Wednesday, 28 November 2018

A million small kindnesses

Opposite Loddington church is a finger post and a tiny aperture in the hedge by a drive. Sometimes I'm the walking equivalent of a fundamentalist, so I squeeze through the prickly opening.  A wall blocks the way. I re-route. At the bottom of the short drive by an industrial unit is a neglected stile which leads by muddy descent to one of Messrs. Linnell's ubiquitous field gates. There's renovation going on in the building. A decontamination cabin sits beside its open door. Asbestos? I hold my breath and stumble quickly through the gate and onto the grass on my way to whatever Orton will bring. A hymn tune from yesterday morning's service is running through my head on repeat - 'Coe Fen' to 'How shall I sing thy majesty?' It's not even a tune I particularly like - preferring 'Kingsfold'. I deliberately swap it for something else, but the something else turns out to be a Stuart Townend song which ends with a phrase reminiscent of S Club 7's 'Reach'. This is all so much worse, so I instruct brain to return to 'Coe Fen'. Marching up over pasture under a brittle sky, I have the chance to admire some pretty highland cattle and a flock of curious Christmas turkeys before a black lab sees me off Manor Farm. (I mean the turkeys are curious about me. No reflection on their size, shape or table-worthiness!)

                                        Turkeys - or on second thoughts maybe guinea-fowl?

What I find in Orton is a minor puzzle. There's a church all right, closed and under the care of the Orton Trust, whose moniker is also carved on the door lintel of a dusty hall to one side. But the emblem seems to be Masonic. Surely that can't be right?

A tiny bit right, and yet oh so wrong! The Orton Trust was formed in 1968 and exists to 'maintain and encourage the traditional stonemasonry skills used in the restoration and conservation of historic buildings'. And All Saints, now redundant, has been turned into a workshop and lecture room. How creative. How absolutely perfect!

England's cricketers should be about to beat Sri Lanka for the third time in a month under the sub-continental sun, but the mobile won't co-operate in feeding my news hunger. Sighing, as one does so often these days when technology won't immediately perform a miracle and accede to a pernickety wish, I take the road onwards to Rothwell. Down the hill a black bull is confined in a side field with a single cow. She seems bored. He carries a mournful air. From the look of him he may well have sired the calves up on the Loddington side, and if so should be pleased with his work - a proverbial quiver full of arrows. Can't win every one.

I can't access Rothwell by my chosen path, which would have conveniently taken me under the A14 into town. Earthmovers are still at work around the periphery of what will soon be a new supermarket ( another Lidl? How many more can the world take?), so I have to go the tedious way over the roundabouts, past a freshly crunched Ford Focus. It's the second RTA consequence I've seen this morning. The weather's been blameless: it's just drivers getting used to the November darkness. Is this an argument for or against BST?

I've been known to knock the parochialism of some parts of the county, but OK, it's time for confession. In forty-five years I've only been through Rothwell on a handful of occasions, and stopped off just the once ages ago for a Northampton Chamber Choir concert when the excellent Stephen Meakins was still in his conducting prime. The town is twinned with Droue, which I have to look up - it's in the Loire, not far from Blois, but of course in terms of county commonplace, the only real twinning for Rothwell is with Desborough, a mile or so up the road, as durable a combination as 'fish n'chips' or 'Mick n'Keef'.

The town is sometimes pronounced 'Rowell', to rhyme with 'towel', and you know this by the sign on the pub near the centre on the old A6 coaching route. The church of Holy Trinity is totally splendid. As I walk through the glass doors, a light, bright riot of colour greets me. There's a servery to the left and a comfy, kiddie-friendly area to the right. Four ladies are sharing the dregs of their Monday morning coffee. I say hello and tell them they have a lovely church, with which they agree monosyllabically: they're grooved on their own conversation. For once I don't feel like interrupting them. This isn't a criticism. Knowing what to do with casual visitors who wander into church has occupied thousands of PCC hours. Too much interest can be as bad as too little: sometimes people are just looking for untrammelled peace and quiet. And here the home team have their own business to transact. Human interaction can be so simple, and so endlessly subtle and complex, can't it?

The most singular thing about Rothwell's church is its ossuary, which can only be seen every other Sunday afternoon. I'd assumed I wouldn't get a peek today, and to be honest wasn't entirely sure I wanted to spend time alone with a big pile of bones. There's something terribly atavistic about such a collection - itself perhaps something of a relic of ancestor worship. It's also a 'memento mori', which at my age I really don't need, thank you. As it is, at some point most days I find myself thinking with reluctance of a world without Me. As Shakespeare wrote: 'what's to come is still delay there lies no plenty...then come kiss me sweet and twenty...'

 Up the hill I go, past the 'Faith and Fabric' shop, and the Old Bank which now hosts a Turkish restaurant. I pass two ladies who look dyed-in-the-wool Northamptonshire, but are chatting away in Polish. Near the Eastern European carwash I hang a left round the back of the cricket ground, and wander over fields towards Desborough. For the first time this autumn, my boots properly clag up - and that's before the days of rain we're promised this week as the wind switches to the south-west. The approach to St. Giles is through a long field where hairy horses (which might belong to travellers) graze with fierce concentration, and then up a steep bank into the churchyard. At the north door some ladies are hanging decorations over the porch. They encourage me to go inside, where they tell me there's a cup of tea on offer. I enter, and am amazed. Preparations are in full swing for the church's, for Desborough's 'Christmas Tree Festival'. Alan's in charge today, and he gives me a tour of the building with its moved and preserved rood screen, its nice looking, funkily-piped organ, and its collection of Green Men, all of which this week take second place to a display of over eighty Christmas trees, decorated in various styles, traditional and contemporary. Each one's the work of a different individual or concern in the town, commercial and organisational. Alan tells me this is the oldest Christmas Tree Festival north of Watford, which amuses me. What the Festival does so splendidly is to bring the town together, focused on the church. It gets people inside. It creates opportunities for ministry and care. The locals will be queueing to get in, come Friday evening.

 Going eastwards out of Desborough the skies darken. Eventually I have to admit defeat and raise my umbrella. The lane is busy. I repeatedly hop up the nine inches on to the verge to avoid the oncoming 4x4s while a) not dropping my stick b)not having the brolly turned inside out c)not getting soaked by uncaring motorists. Could be an audition piece for Strictly. It's a relief when the perimeter wall for the Rushton Hall estate begins because there's a thin strip of sidewalk beside it to keep me safe.

Rushton Hall once belonged to the Treshams. They were Catholics, and one of them, Francis, ended up in the Tower of London in 1605 for his role in the Gunpowder Plot. Now it's a top-end hotel/spa, which seems distinctly laisse-majeste. Apparently Dickens was a regular 19C visitor and for Great Expectations 'Haversham Hall', read 'Rushton Hall' or so the story goes. By the road is one of Northamptonshire's defining landmarks, the 'Triangular Lodge' folly. Not only did it feature on the front of one of the OS maps, but it also adorned the cover of  Pevsner's 'Northamptonshire Buildings of England', so you can tell how important it is. The whole building is a religious allegory, and had it been open, I could have paid my money to English Heritage and spent the rest of the afternoon trying to decode the symbolism. It's triangular for Trinitarian reasons, but it doesn't end there. There are inscriptions and mysterious numbers which reveal, for instance, the supposed dates of the Flood, the length of Jesus' and Mary's lives and much else besides.

                                     You'll find much better pictures elsewhere on the Web...

I'm desperate for a drink by the time I reach Rushton, and head for the Thornhill Arms (the Thornhills were later owners of the Hall. It was Clara Thornhill, whom Dickens came to visit.) When I emerge, there's been another shower, and the light on the cricket field behind All Saints is brilliant. You wouldn't need to be Ben Stokes for a good hit down the ground to threaten the church windows. I wonder if a ball has ever been sent through the glass. Sue's old college in Cambridge, Hughes Hall, has a new building contiguous with Fenners' cricket ground such that high netting has had to be installed to ensnare any big hits. The upside is that the Common Room has a peerless view of play. Just a pity there are fewer county matches with fewer stars of the game on show against the undergrads these days.

Local village names persist as family names. Sue and I both taught 'Desboroughs'. Bill Rothwell is a stalwart of our church community, a doughty walker and organiser (though he's an Ulsterman so maybe that's another Rothwell!). And then there's Rosie Rushton journalist, writer of children's books and lay reader at our church. I don't know any Ortons personally, but of course playwright Joe comes to mind, and so does Beth of that ilk, a folktronic singer better known in the US than over here.

There's another lengthy bout of exposed road walking as I approach and pass Glendon. There was a church here once, St. Helen's, and in 2006 Time Team went looking for it, only to conclude that it had disappeared under later revisions to Glendon Hall. Likewise there was once a Rushton St. Peter's, but it too was pulled down at the convenience of the landowners. It seems that past centuries were less sentimental (or superstitious?) about removing redundant places of worship. I turn into Violet Lane, lovely of association, which is now a pair of dead-ends for traffic either side of the A14. By using a path that at one point is intimidatingly close to the onward rushing traffic, I cross under the trunk road, and walk up to Thorpe Malsor past the point the map marked as 'Potted Brig'. (tiled lock-up??)

As I walk into Loddington, a school coach driving furiously along the narrow road misses my head by inches with one of its sticky-out wing mirrors, although I'm walking securely on the thin pavement. Near the pub a man walking his dog smiles and says hello. He lets me past and prevents me from having to step into the lane. We are a royal priesthood, a holy nation, yes we are. And we are here to spread the Good News. But we the Church are also distinct and different in our commitment to do good everywhere we go, each day, 24/7 with a million small acts of kindness. Aren't we?

At Loddington school, the lights shine brightly from inside as twilight falls, and for a few seconds I capture again the magic of approaching Christmas as a child, the hand-numbing cold, the scent of decaying leaves, the foggy drama of December afternoons and trains cancelled, the school carol concert, the mystery of a child born to bring new hope in the fading of the year.

Cathartic Herald:  21 km. 6 hrs. 2 stiles. 17 gates. 2 bridges. 2 showers of blessing. Bird of the week: Blue Tit. 6 deg C. A very light, easterly breeze.

Look, I know you're not idiots. You're reading this for a start. But if you've got eyes as bad as mine, try clicking on the photographs, if you want to see more detail...

I read the inscription
On that strange ancient building
'Consideravi opera tua, Domine, et expavi...
I thought about all you have done, Lord,
And I was terrified...
Because maybe I haven't been a good steward
Maybe I've contributed to spoiling your creation
Maybe I've failed to use my talents
Maybe I've chosen to be
Careless like the bus-driver
Rather than kind
Like the dog-walker.
Make me a clean heart, O God
And renew a right spirit within me.

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