Friday, 25 May 2018

Tumbling Dice

I like most things about France. But not all.

In Brockhall the birds are singing merrily in every tree and bush. Apparently not so on the far side of the Channel. A recent report expresses anxiety that there are far fewer trills and tweets in Tarbes or Troyes than once was the case. I'm not surprised. The citoyens will have shot them all.

No signs of trigger-happy bird-hunters as I walk up through the pretty fields towards Little Brington. This has been the best May I can remember...but I've probably said that in many previous years. Has it been God's consolation goal after such a lousy second half to the winter? Or will we suffer payback for this month's benignly beautiful weather in midsummer's return match? OK.  Enough strained football references already. Car roofs glint up on the low ridge which carries the sometime minor Roman road from Duston towards Bannaventa by Watling Street, where St. Patrick may have spent his youth (emphasis on the word may). A rather morose dog-walker passes me. 'It's getting hotter..' he intones, although I can't tell you whether this is a global assessment , or just a comment on the day's meterorology.

I take the small lane into Little Brington before doubling back on myself to visit the single spire which comprises the remains of St. John's, the village church. Crossing the road, I somehow manage to trip on a slightly raised piece of asphalt and, unbalanced by my rucksack, sprawl headlong into the roadside gravel, uttering ungodly words as I go. Raising myself painfully from the prone position my initial, stupid reaction is to look around nervously, anxious lest someone should have witnessed my undignified tumble from grace. They didn't. But my knees are as bloodied as they often used to be when I was a schoolboy, and so I spend ten minutes with water, tissues and Savlon cleaning up and staunching the trickle of blood. It spoils my appreciation of St. John's just a bit. The church was built in the mid-nineteenth century as a Chapel of Ease by the 4th Earl Spencer to be a memorial for his wife. Her family name was Poyntz. She now gets a substitute commemoration by way of having a road named after her (well more a cul-de-sac than a road) on the far side of the Spencer land in Dallington, Northampton. The rest of St. John's was demolished in 1947, but the spire survived as a landmark for the RAF, or so it's said, and the villagers of Nobottle and Little Brington have to make do, as they did in former times, with traipsing across to the mother church at Great Brington. Only now they go by car.

Only rarely in Northamptonshire is one so aware of the influence of the old aristocracy. Down the lane back into the village, I pass the legend over the door of a restored farmhouse: 'The Lord giveth; the Lord taketh away...' - a reference to some fall in fortunes or family loss suffered by Lawrence Washington (not the most famous one) who may have been acting as land agent for the Spencers in the early seventeenth century. And just round the corner, I briefly amble down Carriage Drive past a monitory Althorp Estate notice before climbing a stile into the Earl's fields. The sheer scale of ownership puts a different spin on the notion that Diana Spencer was a 'commoner'. Not in the sense that you and I are commoners, she wasn't, however much they traded in stories about her dropping in on the Brington post office to buy a pint of winegums when she was a mere slip of a lass!

Field paths take me down to the barely detectable settlement of Nobottle, which Wikipedia would have us believe is one of the 'smallest hamlets' in the country. I don't know how they know that. From there yet more well marked and worn paths carry my bruised legs across the expanses of Spencer territory to Harlestone, Lower and Upper, where I can enjoy again the villages' wonderful collection of thatched cottages. If there's a better set in the county, I haven't seen it. Once in Harlestone an undulating tarmac path carries me round the back of the houses and up to St. Andrew's church, crossing one of the Northampton Golf Club's fairways as I go. It's rather unusual to find a church and a golf course in such contiguity. Here one could preach a sermon, pronounce a benediction and be out on the first tee in five minutes or so. I think this should be mentioned when the benefice looks for an incumbent in about two years time. But do vicars go much for golf as their sport? I notice that membership at the Club runs at £1120 annually to play seven days a week, plus a joining fee of £500 - although you'd find it hard to get in at the moment: they're oversubscribed. Compare and contrast. I wonder how St. Andrew's finances are doing?

Back down in the village I chat to Stephen who's repairing stonework in one of the cottages. He was apprenticed as a dental technician in Northampton nearly fifty years ago but didn't enjoy it and transferred his skill into the jewellery trade before seeing a better living in masonry. After all, there'll always be a need to replace and maintain the wealth of stone from which the county's houses, churches and walls are built. Stephen is rightly proud of what he does, even down to using delicate tools which he's made for himself. He calls to my notice the variety of stone in the house he's working on, the darker, harder material, and the honey coloured, flakier stuff which may have come straight out of the ground just round the corner, beautiful but not long-lasting ( in terms of centuries). Stephen tells me about working in a church at the Buckinghamshire Twyford: so much did he love the place, he ended up giving visitors guided tours in between cutting and filling, but he's an atheist he says, when I tell him about the blog. That's OK, I reply, there's lots of other stuff in among the holy bits. Which now includes a conversation with you, Stephen. I hope you approve!

                                                                    Harlestone thatch

Stephen wishes me good luck with my pilgrimage, and passing the Dovecote Laundry, I go up the hill to find the wall defending the Althorp Estate proper. I follow it along the lane until I reach the permitted view of the Big House through its railings. Looking further up the road I can see the tower of Great Brington church on the sharp edge of the hill ( a farm on the brink?), and recall the stories that when Charles I was imprisoned by Cromwell at Holdenby Hall, he was allowed to ride down a couple of miles to play bowls at Althorp, and to take communion in St. Mary's with the Spencers. A couple pass me, walking their pooches, and we swap a greeting. But then I see there's a green path which would make a preferable route up to the village, and so I turn and catch them up, and then have to explain my war wounds, still technicolour gory and dripping. They are solicitous for my welfare, which is nice.

I have affection for Great Brington because I was commissioned to write and record a couple of 'library' albums for John Gale who once owned a house there. Remarkably the earlier album, recorded in 1984, still brings in the occasional royalty. A reggae track, South West Two seems to have been used in an Australian soap, who knows why, and a pretty generic 50's rock n'roll instrumental, Teddy's Delight, also turns up from time to time on Romanian pay-per-view or Canadian Cable. It's a funny old business, music.

St. Mary's church is a place for reflection. At first I'm peeved to find that access to the Spencer Chapel is prevented - as you can see from the opposite picture. But then I look in the visitors' book and see that people who come to Great Brington church are interested - of course they are - in Lady Diana, and I suppose a small proportion of those folk may be crazies who'll think she's buried there, and may hold all kinds of weird conspiracy theories about the government and Dodi Fayed and who knows what. So I suppose there's not much choice but to lock and alarm the Chapel. The rest of the church is open though, and a lovely place it is too. As well as thinking about those national tragedies, I'm remembering my uncle, Bernard, who died aged 86 last Sunday morning, the youngest and last of five brothers. He and Joyce had two daughters, Sue and Diane, who between them and their husbands Robin and Chris produced half a quiver of grandchildren. They will all be missing him greatly right now. In a quirk of birth and death only my stepmum and my Aunt Margery still bear the name Cross in that older generation (the joke among my dad and Bernard's teachers long ago was 'We all have our little Cross to bear...' ). I'm the only one to do so in the following generation, and only our son Matt in the one after that. The study of history leads me not to be greatly worried about such a thing (as if I could do anything about it!): families come and go; names are absorbed into the cosmos but the DNA line goes on. I'm far more anxious that a properly conservative view of society - 'a little change in a time of change' - continues to be allied to kindliness and inclusivity in a properly socialist British, Christian tradition. It's a tradition which arguably a lot of people broadly agree with (given discussion about the Christian bit, and the fact that some will choke on the word 'socialist') but it's a third way which is hard to articulate in a formal, PR-friendly soundbyte, and it's going, going, nearly gone. It was an intangible about British life which New Labour reified for a short while and has now become wispy and unreachable again. Tony Blair was at least right in identifying the death of Diana as a watershed. Coincidentally we were all in the process of losing something much larger at the same time. Kingdoms rise...and they fall. I think ours may have had it, and I mourn that too.

 As I walk from Great Brington along the narrow lane to Whilton and back to Brockhall, the cloud cover disappears, and I'm walking into the afternoon sun. Like the man said: 'It's getting hotter.' Or darker. Please supply your own weather metaphor.

                                                                                                 Whilton church plus guardian

Hitches on the britches:  22 km. 7 hrs. 23 deg C. Little breeze. Distinctly sultry around lunchtime. One deer: bouncing dangerously across Watling Street in front of the car. One rabbit: they're having a bad year or two with viruses. Two scarred knees. One poorly finger. (Have I milked this enough for now?) Eight stiles. Twenty-seven gates. One bridge.

This week
The suggestion was made
That politicians should be more joyful.
But I confess
That having read the News assiduously
I too am more than averagely
Eeyore right now.

Lord, run that idea of Free Will past me again?
How do we
How do you
allow people to make their mistakes
And therefore be truly human
While harming themselves
And the world in which we all live
And which you made?
When wilt Thou save the people?
Oh God of mercy, when?


p.s. Two reports to consider this week.

1) The National Housing Association. Wants to build 4 million homes in the UK by 2030. So do the math, people. How much land would this take, if you factor in the necessary infrastructure? You wanna live in a country like that?

2) The Church of England: 'Setting God's people free'. It's about empowering the laity, without disempowering the clergy. Or is it? How can a church reconcile having a bureaucracy? Particularly when in our case it's tied to the State?

More about both in due course perhaps. 'Oh no!' I hear you cry. 'Give us a break...'  And God said: 'This is a break...'

Monday, 14 May 2018

Worn out Road

The Oxford Canal north of Braunston winds its way towards Rugby through emerald fields. The towpath is narrow and overhung. Drifts of cow parsley brush against me as I walk. Moorhens scatter. Duck parents shepherd their new ducklings into the safety of the middle water. A few random geese offer a rustic fanfare. Cattle are much in evidence all around, sight, sound and smell. And where the cattle are, there are flies, lots of them even on this cool bright morning. The canal is quite busy, as perhaps you'd expect so close to a major boating hub.  On a two mile stretch, fourteen narrow boats pass me, in each case driven by a bloke, usually of late middle years, usually bearded, usually with a leather Stetson covering a bald patch. Below decks the women are cleaning and cooking. One or two are out front, soaking up the rays. One or two are literally Standing By Their Man, peering into the distance for signs of the Spanish Navy. I'm happy to report that most crews swap jolly hellos with me. But a couple pass by without a word exchanged, staring ahead unblinkingly, the ships of the damned. Maybe from their perspective I'm just making the place untidy.

The scene is so very pastoral, it's easy to forget the industrial strategy which brought the Oxford Canal into being. Completed in 1790, it carried coal from the colliery at Bedworth to where there wasn't any. The junction with the Grand Union, just to the west of Braunston, soon afterwards offered the possibility of cargo reaching London. Amazingly, the last mule-powered boat was still going towards the end of the nineteen-fifties, at which point the Oxford's commercial life had ended. Barbara Castle saved it from being filled in, as pride in our industrial heritage began to blossom and the leisure possibilities afforded by the waterways gained recognition.

I pass Willoughby Wharf, flirting with Warwickshire, and after the large new marina at Dunchurch Pools, turn east up a fieldpath towards Barby. The parish is actually 'Barby with Onley', and the Parish Council is 'Barby and Onley', but Onley is yet another vanished, cleared village, the name now chiefly commemorated in the prison which sits out of sight beyond the trees which skirt the canal. Formerly it was a Young Offenders Institution, with a reputation for violence between inmates and towards staff. Now graded Cat. C, it claims to concentrate on rehabilitating adult prisoners, very often from London. But a 2016 Inspectors' report again highlighted problems with violence and the taking of psycho-active substances. Perhaps because of staff shortages, prisoners were missing out on training too. It's strange to be in the fresh air, enjoying all the English countryside has to give, knowing such complications are the daily stuff of life just a few fields away. More positively, also in 2016, the prison became a member of the Community of the Cross of Nails, an organisation which works for healing and reconciliation, and which has its origins in the post-war rebirth of Coventry Cathedral. The Christians are in there, doing what they can.

At the top of the hill I come to a farm track with the M45 away to my left in the valley. This is a motorway from the very beginnings of the system in the late 50s and early 60s. Like the similarly two-lanes-a-side M50 out near Ross-on-Wye, it remains a pleasure to drive, very straight and little trafficked. I've always imagined these were roads built partly with military needs in mind at the height of the Cold War. Either that or the predictions of traffic flow were way out. Up on the little bumpy track, I'm passed twice by Postwoman Pat (no sign of any cat, black and white, Persian or tabby) bringing the day's mailshots and bills to the farm. What a little marvel this service remains, no doubt lined up for replacement by drone delivery any day soon. At which point Jess will receive a redundancy notice as will her mistress, their distinctive red van will be cannibalised for spare parts, and every Greendale will be the poorer for it.

               Why does my camera distort the verticals? There is no leaning tower in Barby.

Nigel Fry, who I met by  accident a few walks ago in Daventry's Courtyard Café, is the priest at St. Mary's, Barby. There's a long list of people I could phone to obtain access to the church, but life's too short, and today's walk is slightly longer than average, so I content myself with sitting on a bench there and eating a M&S sandwich. Googling the village to see what I'm missing, I find Wikipedia hasn't a lot to say about St. Mary's, although there's a reference to a Saxon window. So for a moment I'm tempted to file this under 'not of especial interest'. But whoa, hang on there old timer, this is still a thousand years of history we're talking here. The shades of forty generations of Barby ancestors are dancing around my chicken and sweetcorn. Let's not give in to cultural fatigue quite so quickly!

Barby is twinned with the village of Vulaines-sur-Seine. I wonder if the Vulaignots and the Barbies (?!) still have anything to do with each other - twinning is less fashionable these days (an early indicator of disenchantment with the European idea?) I hope they do. Personally I think twinning is still a Good Idea. I'm charmed to see that the first baby buggy was conceived by Mr. Maclaren in 1965 Barby to the benefit of parents ever since. The alliterative potential of Barby, baby and buggy amuse me.

I'm less amused by what happens in a field between Barby and Kilsby, the other half of Nigel Fry's patch. About four hundred metres away I see a herd of young heifers, and spot that my onward diagonal path takes me nearer them than I altogether fancy. So ignoring Pythagoras' wisdom, I take the line of least resistance but maximum distance around the field edges.

(To digress for a moment, have you picked up on the new linguistic tic, which is to do what I've just done and elevate subordinate result clauses beginning 'So...' into complete sentences?  As in: Q. What are you going to do between school and university, Jason? A. So...I'm gonna spend a bit of time in Vegas before, like, taking six months out to find myself in Vietnam and Australia...

Rather as with water going round the plughole the opposite way in the southern hemisphere, of course Jason will find this changes once he/she reaches Wollamboola or Cork Hat because the Standard Young Australian, let's call him Jarrod, will reply in similar circumstances: A. Aw, look...I'm gonna spend a bit of time in Vegas before, like, taking six months to find myself in Vietnam and Earls Court.)

Back to the heifers. The bloomin' animals are eyeing me up. I can hear them whispering to each other, Well, we're not going to let him get away with that, are we lads? at just the moment I put a foot down a rut filled with putrid country muck, soaking my right foot and lower leg. I quicken my pace towards a gap in the hedge. Putting on greater speed than I could ever manage, they find the gap no obstacle at all. There are lots of them and they clearly have all kinds of juvenile bovine fun in mind. I scamper for a gate and hurl myself over it. They stand the opposite side, reproachfully: Spoilsport! We only wanted to play!

Kilsby is a workaday village, the more modern of its houses crowding up to the back of St. Faith's church. The George pub serves me a Fentiman's GB with a smile, I spend a few minutes listening to a conversation one of whose participants has clearly been working on the Yorkshire accent adopted by Sir Derek Jacobi in Last Tango in Halifax, and then drop in on St. Faith's for a quick tootle on their one-manual organ. I also spend a few minutes thinking and praying for Nigel and his congregation, who've just met a substantial bill for repairs to their tower, but are finding the yearly Parish Share hard work ( £6.5k short last year). As their leaflet says, 'How odd would our village feel without St. Faith's at its heart?

Kilsby is a traveller's landmark, and always has been, a crossroads for drovers to meet and share an ale, the locus of a 1.6 mile railway tunnel, shielding the village from the worst of the West Coast main line's noise, and the beginning of the A361's long trek down to north west Devon's Ilfracombe! It's the longest three digit road in the land.

I put my head down, grit my teeth and stride out across the fields. Today's walk was to a degree a venture in faith, and my body's feeling the stress just now. Since Glandular Fever eight (!) years ago, I experience occasional bouts of post-viral fatigue, and this week it's been on me again, making nights uncomfortable and days a bit out of focus. How it interacts with food and exercise, health maintaining drugs, alcohol and painkillers is all rather mysterious. Is the fact that I can now achieve less than I did a decade ago to do with increasing age or the fatigue? The general counsel seems to be that moderate exercise helps rather than hinders, but have I taken on more than I should today?

Increasing numbers of people are vocal about their experience of 'fatigue'. The inclination among the fit and well is sometimes in the direction of 'Get a grip...' which of course is what those who suffer from fatigue would very often wish to do. I think people's bad experiences in employment...the requirements to meet targets, even and particularly in the caring professions including teaching and the sometimes a factor. And so maybe is our 24/7 exposure to the media, and particularly social media. Perhaps diet and other lifestyle choices can be causative. Fatigue is boring, both for those who live with it, and those who care for them or encounter them. Moving away from the strictly pathological, do we all have shorter attention spans than previous generations? Do we all tire more quickly? And if so why? And how does fatigue relate to concepts such as 'routine', and in a church context... 'liturgy'? Yup, no typo. Liturgy not lethargy.

Ashby St. Ledgers is one of my favourite places in the whole world. The long village has beautiful vernacular building, not all of it as old as at first seems (check out the Lutyens workers' cottages opposite the excellent pub.) The fields are lush and sheep-filled. The pluperfect Manor House (also restored by Lutyens) was the scene of the Catesby/Fawkes Gunpowder conspiracy, hatched in the half-timbered gatehouse next to the church, and the church itself is an ecclesiastical mini-marvel, filled with every kind of ancient decoration and ornament. It's dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Leogedarius. He and Kilsby's St. Faith were both French, and both met with grisly deaths in the 7th and 4th centuries respectively, thus gaining their sainthoods.

Nat White, the new incumbent at Braunston, also has Ashby St. Ledgers in her care. My route back to Braunston takes me along what must have been the old lane from the one to the other. The track is obvious at the Braunston end, but is a fieldpath towards Ashby. As at Staverton, it's hard now to see why the old road was never developed between the two - perhaps some land dispute prevented it. Anyway, Nat has these two very different but equally lovely places to look after. Apart from a lack of available clergy, there's no reason for yoking them together. I don't know if they are already a single benefice or whether there's the intention to make them into one, but it would make no sense. (The same isn't true in Barby and Kilsby, the latter having once probably been a daughter church of the former.) This is something to come back to in other contexts...

Runs on the board: 22km. 6.5 hrs. 17 deg. C. a breeze, slightly cool at times, dying later. 28 stiles. 23 gates 11 bridges. Blossom. Birdsong (my how happy the birds have been since Spring finally came!) The buzzing of innumerable bees.

                                                                  Ashby St. Ledgers

We thank you for the renewal you brought the children of Israel
With the coming of Jesus.
We thank you for the renewal you brought to his disciples
By the gift of the Holy Spirit.
We thank you for the renewal we receive daily
In prayer and contemplation,
In the love of family and friends,
In the experience of your lovely Creation.

Monday, 7 May 2018


From the Grand Junction Canal near Weedon, a track winds down through a field to Watling Street. I've just crossed the 'West Coast' railway line. For the rest of today's walk I'm very often within sight or sound of these three north-south arterial routes. When King Alfred made peace with and then converted his Viking enemy Guthrum in the late 800s, Watling Street north of the Ouse became the boundary between the Saxons and Danelaw. Was it used as a demilitarised zone by both societies? Or was it a porous border of as much significance and danger as say, that between Northern Ireland and the Republic in the nineteen-seventies?

Borders are Big News. The next two years will tell us how we're going to cope with a changed relationship to Europe. For the life of me, I can't see how the different political positions within the UK on this matter can he resolved harmoniously here or the other side of the Irish Sea. Nor do I see how the structural integrity of the UK can be maintained. Perhaps you can. I'm convinced David Cameron's decisions will be regarded with incredulity by future historians, but that's no comfort. It isn't the first and it won't be the last time a nation's wellbeing has been sacrificed to an interest group's well-being. If you disagree, please stay with me! We may not be at odds about everything. This isn't The Guardian...

The soil on the far side of Watling Street is noticeably sandy. All Saints, Flore dominates the higher ground the far side of the little Nene bridge. The village has a reputation for fertility - crop-wise. I can't speak for the sperm counts of its inhabitants.

If one knows that at least some Romans thought well enough of the place to build a villa here (what's not to like - just off the main road and with a plentiful supply of water?) then you'll have guessed the possible 'floral' derivation of its name. But in Saxon 'flor' means 'floor' (which itself is an alternative ancient spelling for the settlement) and so this could refer to knowledge of the villa's now re-buried tessellated pavement, or the threshing floor which received the fields' abundant harvests.

The church is shut. I sit on a sun-warmed bench and watch a lady tend a grave near the field edge. All Saints' ochre sandstone is particularly weathered. The details of a gargoyle over the south porch and a Norman arch by the chancel are softened and fading with age. As I walk up through Flore's streets, I see the drive to a house called 'Living Stones' and think of friend Maurice Walton, priest and architect, who with his wife Jill made one last home in the village here...but not at 'Living Stones'. This is a community house for the Jesus Army. As at Bugbrooke, I wonder how much contact there is between the Army and the folk at All Saints. Boundaries. Even in the Christian church. And becoming more rather than less marked with time it seems, contrary to my teenage expectations. Does it matter? I believe this. You believe that. Is it too post-modern to think that we can still love one another? See Angela Tilby on a related matter in a recent Church Times.

A lane follows the high ground to the north, and brings me to the by-pass described in the previous post ( 'Gongoozler'), which will perhaps form the future boundary of Northampton/Daventry. I'm surprised by how far advanced the work is. The road surface is laid, and even the white lines are marked. I'll try to be fair. For a few hundred yards I've just followed the road through Flore, and been impressed by the number and size of (mainly logistics) HGVs that rumble through the village, breaking up the road surface and doubtless representing a threat to any residents crossing e.g. from the church to the housing estate opposite.

But the logic of by-passes is that infilling will inevitably occur everywhere between the by-pass and what it's by-passing. Whoever you are, wherever you live, you'll be able to find an example. But let me show you with a few rather poor pictures what that means here:

So, all the land to the left will be given over to housing... (we're looking roughly south-west)...

And so will the land that you can see here...(the road from Northampton to Daventry is out of sight but in this direction... this is to the south-east...

And because the M1 lies beyond the trees in the right of this picture, itself forming a boundary, so will this...and here we're looking more or less north...

I don't expect they say this is what will happen. But in time it will...

Near the new by-pass I slip on a patch of mud, and spatter my legs with slurry. I hope it's not the smelly sort or I'll be persona non grata in any pubs or cafes I visit later.The path veers westwards through a spinney close to the M1, and at a ploughed field right beside the motorway there's a choice as to which margins I follow (the path originally went on the diagonal, but I'm in Merrills and I can see it's stickily wet in the middle). I opt for left and then right, but of course make the wrong choice, ending up in mud so sucky it threatens to pull the shoes from my feet. I zigzag through the tilth, trying to find dry land, hoping no one's watching. Sorry, Mr. Farmer. Footprints all over.

Metalled lanes take me above the motorway and on to the delectable hamlet of Brockhall, which don't you think sounds like a place in Wind in the Willows? And since brocc means badger in Saxon that's pretty much right. St. Peter and St. Paul's is an estate church, built no more than twenty yards from the Big House. It's no great surprise to find that it too is locked. Services here will only be occasional: it's in the same benefice as Flore. Going forward the road's gated at either end of a sheep pasture. Gated roads used to be a more common feature of Northamptonshire's landscape, but they've mostly disappeared now: the inconvenience to solo drivers was just too great. On this occasion I have the opportunity to open and close the gate at the far end for a passing motorist. I think she said thank you, though she didn't bother to open her 4x4 window if she did. Perhaps she assumed I was an estate retainer, paid to stand and serve, and she was merely shocked I didn't tip my cap.

Just beyond the crest are the lumps and bumps of the medieval settlement of Muscott, once moved and emptied, I expect, at the behest of some long gone Lord of the Manor. So distressing and inconvenient to have the peasants quite so close to one's nice shiny new Seat. By the wonders of modern science i.e. cell phone I talk to friend Richard Holder as I stroll through a farmyard and then back up and over the M1...the canal...the railway. Richard has written a good song and I shall try to find a piano part worthy of it. All we less-than-famous musicians are now doing what our more celebrated counterparts have been at for years, using our laptops to record together remotely. It's fun, creative, and makes us collectively more than we are individually. Potentially here then, boundary transcendence...

At Watling Street I find myself by the entrance to the Heart of the Shires Shopping Village with a sudden overwhelming urge for Earl Grey. Hey man, I like...I need my fix, ya dig. Ya gotta give me the stuff. Now.  Whatever it takes. Don't be cruel, man. Ya gotta help me... Inside the Village everything's red brick and lavender paintwork. The shoppers are, well, like me really, in their sixties and seventies with the occasional real OAP thrown in. And all, well, quite lavender. Unlike me. A moment of self-awareness intervenes. No one else is sporting ordure-spattered legs, nor do they look like tramps - these are Country Casuals of a different ilk. I try to forget my personal bohemian chic and sit in Darlington's café with as much dignity as I can muster. The chocolate and orange cake is to die for, but I decline the offered accompaniment of ice-cream. You see that old dosser we had in here today? Went for the Blood Orange Gateau bigtime, he did. It's not right you know. I mean...the smell! What I say is, if he can afford that, he can afford a decent pair of trousers. And what about them Big Issue blokes? They take their benefits and manage to run a Merc on the side. Well, that's what I've heard. They should bring back the Workhouses if you ask me...Well, good morning to you, Mr. Willetts. ('Two Brains' David Willetts has been at it again this week, blaming Old People for all the ills of society.)

Pubs are closing but cafes like this are certainly doing a roaring trade among the middle-class retired. However N.B. to the Church (and 'Two Brains' ). Do not imply, when requesting greater donations from elderly parishioners or taxpayers, that this year's suggested increase in giving will only be the price of a Starbuck's coffee per week. Not all pensioners can afford the café lifestyle. Many are still on the breadline, and they too should be made welcome in our pews. And in wider society too.

                       Modern Watling Street. The boundary with Danelaw (to your right!)

The road to Norton curves away expansively from Watling Street at the junction you see above. I talk on the 'bone to stepmum Jean about electricians and days out, occasionally stepping onto the verge to avoid the surprisingly frequent traffic. At tall-towered All Saints' church I meet assistant treasurer Patrick who welcomes me warmly. He's come to check that the church is open (it is!) We chat as we shove our way through the tight-fitting churchyard gate and then walk together up a short avenue of nicely pollarded trees. It's a lovely spring day, but I don't think it's just that which makes the atmosphere of this place so cheerful. Norton's pub is a good 'un too. It doubles as a chippie, and gets very good web reviews - one to remember, if we're out this way and fancy a bit of haddock.

The lane to Dodford takes me up hill and down dale past acres of munchable grass, glittering blue-green in the sun, to a long view from an airy plateau where various bits of WW2 detritus litter the fields, frustrating the efforts of successive farmers to destroy them. In one place slabs of concrete are piled on top of each other so as to resemble a Cornish/Breton menhir - and artistically/historically it kind of works in this elevated setting.

Down the hill, beyond the relics of the old branch line to Leamington, is a little ford whose stream leads me beguilingly into the village. Dodford has associations with travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, who yomped his way entertainingly around Europe in the middle of the twentieth century, disregarding the artificialities of political borders.

A reality check. The milk of human kindness was no more widely available a hundred years ago. Ask the Armenians. Ponder on the butchery of the Great War and the Holocaust. But thus far through life, while acknowledging the universality of sin, and frequently rehearsing for my own benefit Luther's formula 'Semper peccator, semper penitens, semper iustus', I've also believed that slowly, oh so slowly, humanity is inching towards an omega-point, that moral and spiritual progress is possible. These days I'm less sure. With the cyber-revolution has come more sharply defined differentiation, a greater tribalism, exploited by knowledgeable oligarchies for financial and political gain. We're happy with our boundaries, safe in our insulation, content only if our walls are high and excluding. There's an upside. The Christian message of sin and salvation, of our being in Christ neither Jew nor Greek, nor bond nor free, was never so relevant. I talk the talk. Am I walking it enough?

And finally, Esther. On my way into Weedon, I catch up with a young African woman (I know she's African and not Caribbean from the accent as she returns my hello). At her side is a prettily summer-dressed three year old who turns, hearing the tap of my stick on the pavement: she finds me hugely amusing. I suppose it's the mud. The woman has another baby in a sling, and she's pregnant. I can't ask, but I want to know: 'what's the story?' She will have crossed, will daily be crossing, borders to be here. But why Weedon?

                                                                 In Norton church

Ticks on the stick:  20 km. Just shy of six hours. 19 deg. C. Slight breeze. Mostly sunny. One stile. Eleven gates. Nine bridges. (Why do I rehearse these stats each time? Because I love the British idiosyncrasy of 'the stile'. And they give some crude indication of the kind of country I'm walking in and the strenuousness of the hike.) Four churches, only one of them open.

No prayer this time.
Sometimes the subjects are too large;
The matters too weighty.
Words fail to meet the requirement.
So I'm afraid you'll have to do the work,
If you wish.
T.S.Eliot said much the same
But infinitely more elegantly.