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.



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  2. Hello Vince - We've done a lot of this walk with Thursday Walkers initially taking a similar route from Gt Oxendon, crossing the River Jordan and heading to Dingley skirting the point to point course. We headed from there into Market Harborough and then back along the Brampton Valley Way to Gt Oxendon

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