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 cafĂ© 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.

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