Monday, 21 January 2019

And it's from the old I travel to the new...

Crisp and clear by the church at Cranford's 'Duck End'. There's a slick of ice on the road where the dustcart manoeuvres and a sprinkling of fairy dust snowflakes on the Jaguar parked by the shadowy wall. Why were the ducks this end of the village and not the other? Cranford takes its name from 'cranes'. So where are the cranes? I want to see some cranes, daddy! Perhaps the ancients meant herons. There are none fishing the river today: it's been too dry.

I open the gate and walk across cropped grass towards the Ise. On the far bank a few Lowry dogs and their owners stud the fields. We cross paths at the footbridge and say hello, and I continue eastwards with the chilly wind at my back into Twywell's 'Hills and Dales' country park. It does nicely as advertised. There are shallow ironstone quarry workings to be explored up and down, and there's a semi-circular railway cutting. A sculpture from the rescued quarried stone confronts me, carved with vaguely runic inscriptions and indentations. Not bothering to extract compass from rucksack I wander about, directionally confused, and on the open heathland of the park have to consult a couple of locals for a heading. Should I believe the fingerposts or not? One of those consulted says I'll find the village more or less whichever way I go. Hmm...

But I do. Twywell's a more-or-less-one-street place. I emerge at the top end and walk down to St. Nicholas' church. I can't get in, and sit in the porch a moment, gazing at the long list of diocesan requests for payment of the parish share going back maybe fifteen years, with the accompanying statements of the percentages actually contributed. It's never been 100% (sometimes v. substantially less), and I wonder why such a litany of failure should be publicly displayed. Is it to shame the parish into doing its bit, or to cock a snook at central authority? If either of these theories seems unlikely, I have to say there's at least one parish of which I'm aware where drastic non-payment seems almost to be worn as a badge of honour. Let's be clear, as politicians say when they most wish to obfuscate, my purpose here is to say we all belong together, so I'm not going to be uber-sympathetic where our fellowship is flagrantly compromised. So there!

Horace Waller was once Rector of Twywell in his declining years towards the end of the nineteenth century. As a younger man he'd travelled widely in Africa as a missionary, and knew Livingstone well, later writing what is said to be an over-generous biography of the better known man. Waller continued to carry the anti-slavery torch at a time when the trade was still flourishing in obscure parts of the continent. Once at Twywell, he seems to have become increasingly prolific as an author. One of his works is entitled: 'Ivory, apes and peacocks: an African contemplation', and another: 'Health hints for Central Africa'. This turned out to be his greatest hit. The book ran to five editions.

I try to walk the pretty way to Slipton, but miss the path, and almost rubbing noses with some alpacas, heave myself over a fence to regain the road at the end of the Twywell houses. Slipton's nobbut a step away, and I arrive in it close to the Samuel Pepys pub. There's a Pepys Cottage opposite, so I'm assuming a village connection to this great observer of seventeenth British (London!) life, though subsequently I haven't found one. Then again, Pepys had a great liking for pubs and coffee-houses, so maybe the name of Slipton's hostelry is in simple homage to that. I look for the tiny village church, St. John the Baptist's, but can't find it until as I retrace my steps along the Sudborough road I see it in a field away to my left. It's a charming, removed setting for a chapel which presumably lost its roofs centuries ago, for now they're flat and there's no tower or spire. In the churchyard I almost literally stumble across the simplest of memorial stones which dates from 1992 and says 'Michael de la Noy: biographer'. Two or three years ago I read his excellent account of Elgar's life (that's Edward the composer, m'dears, and not Dean, the South African cricketer). And his Wikipedia entry triggers the vaguest of teenage memories. As a younger man he was press secretary to the saintly-looking Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, but in 1970 was fired 'after writing an article in support of a bisexual and transvestite colonel, which was seen as too liberal for the Church of England...'. Notwithstanding he went on to write Ramsey's biography too (though perhaps not officially sanctioned?), as well as one of the Queen Mother, and much else besides.

A single, probably juvenile, red kite inspects me curiously as I exit the churchyard. Too big for your lunch, boy! I wish I could say that the onward path to Grafton Underwood is a pleasure but can't really. It makes its way over fields for a couple of miles on the slightest of inclines, crossing numerous drainage ditches on ground of moderate clag. At home we're watching the American version of 'House of Cards', so as I walk, the image of Kevin Spacey as the criminally cynical Francis Underwood floats before my eyes, on his way to the US Presidency. Life imitating art, or the other way round?  Spacey's a wonderful actor, for all that he's done some pretty bad things himself. Allegedly.

Of course much experience is coloured by contrast, and perhaps Grafton is all the more wonderful because the walked approach to it is a bit of a slog. In the early afternoon sunshine it presents as the pluperfect English country settlement, thatched cottages flanking a glistening stream flowing down the main street where ducks swim, feed, and preen themselves. In fact the legend by the speed sign says, with definitive Anglo-Saxon allusion: For duck's sake, slow down!' 

Go back nearly eighty years, and into this charming piece of Olde Englande came the Americans. In 1942 an RAF base just up the road was allocated to the USAF. First came Boston light bombers, and then the heavier, impressive B-17s, and they took off from Grafton to degrade the German facilities in Rouen and the Low Countries. One of the pilots stationed here for a while later flew the mission to Hiroshima which ended Japanese resistance and brought the Second War to a close with a cataclysmic, world-altering nuclear bang. It's now a very quiet January day in this sleepy Northamptonshire village, and I find the thought of these events, so distant and yet so much a part of the mindscape of our generation, intensely moving - the side by side existence of rural tranquillity and cutting-edge military technology, of Northamptonshire burr and variety of American accent, a new world colliding with the old. That 'shock of the new' cliché has been with us ever since, but perhaps in the current political turmoil, as both left and right look back nostalgically, the one to days of Marxist triumphalism, the other to 'true' British independence, we're feeling its real force for the first time. Do we move forward and forget completely what we were before? Or do we assimilate inevitable global change into a pre-existing framework? Are humans changing themselves from Mark 1 to Mark 2 with the advent of social media and AI? The church of St. James the Apostle with its lovely window of remembrance is shut, and sitting on the bench outside I can't focus my thoughts into any kind of prayer. I'm worried for what will be, which as always we little people can do almost nothing to prevent or promote.

                                           Primroses and daffs: Cranford: January 17th

Dairy Express:  16 km. 4.7 hrs. 2-4 deg C. Pretty much cloudless sky throughout. North-west wind dying into the afternoon. 3 stiles. 22 gates. 11 little bridges. Going: tacky after limited precipitation in recent days. But this is still a very dry January after a very mild autumn.


Two stories with countryside interest in The Times these past few days.

1. Lost footpaths. 'Time running out to save lost walks'. In fact there are countless footpaths marked on the nation's OS maps, and as I understand it, there can be no threat to most of these, though perhaps some local authorities are too easily persuaded to allow diversions to suit developers or landowners. And as I've mentioned before (probably too many times!) sometimes ingenuity and a good geographical sense are required to find the route on the ground where fingerposts and stiles have been removed or allowed to fall into terminal disrepair. Those who do this should be sanctioned. It's also true that in some areas of this county, and presumably other counties too, there's a strange and irksome lack of rights-of-way, perhaps due to ancient enclosures or even the Second War. But extracting from the diaries of the great and good anecdotal evidence of rambles which Virginia Woolf or Eric Ravilious may once have enjoyed in their youth, isn't going to get us very far. The answer's simple. Get your boots on, baby, and walk the paths you can see on the map. Go for the low fruit!

2. Pheasants. They're beautiful birds and a glory of our winter countryside. And they're very nice to eat. Which means one way or another they have to be shot. If it's true there's such blood-lust among our feckless rich that birds are massacred for no reason to do with the dinner table, then of course that's a scandal, and those responsible should be ashamed of themselves. But then again, we have to beware of covert lobbying by particular interest groups...

Dear Lord

I had a shock last Sunday.
That woman I used to see
On the pavement by the newsagent's
Next to St. James' church...
She died.
January 2nd.
Didn't want to use the shelters
In central Northampton.
Apparently she didn't feel safe.
I'd said hello
Once or twice.
But that was all.
Never stopped to find out
Why she was there.
She might not have told me.
Might have spent anything I'd given her
So I feel bad.
And angry too,
That our politicians' focus is elsewhere.
'God help the lost and lonely
God help the poor
Cold days and ice nights only
Hard times for sure' (Steve Forbert) 
And dear God, help me to be better
Next time.
(For there will be a next time).

R.I.P. 'Jerica'

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