Monday, 17 September 2018

A Band of Angels coming after me

                                                              All Saints: Brampton Ash
                                                             'Help thou my unbelief...'
                                                             So let's start with an easy one...
                                                             How much of The Creed do you need to believe
                                                             to be a Christian?  This bothers a lot of people.

I used to positively hate the arrival of autumn. My soul would wear black, my body would get sick as I mourned the loss of sun-warmth. These days I'm quicker to see the virtues of the year's final third. I particularly like the lower-angled light for the definition it adds to the contours of landscape and vegetation. Beauty accrues through shadow...

On a sparkling September morning I park near the foot of Great Oxendon's Main Street. Its telephone box may or may not still function as a communication device, but it now contains a few shelves of second hand books for sale or swap. Where I cross, a plastic watering can sits in the middle of the A508. I move it to the grass verge, thinking at first it's a car's lost silencer. A hundred metres down the lane two builders prop on their spades and agree it's a great day to be out and about. The sheep in a scrappy nearby field look unhappy on their poverty pasture: one of them might actually be dead. There's a pleasantly raspy sound from the engine of an approaching car, and I step off the road. An XK140 in smart navy blue accelerates past with a wave. I've always thought Jags of the 50s and 60s a total design classic - curves to match Marilyn's, sweep of bonnet and wheel arch. If I had a million quid spare and to invest, the plot on the right hand side of the lane might be worth a punt: space for two five-bedroomed houses with land a-plenty and a duck-pond for one of them.

I'm on the ridge now with expansive views of chocolate-cake soil and light straw stubble to the north and south. At the end of Long Spinney I turn down the lane towards Braybrooke. There are kennels on my right: I can hear the dogs. As with the sound of a baby crying, repeated barking trips a distress fuse. When my dad took an oil-man's tour to 1958 Iraq, leaving me at home with Mum, a pretty but unbiddable black and white fox terrier was bought as a consolation and to be a nightwatchman. Later, when Dad came home, his work disrupted by a revolution, a regicide and nationalisation of the petroleum asset, we took a holiday and Pedros went into the local kennels for a week. Re-united with us seven days later, the poor animal had lost his voice, completely barked out from incessant vocal competition.

There are some nice houses near the Braybrooke village limit. Anything built before the year 2000 has an open aspect. I can admire the owners' gardens and envy their good fortune. Anything from this millennium is hidden from view, defended by fences, walls and hedges. Is this fortification born of fear, or from a relentless assertion of individualism - I am an island?

Beyond Braybrooke my route follows the path held in common between the Jurassic Way and the Macmillan Way and sometimes the Midshires Way as well ( I-Spy score of at least 30, I reckon). Sometimes it's well waymarked, and sometimes not. It takes in ploughed fields and nettly ginnels, before beginning a lengthy step alongside Hermitage Wood.

What I frequently find difficult about prayer is the vain attempt to clear my mind of the day's clutter. I peer through the mental detritus to the people and causes for which I want to intercede, losing concentration and shape. It can be every bit as good an aid to falling asleep as counting woollies - but I don't think I'm alone in this. Today's baggage includes: (from the drive out to Great Oxendon) dialogues on women's reproductive health and rights broadcast simultaneously on Radios 4 and 5 and (from the Kingsthorpe Waitrose café), The Times' headlines about Justin Welby's speech to the TUC *.  Walking clears the mind wonderfully.

Where I turn north on the bridleway to Brampton Ash, the OS suggests I may be detained and amused by 'The Red Hovel'. Pictures available on the Web suggest this is now just a collection of farm buildings, but since I'm in the vicinity of a 'Hermitage' and Historic England tells me there was once yet another daughter house of Pipewell Abbey close by, I like to think of an ancient and lonely monk praying for the world's redemption from a woodland cell built of red sandstone.

On the lane at the top of the rise into Brampton Ash there's a very obvious worked-out quarry site, but from the village's handsome buildings, I guess the stone it yielded was Northamptonshire yellow sandstone and not the red sort you find in the proper Midlands. The neat church of St. Mary's sits right on the A427 Market Harborough road, so the nice way to reach it is across the lumpy bumpy field. The north door's open because there's a chap on the porch roof doing this and that. He doesn't see me, or pretends not to. His workperson's radio is playing what sounds like 'Radio Leicester, News Talk and Music' Man fell off bicycle in Blaby yesterday etc. He's only the fourth person I've seen since locking the car (the third was walking her dog in the field near the Hovel). I won't see another all day. Where has everyone gone? Has The Rapture occurred and no one told me?

I like the interior of St. Mary's: tidy, well-organised, broad in the nave and intimately arranged for the congregation, not the choir, in the chancel beside the pretty chamber organ, but the chap on the roof is inhibiting me from reading a psalm out loud (why?) I pause, gather myself, and trudge up beside the main road until I come to the straight path across the field to Dingley. These few hundred metres aren't dangerous, just unpleasant, although there's always the thought in the back of the mind that one of the thundering HGVs might lose control on a bend and put a premature end to this blog. Halfway across the field is a surprisingly deep culvert where the trees have recently been burnt out by the landowner ( ash disease?) I shouldn't be surprised by the cut: the Dingley name apparently implies a landscape crossed by ravines.

More recently 'Dingley Dell' has lodged in our pop culture consciousness thanks to Noel Edmonds and Mr. Blobby. Not in yours?  Lucky you. To Dickens' fans it's more properly placed in the fictitious Pickwickian Kentish firmament as one of the village protagonists in a cricket match with 'All Muggleton'. Locally to Market Harborough it's been claimed that since Rockingham Castle is thought to be the inspiration for Bleak House and 'Muggleton' is a characteristic Leicester/Northants border family name, at some point Dickens travelled through Dingley and 'borrowed' it. In real 19C  life the Muggleton family were known for being able to put out a cricket XI of their own, much like the Kingstons in Northampton Tch! These authors! Always on the lookout for unconsidered freebie trifles.

And here's something I didn't know, and you probably don't either. The Muggletonians were a seventeenth century Protestant sect formed by two London tailors who claimed to be the last two prophets mentioned in the Book of Revelation. According to the Wikipedia article, which you now don't need to look up, they avoided all forms of preaching and worship, and met only for 'discussion and socialising'.

  The church of All Saints is at the end of an unadopted lane near the delicious Dingley Hall. now subdivided into private flats. As I walk down there's suddenly one of those half-forgotten, elusive scents from childhood, placing me back in our Bexley garden or on Dartford Heath or I don't know where. I see a blue painted door in the wall, open it and find myself on a yew-bounded path, where to the right hand side there are drifts of the cyclamen which are doing so well this year. At the path's end is a stiff little gate and the well-maintained churchyard. The church is closed, but I sit in the porch and now do read out loud the first verses of Psalm 78:

      ...I will utter dark sayings from of old,
          Things that we have heard and known,
          That our fathers have told us...
       ...The glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
           And the wonders which he has wrought...
       ...That the next generation might know them,
          The children unborn..                                                                     
       ...So that they should set their hope in God,
          But keep his commandments
          And that they should not be like their fathers,
          A stubborn and rebellious generation...

Like my father before me I take comfort in these words, in the congruency of my own hopes and fears with those of the psalmist writing two and a half thousand years previously. I often think that in terms of faith the game's up with our generation and the one which will immediately follow us: we have to trust that like the cyclamen, Christian belief and integrity will be reborn and flower in abundance decades after our death.

                                                             All Saints, Braybrooke

I walk back towards Braybrooke with the pleasant, sun-dappled bowl of the valley to my right. By woodland the lane drops and climbs again quite steeply for these parts (is this the 'Dell'?) - what we might once have labelled a 1 in 7 or 1 in 8 gradient, in the days when motorists needed to know whether their car would manage an ascent without an awkward, heart-stopping, double de-clutch into first gear. On the far side of the main road, a bridleway veers to the right with Braybrooke's spire dead ahead across the Midlands Main Line. At three o' clock in the afternoon the railway's not unduly busy. A seven-car multiple unit streaks north, probably bound for Sheffield. A couple of freight trains rattle by. Next to All Saints' church are the remains of the Manor House, on which a herd of cattle graze, inconveniently, because ideally I'd need to pass right through the middle of them. I avoid the issue and shin over a fence. The church is securely locked, and as far as I can see there's not even anywhere to sit in the churchyard, although there are a couple of benches along the road nearby, next to rubbish bins. I feel excluded, and indulge in an outsider's mental strop, which is mitigated by the sign to Braybrooke's 'River Jordan'. The Baptists were active around here in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. When I was baptised by 'full immersion' in 1967, it was in a neat pool sunk into the floor of the church's sanctuary. I remember that being quite cold enough, thank you, but there were no such luxuries a century or so before, and maybe the little stream - for that's all it is - got its romantic name by association as new converts were dunked in its chilly waters, symbolically dying and rising with Christ.

 I lose my way on the path out of Braybrooke, and lose my hat too. It's been one of those days when one's either too hot or too cold. In taking off my sweatshirt, I must have left my titfer on a bench somewhere. I hope it finds a good home, but I needed a new one anyway - the brim had followed my brain and gone floppy. On the approach to Great Oxendon the sheep still seem unhappy and listless. But rumours of the death of one of their number turn out to have been exaggerated. The rising breeze is pushing the watering can back towards the kerbside with every passing second...

Archbishop Justin's speech to the TUC may or may not have been well-judged - prima facie it was troubling to have news the next day that the Church Commisssioners have invested heavily in Amazon, who were the subject of some criticism by him - although it could be countered that perhaps shareholders are the best-placed to offer advice about the ethics of a company's business practices. And then came the initiative from Frank Field to buy Wonga's debt, in full or part. Be that as it may, my attention was drawn to the Archbishop's assertion that his words were 'political but not party-political'. I think he's right and wrong...though perhaps in any case naïve, because a call for re-unionisation seems pretty party-political at this point in time. However, I'd argue that the Christian agenda is a true Third Way. Our vision of a society under God is a challenge to the orthodoxies of current (or any?) human politics, although superficially it may resemble a left-ish perspective more than one of the right. Tom Wright's book on Paul is rather good in making a similar point about the apostle's view of things in the first century Roman world.

Tenors in the choir:  21 km. 6 hrs. 15 stiles. 22 gates. 2 bridges. 19 deg. C.. Sun with cloud slowly gathering. An intermittent breeze to surprise one in exposed spots. Pigeons: I don't give pigeons a shout-out because they always seem arrogant and lazy to me. This is probably unfair. At any rate there are a lot of them. They are probably among the eventual inheritors of the earth.

When I see something amiss in your Church
Please help me not to be disputatious or divisive.
Give me grace to use the brains you gave me
To draw people together,
And by your Holy Spirit
Pour into my heart love and compassion
For all your struggling children.


Saturday, 8 September 2018

Water to a dry land

                                                     Laden chestnut tree: Maidwell

It's another naught-for-your-comfort morning on the news media, but nevertheless the clocks are striking eleven, not Orwell's thirteen as I park opposite Maidwell's Primary School. (Incidentally, I've learned that writing analysis proves from this first sentence that I'm not the author of the New York Times 'op-ed' about the chaos within Trump's White House: it contains a weighty twenty-seven words and there's no use of the word 'lodestar'. A current conspiracy theory runs that either VP Pence wrote the piece - because the latter expression plus an average sentence length of a crisp 17-18 words are his 'tells' - or it was someone good and sophisticated enough to forge his style. Smoke and mirrors or what!)

It must be a 'training day' at the school. The car park's full, but the building is as quiet as St. Mary, Maidwell's churchyard. The kids are off enjoying last moments of freedom in shopping precincts or playing Fortnite on their computers, unapproved and unsupervised. Meteorologically these are the early days of autumn, and actually that feels right this year, the shifts in the quality of air and colour barely perceptible but there.

In the street I immediately have a thought-provoking conversation with a parishioner accompanying a delightfully sleepy and docile grandchild, still wide-eyed years away from world-worry. We talk about the churches I may visit. Kelmarsh will be a treat, with beautiful Victorian restoration. We agree about the quality and charm of Cottesbrooke. We talk about the fact that so many churches are locked. Locally there've been anxieties about the proximity of the village to the A14, and the 'travellers' who've broken through the metal barriers to camp on the Brampton Valley Way, which will form part of today's expedition. This Maidwellian has valuable, possibly unique, experience of maintaining the structural integrity of churches, and clearly cares deeply about our heritage. The question is raised as to whether PCCs and wardenships should be open to those who are non-communicants. A number of local churches fail to find people willing to be wardens. I struggle to deal properly with the suggestion. I want to reply that faith is the major criterion for these posts, but that complete and utter confessional orthodoxy isn't a requirement, and indeed most of us would fail the test if it were. Nevertheless, there's still something of a gradient from being, say, a 'Friend of St. Boris the Apostle's church' to being one of St. Boris's officers. On the other hand, the churches need all the help they can get. And I'm reminded of my often-voiced thought that sometimes it seems arbitrary whether people define themselves in or out of the Christian 'crew', which is why the Gospels urge us not to be so judgmental. Some express or find faith through action, some through theory. Faith without an element of doubt is mere fanaticism.

The lane peters out in the fields and becomes a green track as it winds down to the Brampton Valley Way, which long-time readers will remember follows the line of the old Northampton to Market Harborough railway. It's now a linear park for walkers, joggers and cyclists with some mini-adventures thrown into the mix for all. After half a mile or so I confront one of them - the Kelmarsh tunnel. This route was once major enough to warrant an up line and a down line. It carried significant volumes of freight until its closure in 1981, and if you look at the angles and links, on to Leicester and beyond, you can  see why this should have been so. Lying in bed in our first little house in Kingsthorpe's Clover Lane, we could hear the two-tone horns of the diesel motive power during the night and early morning. The down line tunnel has been preserved for the use and enjoyment of people like me, but I've foolishly left my torch at home, so having peered through the portal of the 480 metre bore, despite the fact that the tunnel floor seems dry and flat, I opt for the bridleway diversion, which takes me beside the A14 for a short while before hanging a 90 degree turn into a wondrous little pocket park on the 'Midshires Way'. Here there are new plantations of shrubs and trees, and artfully placed seats. The blackberries are done, but the less edible autumn berries are beginning to show in reds, vermilions and purples. At the lane I begin a slog along to Kelmarsh Hall on the main Brixworth road. The tea-room there is decorated in the most tasteful grey and white, and unlike Cottesbrooke, it seems I can get  Earl Grey and tray-bake without having to stump up a full entrance fee to the Big House. So I do, and observe the comings and goings of the other grey-hairs. The conversations are conducted in muted tones today: I fail to pick up any juicy gossip, or cutting-edge political comment.

Predictably, Kelmarsh's church is closed, so I'll have to make do with any pictures I can find on the web later. I can't quite work out the church's dedication, which is ostensibly to St. Denys, but possibly to St. Dionysius, to whom a church is also dedicated in Market Harborough - and surely these two can't be the same person? St. Dionysius was a very Orthodox saint, a writer of tracts about glory and celestial orders, a reputed witness to the death of Jesus' mother Mary, a member of the Athenian Areopagus.

I briefly retrace my steps and then gratefully accept a walkers' tunnel diversion which leads me down through the pretty woodland of New Covert to the Kelmarsh north portal on the Brampton Valley Way. I walk on, untroubled by human company, until the road to Arthingworth. Hereabouts every village has a country estate and/or Hall near its heart. In Arthingworth a handsome, new brick wall surrounds the money and keeps the plebs at bay. I notice a cricket ground is planned within the walls, and wonder if this will be for Arthingworth C.C., or a private John Paul Getty-like club.

Hurrah! A notice welcomes me to St. Andrew's church, and the inside is beautifully tended and preserved. The main body of the building is very narrow, with extra width to the right hand (south) side. There's a prettily decorated reredos, and smartly designed and fashioned stations of the cross adorn the clean and painted walls. It's a relief to find a church open, but oddly, I'm having one of those days of walking emptiness, and don't quite know what to do with the opportunity. As Paul Simon once sang: 'My mind's distracted and diffuse...'

Amongst other stuff, I'm still pondering the implications of two bits of radio I heard yesterday. One was ex-Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks comparing social media comment about young people with the actual views of a group of sixth-formers. They were startlingly intelligent, but nihilistic, and their grasp on the boundaries between 'morality' (with its defining universalisable requirement), and their own 'chosen' path in life, was tenuous. In them post-modernism was writ large.

Then later in the afternoon I caught a conversation between Radio 5's Nihal Arthanayeke and the grime artist Ghetts, now in his thirties after more than a decade in the music business. Ghetts was a bad boy in his teenage years, and in consequence says he understands the attitudes and violence prevalent among the class of urban 2018...the 'young men' as he pointedly refers to them. Ghetts is heavily influenced by his Seventh Day Adventist family upbringing. He prays every morning, but finds it more difficult at night - I guess because of his performer's lifestyle. As I listened in the car, I tried to imitate Ghetts' street-speak, but couldn't get close to combining the vowel quantities. 47 year old Arthanayeke's DJ background came to the fore during the interview, slipping from Radio 5's revised RP into Brixton/Moss Side/Sparkbrook. Where is the Church's connection with this? Is sleepy Arthingworth even in the same universe? There's interesting inter-generational stuff going on here. Arthanayeke's attempt to 'get down with the kids' wasn't much more convincing than the Church of England's. Don't try, bro, is my advice. They won't love you for it.

                                               'Do not play' says the notice on the organ at
                                               St. Andrew's. There's been water damage, but
                                               the rest of the church looks in good order.

Across the fields to Harrington, the fields are bone dry. The temperatures may have dropped here in the Midlands, but there's been very little precipitation. The plates of the soil underfoot are still solid, dusty and cracked. The farmers seem to have left the stubble. They haven't ploughed it in yet. Maybe the ground's too hard, or there'd be a risk of erosion if they did?

Harrington is fascinating. On the slope up to the village is the area known as The Falls, the bones of an extensive garden and ponds once belonging to a lost Great House. The earthworks run across two large fields. I suppose the archaeology's been done, but who knows? Now cows graze where once gracious ladies and their dandified gents strolled...and perhaps before them, in medieval times, monks. Modern Harrington has its delights too: the Tollemarche Arms, and a gin distillery. And St. Peter and St. Paul's, set at the end of the village, looking out to Rothwell one way and a broad uninhabited hillside the other, its autumn churchyard singing in the low dappled sunshine with a profusion of white and purple cyclamen.

After Harrington, an annoyance. Two bridleways which might have carried me across the A14 are closed. I think maybe they never had bridges, and now, quite rightly, it's been deemed unsafe to attempt a crossing of this motorway-grade highway at ground level with or without a horse. However the consequence is a lengthy detour returning me to the Midshires Way Covert. I'm hot, footsore and jaded. And then, halfway down the Park I meet Steve carrying a watering can. He's been tending some newly planted acanthus, and he's a friend of Andrew Presland who bought the strip of land from the Kelmarsh estate and planted the trees and bushes. Wow! We talk on, and it becomes apparent there's a Christian connection. Steve and Andrew are in membership at Whitefriars, Rushden, a 'Fresh Expressions' project worshipping in a school on the housing estates there. Andrew is a Deanery Lay Chair and sits on the C of E's General Synod. The Midshires land is sometimes used as a venue for young people to enjoy some camping fun, and hike the Brampton Valley Way. Church in action. No one to staff the parishes here, but incomers doing a New Thing. Water to a dry land.

Back down on the BVW, I need a pee, but if you'll pardon the expression, there seems to be a steady stream of female joggers, who prevent the access to relief. At the Draughton Crossing I take the lane up to the village. I should have known but didn't: it's pronounced 'Draw-ton'. The rustic little church of St. Catherine's is shut, as I knew it would be - it's after five o'clock now.

Halfway between Draughton and Harrington is the site of the late World War 2 airfield from which amongst other missions, the Americans flew Liberator bombers supporting clandestine SOE operations in occupied Europe. It was chosen because it was such a discreet location. After the war agriculture returned, and then as the Cold War heated up, the airfield was re-activated to host three Thor intermediate ballistic missiles, an outpost of the mother-site at North Luffenham. In time these became obsolete, but some of the structures apparently remain. In 2011 they were given Grade II listings. The Chief Executive of English Heritage said: 'The remains of the Cold War are fading from view faster than those of the World Wars. Our Cold War heritage is a complicated and not always easily loved collection of concrete bunkers and silos. but they are still the castles and forts of the second half of the twentieth century, and we want to ensure that the best examples survive...'

Discuss.  Shiver. Give thanks. Pray for future deliverance.

Birdies on the card:  23 km.  7 hrs. 17-21 deg C. Sun, then cloud. 6 stiles. 20 gates. 4 bridges. one tunnel avoided. 4 churches: one open. Where's the wild life?

Inevitably there may sometimes be unwitting inaccuracies of fact in the various posts, for which I apologise. I'm glad to correct glaring errors. So if you're reading this and any mistakes are shouting at you, please drop me a line at:

If you'd like to know more about me, please visit my website at

Thank you
That if I was making a song about
A Few of my Favourite Things
It would run to the length of
A Mahler Symphony
Or an Elgar Oratorio
Or a triple album by a prog rock band long forgotten.
Countless gifts of love.
Blessings all mine
With ten thousands beside.

Give me grace
To be grateful
But never complacent
But never smug.

Monday, 3 September 2018

O for a thousand tongues to sing...

                                                 Pumpkin and kissing gate: Clipston

A late start after a lengthy phone-spat with E-On.  Grrr! Wow! Splat! Take that, you bounders! It's past mid-day when I leave the car in Sibbertoft's Welland Rise and set out over the fields on the Jurassic Way towards Marston Trussell.

It's a commonplace that we humans often become more negative with age, unless we push back against the habit. By the time we reach retirement most of us have trodden in a lot of disappointment, but was I really so optimistic, so glass-full in my twenties? After my wasted hour with E-On this morning, I confronted the apparent impossibility of getting a doctor's appointment, and surely that wasn't the case a couple of decades ago? And after that came the encounter with the temporarily closed road (which turned out not to be closed) on the approach to Sibbertoft. Health and safety, my Aunt Ada!  I am the living, breathing model of a modern Victor Meldrew.

While I was arguing with young Aaron in the E-On call centre, I shared with him a rare moment of self-awareness - and I'm sure it's totally changed his life - which was that at least in terms of opportunity costs, it was more expensive to stay there moaning at him about E-On's tariffs and arcane, disingenuous billing procedures than accept the small financial loss entailed in letting them have their way.

And why should you care? Well, only that there are a lot of older people like me in the pews of our churches, so we need to take stock. Some of us sit on holy committees, and are elected to our synods. Do you think the young are any less inclined then the old towards theological and liturgical nit-picking, at differentiating their brand of 'faith' and elevating it as the one true religion? Do you see evidence among your congregation of the 'acceptance' supposed to characterise mature old age? And how do you tell that apart from passivity and nay-saying complacence? How do the virtues and vices of senescence balance with youthful activism? 

We oldies have to do better. I once had a much loved t-shirt whose slogan read: Radical thinking has to start somewhere. The late Tony Benn could be an idiot, but to his dying day he never ceased searching for new approaches to problems. How I admire that.

A brisk and chilly breeze propels me towards The Lawn and Berberis Spinney where there's an enclosure raising flocks (herds? scuttles?) of pheasant chicks. I always thought the aroma of pheasant came from its being 'hung', but there's a distinct 'game-iness' on the air in Berberis Spinney.

I leave the Jurassic and strike out north on an unmarked path to Rectory Farm with its satellite businesses, then cross the road with attractive St. Nicholas' church clearly in sight. Marston Trussell sounds like the state of a body after a heavy night out on the ale (I'm feeling ab-so-lute-ly Trusselled). Indeed the village seems to have hosted a beer festival in years past but now I can't even find the pub. From inside the locked church comes a high warbling drone which might be a burglar alarm. Noting the legend in the porch which reads: 'Polite notice. There's no lead on the roof: it's already been stolen', I phone Sharon, one of the keyholders. Apparently what I'm hearing is a bat deterrent.

As opposed to locked church doors, which are a people deterrent.

                                               Market Harborough from the Jurassic Way

I look again at the day's route, which by my feeble standards may be quite lengthy. I'm a bit heavy-legged and a lot of it will be on tarmac. However there's a not-strictly-necessary diversion I really want to make. Near East Farndon Grange I join a bridleway which takes me north then east slowly up a hill towards an airy position overlooking Leicestershire, with Market Harborough in the relative valley below. In a field there's a single outlier stone, a 'glacial erratic'. It shouldn't be here. It's the wrong sort of rock, and it looks very lonely, but it's in a suspiciously conspicuous and convenient place. So do we believe it rolled here from hundreds of miles away in a previous era, as some geologists would suggest? Or was it brought and placed for some forgotten reason? - to signify a meeting place for some lost political or religious purpose. Size-wise we're not talking a second Stonehenge, as you can see, but on a day when all the churches I visit are closed to visitors, this little bit of possible al fresco religion packs a rare awe-inspiring punch. It's called the 'Judith Stone' after Judith of Lens, who was a niece of William the Conqueror. She married Waltheof, and after his death owned lands across a swathe of the South Midlands. What her precise connection to the stone is supposed to be, I can't tell you.

I trudge uphill over a ploughed field whose soil is thankfully still light and friable, rejoining the Jurassic to find a piece of seemingly common land in East Farndon with the tower of St. John the Baptist's in front of me. Even though I can't access any of their insides, all the churches I call on today are very prettily situated. St. John's sits above a handsome church garden with benches. I take a photo of the tower and am appraised suspiciously by a woman leading her daughter on a pony up the path through the churchyard. I want to eat a sarnie there but the midges are biting, so I move on, chicken and mayo in hand.

Now I remember the long curving lane to Great Oxendon. It's warm but not overbearingly sultry today. The last time I walked this way it was sappingly hot, and I was nearing the end of a long ramble with the prospect of a wait for the irregular bus to take me back to Northampton. There was once a Little  Oxendon too, on the edge of the hill to the north, where the golf course is now. The history websites seem to indicate that it's an important place - maybe a relatively complete example of a lost village. The church of St. Helen's, Great Oxendon turns out to be halfway between the two original settlements and not really intimate to Great Oxendon at all, although there's a hardcore path stretching out half a mile from Main Street, so modern villagers can walk to worship without getting their feet wet. Before I join the church path I have to brave a small paddock containing a pretty highland cow sporting an impressive pair of horns. She looks at me, but aside from a single warning shake of the head refrains from putting them to anti-personnel use.

                                                          St. Helen's, Great Oxendon

The church is dedicated to the earlier of the two St. Helens, the one who, after the twelve disciples and the Apostle Paul, could perhaps lay claim to have been the most important person in Christian history, since she was Constantine the Great's mum. Without her, probably no conversion of Rome to the faith, and without that, who knows what might have happened.

In the impressive, solid Manor House next to the Rectory in Great Oxendon's Main Street lives Mike Bairstow who though maybe fifteen years older than me, went to the same school in Eltham, Kent. A tall, genial, convivial man, he played for the Old Boys against the school second eleven when I was its captain. I'd taken a few wickets in the previous seasons but didn't really believe I could bat. In that innings someone turned on the light, and I began to really enjoy being at the crease. Mike bowled me an off-cutter, which struck me painfully on my unprotected left hip bone and went for four byes, credited to me as runs by a myopic (or kindly?) umpire. Later, when his turn came to bat, Mike top-edged a ball higher than most hits I've seen anywhere. The ground was small but the ball was prevented from achieving earth orbit by the top of a street-light in the road outside.

I walk on to Clipston, where I have a small purpose in mind. I recall that a local Kentish Baptist minister called Ken Weller retired here with his wife in the 1970s. They'd formerly been missionaries in India, and a certain distinctive enthusiasm and capacity for organisation transferred with them back to England. There's a substantial Baptist chapel in Clipston and it occurs to me that perhaps they might have been buried there. But first I visit All Saints, which sits at the other end of a village larger than I'd appreciated. In the church porch I see that the Rev. Miranda Hayes has been appointed to both the benefice which includes Clipston and Naseby and the one which comprises Welford and Sibbertoft. This is a big ask, a wide territory to cover. I hope she's going to get some help.

Clipston Baptist is on the fringe of the village, set up above the lane so as to provide the visitor a monumental sight as she approaches it - as one commentator suggests , a place now out of scale with the nearby buildings. In a Sunday Times article, Paul Macartney refers to a drug-induced vision in which he experienced God as a hugely high, towering wall. There's a painting by Piet Mondriaan from his middle period - his religious psychology is interesting - which depicts a massive, vividly coloured church tower rising up phallically before the viewer. I can find no record of the Wellers in the churchyard, but I do see in the chapel porch a memorial stone which tells me that Thomas Jarman, composer of the much loved and sung hymn tune 'Lyngham' worshipped here in the eighteenth century. I'm intrigued and resolve to look him up when I get home.

I walk on, avoiding a field where there are too many cattle gathered across the path I want to use, and climb the busy little lane back to Sibbertoft. About a hundred metres from the car, I come across an old gentleman sitting outside his house on a canvas chair. He's wearing a coat and a hat, even on this warm early evening. He holds in his right hand, as if a sceptre, a long forked walking stick. His clothes are well-used and the garden behind him is not so tidy. But he has twinkly eyes and a lively smile, and it seems he wants to chat, so we do - about not much. At the end, I ask his name. Ken Jarman. Oh, I say, I saw that name on the wall of Clipston Chapel half an hour ago, but you're not related are you? Oh yes I am, he replies. Well, according to my grandfather, anyway. He always said that if we'd had the royalties from Thomas Jarman's music, we'd have been a rich family.

It's been a frustrating day, with the four churches closed. I think back to a song from a musical performed by Twentieth Century, the Cambridge Christian group of which I was once a member. 'You have built walls, and barred your doors securely...' In common with many of that 'Youthquake' generation we were mild iconoclasts, would be Christian flower-children protesting the perceived or actual conservatism of the older war-experienced generations. We also sang Sydney Carter's now largely forgotten 'Bird of Heaven':

Catch the Bird of Heaven/Lock Him in a cage of gold/Look again tomorrow/And He will be gone...
Bell and book and candle/Cannot hold Him anymore/For the Bird is flying/As He did before...

Fly, bird, fly. But how? And when, and where?

Balls in the over: (currently six, although at various times four or eight, and if the English Cricket Board has its daft way, perhaps five or ten, because obviously that's going to bring in a different audience, even if it alienates lifelong supporters of the game...)   22km. 6 hrs. 19 deg C. Sun, cloud and a cool breeze. 24 stiles. 18 gates. 8 bridges. Pheasants. Flocks of starlings on the stubble. Wasps, large, small, British, Foreign!


What's going to be the New Thing?
Do I get to see the Promised Land?
Or is my calling to deal with the Egyptians
Or to wander around pointlessly in the desert?
In which case, help me to do so with skill, energy and wit.
Cunning as a serpent, harmless as a dove.

But when the Moment comes
And your Spirit is released afresh on your people
Give me the grace to recognise it
And not be grouchy
Or obstructive
But to welcome new life and growth.