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.

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