I begin today’s walk needing a sign of hope.
My, it’s been a strange week. The Supreme Court judgement against prorogation, the shenanigans in the House of Commons yesterday, hubris and humbug, the weather turning (as it has every right to do at the autumn equinox), a damp squib of an end to the first class cricket season, one or two little local difficulties…
The day begins as, morose and monosyllabic, I drop Sue off at Launde Abbey for a clergy conference/retreat in which she’s leading a session. I’m unsure whether Launde is in Leicester or Peterborough diocese, but it’s used by both, and is to be found in a very beautiful parkland setting. Already my mood is slowly lifting thanks to the Ministry of Greenliness and the brittle blue September sky. Yes, I know, thank you, an adverb in the wrong place, slapped in before the participle, but hey, don’t that particular solecism simply sound better sometimes?
I provision and coffee in Uppingham, before moving on to Lyddington. I leave the car near the bigger of the two pubs, the White Hart, then find the uphill path to the west away from the village. With low confidence, I’d say the topology of Rutland (county slogan multum in parvo – a lot in a little/many in poverty?/#only joking) is distinctive. The wolds are no higher than Northamptonshire’s, but their frequency seems greater, the dips deeper. At any rate it’s quite a stiff pull up to the Oakham road. Once the other side it’s a gentle walk down the lane to Stoke Dry, the Eyebrook reservoir glinting glassily to my left.
Inside St. Andrew’s church, everything is rather emphatically not dry. A year or so ago, thieves stole the lead, and interim everything’s been kept watertight by plastic sheeting, only it blew away the other day, and now one of Canon Jane Baxter’s colleagues is up on the roof trying to restore the weatherproofing. Canon Jane herself is in the side chapel, helping an American visitor with some genealogical enquiries. I introduce myself as the chap who keeps sending her cards whenever I drop into one of her churches. There’s an ‘Oh, it’s you…’ moment, which I’m not sure quite how to interpret. As Rector in the benefice, Jane has seven parishes to look after, and another fifty-three are under her care as Rural Dean. All that and the roof considered, she looks quite cheerful. St. Andrew’s is a lovely, well-scrubbed place, with a substantial, wide rood screen which the experts think must have come from somewhere else, because it doesn’t quite fit. There are lots of wall paintings. There’s one of St. Christopher, with a legend beside it, Kipling like, explaining how the saint got his name. And next to it is one of St. Edmund being shot up by Danish archers. Or for the esoterically-minded, Native American archers…if you believe the facial characteristics suggest so. This would of course rely on the dubious premise that someone beat Columbus to his 1492 landing on the American mainland.
Other conspiracies hang around Stoke Dry too. Some have said the Gunpowder Plot was hatched in the priest’s room (or parvis) which sits over the North Porch. The Digbys were a notable local family, and Sir Everard of that ilk was hanged for treason in 1606. Why the plotters would have used a poky office over a church porch isn’t clear. You’d have thought a toff’s front parlour would have done just as well.
A track leads away at an angle from the Oakham road, perhaps part of an ancient drovers’ way, and it holds to the high ground, twisting and turning all the way into Uppingham, whose name gives a clue as to the town’s altitude with respect to the surrounding countryside. We’re only talking a hundred and fifty metres above sea level, but the wind is blowing keenly from the south west today. I bet the snow settles readily in winter. Uppingham is a classy place, all second hand bookshops and picture shops. There’s a lovely, signed, John Piper church print in the window of the Goldmark Gallery for £2950, very desirable, but way out of our price range. Would it hold its value? Would it give commensurate pleasure over a decade, set alongside for example, a great holiday for two, or deprivation of caffeine and cake for a year?
Uppingham is another public school town, but the academic presence is worn more discreetly here than in Oundle. I pass the school’s theatre, then its main gate, reminiscent of an Oxbridge college. I window-shop, buy a sarni, potter about the square, and decide to visit SS. Peter and Paul’s generously proportioned church before I have a coffee in Scandimania (nice name!)
I’d like to be able to describe the church for you, but I can’t. Instead I’ll tell you what I hear inside, something so absorbing it takes my mind off everything else, including my touch of the morning glums. Hope? Reader, I found it.
A girl is standing by a grand piano to one side of the nave singing. I know the song. It’s Gluck’s ‘Che faro senza Euridice?’, one of the two pieces of vocal music for which the composer’s best remembered. I don’t like the aria but I’m reeled in by the concentration and quality of the performance. A woman is accompanying the girl - very sensitively. Ten metres away another woman is directing the singing. She’s coaxing performance nuance by nuance by use of what in my trade is known as TPR (total physical response). Everything - face, arms, posture - is going into a bar by bar reflection of the musical phrasing and intent as the song unfolds. It’s beautiful. Spell-binding. For a mid-teenager (I later learn the young singer is seventeen) the accuracy and focus of voice is simply stunning. And the teaching is of the very highest order, eloquent, grounded, locked into the moment. I’ve slid behind a pillar out of the performer’s view, the better to watch the direction offered by Catherine Griffiths, Head of Singing at Uppingham. This is a rehearsal for the school’s recital competition. Catherine takes her pupil through two more pieces unfamiliar to me, and then they move on together to what will be the mini-recital’s closer. It’s ‘Everyone loves Louis’ from Sondheim’s ‘Sunday in the Park with George’, the George in question being the pointillist painter Seurat.
If you don’t know the musical, this really isn’t music for dummies. Sondheim being Sondheim, it showcases all his Broadway-friendly lyrical tricks while at times managing to reference the early twentieth century pointillist composer Webern (who’s about as Broadway-unfriendly as you can get this side of Stockhausen). The point is (ha-ha) if you sing this stuff, you’re learning a lot more than mere dots on a piece of manuscript paper.
Later I write Catherine an e-mail to say how inspiring I found my half-hour in their company. It’s made me think about my own teaching, and has recalled for me the occasions when as a teenager I was first hooked on music (and words) by outstanding teaching from adults who were concerned both to think about me as a person while simultaneously communicating their own passion for art and literature. This week there’ve been threats from the Labour Party to make life for private education uncomfortable, and even to confiscate property in the service of that aim (surely a very sinister suggestion?) As so often, I’m torn. We need a more equal distribution of talent and engagement in our total school system. But I can now see an argument for boarding schools which wasn’t apparent to me before, which is that they provide an opportunity for immersion in the process of education, which sometimes seems beyond the ability of parents and their kids within the contemporary 9-3 two hundred and thirty days a year culture. That’s not to say what I witnessed in SS Peter & Paul’s couldn’t happen within the state system (and for all I know the young woman performer may be a day pupil), but what I think I see around me in ordinary schools and families is often a lot of distracted behaviour and performance anxiety. We pray fervently for our young people, but are we asking for the right things?
I’m still digesting these extraordinary moments as I sip coffee in Scandimania’s compact café, and then walk out of town towards Bisbrooke. So much am I out of my normal head, I contrive to leave my OS map somewhere on the road, probably as I’m donning my anorak in anticipation of a shower. No worries. I’ve already clocked the straightforward route back to Lyddington.
St. John the Baptist’s church in Bisbrooke is chapel-like, and lovingly cared-for. I spend a few minutes in its silence, chilling, and then walk up the steep climb to the crossroads where Seaton’s one way and Uppingham the other, parallel to the old branch line which used to ferry Uppingham school pupils into town. On the far side looking down the descent to Lyddington the light over the far fields becomes brilliant, emphasised by the lividity of the deep blue-grey clouds, the village church nestled into the valley fold. There’s always hope, despite the bleakness of overweening ambition and violent language in public life. Words matter so much, not just the misplacing of the odd adverb, but where they appeal only to emotion and sentiment while ignoring reason and reality. And the Church has a part to play in this, and not just in the bishops’ welcome challenge to politicians to moderate their methodology.
Ayes and noes in the lobby: 15km. 5 hrs. 16 deg.C. Very pleasant with the wind at one’s back. 14 stiles. 8 gates. 4 bridges. 3 churches, again all open. If this were a slot machine I’d be hitting paydirt. Last time I walked in Uppingham it was 2011, on the day Sir Alastair Cook scored 295 against India: a happy memory.
Glorious array of gifts
You have given your people.
Help me to see
Not only those that are in public view
But those that are more discreetly employed.
And please help me to discern
Where I am gifted
And where I should simply recognise
The callings of others.
The walker’s prayer:
Lead, kindly light,Amidst the encircling gloom;
Lead thou me on!
The night is dark
And I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on.
Keep Thou my feet;
I do not ask to see
The distant scene.
One step enough for me.
( J.H. Newman)