Friday, 29 June 2018

All for One and One for All

A benevolent gorilla in the shape of a large 'Azores High' is sitting right on top of summertime Britain, and for the moment nothing much will shift it. The result's a run of very predictable weather. It's going to be hot later today: too hot!

I find myself decanting from the car in Watford (Northants) on the dot of seven. Back in Northampton it was just grey, but out here to the west and at an altitude less than a hundred metres higher, it's misty and dreakh. I'm walking due north on the Jurassic Way. I remember this section through the old parkland from a decade ago - just trust the compass Vince, because the waymarks won't help you! At least the cows haven't properly woken up. They turn disinterested mournfully bovine heads in my direction and keep munching. I eventually locate the route out of the park into the arable fields beyond, passing under an ornate, crested iron railway bridge, the neglected furniture of the erstwhile estate.

Since my last visit a wind farm has been erected and the path peters out in the tracks which surround the feet of the metal monster windmills. Like last week, I have to fight my way through clumps of fully grown rapeseed. As I struggle and push, I become increasingly aware I've tweaked a left calf muscle. It's very sore. My humour deteriorates. I lever myself up a mound of sileage to see where I should be headed (not something I actually recommend for health and safety reasons!) and shimmying to the right round a hedge, eventually pick up the line of the JW again.

Later on, around Silsworth Lodge, things get increasingly confusing. A plethora of notices stapled to trees and gates tell me the paths have been moved by agreement with the Council. On the ground, nothing much is very clear but I solve the problems more by luck than judgment and soon find myself securely on the way to West Haddon. Suddenly my memory is jogged about an animal encounter ten years ago. On a wet day at the side of this very field I came across a slow-worm, jet black and glistening, a creature of rare beauty, an unexpected treasure, the only one I've ever seen.

I hobble up West Haddon's High Street to the Pytchley Inn, where the pleasant staff serve me an enormous and extremely toothsome breakfast (I'm looking pretty dishevelled: the crops were early-morning wet and my shorts are soaked through). I assess the situation. Is my left leg just cramping? Have I done the most difficult part of the day? Can I at least make it to Crick, and if necessary phone from there for a cab? Or is it time to cut my losses now? I massage some Ibuleve into the muscle and allow it recovery time, then decide to keep going steadily and see what happens.

In All Saints church, the Rev. Graham Collingridge is taking Wednesday morning communion with three parishioners. I sense a moment's anxiety at my arrival on the threshold, but I'm cordially invited to stay, provided I'm quiet. The four of them review what and who they should pray for, and I hang in with them through the first part of the service until the conclusion of the readings: 2 Corinthians, and then Mark's account of Jesus calming the storm. Outside All Saints, it's anything but stormy. The sun has come out and the sky is revealing itself as a brilliant cloudless blue. The onward path to Winwick is a lovely thing, sweeping down across the vale through cornfields and over cropped grass until it joins the lane. Somewhere near West Haddon I've been told there's a place, a tumulus perhaps, called 'Oster Hill'. I can see a couple of likely sites on the 1:25000 O.S., although neither of them is named. The claim is that this represents a faint memory of the second Roman governor of Britain, Ostorius Scapula, who fought a battle on a hill somewhere, maybe here, but probably not (more likely at Stonea in Cambridgeshire!) According to Tacitus, dealing with the troublesome Britons left Scapula a worn-out, depressed man. Wider tradition has it that he was buried in Wales, but local legend would him under the soil at Oster Hill.

The hamlet of Winwick is a personal 'might-have-been'. As at Quinton, Sue and I once looked at the possibility of living in semi-communal circumstances with friend and colleague Nigel Pegrum and his first wife Angie back in the heady rock n'roll days of 1982. The Manor House had been divided and part of it was up for sale, an idyllic, Grade II pastoral retreat. It was a lovely pipe dream, but even had we been able to afford the mortgage, the maintenance would have been a money-pit, despite Nigel's very considerable practical nous. Yet even now the charms of Winwick call to me...

June is gardening in the house next to St. Oswald's church. Why is there a church dedicated to Oswald in this neck of the woods? He was a seventh-century Northumbrian king, and it's not surprising to learn that a notable church in Durham has his name. But he was an absolute enemy of Mercia, and though after his death in battle (at Oswestry) the Mercians may have acknowledged his holiness, this sounds like cool and grudging recognition rather than reverence. June is clearly proud of Winwick's village church, and grateful that they've managed to install a loo there recently. Up till now she's been donating comfort breaks to funeral goers and others in her house, which must have been truly inconvenient. As she says, the gentlemen can always 'do a farmer's', but this isn't necessarily an option for visiting ladies. Inside St. Oswald's there's a pleasing smell of polish, probably at June's hand. Its crowning glory is the west wall contemporary stained glass which shows a plan of the village (you can just make out the details in the lower central section) flanked by trees against dramatic fields and sky.

As I limp up the lane towards Crick across the wold, the sun is ever higher. A problem with road walking at this time of year is the reflected heat, hence the reference to 'track temperatures' at motor racing Grand-Prixs, where summer measurements of 40+ degrees aren't so uncommon. It feels every bit of that as I gratefully leave the tarmac to walk through the ripening barley to the fishponds at Foxholes Farm. I pick my way on down and over the canal to the road junction at the entrance to Crick. I stop on a town bench only to be immediately joined by a fellow traveller who accuses me of hogging the shady bit. It's not a good conversational opener, so I leave him to enjoy his ice-cream and the solitude, and press on for a GB at the Royal Oak where feisty pensioners are ordering ham pie and veggie bake. The pub landlord has been in situ since 1976 (though that's a trifle beside the 62 year long incumbency of one long-dead Rector at Preston Capes!)  Afterwards I cross the road to the architectural confusion of St. Margaret's. A gaggle of undertakers stands quietly on the church path, and momentarily I'm rather annoyed to be thwarted in my investigation of Crick's church. However a few minutes late I hear the strains of Abide with me and deduce that the funeral service must be drawing to a close. I watch as the procession emerges into the sun and then hangs a left towards the side of the churchyard where I'm waiting: unusually Jennie Bromley, the deceased, is being buried in her own church grounds. I remove my battered hat as they pass, and the funeral director acknowledges me with the slightest inclination of her head. It's a touching moment. Amongst the mourners are several uniformed carers. Jennie was 92. On the service sheet it says that any donations will go to the Alzheimer's Society and Marie Curie. One can draw one's own conclusions.

Inside the church, there's a lot to look at. The south aisle is all fearfully out of kilter, woodwork and windows at angles to each other as if there was once an earthquake here. This is a place of worship which has been serially patched and replace over hundreds of years. It was briefly the incumbency of William Laud, later Archbishop of Canterbury, who was a supporter of Charles I, and paid for it, executed in 1645 at the age of 72 for no single good reason except a general feeling that he was treasonous, and had an inclination towards Catholicism. The churchpersonship of the present day St. Margaret's is difficult to discern from what I can see. There are New English Hymnals but also copies of Mission Praise, so perhaps like our own church it's one of the declining number of active, well-attended, middle-of-the-road congregations. It's a cheap shot, but I think there may be an inclination among more radical Evangelicals to quote Revelations on Laodicea - that because such places are neither hot nor cold, they should end up in the spittoon.

The words Evangelical and Catholic  should both carry entirely positive affect, it seems to me. Surely all Christians should feel that they have 'Good News' for the world, in the way that Jesus did when he preached in the context of a Jewish people caught in a hopeless cycle of trying to appease an angry God (I don't say that modern day Judaism necessarily shares this perspective, but how would you  feel if you had only the O.T. for solace?)  Likewise Catholic simply means an embracing of the faithful...ours is a faith for everyone, isn't it? Yet these two words have become yah-boo terms in the world of ecclesiastical politics, badges to be worn in order to exclude rather than include. We should be ashamed of ourselves, and start over.

I'm still hurting, but I decide against a cab. I now have a choice on the way back to Watford. Road or footpath? The destination is the same so in one sense it doesn't matter much. Because I'm carrying a slight injury, I choose the road, and very pretty it is too. In view of my previous paragraph I'm going to let you do the work of metaphor.

Dents on the fender:  18.5 km. 7 hrs. (but one hour for breakfast, and my leg - did I mention my leg? - was slowing me down. 12.5 deg C. at the outset. 25 deg back at the car, mitigated by a nice cool breeze. One hypochondriac. Lots of rabbits. One hare. Lovely memory of a slow worm. Three churches: all open. One very good breakfast. 16 stiles. 14 gates. 7 little bridges.


We thank you for the glorious variation in your world;
For the constant flux and change we see;
That no day is the same as another,
Tho' circumstance can make us feel it is;
That history, if it repeats itself at all,
Is never exactly replicated;
That we as humans are utter individuals
With different looks, opinions and tastes.

But, Father, help us not to make an idol
Of our self-hood.
Help us to embrace our common humanity
And not to be ashamed that you have called us as a people.
May we truly acknowledge the unity of our creatureliness
And agree that we are your children
Together tasked with caring for your beautiful garden
This wonderful Kingdom of Heaven.

Friday, 22 June 2018


It's Midsummer Day, and the Druidic faithful have already been up many hours doing their Stonehenge thing. Under a Canaletto sky and with a chilly northerly wind blowing, I drop down from the green behind Great Brington church onto the road to East Haddon. There'll be a lot of road walking today. In this sector of the county there are far fewer footpaths. Perhaps this is a result of ancient enclosures and the influence/habits of the old landed gentry, or maybe the villages are slightly more detached from each other geographically. Just past the railway bridge I try a diversion onto what will obviously be a very minor right of way - it doesn't have any logic to its use - and quickly wish I hadn't. The consequence is a long push through fully grown rapeseed where I can't even see my feet. Then the waymarkings disappear near a copse and I find myself on a track leading back to the road, so I give up on being alternative. I push on up the hill to cross the old Rugby turnpike, and puff into East Haddon, thigh muscles complaining.

And there a lovely surprise awaits me in the form of the Haddonstone Show Garden. We commissioned Haddonstone for a wrought iron gate a few years ago, the better to keep out potential burglars, but I had no idea about the extent of their other garden work. They make moulded stone artefacts and statuary of all sorts, and display their wares in the beautiful gardens they've made either side of the lane beside the Primary School. This is such a clever combination of commercial purpose with public benefit. I chat with Nita who sits at their reception desk, and of course she knows Weston Favell well because of friends and family living nearby. She knows Bishop John too. She lives in Spratton where our former curate Allison was recently installed as Vicar.

                                                    A bit of Roman at Haddonstone

East Haddon was the birthplace of a significant person in the history of British pop and rock music but the significance is quirky. Long John Baldry was a nearly man of sixties' music. He was a very tall chap, hence the name, and the possessor of a voice whose qualities were rarely matched by the material he was given to sing. Most of his career was spent as a member of various bands who formed the mid-sixties' 'blues revival'. He worked with Alexis Korner's Blues Incorporated for a while ( as did a long list of other famous musicians), and then formed his own group 'Bluesology', which at one time featured an up and coming session piano player/singer called Reg Dwight. Reg borrowed his future stage surname from Baldry, and his first name from sax player Elton Dean, another Bluesology alumnus. The rest is history. Long John was apparently born in East Haddon's Hall, perhaps in a tied cottage. His dad was a local policeman, and they re-located to Edgware not long after the birth. The rest of Long John's life wasn't altogether happy. And that's why they call it the blues!

I normally say the following kind of thing for readers with no great interest in matters of faith, but today is different. Health warning: if you're not into pop music heritage, you may want to skip the next bit (though perhaps opt back in for the next but one paragraph).

Like many kids of my age I was transfixed when I started to hear blues music. It was always there as an underlay to 'pop' and jazz of course - Duke Ellington/Elvis etc. etc.. There's a twin framework: a blues scale, which flattens the fifth note (the 'blue' note) in a way which can resemble a cry of pain when used in a certain way by voice or guitar or horn, and therefore mimics the prevailing mood of black slavery, and a notional twelve bar, three chord progression which has a beguiling simplicity and inevitability which I can't find anywhere else in music of any sort. This is matched by a lyrical 'rule of three', whereby a first line is repeated and then capped or explained by the third line. Theoretically each line will take four bars to sing (though in the hands of some exponents like John Lee Hooker it may take three and a half bars or as long as the singer likes). Hence the 'twelve bar blues' e.g. T-Bone Walker's: 'They call it stormy Monday, but Tuesday's twice as bad/Oh you know they call it stormy Monday, but Tuesday's twice as bad/Wednesday ain't much better, and Thursday makes me feel oh so sad.

Why did this musical form make such an impression on a little white middle class teenager from North West Kent? There's no sense to it. Some responses of the human spirit seem so immediate that twentieth century philosophers and scientists (like those of earlier ages) were inclined towards feeling that some human characteristics are innate rather than learned. Other wispier commentators will invoke mystery and magic.  Will we eventually discover somehow (I'm not sure how the experiments could be conducted!) that our DNA carries substantive memory from one generation to another? Or like concepts/phenomena in mathematics, for instance the Fibonacci series, are some things 'just there' in this universe, or potentially any universe?  Noam Chomsky thought that the subject-object relation was linguistically innate to humans. But then again, the separation between 'me' and 'you' is just a factual, out-there, given, isn't it? (Until Artificial Intelligence makes it not so). Can this work for chord sequences too?

I'm disappointed to find that St. Mary's church is locked. I walk down East Haddon's main street and at the house where a painted wall-sign still faintly records that it was once the Plough Inn and served Phipps' ale, I turn down the road to Ravensthorpe, whose name a reference book tells me has nothing to do with big black birds. The road drops and then climbs again. A gent strolls down towards me - recuperating from illness, and taking the walking cure I would guess by his gait and pallor. He flops onto a roadside bench. 'It's what it's there for, isn't it?' I agree.

In Ravensthorpe I amble round the rectangle of roads, trying to get a measure of the place. Unlike East Haddon it's not a village I'm familiar with. A grandad and two very small boys say hello nicely, and I come round on them again walking the opposite way as I enter St. Denys church. 'Why is that man going into the church? asks one of the children. 'To have a look at it', answers Grandad.

Ravensthorpe is one of the many churches in the Uplands Benefice, which has eight parishes in all, two of whose buildings are dedicated to St. Denys, who you'll remember is the patron saint of France. I think this is up for review next year, don't you? Not the sort of nonsense up with which we should put in post-Brexit Britain. Let all churches be henceforth ascribed to St. George or St. Arthur. Not canonised, you say? Well, why let such a minor namby-pamby consideration get in the way of patriotic C. of E. duty. What do we keep an Established Church for? (N.B. to the casual reader. This is me trying out a little irony for size!)

Like many churches these days the Uplands Benfice has an excellent website (tho' not bang up-to-date) with a clear statement of the Christian faith allied to a welcome for all. Inside St. Denys it's unusually hard to find something which will decode the building for me, but eventually I find a pamphlet under a pew at the back. A very tidy mind has been at work! St. Denys is literally broad, with two wide side aisles. There's a one-manual Victorian-looking pipe organ, which it seems will soon be replaced with a new digital job and I spy an ubiquitous Clavinova, so there must be a musician at work. From the modern plastic chairs set on a south-side dais I deduce there may be a Sunday School. Either that or the choir has been decamped from its stalls to provide encouraging welly to the congregational singing with a sideways blast. The Uplands Benefice defines a Christian as someone in a personal relationship with Jesus. There are many other Uplands churches to visit so I must remember to come back to this frequently expressed idea another time: it bears a bit of deconstruction.

The pub is nobbut a step away, but my lunchtime GB is a slightly weird experience. The bar is dominated by a random group of (mostly) oldies. I can't work out what the occasion is, and at first I assume there must be a two o'clock funeral and they're getting in a celebratory drink beforehand. But the dress code is too varied: some suits for sure, but also a bow tie, an incongruous bowls' player's flat white cap, and what's this? - a lot of tartan ties on the men denoting some kind of club membership, although there's not a Scottish accent to be heard. I hear mention of an Alvis, and cricket. Inspection of the car park gives nothing away. It remains a mystery, but their demeanour conveys a sort of nineteen-seventies vibe, like watching an early episode of 'The Good Life' or 'Yes, Minister'. The gents' loo rather reinforces the timewarp feeling. The walls are adorned with topless and pneumatic ladies water-skiing or emerging onto beaches, Ursula Andress-style. I didn't think pubs went in for that sort of thing anymore, but apparently they do in Ravensthorpe. It's The Chequers by the way, if that's your bag.  Fine cuisine is the claim.

Just down the road is an emporium for used, quality cars. An ancient Arthur Daley V8 Jag will cost you £5k (but may fall apart after a few miles, in my humble opinion). A handsome nearly-new Bentley in bright blue will set you back  £106k. Yes, that's right, one hundred and six thousand smackers. Who buys these things? Any Russians living in Ravensthorpe?

It's a gorgeous day, and the walk along the undulating road to Teeton is very jolly with expansive views of green and sunny countryside to my right. On the other side is Ravensthorpe's reservoir, sparkling and blue, and we hope, clean. Teeton has no church. There used to be a Chapel of Ease in the late medieval period and the priest would pop along from Ravensthorpe to administer the sacraments once a week. I'm still musing on St. Denys. St. Paul, on the other hand, seldom gets a dedication, at least round here, unless in tandem with St. Peter. We don't love Paul very much, do we, considering how much of the New Testament is down to him? Stern and forbidding, exhortatory and judgmental, he was short on jokes ( name one!) and perhaps even on personal warmth. But then judging someone's personality on their writing may not always be fair, thinks this blogger...

I'm looking forward to seeing the church at Holdenby (pronounced 'Holmby' - there's posh for you!) Hall, now redundant, but according to the website, open. The original Hall was the creation of Sir Christopher Hatton, who allegedly wouldn't stay a night in it until Good Queen Bess had done so. It was a vast mansion, a so-called 'Prodigy' like Audley End, but it was pulled down after the Restoration, and the current version is only an eighth the size. Did it ever recover from its role in the regicide, when Cornet Joyce turned up at the door to arrest the lightly incarcerated King Charles and lead him away to trial and execution?

For the second time today I'm disappointed, and All Saints church too is locked. I could call the number on the Holdenby website, but either someone would have to come and let me in, or I'd have to walk back to one of the estate cottages a third of a mile away, so I let it go, and walk on down the hill and across the plain, thinking of something someone said recently...that many people come to church just to take communion, nothing more. This is at the opposite end of the scale to a 'personal relationship with Jesus'. It's a holy, worshipful  but perhaps superstitious habit, almost a right without a responsibility, whereas I would characterise the eucharist as at its most basic a privilege, an opportunity for confession and absolution, a wish to incorporate with, identify with, the Body of Christ stretching back through time, and in future generations, a chance to be one at least now with the God who made me, and perhaps will continue to hold me into eternity. But, just as the Blues are profoundly simple, so is the act of taking bread and wine. Is that just a start then, or the Whole Thing?

I struggle up the hill along the Althorp wall back towards the Audi. A black car, tinted windows, steams up the road past me. Mistaking the sweatshirt tied round my waist for a skirt, he gives the motorist's equivalent of a wolf-whistle, tooting his horn. Should have gone to Specsavers!

Twenty metres from the car-park, I trip on a kerbside and for the second time in three outings end up with a dramatically bloodied knee. That'll be Specsavers for me too, then.

Jars on the Bar:  19 km, mostly by road. 6 hrs. 18 deg C. Unbroken sun. Wind northerly, veering westerly later, gusting 25 mph at times. 6 stiles. 5 gates. 2 bridges. Pollen count:  very high - this week the highest for ten years, or so they reckon. Various birds of prey: two pairs of kites high and circling: one buzzard low and intent on powerful wings. One squirrel.

The fantasy faith -
The stuff to do with the imagination;
The internal religious psycho-drama;
The doing of liturgy;
The theological maybe this and maybe that;
The parading around in public -
All this is so easy;
So dangerously attractive.

But that cold dose of reality;
The loving;
The forgiving;
This I find so hard.
Help me by your grace
To make a better fist of it.

Monday, 18 June 2018


There are oh so many reasons why I never made it as a rock n'roll star ( 'Can't help about the state I'm in/ Can't sing, I ain't pretty and my legs are thin' : Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac 'Oh Well' 1969)
but some way down the long list is an absolute inability to remember lines or lyrics. Just about the only one which has ever really stuck over the decades is Edward Thomas' poem 'Adlestrop', learned at the earnest behest of English teacher Mr. Steve Woodley thousands of years ago: 'Yes, I remember Adlestrop - / The name, because one afternoon/ Of heat the express train drew up there/ Unwontedly. It was late June/ The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat/ No one left and no one came/ On the bare platform. What I saw/ Was Adlestrop. Only the name.'

In its simple elegance and unspoken foreshadowing of the Great War, it's been a pretty good lifelong companion. Anyway, as I set out from Ashby St. Ledgers, it's that sort of Adlestrop day, oppressively humid and quiet; something waiting to happen. Today I'm learning about pilgrimage to the max what I suppose is always a possibility in solo walking, which is that sometimes one has to forget about enjoying oneself and grit the teeth both physically and mentally. Despite the fact that the farmer's done his best with the field paths, I'm already feeling weary under the sun by the time I reach Welton although in slight mitigation it's hard pushing through the waist-high undergrowth where the rapeseed has drooped over the cut right of way.

I'm in that state the Greeks called 'aporia': an existential perplexity which defies resolution, and before you shout 'oh for heaven's sake just get over it', don't tell me you've never been there. Don't understand Brexit. Don't understand the Americans. Don't understand God and therefore not a ghost of understanding the Church of England. Don't understand People. Don't understand, most of all, don't understand Me. And if one's lucky, the rhythm of the walk rehearses and rehearses the cycle of puzzlement, slowly untangling it. Socrates famously said that he was the wisest of men because he was aware he knew nothing. Perhaps his 'method', which got a surprising outing in a recent episode of Sky Living's Madam Secretary ( for the uninitiated, a 'West Wing Lite' with occasional flashes of originality amid frequent thematic plagiarism) whereby Socrates claimed to be a midwife to the truth by relentless questioning, was simply just relentless questioning from a place of angst and aporia. Of course I'm tempted to say that if this doesn't also represent your state of mind as you read this, you're delusional, given 2018's politics. Yet, as I was driving to Ashby today, there were so many people phoning in to Five Live expressing their unshakeable green-ink conviction that immediate cliff-edge Brexit must be enacted NOW. How nice to be so certain. Not. All that and dog poo.

Inside St. Martin's Welton it's cool, and there's a table where I can de-stress and eat a sandwich ( not enough carbs?) There's even a box of tissues with which to wipe my Coronation Chicken mouth. Beside me there's the handsome case of St. Martin's two manual organ, and pictures of the church's patron saint. The organ began its life in Suffolk's Hengrave Hall, and was gifted to the church for the coronation of the Queen by a local benefactor, so my choice of sandwich turns out to be very appropriate, As I leave I buy a copy of Douglas Feaver's commentary on the Collects, a couple of slightly dog-eared copies of which are lying among other random printed matter at the back of the church. Douglas Feaver was the Bishop of Peterborough who confirmed me in the early eighties. I once came across him in full episcopal gear, cope and mitre, playing honky tonk piano to himself in the music room at the School for Girls in Northampton, and retreated on tiptoe rather than interrupt his reverie. He was a very eccentric, sometimes rather rude man, and I was rather more in awe of bishops back then than I am now.

There are only a score or so regulars in the congregation at St. Martin's. Nat White is their (relatively) new vicar. Her predecessor Sarah Brown said the following in a recent annual church report. It puts the dilemma of many parishes very well.

                  'I believe that we are balanced on the line between terminal decline (one member of the congregation at a time), and the opportunity to grow the church and safeguard the future of Christian mission in Welton by developing new congregations... (and here Sarah makes reference to new housing projects locally)
                    ...the challenge is to take these opportunities while properly taking care of the people and traditions that we already have. Time will tell what compromises and changes will have to be made and what we should hold fast to...
                    ...If the choice is 'As long as it sees me out without changing' then a loving management of decline will be the appropriate model of ministry. If there exists a passion for the long term future of Christ's church then the model of ministry will be energetic, riskier, outgoing and missionary, but there will be costs associated.'

Sarah is now Canon Missioner at the Cathedral. But is it simply a matter of A or B? And is what Sarah says code for 'Move over Dadd-i-o, and make way for the hip cats...'?

Welton is a village of springs, and the church is perched on the edge of a little hill looking out over the valley, so that the view from the road makes the undulations on the far side look more impressive than they actually are. I cross some fields past a donkey sanctuary towards the Braunston arm of the Grand Union Canal, and promptly have a brain-fade, turning right rather than left along the towpath. I only realise my mistake when I'm nearly back in Daventry because suddenly there's a main road where no main road should be. I turn on my heel, hold my head high, and saunter nonchalantly back past bargees and tramps, wishing one and all a happy summer's day and pretending this was exactly what I'd intended for my day's rambling entertainment.

There are a number of pleasures to be enjoyed on the way back to Norton Junction where the canal offers the northward bound traveller two options - should she steer for Leicester or Braunston? A massive heron takes gracefully to the air and flaps away above me, head and beak jutting, gradually descending to another fishing pitch two hundred metres away. A duck stands by a sluice watching her clutch of mini-ducklings make their first moves towards independence. I chide her for being a bad mother and then am unexpectedly moved that she's only doing what we all do as responsible parents, hearts in mouths, allowing our children risk and uncertainty. A narrow boat flying the Cornish flag chugs by, and I offer the opinion that they're a long way from Lostwithiel, which gets a smile. By Buckby top lock there's a boaty hiatus. (It sometimes seems off-puttingly hard work getting a boat through the locks!) A country lady is limping around, eliciting sympathy. 'Oi slipped back there and went on moi arse' she complains to another waiting crew, 'And now moi knee's bust. So that's moi lot for the day!' 'Easily done' replies the other party, winching, shoving and pulling, sweat dripping.

Yet again I cross Watling Street and the railway and the motorway, and by fields arrive in the housing estate on the edge of Long Buckby where I need Googlemap's assistance to find the centre of this sprawling townage ( i.e. L.B. is halfway between a  village and a town!) So long is Long Buckby that nearly four thousand people live here, but its shoe-making and railway heyday is of course long since done and dusted. It was once the home of Stanley Unwin, who made a single verbal gag into a complete career, and acknowledged how lucky he was to do so. The Victorian red-brick buildings of the shoe era crowd impressively around the townside view of St. Lawrence's church, whose interior was restored by George Gilbert Scott in 1862 but which I can't see because the church is double locked, reinforcing just how urban is this place. So I sit and look at the sheep in the fields behind the churchyard, and think of the characters who might have sought refuge here from the drudgery of factory or marshalling yard, or who might have lived in picturesque Nuns Lane, which runs up one side of St. Lawrence's in a fashion suggestive of a medieval past.

As I walk out to the west, a green Triumph Herald convertible, hood down, yorrocks into town. A seventy-something lady is driving. Her be-capped gentlemen companions all look jolly pleased with themselves. The scene is redolent of a sixties' Punch cartoon. Well, the weather's shifted. It's now a breezy afternoon, so why not? Less Adlestrop, more the top of the Malverns. Are they churchgoers, I wonder. If not, what would attract them inside?

A road-avoiding bridle path takes me north and then west again towards Watford. No, no, not that Watford, silly-billies, beyond which culture is alleged to vanish in a cloud of soot and squashed vowels. This is Watford of the famous Gap, where the motorway service station was once the late-night haunt of pop stars, models and the nouveau riche crowd making large with quiffs and starched petticoats back when the two-tone ice-cream coloured Ford Zodiac and Vauxhall Cresta were King and Queen. But to get to the land of these delights I first have to negotiate countryside obstacles I shouldn't have to deal with. First of all comes the crossing of the railway out of Northampton towards Rugby. It's not immediately clear what to expect from the O.S. but what one has to do is locate the hidden gap in the undergrowth which carries the path up a ramp in a copse where once there must have been a bridge over the permanent way. But the bridge is long gone, so the walker drops level with the track to 'Stop, Look and Listen', before venturing out across the welded rail and gravel - except that some of the metal inserts designed to help him do this are missing. 'Could you just tweet for me, Donald?  Thanks.  'Not Good!!! @ NetworkRail'

Then come sweary moments, courtesy of a farmer who hasn't time for his side of the country code bargain...


St. Peter and St. Paul's Watford is just an average country church, you'd think. Not big, but not small either. And inside there's nothing very posh about the place. Without being rude, you'd have to say, it's not particularly well-appointed, though the pews look nice and shiny. The altar's covered in plastic, so there's either an ongoing problem with birds or bats, or restoration work's going on. Which it may well be. Over the last five or six years £224k has been spent, just to keep the church safe and upright. There've been grants from public bodies of course, but I expect the villagers have worked pretty hard themselves to keep intact the building which more than any other defines the heart of their community. I refer you back to Sarah Brown's challenge, and I'm in perplexity again, not knowing how to reconcile the competing goods of national culture and being an ambassador for the Gospel. If they are competing...

The website for SS. Peter and Paul teases us. There's probably a crypt under the chancel, but no one knows exactly where. Don't we all love a secret passage!

Goals in the net: 22 km. 7 hrs. 23 stiles. 21 gates. 9 bridges. 3 churches, one closed. 21 deg. C. Variable cloud. One rabbit. One heron. One buzzard. Two annoying farmers ( I didn't mention the second one, but he seems unilaterally to have diverted the Jurassic Way between Watford and Ashby, constructing elaborate schemes of electrified fences and possibly removing some waymarks supposedly in the interests of public health and safety because of his admittedly very large herd of cattle. One for the Council this, I think. And possibly the CPRE.)

I'm not clever enough to work this out.
I see there must be a link
Between Free Will
And Not Knowing What To Do,
But sometimes I could wish
You'd made things easier for us.
I confess.
Sometimes I just do bad things
And then I'm sorry,
And try hard not to do them again.
Other times...
I just don't have a clue
So either I 'hit and hope'
Or I hunker down
With my head in my hands.
Help us, Lord.
Give us a sign.
Show us what to do,
Even if it gives us more opportunities
To disobey you.