in Peterborough, Patsy, St. Oswald's (I think that's the right way round). They like the quiet little chapel. They have to be back on the bus promptly so they sign the visitors' book and wend their way. As their companions drag themselves from the tearoom, I enter it and order Earl Grey and a piece of cranberry and orange cake. Delicious.

Behind the farm, the path drops sharply and then rises again to Church Stowe. Away to the right there's a long view to the cream coloured bulk of the Heyford flour mill, and beyond it the Express Lifts Tower. I feel a little tug of regret that the urban is once more poking its way into my lovely rural. Around the corner is a small development of rather elite contemporary homes, but these have been beautifully effected around a 'new' cherry-blossomed village green. I don't want to come on like Prince Charles, but this is an excellent example of harmonious village expansion. Hallelujah!

The church of St. Michael's has a great situation. It hangs over the descent towards Weedon, tall-towered and partly clay-clad. The electoral roll has 26 names on it and they return about £11k to the diocese as their Parish Share. The parishioners are keen on promoting wildlife in the churchyard, and as I sit on the bench there, there's a proliferation of bumble bees foraging in the grass around me, a welcome peculiarity of this unusual Spring - I've seen a lot in the last couple of weeks. Among the papers on the various tables inside St. Michael's is a book about the artist John Piper. I leaf through it, wondering for a moment whether he'd ever used the church as a subject...but I don't think so, though he was certainly active around the other and more famous Stowe; Lord Cobham's one time seat near Buckingham.

The path takes me on through fields of cabbagy rapeseed over the West Coast Main Line and down to the canal. A short totter along the towpath are the steep steps to the road which doubles back under the railway to find the church of St. Peter and St. Paul Weedon, sandwiched betwixt iron horse and barge. Properly this church originally served the community of 'Weedon Bec', now confusingly conflated with the later 'Upper Weedon' and 'Lower Weedon'. It was 'Bec' because after the Norman Conquest the living was given to the Abbey at Bec Hellouin in Normandy, then the most powerful foundation in northern France. When Matt was very small I remember we stopped off at the Auberge de l'Abbaye where the food is now of a gastronomic rather than egalitarian sort (though maybe the Bec Hellouin monks always looked after themselves well, being as influential as they were). Even before Norman times, Weedon generated its own saint, St. Werburgh, daughter of a Mercian chief, c. 700 A.D.. It's said that there was a chantry dedicated to her in a field to the south, Ashards, perhaps near the more recent graveyard? Some confirming archaeology really would be nice here. Ah, my Time Team of long ago, alas, where are you now? Werburgh is buried in Chester, although how she got there, I don't know.

Entering the church one is struck by the generous breadth of the nave, a nineteenth century rebuild courtesy of the fascinating history of Weedon in more modern times. This was the church to which soldiers would come from the garrison whose blocky buildings can still be found half a mile up the hill. I was always told the origins of the military here were the need to establish a final redoubt for the King (George III) during the Napoleonic Wars, when Britain feared imminent invasion. Weedon lay pretty much as far from the sea as you can get in England, and at a convenient halt on Watling Street too, still the M1 of its day seventeen hundred years after the Romans first dictated its line. The little town later became an ordnance depot, and retained military significance until the mid-twentieth century, at its peak doubling in size and accommodating over a thousand personnel. A branch of the canal was built into the facility, and a railway siding too. The Barracks have now become industrial units, home to many small and burgeoning businesses, including a great book shop and art gallery. However it's only a fraction of what it could yet become, given investment and vision. I'm thinking of Manufaktura, the innovative restoration project we encountered in Lodz eight years ago. Whatever may happen in the future, to my mind this is one of Northamptonshire's most resounding places, the ghosts of the past loitering on every street corner.

It's very hot now - one of those days when the forecast has gradually raised the level of the expected temperature - and as I toil along the Nene Way, straggling through Weedon and out into the countryside beyond, I'm failing to cope and wondering about the wisdom of today's excursion. Fortunately I have a hat and good water supplies on board, and the hedge to my left provides some shade. But by the time I reach the outskirts of Everdon Hall, I'm thoroughly cooked and extremely glad the car's near at hand.

Last week I received a charming e-mail from Charles Coaker who's churchwarden at Everdon. When I wrote of the commodiousness of the Hall estate I hadn't realised he was the owner. He thanked me for my kind comments but pointed out that the Hall's cricket ground is no more, superseded by an arboretum, although the pavilion survives. As Charles says with reference to the former owner: you can't live someone else's dream.

There was a certain dream-like state to today's walk, comparing en route the history and people encountered by little old me to the unimaginable vastness of the single galaxy in which we live and which we're just beginning to explore - one galaxy among an infinity of galaxies in our universe - one universe, if we're to believe the late Stephen Hawking, among an infinity of universes. This for me has always been the beginning of my belief in something beyond humanity, guiding and caring for all creation. That's my dream, and I'll go on recommending it for others to share while I have breath.

                                                              Bring your dijeridu...

Notches on the doorpost: 15 km. 5.5 hrs.  1 stile (only one stile!) 19 gates. 1 bridge. 28 degrees C at maximum (national high 29.1 at St. James Park, London = a record for April since 1949, and only 0.3 deg. C away from the all time high for the month.) So it really was hot then!

I am staggered
By the beauty of your creation;
That I find myself in its midst;
That we humans may so foul it up
That we wilfully
Destroy what you've seeded here;
By the knowledge
That without us
The whirling universes
Will continue to your purpose.

Oh God
I acknowledge you
As the author and finisher
Of all that is.
I thank you
From the depths of my being
For the amazing rollercoaster ride
That is our life.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Soggy bottoms (and soggy tops too!)

Saturday. Sunny...April...Saturday!  The weekend traffic jostles Blue Audi as I head north-west. At Rothersthorpe Services there's a bit of cheery sub-continent Exchange and Mart. A car of uncertain age and temperament is sold, then kangaroos around the parking lot. Perhaps the purchaser's just learning to drive and the car's a present from a benefactor. Blue t-shirted collectors for Cancer Research UK dominate the entrance to the café: intimidation in a good cause. Two young men in track suit bottoms swagger towards the Gents, hips loose and thrust forward, displaying their procreational possibilities to any passing females the way young men of a certain athletic demographic are apt to do. Further on up the road a Bike Club (of the Electraglide in Blue variety) park their beards in a layby to admire metal and swap stories of Easy Rider derring-do.

All relatively quiet in Hellidon though, except the pub's still being refurbished to the sound of Polish jokes and Radio 1, so there's no morning coffee to be had. A scotty dog wanders out onto the Green to sniff my boots. And this is all very welcome bucolic normality on the morning Allied cruise missiles have struck chemical weapons' facilities in Damascus and Homs. As I drove in, I'd been pondering the odds on a Russian reply in kind against Akrotiri.

Just around here the parishes and their churches are inconveniently grouped for my purposes. First up today I'm retracing my steps in the direction of Badby. The English cricket season has drifted into its wettest start for more than a decade. Match after match is being abandoned because of soggy outfields. The cricket authorities have become complacent about the good April weather of recent years. And just here the fields are sodden too after weeks of regular precipitation. The sheep look ragged and miserable - hard going for them and for me. The gentle drumlin shapes of the hills are softly outlined in the morning light: it's a joyful walk despite the squish and squelch. The sheep are tolerant enough of my presence, but as a microlight passes over (and now I remember there's an airfield close to Hellidon) they scatter. I join a green lane and pass to the south of Arbury Hill. Soon there are lovely views across the valley at what in a grander landscape would be called the 'head of the pass'. Thereafter the line of the old way is for a while marked by scrub trees on both sides. Soil erosion is causing them to slip slowly down the hill. I turn on to the metalled road and greet three walkers, who return my shouted hello with puzzled diffidence. They're in that class of person one encounters in the countryside who for whatever reason at that moment look uncomfortable. Maybe they're lost, though if so they don't ask for directions. Maybe they're up to no good: they're certainly appear ill-assorted for age and equipment. Of course, they may be saying the same about me - muddled old codger, looks like a tramp, might be a bit bonkers, best not to engage etc. etc.

                                                                      Arbury Hill

The entrance to Badby from this side is called Bunkers Hill and I remember a similar name for a lane I used to walk in Kent as a teenager. I suppose these may have been bunkers from which to shoot, or perhaps bothies to which one retired for a sandwich and a nip in between reducing the squire's pheasant population. At the top of the descent is Whetherday's Garden Centre, which like others of its ilk seems to be branching out into 'collectables'. That this is a trend I know from sometime guilty afternoon pleasure Antiques Road Trip.

I think I've observed this before in a previous post, but prolonged or effort-heavy walking induces obsessive or unexpected mental process in me, perhaps due to lack of oxygen. So as I enter the village this fine spring morning I catch myself humming over and over again the verse of a much-loved hymn from distant childhood:

'Glad that I live am I
That the sky is blue
Glad for the country lanes
And the fall of dew
After the sun the rain
After the rain the sun
This is the way of life
Till the work be done...'

It's a bittersweet thing, to rehearse something so meaningful but from so far in the personal past, to know that despite the intensity of the moment's experience how close the work is to being finished in one's own life.

The path onwards to Staverton follows a rushing stream (well, rushing today at any rate) fed from springs which mark one of the sources of the Nene. A little way along is the ruin of a mill, unmarked on the OS. The path goes ahead invisibly over richly brown ploughed fields, but the waymark posts are clear on the far side, so the decent and sensible thing is not to disturb any sowing or clag my boots and I zigzag the margins uphill to a copse which opens onto Staverton's rather sad-looking playing field. No one's playing footie this Saturday afternoon, nor for a few past, judging by the the random distribution of the goalposts and the faintness of the pitch markings. St. Mary's church is over the road presiding over the aura of calm organisation Staverton radiates.

Inside floor heaters are scattered around the four quadrants, and it does feel chilly, but the sanctuary is filled with beautiful light. I love the gargoyle on the back wall, tongue hanging out either lasciviously or in urgent need of a pint. It looks as it it's escaped from an Indian or South American temple. But why just the one? Was the stonemason humoured with this single piece of fun as compensation for his earnest toil on the more regular tasks? But no more than that, Joe! 'Twouldn't be right in God's church...

Less happily there are sundry rather tatty photographs of past incumbents displayed near an unusually large honours board for churchwardens. Would it be cranky of me to suggest that if the photos are going to be there (presumably because they have continued meaning for the congregation) they should be re-framed and freshened up? I notice that one of the portraits shows Rev. Allan Wintersgill, Rector here in the 1980s and father of Andrew, organiser of Northampton's Great Knights Folk Club. Time was, the best folk club in the county was to be found at the Dun Cow in Daventry, just a couple of miles away. I must have sung there in company with Andrew once upon a time.

I eat a happy sandwich in the sun-dappled churchyard and reflect on where I am with the Church and its organisation. For a few months I've been reading St. John's Gospel with growing puzzlement, partly assuaged by the writing of Tom Wright and Richard Bauckham. I've been shocked by the strangeness of the Gospel's language, so elliptical, so dualist, so challenging. Are you in or are you out? it keeps asking, but the in-ness or out-ness is to a relationship not the membership of a body. That only comes later in the New Testament ( ordinally though not chronologically) once Paul's fierce voice comes to the fore. So John's Gospel poses a challenge to me and the Church as it searches, in common with many other institutions, to find 'relevance'. To illustrate what I mean I heard a Radio 5 discussion the other day which forecast the death of Sport as we know it, Jim. The argument runs that Young People are far more interested in video-gaming (which is campaigning to be recognised as a 'sport'), and that football, tennis, cricket etc. etc. are destined to be numerically overwhelmed in the foreseeable future. No, I don't believe it either. But I'm not so sure about organised Christian religion. And I don't know if it's my imagination, but I think I can detect in the increasingly frenetic and shrill yoof-biased presentation of sport on telly that there's a growing insecurity about its cultural hegemony. It's not only Christians who fear the immediate future as a 'remnant'.

I pop into Staverton's Countryman pub where Susanne serves me a GB and has time for a brief natter after a hectic patch in the kitchen and at front of house. She worked in Improvement at Siemens, husband Rob in Safety for an airline. Restructuring provided the opportunity and now here they are in the village with their enviable business background, running a place that's thriving (and perhaps benefiting from the loss of a competitor in Hellidon for the time being!). Seems to me it requires enormous energy and liking for people to do what they do. I'll be coming back.

Over the road the path goes on the diagonal where a notice blatantly fibs that there's a 'Bull in field' (although n.b. for all I know this may not always be a fib, dear fellow-walkers!) and then progresses jauntily up and down, up and down, past Bates Farm ( no Motel available) where despite the fact that this is the Jurassic Way long distance footpath one has to start guessing the way ahead because there ain't no sign of it on the ground. I know. I'm boringly, predictably, grumpy about such matters. Or maybe just dumbed-down. Because the whole point of this section of path is to pass close to the southern end of the Catesby railway viaduct and you'd have to be blind to miss that. The viaduct carried the Great Central high over the River Leam, and provides a wonderful example of the difficulties facing the Victorian railway builders even in lowland Britain. Looking south one can see the rolling edge of the escarpment which entailed the tunnel mentioned in a previous post. To the north the terrain flattens, but avoiding a too steep gradient required the viaduct we still see today. Steaming across it at seventy miles an hour or more, the passenger would have been afforded a quintessential view of a Shire County. I wonder what the local bigwigs thought? Mrs. Gaskell's Cranford in real life.

I walk along the embankment and through the gate guarding the viaduct to enjoy the panorama, then retrace my steps and slosh along to Lower Catesby. You'll know the name, forever associated with the Gunpowder Plot. I'll encounter the family later and more tangibly when I get to Ashby St. Ledgers. Here they're just a medieval memory. The nineteenth-century chapel of St. Mary and St. Edmund is down a straight well-kept drive. There's a gate to a muddy paddock and stepping stones which take one in unorthodox fashion across the dirt to its locked front door. In the foreground two black and be-horned sheep beat a retreat, while a third white sheep of a different breed (sorry folks, my townie ignorance of farm animals is showing badly!) comes and nuzzles me, absolutely tame. Or absolutely starving. A little further back some cattle, also black and be-horned raise a head and sniff in my direction, but thankfully keep their distance.

It's a rather stiff-legged walk from here up the metalled road into Hellidon where the banks beside the back lane have been sown with many clumps of primroses. What a delicate spring glory they are, a re-discovery of recent years in our countryside, as I think, after some decades of decline and neglect; flowers which together with lily-of-the-valley are a direct line into the five year old Vince's perception of what every English woodland garden should be. Glad that I live am I.

Marks on the Park:  15 km. 5 hrs. Wind: minimal. Going: very soft ( Tiger Roll won the Grand National 10-1) 18 degrees C. 18 stiles (some rather high) 21 gates.  8 bridges.  2 cattle grids. Lots of daffs. In the absence of larks, an exaltation of primroses. Two large, bright yellow butterflies. Many solitary bees on the forage. Two churches. One open.

My re-vamped personal website is now live at: and if you click on Blog it will take you straight to the site you're now on. So now you have two ways of finding me!

I thank you for the memories
About which I write at such length.
When they begin to fade,
Deal with me gently
And give me some grip on the past
So that I can continue to be thankful
For the people I have known,
The places I have seen,
The sheer immensity
Of all that I've been privileged to experience.
May what I share of the past
Be truthful,
Be generous and
Be a witness
To your love and care
For all your creation.