Sunday, 26 August 2018

1645 and all that (Part 2)

As I park up in Naseby's High Street - which although a pleasant and typical village lane, doesn't look conventionally much like a High Street - a moth flies out of my anorak as I extract it from the car boot. I think to myself that in Roman times this would have been a dire omen for the day's prospects. Just go home now! A man drives past. He's vaping through his chariot's open window. I sniff but detect no unusual whiff upon the balmy air. The giveaway's the wound-down glass. A committee of MPs is suggesting we cut vapers some slack and allow them to indulge themselves inside pubs and railway carriages. Personally I'm dead against having to peer at the world through a haze of peppermint, raspberry, or fennel and wet dog. Imagine having to commute each day with that. And before breakfast!

I'm suffering guilt over my comments about Naseby's church in the previous post. Was it justified? In retrospect I think I was harsh about the church's interior decoration and state of upkeep. But I'm still puzzled by the 'parish share' problem, and by the relation of the battle commemoration to the local parish activity. For a moment I consider borrowing All Saints key a second time, and sitting awhile inside to contemplate these matters, but the lure of the wild's too great, and I press on past the permanently closed Fitzgerald Arms, which I believe once housed a collection of Civil War ephemera, now inaccessible or removed.

As I walk on down the road I wonder again how we Christians can meaningfully but collectively disagree in love, while preserving a measure of unity. Similar dilemmas arise in 'cabinet government' whether at a national level or even say, within a school's governing body. I'm told that in southern Africa, the notion of the 'indaba' allows for the gradual emergence of consensus, at the expense of much
time spent in exhausting debate. As Christians we look for mutual agreement under the guidance of the Holy Spirit in something of the same way. Anglican synods might be one means of providing for this, except we probably skip from one issue to another in too close order, just as the 'pastoral prayers' in church services very often try to cover the whole of the world's news agenda within five minutes: 'And here's another thing, God...'

The other side of the A14 bridge, the white lines disappear from the middle of my road and it becomes a lane again. I'm learning to regard the roads hereabouts as simply paths which happen to have a bit of tarmac laid across them, and to enjoy the slightly more rapid progress they afford. There isn't so much traffic, and very often the drivers who pass are courteous and helpful. I think I notice that more male than female drivers acknowledge me with a friendly wave or greeting when I step onto the kerbside, and I now attempt to deconstruct this perception. It could be diagnostic of my own prejudice, an illusional by-product of the 'male gaze'. It could actually be true, perhaps because women drivers are still sometimes less confident or concentrate more, or are reluctant to swap signals with a man. I don't know.

I pass the farms: Shuckburgh, Wolley's, Red Hill and Sulby Grange, then turn off on the diagonal towards the site of Sulby Abbey, now a Georgian farmhouse constructed partly of the monks' robbed-out stone. The fields are very lumpy and bumpy, perhaps because of house platforms, or quarries, or fish ponds. The abbey was founded in 1155, and the monks belonged to the Premonstratensian order. Actually they weren't monks at all , but 'canons regular' because they went out in their white robes to preach and minister to local villages. I'm still trying to work out exactly what being Premonstratensian meant in practice, but it's something hair-splitting and liturgical. As happened with many religious houses they got themselves into hot water in the century or so before their destruction under Henry in 1538. There was a bit of an alleged problem in 1491, when some of the canons were caught drinking in Welford, and various of them were banished to Alnwick and (poor things!) Shap for incontinence, sexual or alcoholic. It's a safe bet there were no opportunities for incontinence up on the bleak moors. I could start jokes about the sheep looking happier, but that would be vulgar and inappropriate, wouldn't it!

In a field the other side of the Abbey site, the River Avon rises and then meanders towards Welford. I pass through a gate and negotiate my path at maximum distance from a black bull, who has been (deliberately, I presume) separated from his ladies by the waters of the Avon stream. He sees me, lifts himself onto his feet, and then stares me out every inch of the way round the perimeter to the field exit.

I walk up through a pretty set of barn conversions into Welford and find St. Mary's beside what would once have been the middle street of a prosperous little town. Alas Welford has declined, but the church is still fun. Rather high, I guess, from the statue of the Virgin by the pulpit, although of course the dedication of the church is to her, so maybe not...('Hymns Old and New' on the shelves!) The loo is particularly memorable. For one thing it houses the church's safe, a splendidly impregnable article set into the wall, and an unusual juxtaposition. It's lit through some Victorian stained glass, and on the window-sill there's a framed photo of a Roman loo in Philippi, with the thought feelingly appended by the 2005 incumbent that the construction of  that ancient facility required no faculty from the Diocese.

I notice two other things in St. Mary's. The first is a church chest, of the sort I come across relatively often. In Welford it's said that when travellers stayed the night in lodgings, their more precious belongings would be handed to the churchwardens who'd store them safely in the chest until they could be reclaimed the following day. The other thing is that the north chapel is more or less entirely given over to the remembrance of the fallen from the two wars. The significance of this becomes a little heightened over the next hour. One other legend about the church is worth recounting. It's said that there was once a tunnel from St. Mary's to the Abbey. No trace of this has ever been found, remarks the church's descriptive pamphlet. I'm not surprised. It would have been a massive undertaking to dig, the distance between the two buildings being more than half a mile.

I retire to The Wharf in search of a GB. The opportunities for incontinence in Welford are a little reduced these days. I can see there were at least three pubs until recently, but two are closed, one of which looks derelict. Welford is a frontier town. The county boundary with Leicestershire lies just beside The Wharf , and from the way the road dips and bends around its castellations, I fancy there must once have been a toll-gate here. The Welford branch of the Grand Union canal comes to a full stop by the pub car park. The fact that Welford was once thought worthy of its own waterway is yet another sign of the little town's lost status.

There are no women in The Wharf except those behind the bar. I listen to the men banter, and observe the layout and interior decoration of the room around me, comparing it to the church I was in a few minutes ago. In the Baptist chapel of my Erith youth, one of the regular meetings was a one-evening-a-week 'Men's Fireside', which complemented the 'Women's Bright Hour' held each Wednesday afternoon. The male half of our Weston Favell church in 2018 is still invited to 'Men Allowed' for breakfast on occasional Saturday mornings. And so are our traditional and questionable Christian gender patterns preserved - our own mini-reflection of the Jewish and Muslim insistence on 'separate development' for the sexes.

Two problems. One should be the associations of 'separate development' for anyone with anything other than a tin ear, although I know the expression in this instance is mine, and deliberately provocative. The other is to know how we should reflect the desire for all individual groups to find 'safe space' while remaining a ...Jerusalem...builded as a city...that is at unity with itself (Psalm 122, or if you like, C.H.H. Parry's famous anthem: 'I was glad').

I join my old friend,  the Jurassic Way for a hobble around a bit of Sulby Reservoir and a traverse of its dam. I meet a woman walking with her small, yappy dog. She has a narrow boat on the canal. She likes the reservoir and says how lucky we are to have access to such beautiful bodies of water. I agree. She observes that the water level is low. Together we eye up the herd on the far bank, in whose direction she's walking. I check that she's up to speed on 'what to do with your dog around cattle'. She is. I go the opposite way across the fields with the drone of light aircraft in my ears all the way to wonderfully-named Sibbertoft. Husbands Bosworth, just north of the county boundary, was a WW2 airdrome, which as the war dragged on hosted many Polish airmen, and subsequently became a settlement camp for them and their families. The connections continue. In Welford church I'd seen a touching letter to the churchwarden written last May by the daughter of a Polish woman who'd recently passed away. Right to the end of her life she remained fond of this place and the people who'd reached out to her in a time of exile and service.

Climbing a low stile, I'm suddenly struck by the paradox that it's quite likely the very people keenest on preserving our yearly celebration of Remembrance unaltered are also the most passionate supporters of Brexit. At least here in Welford/Sulby/Husbands Bosworth I hope account is taken that we went to war, not only for ourselves, but because we were outraged at the treatment of the Polish nation. And that subsequent to the peace there was a determination such things should never again happen in Europe.

Some parts of previous walks linger in the memory. The approach to Sibbertoft is one. Fifteen years ago I was so hot and thirsty here that I stumbled through the corn of the final field in mild delirium to find solace in the Red Lion pub, liking it so much that I brought the family back for Sunday lunch a week later. Sadly the Red Lion's closed, although there are menus in the window, so maybe it just opens in the evenings these days. The River Welland rises near by and flows east, whereas the Avon flows west to Stratford and beyond, so here I am, right in the middle of England, at the watershed.

                                                                                              The main street in lost Sulby

St. Helen's church is locked. I sit on the bench outside and say a prayer, not much more than a request that God bless the people of the village and those who minister to them, then walk on to encounter Bob and Liz and their little white Hyundai. They're looking for a Naseby battlefield viewpoint the map tells them should be just here, beside the lane. I walk with them a while, and share their puzzlement that no viewpoint's forthcoming, then leave them and retrace steps to my intended route where I find what we were looking for hidden the far side of a hedge. It's not a viewpoint in the conventional sense, just an information board. The only things to be viewed are a few fine horses, some stout fences and a lot of obscuring greenery. Further on, once the bridleway has rejoined the lane up to Naseby village, Liz and Bob pass me again, and I share with them what they've not missed. They offer me a lift up to Cromwell's Monument which I decline, explaining my Rule doesn't permit.

The straight little road suddenly becomes very busy. There are cyclists, and a combine harvester, and a brace of Anglian Water vans. They're looking for a leak, and ask if I've seen one. I haven't. Then a vintage tractor passes me. It's a Fordson Super Major in blue. I'm rapidly becoming a tractor nerd (see previous post).

At the Monument I meet Bob and Liz again. We survey the scene of Broad Moor where (perhaps) the Battle of Naseby was fought. The King's army lost, and Charles' fate was more or less sealed. It was a decisive step on the road to his house arrest, and eventual trial and execution, before England spent a lost decade tasting Republicanism. The sweep of the shallow valley is very suggestive of a field of battle. Today it looks very picturesque with the corn cut and the sun shining. I learn more about Liz and Bob. They're Lancastrians on their way down to Bletchley Park, via Edge Hill and Naseby. I venture the thought that they might be history teachers. Bob says he was. Liz is a Methodist and Bob's a Rotarian. As sometimes happens in these casual meetings we cover a lot of conversational ground in fifteen enjoyable minutes, everything from Rishton Cricket Club to Northampton Council's inadequacies, before they go off to find their gaff for the night at Maidwell's The Stag.

 So, to return to the question I posed in the previous post, is what the three of us have just been doing 'dark tourism'? No, I don't think so. It's very hard to stand by the Cromwell Monument, even on a lovely day, and not be moved by the terrible consequences of the Civil War. Some estimates put the loss of life throughout England from injury or deprivation at as much as a quarter of the population. It was simply a dreadful thing. At Culloden, in a different context, I experienced such a psychic whacking that it's stayed with me through most of a lifetime. And a solo visit to the site of the Jewish ghetto in Lodz one gloomy March morning created a similar unforgettable impression. Perhaps children need to see the First War trenches to get a grip on the awfulness of 1914-18. On the other hand, with apologies to my friend and one-time pupil Tim Perkins, I think the Sealed Knot may not be such a good idea. There's a danger of trivialising the tragedy, as there can sometimes be with 'celebrations' of more recent conflicts. For all the power of a full Albert Hall, the greater the number of people sharing the experience, the greater the risk of a wrong emphasis, it seems to me. The difficulty for Naseby is that it's a place of great importance for English history, but there's little to actually see, so explanation will always remain problematic.

                                                           Naseby:  Broad Moor

Pies in the sky:  19 km. 5.5 hrs. 23 deg. C. Sunny intervals and a cooling intermittent breeze. 8lb pack. 9 stiles. 15 gates. Reports this week cast doubt on the accuracy of Fitbits (which is how I measure my distance travelled). Some say they show too many steps, some that they show too few. Well, go figure! If you're looking for absolute accuracy, forget it, but within acceptable margins, they work very well. I count my steps, then assume a step length of .75 metre for the distance. This probably means I over-estimate, but not by much.

What happened in these fields
What still happens in some places this very day
'Heal your children's warring madness'
The hymn begs
'Blessed are the peacemakers'
Exhorts the Gospel
May I be in their number
In my home
My community
My church
My nation

Thursday, 16 August 2018

1645 And All That (Part 1)

Driving down to Cottesbrooke through Creaton I realise that when I visited St. Michael's ('We the people...' July 20th), I managed to miss the splendid village green. The main street curves round the foot of a verdant amphitheatre below a semicircle of perfect cottages. It would be a glorious place to live, but I doubt we'd ever be able to afford it. Should have stayed in teaching. Or retrained as an accountant. Anything but be a musician and writer. As Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam once nearly sang: 'Look at me, I'm poor but I'm happy...' (Actually, he sang 'old' rather than 'poor' - which is equally true!)

Whatever you do for a living in Cottesbrooke it seems you ride. An elderly lady and a younger companion nod graciously down at me from fourteen hands as I park the car by All Saints. Hard-hatted primary-age children walk purposefully carrying saddles. A svelte late teenager trots by and says a polite hello (which she probably wouldn't if we were both on foot, such are the current anxieties and consequent custom). You can get good, professional riding tuition at Bothy Cottage, and either there or somewhere else close by there's ample encouragement for the disabled to enjoy the view from horseback. As I wander up the road, I'm startled to see the rear of what looks like someone doing a spot of nudist farming. A second glance with readjusted specs disconfirms the impression. In fact he's wearing a pair of ill-advisedly-close-fitting pink shorts.

  At this time of year, God and our farmers make everywhere, and not just the obelisked parkland around Cottesbrooke, seem so tidy. Crops are neatly cut and gathered, or after 2018's prolonged sunny weather, standing proud and uniform awaiting harvesting. That said, here and in other places too, I see many apparently disused and unloved farm buildings. I guess farming is always going to require a midden somewhere on the property, just as a garden needs a rubbish heap, but I expect there are individual differences between landowners. Some of them probably leave discarded dirty underwear on the bedroom floor too. It's The Grundys' approach v. The (eponymous) Archers', for all that Ruth of that ilk habitually intones, 'Woar, David, I'm not havin' you come to the table smellin' like that...'

Over a couple of miles the road to Naseby rises in a series of undulations. Although Cold Ashby is Northamptonshire's highest village, Naseby isn't far behind at 193 metres. Away to the right are 'Purser's Hills'. The internet won't tell me who 'Purser' was, but it looks a pretty spot, and someone up there has a little observatory. The OS suggests there's a museum on the south side of Naseby, but it's no longer there, so I press on to the church (another 'All Saints') assuming I'll find some Civil War stuff inside. The door's locked but a key's available from the well-appointed Village Stores opposite, so I borrow it, and am surprised. The church is scruffy. Petals litter the floor around last Sunday's - or was it the Sunday before that's - flower display. There's a single dog-eared description of All Saints' history on the table by the door. A cursory display of information about the Battle of Naseby is to the north side at the rear beside a couple of ecclesiastical curios, about whose provenance one can learn from the scrawled felt-tip pen and card inscription. Everywhere looks in need of a lick of paint and a buff of polish. And in the porch, I can see that All Saints managed to pay just £5k or 30% of its requested 'Parish Share' in 2017, which for a village of nearly 700 souls seems inadequate and strange. I maybe missing something here, and I don't want to be unkind, but what's the story?

A little subsequent research tells me of a grandiose scheme dating back a few years whereby All Saints would become a 'battlefield visitor centre'. It was hoped that a rather large sum of money would become available to this end. Perhaps it was thought that the Diocese might chip in? At any rate it didn't happen.

Here's what I think, although it's very easy to be critical from the boundary rope.

There's a whole bunch of new housing going up at the gateway to the village in Purlieu Court, Hammonds Mews and Catton Close. These incomers won't give a stuff about recent village politics, but they will need ministry from the Church. I saw a number of telegraph poles with admittedly faded flyers from Thornby's Buddhist Centre attached, but none with a 'wayside pulpit' from the C. of E.. Well we wouldn't, would we, because fly-posting's illegal, but you get my drift... At the moment, even if any new people borrow a key and drop into All Saints, they're not likely to come back, unless the aesthetics of the church belie the warmth of the welcome.

Secondly, evangelism can come from all kinds of different directions. I've spent a great deal of time pushing the idea of 'good' music within the Church, because sometimes people who come to listen or participate stay for the other stuff. So it's a 'yes' from me to food banks, and 'tiny tots' groups and bailing out cost-cutting councils by hosting 'memory cafes', even if we make a loss, providing we all know what we're doing. And so quite possibly it might be a 'yes' to 'battlefield visitor centres' too. But the Church of England is subject to the same financial pressures as everyone else, and priorities have to be set. The population at large sometimes seems to think we mint our own fivers.

Thirdly, if parish shares egregiously fail to be met when they could be, the weight falls on other shoulders. Other churches will be subsidising Naseby, which isn't OK in my book. For instance, Haselbech, just up the road, with a population one seventh of Naseby's managed its full whack at just over £8k. On the other hand, I'm not sure that the Diocese is sufficiently transparent about where our money goes. I expect if this was ever to be read by Bishops or Archdeacons they'd be shouting at the computer in frustration that they're doing their best, but if I don't get it, I won't be alone. My verdict: 'Could do better'.

As an aside, there's been a bit of press comment this week about 'Dark Tourism', by which is meant at its most awful, Chinese tourists taking selfies with a backdrop of Grenfell Tower. Or in watered down version, folks who trot off to Chernobyl or the site of New York's Twin Towers for their holidays. Should Naseby or Culloden come into the same category? I'll come back to this another time, not least because at the time of writing, I can't see the wood for the trees.

I return All Saints' key to Rachel whose bright eyes and smile light up the counter in the Village Stores. We chat about the development of Northamptonshire and our shared fear that the fields and woods we love are destined for a concrete future. She talks with enthusiasm about the views from the Haselbech area cross the vale beyond, and she's spot on. Either side of Haselbech, where St. Michael's church sits calmly between the Hall and the beautiful Old Rectory, the ridgewalk is airily energising. At one point I can see way beyond Northampton itself to the slightly higher ground the far side of Milton Keynes at Great Brickhill, maybe thirty-five miles away.

There's work going on in Haselbech's bell tower, but they don't see me, and I can only hear them. I stay only briefly but this building gives the visitor everything which Naseby denies. The two congregations are yoked in a single benefice with Clipston. I hope they get on.

Rounding the farm at Haselbech Hill, and pushing on to Maidwell Lodge, there are the very first slight intimations of the coming autumn, my third on the Long Walk, the fresh perfume of leaves, woodsmoke in the air, though mixed with an overtone of barbecue charcoal. At one point the countryside reminds me of Somerset, and I'm pitched back nearly fifty years to a Christian houseparty at Crewkerne where I was recruited as a student to do good to a church group from Chatham. One August afternoon I was twinned with a pretty auburn-haired arty girl called Juliet for a treasure hunt through the fields. She was much younger than me, and in subsequent days preferred the company of someone I thought a goofy hobbledehoy. I found this rather wounding, but as Ned Kelly remarked before being shot:  'Such is life...'

At Maidwell, rather dried out by the stiffening warm westerly breeze, I head for The Stag and listen in on the local gossip. On the lane from Haselbech I've been avoiding getting run down by huge combines and their associated machinery, and now the talk is interesting, charming and all of farming matters. It's marvellous drying weather, but the expectation is that yields will be well down because of the drought conditions earlier in the summer. (I'm thinking about the forecast for tomorrow which is for heavy morning rain, and wondering how much it takes to spoil a crop: this must be an annual period of extreme anxiety for arable farmers). These days no one owns their own farms, someone says, they farm on behalf of the landowners. One old boy's just died: the farm has been split between children and grandchildren, and the principal shareholder has sold up and moved on to a smaller acreage over in Cambridgeshire where the land's better. And old Nigel's died too - it's been a funny few weeks - he was the life and soul of the local party, and loved his am dram. A road accident did for him. (I wonder to myself if this could be the same Nigel whose funeral I saw being prepared at Guilsborough (July 20th) and later confirm that this is so - Nigel Townsend, one-time teacher at Spratton Hall school.) Back to the farmer who passed on. Didn't he have eleven tractors? Yes, of various ages, heritage and contemporary. At which point the barman reveals that he's got a tractor too, a Massey 35, and goes backstage to find pictures of the 'before' and 'after' restoration of same to show the assembled company.

I make my visit to St. Mary's Maidwell with the overheard conversation fresh in my mind, The church is locked, and as always in these cases but particularly now, there's a sense of disappointment. Remembering these people before God is so much harder to do sitting on the bench in the churchyard rather than on a pew inside, however placid the early afternoon village. We humans are just funny that way about 'sacred space', and probably always have been.

                                                            Making the ways straight...

I pick up the Macmillan Way which drives almost exactly south-west back towards Cottesbrooke past Blueberry Lodge and Blueberry Grange. I see no blueberries, but I do meet a man walking the opposite way more rapidly than me despite hefting a pack three times the size of mine. I ask him where is he going and yes (thank you, Joni M.) this he told me. He's going to Boston, Lincs (which is where the Macmillan Way starts or ends) rather than Yasgur's Farm and if I understand him correctly he's walked from Chepstow already. I say that I've thought of doing the Macmillan Way myself, but that I looked at the section over the fens and came to the conclusion it was too hardcore for me. Oh, he was born near there, he says, so he won't mind it so much. And when will he arrive? Some time on Sunday, he thinks. So that's more than twenty miles a day, every day, come rain or shine. And tomorrow it will be very wet!

                                                          Stained glass at Haselbech

Bones on the stones:  21 km. 6 hrs. 23 deg. C. Meteorologically a bit of everything: a few early spots of drizzle, but mainly warm sunny periods, until the cloud bunched up. A warm wind gusting 25/30 mph. Swooping swallows much in evidence. Two pairs of kites inspecting me for food potential. Two quasi-stiles (my fault for missing the path near Maidwell) so fences in reality! Five gates. 90% roads and tracks. One squirrel on the wall at St. Mary's.

'Yasgur's Farm' : the site of the 'Woodstock' festival, referenced in Joni Mitchell's song of the same name.

In the week following the dispiriting Ben Stokes trial, and with Sue beginning a church course on peace and justice...

Physically inept
And cowardly though I am
I confess
I've too often been tempted
Towards violence as a solution
When frustrated by
The appearance of evil
The intransigence of incompetence
The sheer bloody-mindedness of events.

In humility I offer the mitigation
Of my upbringing in the aftermath
Of Hitler's war
And the shadow of the death camps.

I pray that you will work
With me
With us
On my soul
On our souls
To shun evil and violence
And promote peace with justice
In our home
In our community
And throughout the world.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

Higher Ground

                                                       Anish Kapoor's take on a steeple

Hassle persuading an electronic mailing to 'send'. Truculence from an older gentleman in a Citroen people carrier who clearly doesn't know the Highway Code or the width of his vehicle. A high-sided van stopped in the daftest, most dangerous place on a West Haddon bend. Grr! But people talk about the 'walking cure', and it's so true. Once parked up in the pastoral idyll of Winwick, the Audi safely stowed by the Victorian post box next to the Hall, I step out along the bridleway towards Elkington, serene, even blissed out, under lightly clouded skies.

The July heat has moderated - there was even some welcome, worthwhile rain over the weekend - but the consequence of that's been an upsurge in the fly population. They're everywhere between the hedges, attacking ears, eyes, hair and arms in search of juicy sweat. Just past Elkington a woman is applying a new anti-fly spray to three pretty ponies. She isn't convinced it's working.

These days Elkington is more or less just the name - the cash-strapped County Council has provided a village sign for travellers as they approach on the not-very-metalled byway. Three or four dwellings, and that's about it. The Plague took toll of the medieval inhabitants such that there was a single-figure population by the early 1400s. After that the village never recovered. There was a church here once, but now no one knows where it is. Elkington parish and its occupants were under the eye of the monks at Pipewell, which is a fair distance away over near Corby. What drew them here? Well, the Romans thought it was a good place to be - there are four separate but perhaps related settlements close by, and on top of neighbouring Honey Hill there are earthworks and traces of an active Mesolithic past. The OS map draws my attention to a 'chalybeate spring' on the edge of the escarpment so maybe folk came to take the waters. The iron salts in such a source have long been thought to promote health. There's a chalybeate spring in Tunbridge Wells' famous 'Pantiles'. The physician of the man who discovered it (the 3rd Baron North) claimed it could 'cure the colic, the melancholy and the vapours; it made the lean fat, the fat lean; it killed flat worms in the belly, loosened the clammy humours of the body, and dried the over-moist brain'. Blimey, rush me some of it! It would appear there's a business opportunity awaiting some budding entrepreneur in Elkington.

I toil up sheep-nibbled Honey Hill and admire the view from its 214 metre summit, which allegedly takes in five counties. That would be Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, Warwickshire, Rutland and...well, Beds, Bucks, Oxfordshire or Lincolnshire I suppose, although all of these seem rather a stretch to me. A legend on a stone overlooking the valley suggests that this was where the Jurassic Way was instituted in 1994 by three chaps one of whom was a Councillor Ray Cross. The inscription tugs at the heartstrings. I have a greatly missed uncle of the same name, but his stamping grounds were Kent and Sussex, not the East Midlands. I'm briefly puzzled because I know I've been here before but have no memory of it, then realise that, silly me, it's because I walked what (in view of NCC's financial difficulties) should perhaps now be called the Borassic Way in the opposite direction.

                                                                    No pasaran...

The village to which I'm heading is Cold Ashby. It's the highest settlement in Northamptonshire at about 656 feet. I guess that makes the lane which approaches it along the ridge the highest road in Northamptonshire. A seventy-something in a Renault Megane coupe and sports shirt is lost. His sat nav tells him the golf club should be where it manifestly isn't. Consulting the OS I try not to be too smug as I correctly re-route him. Nevertheless such is the power of IT that he's clearly dubious about my advice. And yes, cold Ashby golf club is indeed, you've guessed it, the highest golf club in Northamptonshire. However in the absence of a lunchtime-opening pub, it looks as if it might  have offered me some food if I'd been prepared to yomp down the drive to its clubhouse.

I work my way into the village past a clutch of prestige cars which don't quite match the houses outside which they're parked (noted: two Porsches, two Mercedes, an Audi TT and a Lexus all within a hundred metres or so) and locate St. Denys church. In a way the Benefice of which it's part, by calling itself the 'Uplands Benefice' is conforming nicely to the local characterisation. This is clearly the highest group of churches in the county. But only in one sense.

 As you approach St. Denys, the view's dominated by a nineteenth century stone lych-gate. Arcing across it is the message: 'Death is the gate of life'. It amuses me to find that, albeit this may be true, the gate's firmly locked...because this is the approach to the north door, and presumably, unless you're the Devil, you won't be attempting access. The way to the south door is round the side and a little unprepossessing, but I open it and am greeted by a perfume which may be polish or may be floral but which is entirely delightful. There's something very lovely about St. Denys' stripped stone walls, which crowd in and enfold the community of worshippers. A nineteenth century wooden gallery hovers at the back, holding up a little pipe organ and a few chairs. There are beautiful flowers everywhere. Courtesy of Maureen and Mick who arrive to see if they need any further watering, I learn these are the legacy of the weekend Flower Festival. There were 200 in on Saturday, but Sunday's rain reduced the walk-up to 90 or so. By the lectern is a little floral arrangement propped up on a copy of William Boyd's 'Any human heart'.  Remaindered or redundant books end up in many places, usually the tip, but this isn't such a bad end. Or so says this author...

Maureen has Parkinson's and has to think about where her legs will go next. I remember my friends John and Mark who both have the disease, particularly Mark, for whom surgery hasn't worked, and pray that clever doctors and scientists will soon find better solutions for those suffering so much from this debilitating family of illnesses.

I sally on down the road to Thornby where St. Helen's church is locked. It's a small thing, but all that greets the visitor is a tired and dirty, folded over notice on the church gate asking him/her to prevent their mutt from fouling the churchyard...and so I can tell you nothing more about this congregation, other than that there's a Flower Festival here too, later in August and themed around popular musicals. Down the lane from the Red Lion pub opposite St. Helen's is Thornby Hall, currently home to the Nagarjuna Kadampa Meditation Centre. I've looked them up on Wikipedia so I know there's a World Peace Café and I can get coffee and cake between 11 and 3, and perhaps a perspective on 'contemporary Buddhism' at the same time. But things never work out the way you anticipate. A middle-aged chap is doing some general tidy-up gardening down the main drive, and he's agitated. He's come across a poorly bunny, huddled in by the wall in among the leaves. To me the little thing looks on its last legs, and I wonder if it's perhaps a victim of the disease which seems to be affecting the rabbit population at the moment and not, as he surmises, the subject of an attack by malign creature unknown. I offer sympathy but no opinion, and then on arrival at the café find that the bunny's plight has excited general anxiety. They can't dispatch the animal, because of their beliefs (and regular readers of this blog will know I would be unable to do so either), but they're pondering crazy and unworkable fixes, including contacting Pet Rescue in Wellingborough - which is miles away. I offer the thought that making it as comfortable as possible without compromising hygiene is all that can be done. So after my Americano and Lemon Drizzle, I come away having considered an ethical problem with which I identify, but none the wiser about contemporary Buddhism. Oh, except that Michael Jackson and The Beatles ('Love me do') were on the café playlist, and why should I be surprised by that? And that the anticipation and mild pressure/guilt trip laid on visitors and residents alike to attend the one o'clock meditation reminded me of Christian house parties. 'You've just got time to get there, if you really hurry...'

We're better together, we religious folk, we political folk, we human beings, because we're made that way. Of course we need to honour our individualism too, and stand up for what we believe to be right and true, without making our beliefs mandatory on others. It strikes me that very often I'm happier defining myself by what I'm not and labelling others by the traits I dislike, than saying positively what I am and what I stand for. I suppose that if I do the latter I put myself up for criticism, and particularly the charge of hypocrisy. But negative definitions too easily slip into name-calling. Diversity is substituted by divergence.

The path back to Winwick is largely a glorious green lane, rolling up and down past sheep, cattle and arable crops. A couple of posts ago I appended the title Et in Arcadia ego to a winter picture of me walking taken by son Matt. It's what I feel as I walk now. How to describe it? Contentment? A sense of being at home in this environment? A creaturely understanding of myself in relation to God and his creation? And where did this deep inner relaxation come from? Was it my early earthing experience as an only child roaming the woods and heathlands of Kent? Or maybe even some kind of remote folk memory linking me back through the centuries to those who knew only this rural life, and for whom the city was a still-distant dystopian night-sweat?

Yards on the card:  15 km. 23 deg. C. 4.8 hrs. Cloudier in the morning, sunnier in the afternoon. One pub open at lunchtime. Two churches. Five cattle grids. Seven stiles. Twelve gates. Windmills a-whining. One Young Australian (braided hair) and one Young American behind the counter at the Peace Café.

Father God
Thank you.
And thank you.
And thank you.

P.S. Sometimes I read older posts back to myself, and am embarrassed as I read. They're too much a window on the soul. Cut the rhetoric, Vince, and concentrate on the story. This week I'll simply record that Northampton County Council is in dire straits. It may be a 'canary in the mine', and other local authorities may shortly also struggle to make ends meet. Whatever, our Council is in 'special measures' and no one is quite sure whether this is a result of central government retaining power while starving the local level of funds, or whether it's appalling incompetence by those we've elected to be our Councillors. And no one yet knows how deep the cuts will be and where they will fall. I look for patterns, but as one walks through a landscape they're rarely clear. History will lend greater objectivity, just as in a summer as dry as this, the ancient marks of habitation and human activity rise up from beneath the turf to become visible to those who fly above.

'Higher Ground' - from the incomparable Stevie Wonder's album 'Inner Visions'. I always thought that this song marked a Buddhist re-incarnationist phase of his life. But apparently it's a lyric born of a sense of being given a second chance after a near-fatal car accident, a determination to make a better fist of things this time round. The Collect for Grace, says Bishop Feaver, reflects the notion of each day being a Resurrection after the previous night's death.