Saturday, 27 October 2018

Holiday! Cornish Interlude

                      I think you can probably tell we're not in Northamptonshire this week....


The ferry that takes us from Padstow across the Camel estuary to the straggly village of Rock is built like a mini WW2 landing craft with a cabin stuck on the rear end, a roll on-roll off for pedestrian tourists who've eaten too much at one of Rick Stein's many foodie outlets. I don't much care for watery excursions, but on a bright and shining October day, I like this a lot.

From the slipway we walk along the curving beach and then clamber into the dunes, but can't see the path we want near the pretty house where the mounds of sand and grass briefly become proper cliffs at Brea Hill. We ask the way of two teenage girls, apparently straight off the Doc Martin set, though evidently less dippy than their TV counterparts. They suggest we follow them if we don't want to try the steep descent on the far side of the Hill, but they're too fleet of foot; in a very few moments they've left our careful treading of the narrow path well behind. At Daymer Bay, Gresham School Holt's First Fifteen are improving their fitness by enthusiastically running up and down the dunes. An Israeli once told me that's how their defence forces train too, although I expect they do it in 37 rather than 17 degree heat.

After a false start we find the right track up towards the golf course, and there's the church with its odd stumpy little steeple, nestled down among the undulations, St. Enodoc's, the talisman of John Betjeman's childhood and his final resting place. His mum's buried there too, and there's a memorial to his father on the south wall, the plate spelling the family name with the extra terminal 'n' which they later discarded to protect themselves as the twentieth century became politically complicated.

I love Betjeman's writing and his melancholic delivery to camera in those period piece documentaries, all now so anachronistic, the rhyming patterns and the slow, careful pace. I read 'Summoned By Bells' when I was eleven years old, and still think it a masterpiece. He searched for faith to the end, pushing his way through obscuring curtains of doubt, sustained by the beauty of the natural world, and God's gifts of creativity to humanity in word and physical form. Much is made of the quality of light down the coast at St. Ives, where artists past and present gather, but it's pretty special around the Camel Estuary too, as the sun-coloured sand surfaces into a caerulean sea and the foamy Dulux surf, a far cry from Metroland and Northampton.

There's nothing within fifty miles of the Nene much like St. Enodoc's tiny church with its low-vaulted roof and offset bell tower. There was a fishing village here once, and the church guide book tells us there's a tradition that where a Cornish church has a spire, it's built on a heathen burial ground. But eventually the shifting sands couldn't be denied, and the church had to be rescued from them in the nineteenth century. At one time, the vicar had to gain entry by a trap door set in the roof. A friend tells me that according to the archaeologists, a Roman settlement in Alderney was abandoned for similar reasons.

Impermanence is built into history. Physics tells us so. We Christians assert the unchanging-ness of God as a comforting antidote (tho' why do we believe this, rather than a God who is master of flux?) because I suppose 'change and decay in all around (we) see...'  The loss of any current circumstance is disconcerting, reminding us of our mortality and impending loss of faculty and agency. Is the Brexit phenomenon a secular by-product of these fears?

St. Enodoc's antecedents are obscure. It seems he may have been a son of the Welsh king who gave his name to Breconshire. In the times before Aelfred, England (let alone the 'United Kingdom') was a collection of warring states and tribes between whom conflict was probably endemic. The following view will seem extreme and dubious to many readers, but I sometimes think Brexiteers may be unwittingly pushing us towards an analogous contemporary situation rather than (as they would have us think) re-establishing a single nation standing proudly in resistance to alien cultures.

The most permanent feature of life I'm capable of grasping, is the requirement on all humans to yield to the law of love as best described by Jesus of Nazareth. In my limited slice of space/time, that's quite enough of a challenge.

We pull ourselves away, and avoiding the golfers who co-exist uneasily with the rights of way winding across their fairways, stroll back to The Mariners in Rock for ginger beers and shandies. In one corner hangs a telly with coverage of a 20/20 cricket match from the Indian Premier League. In the other an identical screen gives us Charlton v. Millwall. Mysterious Cornwall always was a place unto itself, but these days you can't keep the world out. What role is there for sport in drawing Britain (and the World) together politically? Or for the Church of England?


This is possibly my favourite walk of all, a hug from a long-absent, much loved friend.

The road from Wadebridge towards Padstow, busy, walled and narrow, drops into a ravine at Little Petherick. On the one side of the stream lies the Village Hall and the dark church of St. Petroc Minor. On the other is the lovely house where once upon several times we happily holidayed. We park by the hall. A Zumba class is grinding away as we don boots and anoraks. Sweaty bodies are on show through the open door. The tides are a consideration for this walk. The Wadebridge side of the path along the creek can be impassable at the highest tides: there's always a little squelchiness even when the water's low. Through the five bar gate, cows used to graze the grassy bank on the right, but it doesn't look as if they've been there in a while. We skirt the fields and then come to a wood and stone stile by the plantation we remember from its very early days. Now there's dense undergrowth and the trees are pleasingly mature. The path drops down to the margin of the creek, and we look across the ripples of chocolatey mud, glistening in the sun, to the slit trench of grey water. A single snowy-white egret hears us and takes flight to a new pitch further down. There's not a sound apart from the wind and the calls of the wading birds, their plangent cries bouncing off the wooded hillside. By Seamills the slow reveal of the creek's exit into the Camel Estuary becomes complete, broken only by the arches of the old railway line. We round the low shale cliff with its ancient iron moorings and enjoy again the low slung Georgian houses with their splendid views to the sparkling open water beyond. We speculate again as to whether we'd buy one, if we had the money. Too vulnerable to flooding for someone as cautious as me! Further round is a more modern house where a wooden causeway crosses a little bay. It's being further updated with one of those glass fronted balconies which are so fashionable at present. The workmen whistle along to Radio 2: they're enjoying their labour in such a beautiful setting and under such gorgeous weather: it'll all be done and dusted in a couple of weeks. We climb through the field to Tregonce, and then drop down to the cyclists' and walkers' 'Camel Trail', which follows the old branch line. What romance it must have been to decant from the London train at Wadebridge, and puff along the seven miles of single track to the terminus next to the harbour, almost in the heart of Padstow. Real Famous Five stuff! B&B for the more budgetarily constrained, The Metropole for the toffs. Some of the station buildings survive, but now just there, opposite the Lobster Hatchery, it's car park city, though amongst a plethora of foodie delights, The Metropole's still available for cocktails if you've got the yen and the cash.

Up in town is the gracious parish church, like Petherick's dedicated to St. Petroc - the town's name is derived from him too: 'Petroc-stow'. He founded a monastery here in the sixth century, and a second one in Bodmin, and has come to be seen as one of Cornwall's patron saints, although he seems to have wandered across a selection of 'Celtic' lands during the course of his life. From the accommodating harbour at Padstow, a long distance footpath known as 'The Saints Way' lollops across the peninsula to Fowey in the south. It marks a convenience of ancient days in avoiding the extra sea miles round Land's End for travellers perhaps en route from Ireland or Wales to Brittany, and we follow it down the lane out of town and up steep Dennis Hill to the Victorian Jubilee obelisk which overlooks the Camel Estuary, the creek and the exit to the sea, flanked by the sharp, dramatic line of Pentire beyond Polzeath. For me it's a place of pilgrimage in its own right.

The Saints Way switch-backs from there onwards along field margins, across causeways, through ancient woods, with views of the creek, now from ground level, now from the balcony of the path, and finally descends to the car park at Little Petherick again. I once found a fatally wounded crow at its highest point, and could do nothing for the poor bird, but commemorate it in a sad chorus. The beauty of places like this can make the heart sing or reduce one to tears, and which will happen on any given day, it's impossible to know.

In a world shot full of tragedy and pain
In the presence of such unutterable wonders
I find myself saying
As I have said before
'It can never be so good again'.
Thank you
For times of holiday and recreation.
Help me feed off this experience
To tackle the rest of life
With courage and creativity.

Sunday, 7 October 2018


                                                    Yelden (Yielden) church: Bedfordshire

I once got caught at a posh dinner between two biochemist Munro baggers (male). It wasn't a very entertaining evening and that, folks, is an example of the classic English understatement. Why are we men apparently the gender most likely to collect obsessively and be completist about it? I own the tendency. I was a teenage trainspotter. I am a hoarding philatelist. I do have an unhealthily in-depth knowledge of cricket stats. Most women I know do not indulge such whims, or maybe if they do, they sensibly keep quiet about it.

Relations between men and women have been much in the news again this past fortnight. One sleepless night I found myself transfixed by CNN's coverage of Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh's testimonies to the Senate sub-committee. Some problems that arise between the sexes may be a matter of body chemistry ( as well as dodgy morality!) But where does the apparent difference in obsessiveness come from. It may be socially acquired, but why? If it isn't, what are its origins and seat?

All of which brings us to the matter of Newton Bromswold. Somehow I managed to avoid going there when I was in the vicinity of Rushden a year ago, but today it's in my sights as a single target, because the point of this project is to visit every church in the Diocese of Peterborough, right? This is a completist initiative, every bit as much as the Munro-baggers' self-imposed task, and here I am writing at you about it! Aaaargh! Freud famously asserted that no mistake or omission is ever unintentional. So what's with my previous denial of Newton Bromswold?

I park near the Baptist church in Rushden and stroll down through the back streets to the Wymington turn. Say what you like about Rushden, but at least there's a mighty strong Christian presence at this end of town. No more than a hundred metres from the Baptist Chapel (itself not a small building) is the imposing pile of the Heritage Chapel and Halls. This looks a very interesting proposition. Formerly a Methodist church it's now an 'Independent Non-Denominational Christian Church serving the local community', and from the weekly activities listed, it's clearly practising what it says on the tin. As I pass, a disabled young person is being assisted from a car and welcomed inside by a worker. The church's website commends itself to me by mentioning that the author H.E.Bates was  born close by and baptised here. There are descriptions of the collection of First War-inspired artworks by John Frederick Black which it holds. Moving on a few hundred metres further, I come to the Full Gospel Church, whose own website amuses me just a little by showing a graphic of a 'Help' message in a bottle on its 'Home' page. I know what they mean, but there've been plenty of times that's been my sentiment while actually sitting in a pew and being 'ministered to' from the pulpit - though not in east Rushden.

I don't want to make my walk to Newton Bromswold a simple out-and-back affair, so most of today will be spent in the diocese of St. Albans. Up the road out of Rushden, I pass the sign that tells me I'm in Bedfordshire. Climbing the little (wooden) hill to Bedfordshire was a childhood evening mantra, but still, topographically speaking, it feels a bit weird to ascend to this new, flat county. A path by fields is a more pleasant alternative to the suburban road but a few steps along it my Merrills slip on a tree root and I fall, rolling onto my left side, clunking my shoulder on the bone-dry ground and grazing my knees to a soundtrack of oath and imprecation. However no one but me is scandalized by this literal and metaphorical tumble from grace, and (check) my phone is undamaged and (check) my camera is intact, so I limp on until I meet a lady picking sloes from the hedgerow. They're better after a frost or two, she says. You put them in gin, I ask? She doesn't exactly make a sign of the cross but replies, rather judgmentally, that she doesn't touch alcohol. I'm thinking Full Gospel or maybe Unreformed Methodist. What she does is to make up a syrup and add it to lemonade as a sort of squash. Alternatively she pours the syrup on ice cream. Remembering a mouth-shrinking sloe mousse served to us by a friend long ago, I observe that it must take a lot of sugar. She admits that this wayside fruit is an acquired taste.

 St. Lawrence's Wymington, all clean stonework, turret and tower, isn't quite shut. A man and (perhaps) his father are just exiting from the priest's door, but I don't like to detain them, so merely say hello and pause for a few moments. Up the road I pass the sign to Wymington Chapel and Meeting Place - a mini conference centre - but the 'Meeting Place' idea triggers thoughts of Bunyan and Bedford, and I'm struck by how just a couple of miles out of Rushden and the world seems different.

The kids in the village school call out to me in friendly fashion, but times being what they are, I ignore their greetings lest I be reported as a funny man showing inappropriate interest (well, I do look, shall we say, casual). A woman in a high-vis jacket is spearing litter in the street by the New Inn. I say, probably rather patronisingly, that she's doing a fine job. She says ruefully that it's a thankless task. I reply as graciously as I can that she has my thanks anyway. She thanks me for thanking her. A blue plaque on the wall opposite St. Lawrence's commemorates Jean Overton Fuller, a biographer whose most celebrated work tells the story of WW2 betrayed SOE agent Noor Inayat Khan. Fuller also came up with the notion that the painter Walter Sickert may have been Jack the Ripper, a theory not widely accepted, even if some of Sickert's work is a touch on the lurid side.

Turning off the road by a waste disposal plant, a young guy, also in a high-vis, but this time officially employed by the environmental services and not a volunteer, sees me consulting my map, and asks where I'm headed. I try to explain, sounding like I'm doing Samuel Beckett, that I'm going to Newton Bromswold. Oh, you want to go that way he says (as opposed to the way I'm actually going). He looks puzzled at the notion of a circular walk for pleasure, but I think he's got it by the end of the conversation. Newton Bromswold's on his itinerary too, so I'll probably see him there. From over the fields comes an intermittent ear-splitting dragon's roar. I'm near Santa Pod, the drag-racing facility behind the village of Podington, where improbable looking cars light up their engines for a few fiery seconds to accelerate to two hundred miles an hour. As with Towcester race course (for which I may now be too late) I've never been to this celebrated local sporting venue, and watching it on telly, I'm not particularly drawn, though I have a penchant for the first few minutes of each Sunday lunchtime Grand Prix...but perhaps the latter's just chauvinism, Lewis Hamilton and all. Probably if someone gave me free tickets, I'd get hooked on Pod-ing and would be able to discuss the intricacies of fuel mixtures and drag coefficients with the best of them, though I think I value my ears too much.

A grey heron, which seems not to mind the engine noise, still has hearing acute enough to register my presence and flaps away from the lake-sized pond in front of North Lodge. I reach the crosspath which is the Three Shires Way and join it. In a few metres a notice tells me that if I want to go the other way, towards Odell, the path under the railway won't be available for the next six months, so hard luck, mate. This is uber-annoying Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy 'planning department in Alpha Centauri' kind of stuff . The notice quotes unsupplied maps allegedly showing the diversion and all kinds of footpath numbers no OS map shows. What's a walker supposed to do? How would she or he know of this potential hindrance to their day's enjoyment?

Over the A6, the path skirts a new biogen plant and some nice woodland. I'm welcomed to Manor Farm and invited to keep to the waymarked paths. The waymarks promptly disappear, and the faintest imprints on the soil lead me in the right direction towards the Knotting road by walker's instinct. There's nothing to Knotting, except the tiny church dedicated to St. Margaret of Antioch. It's cared for by the Historic Churches Conservation Trust, and truly it's a little marvel, the kind of place you have to tear yourself away from because it radiates such holy charm. It could never remain viable of course, because the people living in the parish now number less than fifty. But how grateful we should be that it survives to be enjoyed, open still as a beautiful house of prayer for the few like me who drop by. There are two boards in the porch, which together make me nostalgically sad. The first records the gradual rationalisation over twenty years of the local parishes into benefices, to the point at which Knotting became 'redundant'. The other records the rectors of the place back into the thirteenth century. Yes, of course this speaks to a history of wealth and established power in the English Church, and also to a pattern of employment for privileged families, but it also tells a tale of decline and failure which is painful to those of us now of retirement age. We don't want to go to our graves believing we've closed things down and watched valued institutions wither. We'd rather leave a thriving, dynamic exciting heritage of faith without recourse to fashionable extremism. Question: how do we achieve this?

  You want to know about Newton Bromswold, I know you do, so although the next leg of today's walk is perfectly pleasant, and the village of Yelden pretty (and served by an excellent guide, priced £2.50, available from St. Mary's church) I won't hold you up with tales of its castle or its wold.

It's a bit of a slog up the road from Yelden back into Northamptonshire and towards Newton. St. Peter's is up behind the pub along a tree-lined lane by a horsey field. In the churchyard I find Verdon Pope and his friend Bob who've come with Bob's daughter to tidy things up a bit. Verdon is 86 but looks ten years younger. He was named after the First War battle, although they got the spelling wrong, so he's now known as 'Vern'. Vern has cycled to St. Peter's, as he does regularly, although he says he's not really one for churchgoing. He takes me round the church and does a good job as a guide, making up in hospitality and welcome what's perhaps lacking a little in detailed knowledge. We share a cheery ten minutes. I admire the high and lifted-up organ
and the tapestry of the Last Supper. There was a Harvest Supper

here a week ago. In the summer there's a festival (patronal?) and Handel is played on the organ with the Rushden Band in attendance. Vern was born in Acton and went to the Grammar School there in its heyday. His parents brought him back to West London during the Blitz (not an uncommon, though counter-intuitive thing) and he remembers walking from school past the still-smouldering wrecks of buildings. I tell him that I work in Acton quite frequently. We agree it must have changed a great deal.

The word 'Bromswold' is said to be a corruption or version of 'Bruneswald'. Frank Stenton wrote a former generation's standard work on Anglo-Saxon England in which he has the 'Forest of Bruneswald' stretching from just south of Lincoln down across Northamptonshire and into Bedfordshire. Personally I have a few doubts about this, which might be the splitting of hairs over what constitutes a 'forest', and might generalise into discussion about human fertility and exactly how many people lived in pre-Conquest Britain. Anyway, legend has it that Hereward ('the Wake'), having looted the plate from what was to become Peterborough Cathedral, eluded his foes by retreating into the fastnesses of Bruneswald Forest. Sounding rather like a Welsh footballer, there's also a Leighton Bromswold not so far away, in West Cambridgeshire.

                                                           Chancel arch: Knotting

Sometimes a single event can almost come to define a small place: the most exciting or tragic thing ever to happen there. Both Newton Bromswold and Yelden are adjacent to the wartime airfield at Chelveston, later adapted to the needs of the USAF's strategic bombing capability. In 1943, two B-17 bombers returning from a training mission collided mid-air over Newton Bromswold. Both crews of ten young men were killed. Ghost stories hang in the mist around the crossroads just outside the village. And there were a further twenty-one deaths when a similar plane crashed on take-off and ploughed into an RAF billet at Yelden. The plane slid on into a farmhouse near the church, killing two children. The village school was badly damaged, and it's said that the school clock stopped at the exact time of the crash, shortly after midnight on March 24th 1944. Nowadays an incident of this sort would lead to calls for a public enquiry, and assurances that such a thing could never again occur.

21 km. 6.5 hrs. 19 deg. C. Warm with hazy sunshine. 2 stiles. 8 gates. 8 field bridges.

Dear Lord and Father
Tomorrow we shall hold another Harvest service.
I thank you
For John Arlott
Who wrote the hymn
'God whose farm is all creation'.
Thank you for what he gave me
As he gave others...
A love of the English countryside
And of the English Game of cricket.

Father, in him
I sense a Poet of Doubt
Called to write his faith
(Or the lack of it)
To meet the needs of the day.
May we all grow in grace
As through prayer
Through discussion
Through our music
And through all our written and spoken words
We struggle to meet you
And express our love and thankfulness.

John Arlott (1914-1991) was the doyen of radio cricket commentators, but he was much more than that. He was once a policeman, and was recruited after the war to be a BBC poetry producer. Various celebrated poets were asked to contribute hymns to the BBC hymnbook ( think of that!) in the early fifties, but their submissions failed to make the grade. Arlott wrote four lyrics around the theme of the changing seasons. Three were published, and 'God whose farm' is the one which has stuck.