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.

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