Saturday, 31 August 2019

The Circle Game

                                                         A straight interlude: Barnwell

Circles are mysterious, paradoxical, elusive in their perfect ideal self, ubiquitous, even a little sinister. You don’t think so? Joni Mitchell’s Circle Game is such a sad, sad, knowing song for a (way back then) woman barely out of her teens. We’re captive on a carousel of time. Childhood will never come back. Even if we believe in reincarnation, she hints, everything is forgetting, as we go round and round in the Circle Game. Mark Gertler’s 1916 painting The Merry Go Round is for me an uber-powerful artistic statement, an inspiration (perhaps!) for Littlewood’s Oh What A Lovely War. Even Pooh and Piglet, walking in the snow, are in their world of anguished circle bemusement. The Woozles - which might be ‘hostile animals’ - are in reality only themselves. They’re being misled by their own footsteps as they circle the Hundred Acre Wood.

 If you identify as a Christian, do you identify with this too…that our life is wholly caught up in the unending hoops of our own inadequacy?  The sin that we would not…that’s what we do, over and over again by the day, the week, even from one minute to another. We so want to be better, but whoops, here we are, back where we started. Again.  And our understanding that this is so, and our belief in redemption from this unfortunate situation, defines us in contrast to those who identify as non-Christian. The ancient Greeks knew and wrote in Tragedy about the recapitulation of violence from one generation to another, but they had no solution, except a pious hope that man might learn by suffering.

 I guess that’s the appeal of exploring the labyrinth – though corn mazes seem to have gone out of fashion. We make our salvation-frustration a little more concrete by entering.


I’m Vince Cross and I’m walking to every Anglican church in the Diocese of Peterborough from my home church in Weston Favell, by a Rule which says every walk should strive to be circular, and each successive walk should touch the circumference of a previous one. I’m more than three years into the project, and after eight-seven walks and about a thousand miles, I’m more than two-thirds of the way to my finishing point at the Cathedral. You can read about what's happened so far in this blog. The incumbent of each parish I visit gets a card through the post to say I’ve been, and that I’ve prayed for them and the people who live there. Here are the routes of my more recent days out…

 Walk 77:         Wilbarston – Pipewell – Cottingham – East Carlton – Wilbarston.  16.5 km.

 Walk 78:         Kentish interlude.

 Walk 79:         Geddington – Brigstock – Stanion – Geddington.  18 km.

 Walk 80:         Brigstock – Sudborough – Wadenhoe – Lyveden – Brigstock. 19 km.

 Walk 81:         Brigstock – Weldon – Benefield – Brigstock.  24 km.

 Walk 82:         Great Oakley – Corby St. John’s – Corby town centre – Corby St. Columba –
                          Corby SS Peter and Andrew – Great Oakley. 15.5 km.

 Walk 83:         Cottingham – Rockingham – Caldecott – Great Easton – Bringhurst - Cottingham.    
                          14.5 km.  Weston under Welland.  2.25 km.

 Walk 84:         Titchmarsh – Clopton – Barnwell All Saints – Barnwell St. Andrew – Pilton – Achurch – Titchmarsh. 24.5 km.

 Walk 85:         Barnwell – Thurning – Luddington – Hemington – Polebrook – Barnwell. 19.5 km.

 Walk 86:         Polebrook – Lutton – Warmington – Ashton – Polebrook. 17.5 km.  

 Walk 87:         Ashton – Tansor – Cotterstock – Glapthorn – Oundle – Ashton. 15 km. 

Maybe physics has yet more to teach us about the circle.

And may God give us all his peace and sense of satisfied completion as we near the end of our
earthly Walk. Amen. 

Sunday, 11 August 2019

We're all one...

                                                   Raw material for the Championships 

Apparently a great opportunity awaits you on October 13th, and boy, are we all going to need some cheering up this autumn! Sign up now. There’s just the chance you could become a World Champion – at conkers. The hosting of this prestigious event is just one of the many charming and quirky things about Ashton (near Oundle, as opposed to the one up the road from Roade!)

 Like many of his family Charles Rothschild (b. 1877) was a banker, but there was much more to the chap than that. He was passionate about Natural History, and the family story is that he was drawn to the area of Ashton - where as in many other places the Rothschilds had a house and land - because of the plethora of butterflies to be found there. He employed the architect William Huckvale to pull down the old house at Ashton Wold and build a new, healthier one furnished with all the turn-of-the-century mod cons. He also built a model village for the estate workers near the Polebrook road in a style that recalls the more famous Edwin Lutyens, providing an enlightened degree of comfort for a community of ordinary people too. Charles’ interest in the natural world passed to his daughter Miriam, who became a world expert on fleas.

 There’s no church in Ashton as such, but there is the ‘Creed Chapel’, which was built in the eighteenth century on a parcel of land known as ‘Play Close’ near what is now the Chequered Skipper pub. The ecclesiastical history of this little chapel is odd. Never consecrated, it was only licensed for ‘divine service’ after many decades. The Creed family charity provided for a clergyperson to come to Ashton until as late as the nineteen eighties, at which time it decided to concentrate on its major function of supporting the education of the village children . The door’s locked so I can’t get in, and so don’t get to see the family paintings.

I’m replaying my last walk in reverse as far as the shooting range, which I now know to be for the young men and women of Oundle School, so should be safe to cross during the summer vacation. I find being in the presence of guns anxiety-provoking – it causes an unpleasant, visceral, sympathetic, stomach lurch. There’s been much discussion about firearms in recent days: two more mass shootings in the US, greeted with the usual faulty reasoning and hypocrisy by their politicians and lobbyists, and calls in the UK for the police to be routinely armed after an unprovoked machete attack on an officer. This is surely not way-to-go. As with Nixon and Reagan, unorthodox Republican presidents sometimes achieve the unexpected. It’s probably within his power for Trump to make some limited moves towards gun control in the US, but whether he’ll deem it an electoral plus or minus is another matter – and I suppose that’s probably the significant factor.

 I hang a left and follow the bridleway across the fields to Tansor Lodge. Once I’m on the far side of the A605, I find myself in a field system with a gang of sprightly young calves, who look like they’re up for a rumble. They sprint along behind a hedge a hundred metres away on a parallel line, clearly aware of my presence, play peek-a-boo at a water trough, and then bounce round the field’s short side to huddle challengingly near the gated exit. ‘Yeah, well, watcha gonna do about it?’  seems to be the message: a bunch of teddy boys fingering their flick knives. Maybe they’ve seen West Side Story. (I’ve certainly been watching Shaun The Sheep!)  I try to look as big as possible, and as little like a source of food or entertainment as possible, and maintain a firm path towards the gate. When I’m within a couple of cricket pitches’ distance, they do an ‘only kidding’ and make like they’re being pursued by a team of rancheros with lassoes back whence they came. Kids, eh!

 Near Tansor, I cross to the road through a field of near-ripened wheat, and my mind goes to the story which provoked Jesus to his comment that the Sabbath was made for man, and not the other way round. I think (because my dad‘s in my mind a lot this week) how childhood Sundays in the Cross household seemed pretty much like a day of work rather than a day of rest. I’m still dealing with this sixty years later, still trying to grasp the fact that worship should be fun, relaxation, mind-expanding, full of colour and light:  something that also seemed to be eluding Libby Purves in a particularly cranky Times article a week ago, in the course of which she laid about her to all sides, including condemning Peterborough Cathedral for temporarily installing the space capsule which took Tim Peake to and from the ISS. Libby, there’s a great deal to be said about this, but to start with (and I don’t know if you took the time to visit?) it was pretty discreetly situated in a vast building. And Christians are often criticised for not being science-friendly, whereas in truth faith for many of us is only enhanced by our understanding that the universe is impossibly vast, and we impossibly insignificant by its standards, and yet God cares for us, just as much as he notices a sparrow’s fall.  Etc.

 The theme has been picked up in today’s BBC News website, not mentioning Peterborough, but renewing Libby’s attack on cathedrals: Norwich, where a helter-skelter has been erected in the nave, and Rochester, where they’ve set up a nine hole crazy golf course celebrating bridge-building. Yes OK, a bit weird, but hey, I haven’t been down to play a round, so provisionality ought to be the order of the day. And after all, thinking high culture, Caravaggio isn’t exactly to everyone’s taste either. Yet Gavin Ashenden, a Bishop in the breakaway Christian Episcopal Church offers the opinion that the clergy at Norwich had been ‘unprofessional’ and were ‘making a mistake about what a cathedral is good for’. I know it’s the silly season, but I’d hope the BBC could be clearer that as far as mainstream Anglicanism is concerned Gavin isn’t one of us, not now. He may indeed have been a chaplain to Her Majesty, but resigned from all that some while ago. In the way of things schismatic he would of course maintain that he’s the mainstream, and it’s all of us C. of E. remainers who are crazy in our women-ordaining, space-capsule loving apostasy. You’ve heard my refrain before, but we Anglicans are better together. And Christians are better together too. There’s nothing wrong in disagreeing strongly, but we should declare our interests properly. Gavin, and possibly Libby, please take note. And BBC, please find yourself some editors of greater competence for your influential website.

St. Mary’s, Tansor is an oasis on a humid sticky morning. Both south and north doors are open so a cool breeze wafts through, and birdsong is the music which accompanies my prayer and reading. It’s a church of nooks and crannies, many of which, as Pevsner has pointed out, are now beyond resolution or explanation, the accretion of need and fancy through many centuries. Libby Purves would like Tansor too, I think. Maybe even Gavin Ashenden. Oh no, sorry, the vicar’s a woman. I forgot.
Onwards along lanes, through Cotterstock where I have a fight to get into St. Andrew’s churchyard, let alone its high-towered building (I kick the gate hard to force it open – maybe the churchwarden has a better knack!) and forward to Glapthorn where low-slung St. Leonard’s backs on to a working farm. I can imagine Nativity services there might easily be accompanied by the lowing of real life cattle. Of the two villages, Cotterstock is the more apparently up-market, offering gracious buildings and a jolly mill. Glapthorn seems more workaday, stretching out longingly towards Oundle, only a mile distant across the fields.  Not everything about Cotterstock is classy. At the Manor, amongst a selection of admonitory notices aimed at the would-be intruder there’s one which reads ‘Smile, your on camera!’  I resist the temptation to ring the bell on their gate intercom, and begin a conversation: ‘Did you know…?’

                                                         St. Andrew's Cotterstock

And so to Oundle, the first of three towns out in the east of the diocese which are more or less defined by the schools named after them. If any American friends are reading this, these are our ‘public schools’, by which of course we mean ‘private schools’, last bastions of the famous English class system – an opinion which the schools themselves would of course hotly dispute. Change has come, not least because Oundle school is now co-ed, but a seven year stint there for a day pupil is going to cost over £125k, and boarding maybe a cool quarter of a million once everything’s taken into account. The facilities are marvellous, reminiscent of an Oxbridge college, and perhaps the contacts they make at their Oundala Mater will set pupils up for life, but this isn’t working towards an egalitarian society.  However when a new Ferrari 812 Superfast is a snip at £338k from your local South Kensington dealer, Public School education begins to look cheap. The morality and desirability of both perhaps needs to be interrogated by each new generation.

 The school buildings press in on all sides around the lofty needle spire and well-proportioned body of St. Peter’s church. In the context of the foregoing, is the slogan prominently displayed on all sides of the church as pointy as the spire?

 The child in me is really pleased when the automated church doors swing open for me to enter. Simon Jenkins thinks the interior ‘rather dull’, but I think it’s wonderful. The airy sense of space, and the soft light suffusing the harmonious decoration makes it a lovely, thoughtful, worship space. Everything reinforces the message that this is an inclusive church where all are welcome. Years ago that excellent slide guitarist Bryn Haworth recorded a Christian song called ‘We’re all one’. I remember standing in the crowd at Greenbelt and singing along with 25,000 others…and feeling a little uneasy about the experience. There was too much of a Hare Krishna chant about it for my taste, but then I’ve always been wary of the mass reactions of rock n’roll/festival audiences. (I’ve never felt so alone as amongst the punters at a Fish gig, feet sticking to the Northampton Roadmender’s beer-swilled floor, while everyone except me was punching the air and shouting the lyrics of each song. And I like Fish’s music!)
Thirty years later the swelling cult of the individual causes one to revisit the possible ideas behind ‘We’re all one’. Leaving aside any unintended Buddhist interpretation, how do you read it? And who is left outside our cosy psycho-physical unity? Not Gavin Ashenden or Libby Purves for sure, however much we might disagree with them. But thinking politically for a moment, are there any ideas which disqualify from entry to the Christian tent? Or if not from entry ( because only sick people go to hospital) then from claiming permanent membership status? Our first definition as Christians is clearly by who we are – positively – and Who we follow. Should we ever secondarily define ourselves by what we’re not?

As you’ll have gathered, I really like the vibe of Oundle’s church, and it goes on the list of: ‘I could worship here week by week'. One small gripe however. In the pews there are copies of St. Peter’s ‘Supplementary Songbook’. Their regular hymnbook is the familiar red-covered Hymns Ancient and Modern. The supplement gives a customised selection of more modern well-known hymns written and published after A&M’s issue. This is good, but nowhere in the supplement can I find any credit for the writers and publishers of the hymns. At best this is rude, and at worst it’s illegal and (this is going to sound very harsh) a kind of theft – though readers will appreciate that as a sort-of-meeja person I have a particular bias. The hymns aren’t the property of any individual or church, and their writers get very little, if any, reward for their efforts. They deserve this small celebration. It’s an omission which could easily be put right.


                                                                An Oundle scene...

In the sunshine, the Thursday market is winding down. I pass the Seven Wells butchers’ shop, purveyors of most excellent sausages, and take a coffee and cake in the cafĂ© near the lane down to the Co-op. A large local family gathering occupies half the dining area with their friends, the kids mildly out of control, the adults invading my personal space as I’m served at the counter. I have to laugh at myself, so much a campaigner for the common people at one moment, so annoyed when I actually have to mix with them the very next. I suspect (though I don't have the carapace to be one) it’s a perennial dilemma for politicians. And the church?
Passes at GCSE:  15 km. 5 hrs. 24 deg.C.  Four stiles. Thirteen gates. Five bridges. Five churches and chapels. Two open. I don’t visit Oundle School’s chapel, which I maybe could have done. I look for kingfishers at the Nene crossing, but sadly there are none in evidence. I saw one there once. A preening peacock in Ashton. Six tourists in Oundle church.

                                                            The Nene at Ashton

I praise you for
All the people
Who can do what I can’t
And never will.
I sit in these churches
And am amazed
At the accumulated skill:
The exactitude of the stonemason:
The subtlety of the wood carver:
The delicacy of the weaver:
The enterprise of the architect.
I sit in my house
Surrounded by
The appliance of science:
The wonder of electricity:
The reach of technology:
The creativity of entertainment:
All of which I do no better than half understand.

As I thank you for
Multiform human ingenuity
And feel its fragility,
I ask you to
Have mercy, O Lord,
And in your loving kindness
To prevent us from harm.
Help us be your partners
To make your Kingdom come
According to your will.


Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Don't tell 'em your name, Pike...

                                             First in show: creative scarecrow near Papley

Pre-walk coffee: 10 a.m.: the commodious lounge of the Olive Grove garden centre just outside Polebrook. Unexpectedly I find I’m a walk-on in a Samuel Beckett play.

 Her:     (rustling the pages of her Express) …Don’t know about tea for tonight. There’s not much in the ‘fridge.

 Him:    (a subterranean rumble from inside his Telegraph) You don’t see marrows these days.

 Her:     Marrows.  No…

 Him:    Only those courgettes…

 Her:     Lots of them…( not concentrating…) Vegetables…

 Him:    I like ‘em stuffed…marrows.  Or steamed.  (Pause)  With a cream sauce…

 Ugh! Really? I park in Duke Street, opposite the church, and follow the way uphill where the sign directs to four mile distant ‘Norman Cross’ (no relative), a once important marker on the Great North Road. The air’s still and ominous in the valley, but clears with a slight breeze as I gain height. A shower tracks away to the south, the cloud purply blue and crowned with white like a Regency wig. The fields are summer yellow-brown now, but give way to a tract of woodland on either side of the Lutton road at Bluestone covert. It’s cool here, and the scents of childhood are with me. A pretty 20’s house reminds me of my long lost home on the edge of Kentish forest, a child’s closeness to the earth, the wonder of the changing seasons, the freedom of tea and cake carried off among the apple trees, the sense of a pioneering life away from the urban sprawl.

 Lutton straggles where the road wiggles through the village, the houses each on their own spacious plot, because there’s land here to spare for everyone in the Cambridgeshire hinterland: no need to huddle. The church of St. Peter is open, and I’m glad of its shade. Where the road opened out between the fields again, the heat reflected fiercely from its surface. Maybe I started today’s walk too quickly. Inside, St. Peter’s isn’t the tidiest church. There’s a pretty little (baroque?) organ, and I could probably wind it up to see what it can do but I’m feeling shy. The noise of assiduous strimming is close at hand. Perhaps someone’s working in the churchyard. I guess that forty or fifty years ago, there was heavy and neat restoration of some of St. Peter’s internal stonework. Kingdoms and enthusiasms rise and fall. I read Psalm 84 to myself, the pews and walls, Brahms playing in my head, Wie leiblich sind deine Wohnungen, Herr Sabaoth: that deeply concentrated mellow timbre of a nineteen sixties’ equal voice choir: Let The People Sing, The Huddersfield Choral, The Glasgow Phoenix…

 Outside again, I see that one of the nearby houses is having its beard trimmed. There’s creeper everywhere – a decorative theme repeated on some of its neighbours, hiding less-than-distinguished design. I’ve neglected to bring my camera with me, and am momentarily peeved, but it’s a very small discipline for a pilgrim to do without such a very discretionary prop. Then I recall that, though I’ve never used it for such purposes, my ‘phone will take pictures. Sitting on the bench beside the church I fiddle with focus and zoom, and realise that the ‘phone takes a perfect selfie without requiring physical contortion on my part (see the previous post). Oh dear! Another loss of innocence… Now I too can be a public nuisance in art galleries. And here’s me with another Vermeer…and there I am with Rembrandt…is that a spot on my nose?

 We sometimes buy strawberries and raspberries grown in Lutton from Sywell’s excellent Beckworth Emporium, but at Grange Farm there’s no sign of soft fruit, just a friendly farmer forking muck, who directs me round his barn to a bridleway which meanders across to the lost medieval village of Papley, now just a row of self-catering tourist cottages at the end of a track. The village lies under the grass; the raised sides of a moat where the Big House was, fishponds that became decorative garden features in post-medieval times, and the lumps and bumps of the platforms on which the villagers’ houses once stood, scattered post-apocalypse remnants in a Northamptonshire field. Beyond Papley the bridleway becomes…notional. I trust instinct and the line of the wood to my left, and emerge where I hope, not far from the road into Warmington. At a certain point, I glimpse the stately Perpendicular of Fotheringay’s church through a hedge. Suddenly Peterborough seems very near.

                                                               Papley: fish ponds

 It’s very difficult for someone d’un certain age, not to add ‘on-Sea’ to Warmington village’s name, pushing a button so that all those much-loved images of Arthur Lowe, John Le Mesurier and John Laurie flood the mind. At much the same time as Dad’s Army was becoming a telly perennial, Laurie imported his wild-eyed tartan into a memorable portrayal of John the Baptist for a radio production of Dorothy L. Sayers The Man Born To Be King. Inside St. Mary’s church where contemporary evangelical energy sits side by side with the ancient, contemplative cult of the Virgin, I start thinking about the famous Arthur Lowe line to Ian Lavender as they confront enemy protagonists: ‘Don’t tell ‘em your name, Pike…’ 

 How many Christians, like me, feel some sense of failure in our commission to explain? ‘No one’s ever been converted by you, you miserable worm’, goes the voice inside the head. ‘Call yourself a Christian?  By their fruits shall you know them? Pah!’ And we review our sinful lives and tell ourselves we’re not surprised. On the rare occasions we have poked our heads above the parapet to say Who we follow and what we believe, we sense that we’ve been undermined by our own pitifully inadequate behaviour. People have seen through us, and quite rightly. What price God, if we Christians can’t be better people? We’ve failed to preach the Gospel and shown our lack of faith all at the same time. We’ve failed to tell ‘em our name, but nonetheless betrayed our calling in a trope that could be called the Reverse Mainwaring.

 But clearly, something has changed in evangelism. The successful, more or less mainstream ‘crusades’ of the fifties and sixties are a thing of the past – though Billy Graham had his detractors even back then. It’s nearly 2020. Unless someone has stuck their head in the sand, you’d think there’d be no excuse whatsoever for not knowing 1) that millions of people worldwide still look to Jesus for an example of how to live, and 2) that they believe him to be God incarnate, a potentially Saving Presence for every human being. The only problem is how to make this series of startling claims stand out on the supermarket shelves of belief, among Area 51, buses on the moon, dianetics and all the other manifold esoterica. Is our job to be Desperate Persuaders, or merely to say ‘Here it is: it’s good. You should want some!’? 

 Iteratively, I try to lose the guilt about my inadequacy, and concentrate on being smart about my recommendation of God. As with everything else, I backslide, check myself, confess, pick myself off the floor, and have another go.

Warmington’s church is handsome, lovely and restored by Gilbert Scott et al. during the ‘Gothic Revival’. Simon Jenkins honours it in his 1000 Best Churches. He says: ‘This is Northamptonshire squat rather than soaring…the tower low and lucarnes uncommonly big, as if someone had grasped a taller structure and squashed it short’. This sounds like damning with faint praise, but it’s a noble place notwithstanding. And remember…Jenkins only lists 25 Northamptonshire churches in his thousand – though 14 in Rutland, which seems disproportionate, given the respective size of the two counties. (Apparently ‘lucarnes’ are dormer windows. No, I hadn’t heard of them before either.)

 I have a little fatigue difficulty on emerging into the sunlight. Suddenly, in the absence of a compass (I left that at home too!) I can’t make sense of my orientation. Not to put too fine a point on it, I’m knackered and my brain won’t work. Too little water or food? Poor oxygen intake? I wander around for ten minutes before figuring out where I can pick up the Nene Way, and then head south on it following the line of the Roman road from Water Newton to Irchester in the unseen company of long dead squaddies, complaining about their feet and the inadequacy of the privies at the last camp. Near Elmington, where alternative routes are non-existent, there’s a quirk as the walker must cross a rifle firing range but is told not to do so if a red flag is flying.  Happily, the flagpoles are bare today, so I yomp on to Ashton.

 I sit on the green outside the Chequered Skipper pub, and watch as two patient horses are shod by a mobile smithy, the steam rising between the shady trees. To our friends Polly and Peter who have horses of their own, this would be an everyday matter, but for me, here among the picturesque ‘model village’ cottages of the Rothschild estate - which anyway feels like the set for a period drama – it’s a timeless, moving scene, marked by the utter nonchalance and complaisance of the two animals.

 Pennies from heaven: 17.5 km. 5 hrs. 22 degrees. It felt hotter than that! Increasingly sunny as the day wore on. No stiles. Five gates. Three bridges. Two churches, both open. England fighting back in the Test Match, despite injuries and dodgy technique, only to collapse hopelessly on subsequent days.

I commend to you
All the lovely people I know.
My family.
My neighbours.
The community at St. Peter’s church in Weston Favell.
The friends we have
Scattered around Britain
And now sometimes abroad.
The talented musicians, actors and engineers
With whom I work.
The kaleidoscope of character
I encounter accidentally
Marrows, mince and Daily Telegraph.

‘Bring us, O Lord God
At our last awakening
Into the house and gate of heaven.
To enter into that gate
And dwell in that house
Where there shall be
No darkness nor dazzling
But one equal light;
No noise nor silence
But one equal music;
No fears or hopes
But one equal possession;
No ends or beginnings
But one equal eternity;
In the habitations of thy glory and dominion.
World without end.

(John Donne 1571 -1631)

 If you don’t know it already, check out the setting of these words by W.Harris, perhaps on the recording made by The Sixteen. Sublime, yearning and shiver-inducing.


Thursday, 1 August 2019

Fields of Gold (almost...)

Martians who’ve been accompanying my every ululation and undulation since 2016 might well scratch their heads and wonder if everything they’d been told about the British weather is a load of old Boris. Rain seems to intervene only infrequently. It’s a fair cop. I choose the days on which I walk carefully, aided by the panoply of modern forecasting - multiple sources, weather radar etc. etc . And yet…

 Even in the twenty-first century the Met and BBC sometimes contrive to get things so annoyingly wrong. Like today, for instance. At eight this morning there was no mention of precipitation anywhere near Oundle. Yet here I am two hours later, standing outside Barnwell’s Montagu Arms, and the rain’s hosing down. But hey, I have an anorak, and an umbrella, and Goretex boots.  What’s the problem with a little dampness now and again? I’m told it’s what you have to expect as you get older.

 In one way, there’s no problem at all. Walking in the rain can be a blast. I have very happy memories of getting soaked in various nice places throughout my life. At the age of twelve and half way up Snowdon, quizzing mystified passers-by on what they were doing there and where they’d come from for a National Parks survey, I learned that if you were wet through to your underwear, eventually you dried out again, quite possibly several times in one day. A first girlfriend got persuaded into the Kentish woodlands in a cataclysmic downpour because we weren’t going to let a little thing like that prevent our courting, were we? (and we’re still corresponding as friends more than fifty years later so it can’t have been too bad an experience). According to the Baptists, childhood Bank Holiday Mondays were made by God for walking and family bonding, and were then as now usually blessed not just in showers but in torrents.

 Sod’s law operates. The first part of today’s walk isn’t along roads but tracks through fields of barley and wheat, where the farmer has very helpfully cut good paths for the rights-of-way. But they are rather narrow paths, and the grain has seeded down the middle, in a rather exaggerated version of the way grass grows down the middle of extreme country lanes. After a few hundred metres I’m soaked to the waist; boots, socks, trousers, anorak, M & S n’all. I squelch for most of the rest of the day.

The paths on the way to Thurning are well kept but often ridged by the tyres of farm vehicles. I’m quite surprised how quickly they’ve become tacky/slippery, and how much dirt is accumulating on my boots. It’s hard going. I turn away from the Alconbury Brook up to the village, which is a collection of lovely houses in a compact summer-flowery settlement whose population struggles to make three figures. I’m disappointed not to find St. James the Great open, because the excellent Northamptonshire Surprise website says ‘The best Arts and Crafts church in the county…a perfect, if small, well-preserved example of Anglican high church decoration…The spirit of William Morris hovers here – indeed the draperies come from his emporium.’  I’ll have to come back.

 This week courtesy of Radio 4’s The Life Scientific I’ve become aware of the ‘Dunbar number’, named after its anthropologist ‘inventor’ Robin Dunbar. As an undergrad Dunbar studied under the great Nico Tinbergen at Oxford, and based on a lifetime study of both animals and humans his contention is that there’s a more-or-less magic number of 150, which is the quantity of individuals with whom the average human being can maintain stable relationships. Extroverts may manage more, introverts less. He also connects the number to the average size of medieval settlements (by which ancient standard, Thurning is today on the smaller, less sustainable end of the spectrum). Dunbar’s number raises a number of interesting questions for me. The first is whether this is merely ‘true but trivial’ - insofar as there’s only so much time in the day, and staying close to even the most intimate circle of friends is sometimes difficult. Keeping up regularly with as many as 150 seems to preclude work, telly or days out walking, but please understand this is me talking - at best a ‘sociable introvert’, aka miserable git! Another intriguing possibility is whether at this precise moment in human history Dunbar’s metric might be changing. Is it easier to keep in touch with more people now because of social media? Or are the people we’re close to more demanding than they were, so in practice, might Dunbar’s number actually be decreasing? And what does this have to say about patterns of church organisation and church growth?  We’re apt to be very worried when congregations fall in number. Is 150 the optimum size at which we should aim before we divide or re-plant (And I hear a lot of people say ‘We should be so lucky…’) And what would Dunbar predict about the combining of communities, say, making one from two lots of fifty. Does this result in a successful congregation of one hundred? Or does our church experience lead us to think the actual number would be much less than that. A problem for the Church is that we become very attached to our roles. If Gladys is the inadequate organist in church A, perhaps discouraging people from attending services where her poor accompanying and scatter of wrong notes are only too obvious, but is replaced by the organist from church B when the two churches combine (who may be able to dash off Widor’s Toccata to the satisfaction at least of himself, if not entirely to the more musically snobby, thus maintaining the numbers at the Sunday Eucharist), do we think Gladys will be among the congregation to appreciate his superior skills? Perhaps not.

On the door of St. James in Thurning is a woven picture of a pilgrim; hat, staff and scrip. He looks not altogether unlike me. I try a selfie, for the purposes of comparison, and fail hopelessly. It’s a generational thing. Appropriately for the dedication of the church, there’s a scallop shell on the gate. I’ll see one or two more during the day in various places. Opposite the church in the old school building is ‘Jade College’ where pilgrims can learn holistic massage, which might come in quite handy for travellers.

 I retrace my steps to the Alconbury stream, which gives its name to today’s next village destination ‘Luddington-in-the-Brook’. The suffix is to distinguish it from a village up the road, now usually called Lutton, formerly known as ‘Luddington-in-the-Wold’. Today’s walk is unusual insofar that it takes in all the villages in the newly-named ‘Brookfields’ benefice bar Lutton: a reminder that incumbents like Cathy Brazier have a Herculean task as they draw together a collection of Dunbar country communities to love and serve each other. Judging by the jolly, engaged, edition of the Brookfields mag I pick up later in Polebrook, she and they’re making a good fist of it.

 However. As you’ll see from the foregoing, the question keeps nagging away as to whether this is the future of our Church. I think the parochial system is worth hanging on to, if for no other reason than that national disaster might one day make it crucially important. So then people, let’s not just sell off our ancient churches for private housing. But what could be done with Church/public/private initiatives, to supplement our Christian functions in a community-facilitating way? We’re getting used to food banks. What other kind of banks, for profit or not-for-profit might our churches host without compromising the core salvation enterprise – and maybe even enhancing it? Villages (or Dunbar communities anywhere) need honest, artisan shops, and opportunities to share – machinery/ transport/ coffee. And yes, cake with the caffeine, if you must.


I walk on to Hemington. As Johnny Nash once opined:  ‘I can see clearly now, the rain has gone/It’s gonna be a bright (sing those b/v’s, soul-sisters) (bright), bright, sunshiny day’ – and it’s now warm and humid enough that I choose a route along the road, rather than the longer one through the fields. On either side are fields of barley, wheat and (less pleasingly) decaying oil-seed. The corn isn’t toasty yellow-brown yet, but it’s going that way, with just that interesting, sophisticated undershade of not-quite green where the breeze is rippling the surface.   Hemington’s church, at the top of the rise, is shut and barred - as Luddington’s was - but it gets a good press from other writers on the Web. On the little green at the end of the village’s Main Street, is a pretty decorated sign telling you what you need to know about Hemington . Around the bend I pass a large and ancient , spreading, oak tree, which may be the one depicted on the sign. Another scallop has been tacked in at head height onto its bark.
 I walk the straight lane towards Polebrook with the site of the World War 2 airfield on my right. In the distance I can see the one remaining collection of surviving buildings from that era, now re-purposed. In the fifties the airfield had something of a revival. It sited a deployment of Thor ICBMs which were the West’s nuclear shield at the time. The now-available accounts of the reliability of these missiles is hair-raising. If there’d been an attack to which we and the Americans had responded, the chances of successful launches on our behalf would appear to have been slim. One imagines the Russians would have done no better. But only one missile needed to get through for the death of millions. MADness indeed. Deterrents don’t have to work. The protagonists just have to be in doubt that they will. And what don’t we know today about the details of our own ‘security’?


All Saints in Polebrook is the only church I find open today, and very lovely and moving it is, not least because of the beautiful chapel in its surprisingly spacious transept which is dedicated to the memory of the American WW2 flyers stationed locally. Amongst their number was the heart-throb actor Clark Gable, who was strapped in for a few missions over Germany for publicity and propaganda reasons (which is not to minimise the risks he undertook). The most literally awesome story is that of Lt Truemper and Sgt Mathies. They were aboard a Flying Fortress (nicknamed Ten Horsepower) on a bombing mission over Leipzig when it was attacked by German fighters. The co-pilot was killed, the pilot severely wounded. Truemper told Mathies to take over the controls of the ‘plane (neither had any flying experience) while he did the navigating. They contrived to get back to the very fringes of Polebrook. All the other crew were ordered to parachute to safety, while Truemper and Mathies attempted to land. They crashed into a nearby field and were killed. It’s an extraordinary and humbling story. No spur of the moment gallantry this, but calculated self-sacrifice on behalf of others, which makes it all the more suitable as a focus for the attention of worshippers at All Saints, and passers-by like me.


Just over the border in Cambridgeshire is the village of Little Gidding, subject of one of T.S.Eliot’s Four Quartets, poems seasonal, contemplative, of Time and Eternity, and apt to my moment alone in Polebrook’s ancient church.
‘You are not here to verify,/ Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity/ Or carry report. You are here to kneel/ Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more/ Than an order of words, the conscious occupation/ Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying. / And what the dead had no speech for, when living, /They can tell you, being dead: the communication/ Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living./ Here, the intersection of the timeless moment/ Is England and nowhere. Never and always.’
The route back to the car takes me through the elevated hamlet of Armston, and then across the fields behind Barnwell Manor, one time country home of Prince Richard and his family, although they now live a less expensive life in Kensington Palace. The Manor has become an up-market (presumably  very upmarket!) venue for the display of antiques. One cannot duck economic necessity. But for royalty, the Church, all of us as individuals, pain is thereby entailed.

Tears for souvenirs:  19.5 km. 6 hrs. 23 deg. Rain and sun, and an enlivening breeze. 1 stile. 16 gates. 4 little bridges. Slugs a-plenty. A buzzard on the hunt. Guns popping on the Barnwell estate. 4 villages. 4 churches. One open.

 Dear Lord

 I carry in my heart always:
‘Summer and winter, and spring-time and harvest,
Sun, moon and stars in their courses above,
Join with all nature in manifold witness
To thy great faithfulness, mercy and love...’

And as the congregation with one voice sings:
‘Pardon for sin, and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside’…*

I shed tears.

* from 'Great is thy faithfulness':  Thomas Obadiah Chisholm 1866-1960