From the bridge at Geddington
CSNY on the car stereo chirping charming, hippy nonsense about Guinevere and the delights of Marrakesh as I thrum past the Samuel Palmer landscape of a sunlit Boughton House. I park near the Ise ford in Geddington, and because the morning’s so nice, turn down the chance for coffee and cake at the village café. In Wood Street a cheerful postie is on the last couple of hours of her daily stint. She’s been treading tarmac since half past six. She doesn’t mind the early start, particularly on an energising spring day like today, even though the breeze is brisk, and she’ll be walking this way with her dogs later on, as if she hasn’t worn out enough shoe leather already. Where the tracks divide I find the Old Brickyard community garden and its totem pole. Geddington’s primary school is just back down the lane: the kids clearly use this opportunity well.
I know villages have their faults. There’ll always be backbiting and gossip and petty squabbles. But at their best they provide wonderfully safe, varied and nurturing possibilities for all their residents. It would perhaps be cost-effective in the long run (less crime, less mental illness) if modern housing developments used them as a model. ‘Joined-up thinking’ has dropped out of our current cliché-bank, but the tensions between developers and government, and the necessity of immediate profit margin mean urban villages will rarely materialise, more’s the pity.
It’s the fourth Spring of my Walk, and 1000 days since the country made its fateful but perhaps not yet final decision to part company with Europe. Three years can pass in a flash, at least when you’re the wrong side of sixty. The span of human history begins to carry a different meaning, and one begins to marvel at the shortness of time since the first motor car appeared, or a King of England was deposed in favour of a Commonwealth, or Normans underlined their power with a wave of new and larger churchbuilding. Assuming that Jesus’ death and resurrection occurred somewhere around AD 32, will the Church celebrate 2000 years since those events? And how? Is anyone in this post-Christian world giving any thought to the matter?
The stony, easy-walking track leads up towards Brigstock between Geddington Chase on the left and Bright Trees Wood on the right. It’s pretty dry underfoot now, after the abrasive winds of a week or so ago. Precipitation amounts have been annoying rather than functional in the East Midlands. There’s a fuzz of green on the bushes and trees, but the birdsong is sparse. Joyously, it wasn’t so at a quarter past five the other morning. I like to think that the first thing birds do when they wake is praise their Maker with an ornithological Morning Prayer. Why else would they so expand their communication during the morning peak hour?
Forest management: Geddington Chase
A different and harsher kind of music assails my ears from the top of the rise. As I come up to the crest, a Darth Veda helmet appears above the silhouette of a trials bike. The rider appraises me anxiously as I walk towards him, but as far as I know he and his mate aren’t doing anything wrong. This is a byway, and surely there are no restrictions as to who does what on it? It’s just that they’re, grrr, spoiling my quiet Monday morning walk with their noisome row. They stand aside respectfully as I pass, we say hello, and then they continue their bikers’ yarns in…Polish or Russian or Lithuanian? But here’s the thing. Good old European me, I still find an aggravated bile of resentment rises as I realise they’re not native British. This isn’t acceptable, of course…it’s unadulterated prejudice, and tribalism, and runs contrary to my ostensible Christian and political beliefs. But to show it for the poor, anachronistic thinking it is requires acknowledgement, analysis and resolution – in short some moral hard work. Nigel Farage has just lost his co-chair of the new is-it-isn’t it ‘Brexit Party’, because she was shown to have a history of poisonous tweeting. Among the more plaintive comments from Catherine Blaiklock’s on-line output was that instead of ‘acid attacks, mobs and mosques’ she wanted ‘seaside donkeys on the beach and little village churches’. The dangerous thing about such rhetoric is the slip from understandable nostalgia to hate by association – a shift that’s easier to make than we like to think. On the other hand, there’s a debate to be had - and actually we’ve been having it for decades – about how incomers should adapt to the mores of a host nation, whether one is the host or the traveller. I’ll shortly be visiting the Netherlands, as I’ve done lots of times before. I speak no Dutch. All social interaction will probably occur in English. This too is sloppy and regrettable behaviour, isn’t it, suggestive of a British superiority complex? Last Saturday, the Rev Jun Kim was installed as Rector of St. Peter and St. Paul’s Abington, Northampton. Jun is from South Korea, and his wife Simona’s family are from the Baltic States. The world is getting smaller, and it’s a shock to our ways of thinking, and all of us, including me, will have to get over it. As Bishop Donald apparently mentioned at the installation, parishioners will have difficulty besting Jun in his ability with spoken or written English. Like.
The line of the Roman Via Devana probably crosses the track somewhere near here, a military and social artery running in zig-zag fashion from Colchester to Chester. It’s now a commonplace that the arrival of the Romans contributed a lot of extremely foreign blood to the native British stock, though perhaps tempting to make too much of this in terms of sheer numbers. Certainly we have evidence of men and women from far-flung places in the Empire, including Africa, but then again, these incomers may have been more highly educated than the general run of woad-wearing Romano-Britons, and so may have been more likely to leave signs of their presence. Anyway the point’s well made. Being British isn’t just a matter of sharing one’s DNA with 7000 year old bones in Cheddar caves.
Despite a population of not much more than a thousand, Brigstock feels quite the town. The parish St. Andrew’s church serves is large, and the round turret which clings to it reveals its important Saxon origins. It’s said that the number of people living here hasn’t changed much since the days of Henry VIII, when Rockingham Forest was a much greater, coherent reality, and folk would come to the local markets from far around. Inside St. Andrew’s I find two ladies who are preparing the flowers for the funeral tomorrow of 93 year old Kathleen Wills. As the ladies tell it to me, Kathleen was a long time resident of the village and a Catholic, so a Catholic priest is coming to take the service here in recognition of her love of the place and people. This is how it should be. I hear rumours of Anglican churches leaving ‘Churches Together’. As the other Real Donald (not the Bishop!) would say ‘Bad. Very bad.’
St. Andrew’s has lost its large adjoining Rectory where there was also a Parish Room. They hope that soon, with the Diocese’s permission and some financial support, there’ll be a servery and loo in the church. On my way out, I meet the smiley, friendly Rev. Heather who’s been the Rector since 2017. Her husband Alan is the Associate Minister, and a Church Army captain. I wonder to myself how their breezy, possibly evangelical style will sit in Brigstock, particularly since they live in Stanion (and I imagine old habits die hard, and that Brigstock thinks it has more tradition than Stanion…but this is mere supposition!) Mission or marketing? Change or decay? Stick or twist? Yours, mine or ours?
A new take on a Bishop's Throne: Brigstock
A nineteenth century Brigstock vicar, Talbot Keene, who sounds like a B movie actor, was also a jolly soul, and it’s claimed that he was a poet, though versifier might be a more accurate description. Writing about the ‘rules’ for callers at the vicarage, he said: ‘If he should be in studious sit, shy/In the study he may sit/But if inclined to laugh and talk/Then in the parlour let him walk/And in the wheel of his narration/Put in this spoke of conversation/Let those who thus shall honour me/Be as at home, and just as free… Time pressures on clergy were less in those days, hence hunting for good rhymes, shooting the breeze, and maybe fishing for compliments.
A text arrives from Matt to say his friend Giulia has just given birth, and she and Enrico now have a lovely daughter Vittoria. It’s Lady Day today, the feast of the Annunciation. For an Italian family this seems good timing, and if our friends and relations are any measure, Brexit seems to be promoting a baby boom. Actually, the more I think about this, the more likely a proposition it seems…
I wander out of town to the Fermyn Woods Country Park, enjoy a cup of tea and a piece of Bakewell amid sundry mums and tots, and look at the pictures of butterflies adorning the walls. I’ve never seen a Purple Emperor, but if you go down to Fermyn Woods in June or July apparently there’s a good chance you will. If the actuality matches the publicity, they must be the most exotic and beautiful of all native species.
I follow the path over the fields towards Stanion, the last section of which passes through a newish plantation of smart, greening birch. On its far side a short field leads up to modern houses in front of St. Peter’s church. At first I don’t see the path which leads into the churchyard on an angle from St. Peter’s close. A Northamptonshire old boy asks me if I’m walking to Geddington (rather wearily, as if he has to deal with a score of people every day for such purposes – which he may well do…) He wants to point out the direct route but adds that if I really want to see Stanion village, I can take the path by the church wall. I assure him I really do but then am disappointed to find the church closed. Disappointed because I know that inside there’s a seven foot whalebone which legend has it came from a ‘dun cow’ so productive and large that it once kept the entire village supplied with milk, until a witch did away with it out of jealousy. The Dun Cow story (which has lent its name to quite a few pubs) crops up quite a few times through the Midlands, and Stanion isn’t the only church to display a whale-bone as supposed evidence of bovine fecundity. It seems possible the remote origins of the tale may be in the defeat of the Danes (= Duns…whalebones…)
Birches near Stanion
In 1944 Stanion and its church starred in a short film you can still watch for free on-line courtesy of the BFI called ‘Springtime in an English village’. If you have seven minutes, please input the title to your favourite search engine and be moved. I’m not entirely sure all the footage was actually shot in Stanion – the hills in the opening ploughing sequence don’t immediately seem right. As the BFI’s short description comments, the intentions of the film-makers aren’t clear – it was made for ‘colonial’ use, and the little girl crowned Queen of the May is perhaps rather conveniently Afro-Caribbean, one of two apparently in the school at the time, so maybe there were propaganda purposes in its making. But in its depiction of innocent childhood and a now distant, different time, to this viewer it’s almost unbearably touching, poignant and beautiful. I wonder if any of the children who appeared in it are still alive. It’s quite possible, and it would be wonderful to have their memories of the event.
The Sprouting Times: 18 km. 5.3 hrs. 13 deg C. Brisk north westerly breeze at first, veering north-easterly and then dying in the afternoon. Two churches, one open. One stile. Nine gates, and three bridges, two over streams and one over a road. Blackbirds, sparrows and tits. One marauding pair of kites. One very handsome hunting buzzard. No woodpeckers despite the woodland walks tho’ Sue saw a yaffle in the garden early in the morning and a team of goldfinches the following day.
I always thought I knew my tribe
Could recognise the accent of someone from North West Kent
Could depend on a common liking
But these days it’s confusing.
Everyone wants to belong
But only to a tribe they design for themselves
Like Groucho Marx said
None of us want to be members of any club that would have us.
It’s sometimes the way I feel about your Church.
Father, we know we are one people under your care.
To sing in glorious agreement and harmony
In your eternal choir.