Saturday, 26 January 2019

Low Gear

The weather is wonderful, absolutely clear, a dusting of white on the green wherever the ground is exposed, laying bare the contours, the temperature hovering around zero but with little wind chill. However the cold's obviously got to my brain. It isn't functioning properly. Before leaving home, I dither, fussing about what to take with me. I dither again at Rothwell, thinking I'll have a coffee at 'Bewiched' on Market Hill, but then ditching the idea when I find the square fully parked. What are so many people doing in the middle of Rothwell at ten o'clock on a Wednesday morning? Perhaps they pack 'em in at Holy Trinity's midweek communion.

A more serious misjudgement further up the A6 at The Hermitage. The back lane to Brampton Ash is covered in black ice, and the Audi slithers uncertainly along it. I quickly realise that for such a narrow thoroughfare it's heavily trafficked: the reinforced but crumbling margins of the road bear testimony to that. And of course though some drivers are perfectly aware of the treacherous conditions, others, oblivious of danger, hustle past, impatient of my wariness.

I park by the entrance to St. Mary's church field. The church's tall spire will be a landmark for most of the day's walk, a significant siting, and although there's no more snow than the heaviest of hoar frosts, it lies thicker here than anywhere else. The tarmac on the little hill down into the valley affords no grip for my boots. I take to the verges as the cars pile past.

Near the 'Red Hovel' (see left) I turn onto the Macmillan Way up towards the woods. In March it will be fifty years since my mum died of breast cancer, an event which has determined more of my life than I admit most of the time. She was nearly twenty winters younger than I am now when she passed away, and how I still regret the time taken from her, despite the would-be-comforting religious clich├ęs, the things she might have done, the denial of her calling to be a teacher, the fact that she never knew her grandson, at least not in this life. We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Or at least, we try to.

At the top of the hill - and there will be eight of them today (OK I know it's not exactly Kanchenjunga, but everybody's got to start somewhere) - the Macmillan crosses the Jurassic Way. I turn prehistorically in the direction of Stoke Albany. And then, gosh darn it, I'm misled by a wonky fingerpost, and track back down the hill way too far, looking for a non-existent gap in the hedge. Hence the second climb of the day, eventually to discover the correct line of the Jurassic by a sheepy field whose occupants look pityingly at me, as sheep in a certain mood will do.

                                                                    Yeah, right!

Once across the new and old A427's, the village of Stoke Albany is pretty and peaceful, with its Middle Lane, Chapel Lane and Bottom Lane. The church of St. Botolph's is set lower even than Bottom Lane, on a little green, the verge opposite covered in snowdrops. I perch on a bench for the first sarni of the day, see a headstone prominently positioned by the church porch in the name of Swingler, and wonder what the story was. (According to the web, there've been Swinglers in the locality since at least 1792!)

Stoke Albany and Wilbarston are so close you can almost reach out from the one to touch the other. The lane goes straight round to Wilbarston's All Saints church, hidden in the trees on a promontory at the village edge. It too is closed for business, but I can see from the notices at the south door that the parish is enthusiastic about conserving their churchyard for the wildlife. Up the other end of the village, there's sometimes been a different sort of wild life. Wilbarston Village Hall, capacity 250/300, ('the village hall that likes to think it's a stadium') acquired a reputation over thirty years for hosting regular concerts by exponents of guitar-driven blues rock. The roll-call of professional artists who came to perform here is impressive, from blues veterans like Walter Trout (great name but is it real?) to proto-heavy metallers like Robin Trower and Pat Travers. The Hamsters were regular visitors too. For twenty-five years they played up and down Britain, sometimes 300 gigs a year, marathon runners of the rock scene, until in 2012 they hung up their Fenders and Gibsons, and so it was farewell to 'Snail's Pace Slim' and the 'Rev. Otis Elevator'. We shall not see their like again. Thankfully for the hearing of Wilbarston residents, the Hall stands a little apart from the housing, looking north towards Leicestershire and Rutland from an apparently lofty position above the valley. The gigs seem to have bitten the dust too, though last year John Otway and Wild Willy Barrett stirred themselves to entertain the troops one evening. If you're unfamiliar with these two eccentric luminaries of English rock n'roll, they're worth checking out. Once heard or seen, not easily forgotten. I earn no advertising revenue from this site!!

I trundle back down the hill past All Saints musing over lack of accessibility, about which I know I habitually moan (I'm on a bad trot here: the last half dozen churches visited have all been shut). My whingeing has a different perspective today though, since I've just learned that St. Peter's, my own church, was broken into in recent days, although it appears nothing of actual or sentimental value was taken. You can't blame PCCs or incumbents for not wanting to take risks with what is precious. The same feelings of violation that apply to us as householders when we're burgled, can hold for congregations, regardless of what is stolen or damaged. On the other hand, if someone wants or needs temporary spiritual sanctuary in a holy place, ringing a keyholder for access may not quite cut it. And anyway not all churches publicly list where a key may be found. Even my intentions as a 'pilgrim' may not match those of the casual tourist. But it also has to be said that each of the four villages I pass through today has a pub, and not one of those is open either - at least at lunchtime!

Below All Saints, Brig Lane curves round in the direction of two-mile distant Ashley. Was the 'Brig' (you'll perhaps remember me encountering something similar near Loddington last autumn) the local clink, or is it a corruption of the little bridge I shortly cross? At the outset of the bridleway I pass a sign I've never seen before, a local council proscription on equestrian traffic because there's a badger sett further along and the track's surface has collapsed. And so it proves. Mr and Mrs Brock and the Brockettes are nowhere in sight, but the evidence of their labour is manifest, although at this point I snort with scepticism as to the difficulty a competent rider might have in navigating the earthworks. 'Bridleway' can mean a number of things, and what I've not factored into my energy output and timing today is that there are a few points when the track just becomes a marked way across a claggy, planted field. Uphill too. The clay just here is very heavy, and carrying a few extra pounds weight on each boot I haul myself to the top of the rise, eventually rewarded with a great view of Ashley village below me.

Hallelujah! St. Mary the Virgin's is open. With its large Hall and substantial buildings the whole of Ashley looks prosperous, and inside its church the considerable style is maintained. The man responsible for that was Sir George Gilbert Scott, the immensely hard-working Victorian architect, and designer of London's Albert Memorial. I'm guessing he may not have handled every one himself, but over 800 buildings lay claim to have been designed or renovated by him. In Ashley he seems to have tidied up all of the previous structure to some degree, but then really let himself go on the chancel, lengthening and heightening it, and commissioning designs for the sumptuous decoration of the walls and ceiling. Rather than me trying to do it justice - go and see for yourself. And let's hope that the churchwardens' enterprise in keeping the place open is encouraged once the benefice has a new incumbent. It may be that the Victorians (Oxford Movement and all that) were trying to 'revive' a High Anglicanism which never existed in the sixteenth century as they believed it did ( a perspective I owe to Diarmaid MacCullough) but the fabric of countless numbers of our church buildings wouldn't be as striking without their input. For all that the nineteenth century aesthetic sometimes fails to match ours, we should be grateful.

                                                      North side of the Chancel: Ashley

It's fascinating to see how at any one time so many parishes are without a priest. Perhaps it's a matter of cash (and the diocese is saving money the longer vacancies run). Perhaps there aren't enough new vocations - and that's certainly true among younger people. At the moment! Whether it's a matter of fashion or 'God's time', such a thing can quickly change. In the meantime the lay people buckle to and mind the homestead, sometimes with distinction and success, sometimes not. Now here's an issue for (principally!) any clergy reading this to consider. As an occupational group, as I know from personal experience, musicians sometimes yield to the feeling that they're 'chosen ones'; that they possess a gift which sets them apart from ordinary folk (perhaps, swapping callings we could label this the 'Mourinho Syndrome' ) It's total tosh, of course. We may be privileged to be able to earn money from a God-given gift, but superior human beings we are not. Sometimes clergy give the unfortunate impression that they feel the same about what they do, that they're separated and special, superior rather than privileged. They may talk the talk that lay people have vocations too (and spiritual gifts - 1 Corinthians and all that), but they seem not to walk the walk, when it comes to the crunch. Is that unfair?

Over more soggy ground and fields of clay, I toil my way to the top of another hill, and then here I am in Sutton Bassett, where on a bend in the main road to Uppingham I find the chapel of All Saints. There's no graveyard, just a tiny green patch with a seat to admire the honey-coloured stone. The the downside. I now have to struggle back up the hill to rejoin the Macmillan Way as it returns to Brampton Ash, this time in company with the Midshires Way. I'm in some discomfort and wonder if my hips are showing age damage. I'm almost immobile at one point on the only moderate upslope. I creak towards the car as the light begins to fade. I've judged it just about OK, but with maybe only ten minutes to spare before dusk properly falls. For the first time in a while I feel vulnerable as I walk. The battery on my phone gave up the ghost at Ashley. I have to pass another badger sett straddling the track towards Brampton, and this time see the danger more clearly. Some of the holes just drop vertically from the path a couple of feet. Carelessness could too easily result in a broken leg or ankle, and what would I do then, space blanket or no, with no means of calling for help?

Anglican Weakly: 21 km. 6.3 hrs. 0-2 degrees C. Unbroken sun throughout. Little in the way of breeze. A tough walk, by my standards. 5 stiles. 17 gates. 1 bridge. 8 hills 4 churches. One open. No one, but no one else out enjoying the countryside - or on the street in the villages.

I'm a token of the type.
So many ways
To enjoy myself.
To find
Personal validation.
So much reluctance
To serve.
Raise up among us
Women and men
With vocations
To make your Kingdom
In this winter world.


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