I've always loved this story from Luke's Book of Acts. An Ethiopian on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (..Is he a Jew?...Or just curious about the Jewish religion?) is sitting in his carriage in the desert, scratching his head over the book of Isaiah. Perhaps he's sheltering from the heat - or wrapped up against the cold! He manages the treasure of his Queen so he's a rich bloke, hence the carriage and the faith tourism. Philip (the deacon and evangelist, not the apostle) pops up from nowhere, and asks him if he understands what he's reading. Now I know the Ethiopian's carriage didn't have windows, but I imagine Philip played by Marty Feldman, the insistent face, suddenly there, banging on the glass, demanding an answer, wanting to do his evangelist thing. This is a two thousand year old story, right? Astonishing!
I'm the Ethiopian, you see. So often these days I find myself reading stuff, and not having a clue what's going on. This week, as the first phase of Brexit, the withdrawal agreement, is paraded before our faces on a 24/7 schedule, I don't know what's up and what's down. More's the point, apparently neither do some of the major players in this ghastly but fascinating Match of the Day. Both David Davis and Jeremy Corbyn have spoken in profoundly logic-defeating ways about the matter during the last twenty-four hours. Philip ( May? Hammond? Any old Philip!)...where art thou?
And as I continue to plod my way around the Diocese, there are many occasions when I come across an artefact or person, and am left in a state of puzzlement. Well, I suppose that's OK. Socrates famously claimed to be the wisest of all people, because at least he acknowledged that he knew nothing.
Chilly and grey the morning as I walk down past Kettering's fire station and Bishop Stopford School. A fire appliance, all blues and twos, tightening of belts and girding of loins, hurtles up towards the town centre. Yellow high-vis jackets loiter at the top of the school drive, hoping there'll be some customers to shepherd into the Saturday morning Craft Fayre (at least they spelt it with a 'C' and not a 'K')
Were you a pupil at this school, you'd find yourself in one of eight 'houses': Canterbury, Durham, Ely, Gloucester, Peterborough, Salisbury, Winchester or York - so it won't surprise the out-of-county reader to learn that BS is an Anglican foundation, or that Stopford himself was a Bishop of Peterborough who graciously consented that the school be named after him at its inception in 1965. That last sentence sounds a bit crabby. In his position I'm sure I'd have had my arm twisted too.
Kettering suddenly opens on to fields just here, but first I have to cross the A14 on a bridge and then navigate a scrubby, nasty path round the back of what was once one of the most celebrated eating places in England. Now it's just another Starbuck's. Not so long ago it was one of the three Little Chef restaurants whose menu and décor were given a makeover by Heston Blumenthal (himself named after a service station on the M4 - only kidding, Hest!) Up to then Little Chef fare was straight out of 1969, when food in roadside cafes was mostly inedible (although didn't you just love their e-number-laden 'Jubilee Pancakes' c. 1977). HB was brought in and zapped the high calories and low nutrition. The star of his new show was definitely the Braised Oxcheeks and Mash. For a couple of years we regularly drove the fifteen miles from home to indulge in this heavenfood while the traffic from Felixstowe to Manchester whizzed by. But it is no more. Only the ubiquitous Starbuck's coffee and muffins remain.
Up the field I see two things I 'read' but fail to understand. The first is a multi-coloured cone by the side of the crop, pictured above. Is it to mark a stash of animal feed, or does it cover stuff to kill weeds? Then on the far side of the adjoining, busy lane, an MOD site, owned by the RAF. It's poorly defended, so what's it for?
There's a hint the sun's coming out to play as, pursued by a dog, I walk up through the rough pasture into the large village of Broughton, which perhaps unfairly I've always thought of as rather untidy and sprawling, but only because I've been passing through on the main road. The area around St. Andrew's church is refined and pretty though, and I sit in the churchyard with a chicken sarnie, viewed suspiciously by a couple using the gate into their back garden. The church is being renovated, and so is closed to all for a few weeks. It has a broach spire. Wikipedia tells me a broach spire starts from a square base and is carried to a tapering octagon by means of triangular faces. Now you know. On the western side of the village I cross the by-pass with difficulty and drop to the stream bridge on the road to Great Cransley. A left turn at the Three Cranes gives me
The OS map is great, but it's not absolutely 100% infallible. Very occasionally odd distances or angles on footpaths surprise one or seem slightly askew. On this occasion my 'Explorer 224' edition must be more than fifteen years old, because it doesn't show Mawsley village at all. Perhaps I should get the OS app...
I keep going south-westwards from Great Cransley along a bridle path to New Lodge Farm. On the way I'm passed by a small boy driving a buggy with his dad and some manure on the back. The family look happy enjoying a little bonding time, and I get a cheery wave.
St. Andrew's Cransley
Beyond the farm I can see the modern houses of Mawsley across the fields and the path begins to veer in unexpected, diverted directions until it emerges at a road near the entrance to the village. The place surprises me. It has the spacious, organised feel of some parts of Milton Keynes. Everywhere seems very well-ordered. The planting is mature. There's a mixture of housing, all of it smart, some of it surprisingly capacious, though there are also rows of two-up two-downs. The architecture nods in the direction of various vernacular styles without being fussy or over-severe. As I lean on the fence beside a recreation space, I say hello to Steve and his two small terriers. I ask him what Mawsley's like as a community, whether it is a community. Steve's enthusiastic. He, his wife and two daughters love it. The kids have been through the village school and thought it a great experience. Some of his friends tell him off when he jokes that they all live in a 'housing estate in the middle of fields', but Mawsley's clearly gradually developing an identity despite not having been provided a pile of amenities at first. Now there's a Community Centre, and some shops, and even a café. Steve's involved in Am Dram, and the same people turn up at most community-related events. But that's the same everywhere, isn't it?
It seems a long old drag up the lane and then back across the fields in the direction of Loddington. After a certain time walking I'm feeling a touch of Jon Pertwee's 'twingeing screws' down both thighs. I hope the pain's referring from my back and not from decaying hips, but at this point in the day my pace and agility are well reduced. I creak into Loddington, and admire the solid polished wood around St. Leonard's porch. I was a Bishop's Visitor to Loddington's Primary School for a while. On its somewhat constrained site on the main street just down from the church and up from the pub it does very well for its hundred or so pupils, dealing with more social deprivation than you'd credit in such a rural place, although sometimes these are kids sent from nearby urban environments to somewhere that might calm them down.
As of quite recently, Bishop's Visitors are no more. It was always hard to recruit new ones, and these days, with the plethora of checks and balances, the various triangulations on performance that are all part of 21st century education, it's been decided BVs have no useful function, quite correctly IMO. Of course if this were to mirror any dilution of the distinctive nature of Church of England schools, it would be a great loss, but as a Church we have to work out whether we're offering a service without reward in our schools, or recommending and representing a particular way of life. Can we do both? I'm not sure I understand the way ahead for this in a multi faith/no faith society.
Minor rant coming...but kind of related to the above. This week Radio 5 had a #sextakeover day, during which any moral position (as opposed to any other kind of position!) your grandma might have taken was routinely tutted over, and the contemporary sexual supermarket repeatedly advertised. I don't think there's the scintilla of awareness at the Beeb that in the way Five Live's presenters talk and react they're projecting the strongest of let-it-all-hang-out moral attitude, rather than maintaining the objectivity they claim to inhabit. It's a mistake from first year undergraduate philosophy, babe. Rant over.
In Thorpe Malsor, down the road from Loddington, it sounds like there's Diwali and Bonfire Night going on at three o'clock in the afternoon. I'm surprised the villagers haven't all got PTSD. It's just the wealthy blowing up a few hundred brace of pheasants for tea. I like pheasant. It's just the evident pleasure in killing I hate. In Netflix' Good Wife a senior lawyer, Diane Lockhart, convinced Democrat and liberal, has a lover/husband who's a gun-toting Republican ballistics expert (you know it's going to end in tears...) The writers elucidate the fascination with firearms very cleverly over many episodes. Eventually they have Diane exclaiming: 'My, don't I look good with a gun...'
So another village, another locked church - All Saints. In this central belt of the county, very few PCCs are prepared to take the risk of being open to all. I stop in the village and look at a strange monument by the side of the road. Is it a seat? Is it a memorial?
There's a Greek inscription which gives God the glory, and there are some dates, but I can't interpret the significance, and unusually nothing on the Web will tell me. Thorpe Malsor was where some of the local ironstone quarrying was undertaken in the mid-twentieth century, supporting the war effort. Seventy years on I daresay one could reconstruct the locations and find superficial evidence of the activity, but generally speaking you'd never know what had taken place. Part of the line of the narrow gauge Kettering Ironstone Railway is still discernible on the map, as is the site of Cohen's breakers' yard near Great Cransley. Woodham Brothers in Barry, South Wales, is celebrated as one of the most ghostly, evocative railway venues. As British Railways disposed of its stock of ageing steam locos in the early sixties, replacing them with the nice, new, clean (!) diesel motive power, they were sent for scrap to various places. Woodham's was the largest, but Cohen's played its part too, down in the dip near the junction of the A43 and the more recent A14 trunk road. I never knew.
The re-entry to Kettering isn't a pleasure. I pick my way through a new housing project where, unlike at Mawsley, there'll be very little landscaping, and absolutely no community infrastructure, the assumption being that the residents will use the town centre. The houses are crammed together, the references to traditional housing styles crude. There are already people in some of them, but the roads aren't finished, and it's clear there isn't enough parking. It's a future slum staring us in the face. I think I do understand this: if an environment is barren and bleak, so will be the minds of the inhabitants. Why are we repeating this mistake? And how can we square my complaint with the need not to build on green field sites all the time?
Christian Sciatica Monitor: 25 km. 7.5 hrs. 9-13 deg C. Light but chilly northerly breeze. 2 stiles. 16 gates. 4 bridges. 2 nurofen. Wrens much in evidence (now the leaves have fallen). One conversation. Four churches (all firmly shut on a Saturday morning/afternoon & no sign of life in or around them).
We're not understood, are we?
Most people out there
Think we're deluded fantasists
Working out our own inadequacies.
Like a friend of mine said the other day
'Why can't people just be nicer to each other?'
So they see there's a problem
They just don't think we have the answer.
Help me to help them understand
And keep me coming back to you
To have my sight checked
To test my assumptions
To acknowledge my faults
And be made whole again.