Sunday, 29 September 2019

Teachers, keep on teachin'...

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 cafĂ©, 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.

I thank you for the
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
And enjoy
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)



Sunday, 22 September 2019


Way before Jesus was a twinkle in anyone’s eye, a curmudgeonly, reassuring voice echoes down the corridors of time: ‘What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.’ Moan, moan. Whinge, whinge. There’s been a half-empty glass ever since man/woman looked at a hand and knew it to be his/her own.

 The band ‘Black Midi’ were up for a Mercury music prize this week for their album ‘Schlagenheim’. Apparently people were surprised a few weeks ago when Radio 6 DJ Steve Lamacq invited them to take his show up to the top of the hour with ten minutes of musical freestyle. No one does that anymore. Fifty years ago…Soft Machine…Grateful Dead anyone? Well at least on John Peel’s Perfumed Garden or Radio 1’s Top Gear (no connection with  Jeremy Clarkson or Andrew Flintoff). Nothing new under the sun.

 That this is so presents a dilemma for contemporary artists of all genres.  And as a matter of fact causes a problem in the context of today’s media-driven politics and religion.


Warmington is thrumming as I leave the car outside St. Mary’s and follow the Nene Way where it threads its way through the back streets towards the hamlet of Eaglethorpe. There’s a whole lotta building goin’ on. The road’s being patched, diggers and lorries are moving in and out of the new little housing development beside Hautboy Lane. And past the newsagents’ and the butchers’ shop (yes, Warmington still has one!) the road is allegedly closed for both traffic and pedestrians because there’s ‘scaffolding in the road’. Avoiding the workmen’s beady eyes, I ignore this OTT piece of H&S blather and hold my line – ‘at my own risk’, of course. Where the path burrows under the A605, there’s a mural extolling the local environmental delights, the mill on the Nene, the birds and cattle, the fact that there’s a Beaker burial close by. The Nene Way angles across the water meadows towards the sluice gates, and already the elegant tower of Fotheringhay’s church is drawing the eye. Simon Jenkins says: ‘(a)float on its hill above the River Nene, a galleon of Perpendicular on a sea of corn…’  

I have to slog across a ridge and furrow field to avoid a herd of cattle. By a water trough near the stile, a mummy cow shields her two calves and stares me down, head slightly lowered. I’m always holding my breath in these situations. There was another report in the press this week of an elderly lady (admittedly twenty years senior to me, and in company of a dog which may have been misbehaving) who was trampled to death by some Belted Galloways, a breed about whose temperament you can read differing opinions.  But whatever, maternal instinct under perceived threat is something of which to be wary in all animals, human or otherwise.

 I breast the slight rise on the track down towards Fotheringhay castle, and climb the mound of its robbed-out keep by a path steep enough to make my ankles complain. You know the story. Sir Anthony Babington wrote Mary Stuart a note trying to enlist her support for an assassination attempt on Elizabeth, with the aim of restoring an English Catholic monarchy. Mary stopped short of endorsing murder, but lent her weight to regime change. Babington was executed, and Mary exiled to the castle at Fotheringhay. Subsequently Elizabeth maintained that she was tricked into signing Mary’s death warrant. Whatever the truth of that, Mary was beheaded in the castle on the 8th February 1587, a poignant, tragic story, all the more awful for the mess the executioner made of his job.  Of course these events have been fertile ground for romanticised historical films and novels, and it’s been amusing to see ill-researched versions (usually originating in the US) which sketch mountains as a backdrop for the final scenes in Mary’s life. Nay, mi duck, there’s not a hill worth speaking about in a hundred and fifty miles. Even Sandy Denny, who wrote a song for Fairport Convention about Mary’s last days, and then subsequently named her own band after the village, refers to ‘lonely’ Fotheringhay in her lyric, and I don’t think that’s right either. It’s true Mary was held here because the place was easy to defend. Sight lines for the defenders were excellent, and there was marshland for would-be attackers to negotiate. But Peterborough was only eight miles distant (Mary’s body was initially interred there, before her son James had it moved to Westminster Abbey), communications along the Nene were good, and there were numerous villages of much the same size as Fotheringhay up and down the valley. Cock ups and conspiracies. Nothing new under the sun.

 Incidentally, the tomb James had constructed for Mary faces Elizabeth’s in Westminster, and he made sure it was bigger than the Virgin Queen’s. I also note with a smile that the dedication of the handsome church in Fotheringhay is to St. Mary and All Saints. That’s Mary the mother of Jesus of course, and a common enough name, but who worshipping here in any subsequent age wouldn’t spare a thought for Mary Stuart as they walk up the church path or take communion? The exterior of the church is a wondrously beautiful landmark. For once the interior doesn’t perhaps match it for all the pleasure to be taken in clear windows, lofty ceilings and the charmingly painted pulpit and organ. There’s a reason for that of course. What we experience now is only half the original building, and the ugliness of the wall behind the altar betrays the church’s brutal shortening when the adjoining college for priests was dissolved during the Reformation.

 Fotheringhay was a Yorkist seat. Richard III was born here. Today a wedding party is making preparations for their Big Day tomorrow after the contemporary style; lots of flowers, and those odd bits of wispy white nylon people like to stick on the ends of the pews to make the church look…weddingy. There’s no space for cars in the car park of the next door Falcon pub, because it’s occupied by a marquee, and a lighting truck has just turned up so the guests can mum & dad-dance their way to the midnight hour. The lass behind the bar serves me a GB. Did I want food? she asks. I tell her not today, and she breathes a sigh of relief. The ovens have gone down, but it’s not a problem, there’s only one set of covers: they’ll have to have salad. And stuff. What kind of ancillary ‘stuff’ I wonder, but keep my thoughts to myself. Tomorrow’s groom and best man bestride the bars like mighty colossi, owning the joint for a day. It’s a slightly strange vibe.

 Up the road I yomp across scrunched up earth between the farmer’s thoughtfully placed little white sticks and fetch up at Woodnewton’s sewage plant. This straggly village improves from then on, and has its rep greatly polished when at cosy St. Mary’s church I learn that Nicolai Poliakoff aka Coco the Clown spent his last years here. He had an extraordinary life. I lift two pieces of delight from the Wikipedia article about him to improve your day. Firstly he ‘had two distinctive visual features that endeared him to television audiences: his boots, described as being size 58, and his trick hair with hinges in the central parting which allowed it to lift when he was surprised…’ . Secondly in April 1957 he ‘was knocked over and injured by a vehicle driven by Kam, “the only motoring elephant in the world”’ I think I probably saw him live in a performance by Mills Circus at about the same time, along with boxing kangaroos and all kinds of other acts which wouldn’t now be allowed. Clowning however, goes on forever, and has something to say about bullying, being bullied, and the inappropriateness or not of revenge.

Opposite the church is a lane leading down to Conegar Farm where there’s a delightful mill setting, the clear water sliding through strands of weed as straight and beautiful as a pomp rock guitarist’s hair. From there the track to Southwick (pronounced Suth-ick) climbs gently at the edge of fields, then drops to a stream, then resumes uphill progress through lovely Howe Wood before emerging into the open just above the village. As I sit on a bench and survey the scene a young lab trots out from behind me, followed by his mistress, who lets me know that she’s about to collect the bag of dog poo she left in the field below. Too much info, but a gold star for responsible dog-owning behaviour.  There’s yet another St. Mary’s, on the left where the track meets the road on the village fringe. Inside a narrow space, the sanctuary floor is polished and shining, entirely covered by the slabs that mark the Lynn family tombs. Above the altar is emblazoned the legend ‘Till he come’.


If this is Southwick, then where is the northern village to which its name obliquely refers? Perhaps Apethorpe, perhaps King’s Cliffe, both yet to be visited. Iron smelting was an industry here in the 10th century, and perhaps before that too.

 By now I’ve remembered that many years ago I walked this circle from Fotheringhay on a chilly winter’s morning, and somehow missed my way before Perio Mill. The path seems clear enough today but where it dives through a hedge in making a right turn I find a roughly ploughed path-less field, and have to take an uncomfortable diversion around its knobbly perimeter, saying rude things about the farmer as I go. To be fair, I don’t know what he/she’s supposed to do when ploughing’s done. I’m just not sure it’s my job to do the equivalent of wading through eighteen inches of snow to keep the right of way open.

 The benefit of autumn on an immaculate cloudless day such as this is the golden low light simultaneously warming the buildings of Fotheringhay’s single street, and sharpening their profiles. How many of them are built with stones from the old castle?

 And in this week of renewed climate change protest from the world’s schoolchildren, what part of our past will the future most resemble? Nothing new under the sun.


'The evening hour is fading within the dwindling sun
And in a moment those embers will be gone
And the last of all the young birds flown

Tomorrow at this hour she will be far away
Much farther than these islands
Or the lonely Fotheringhay'

(Sandy Denny)

 Clicks on the churchwarden’s counter:  19.5 km. 6 hrs. 21 deg. C.  Four stiles. Twenty one gates.  Sixteen bridges, one way or another. Kites, squirrels, butterflies, a dormouse frightened by my tread. Three churches, again, all open! The devotion to St. Mary very strong in these parts. The ground dry, dry, dry.

When I’m desperate
To drive through my own ideas
Help me to listen
To the unreasonable voices of others.
When I am sure I am right
Remind me of the times
I have been so wrong.
When instinct tells me
What is best for me
Help me to do
What will bless everyone.


Sunday, 15 September 2019

The River

‘I come from down in the valley
Where mister when you’re young
They bring you up to do like your daddy done…’

                                    (Bruce Springsteen)

Goodness, have I really been this way before? Nothing that I see around me on the path away from Gretton is familiar. I thought I’d walked pretty much the length of the Jurassic Way back in the day, but know I never reached its northernmost end at Stamford, so at some point must have stopped. Which could therefore be just about here. I can’t even remember why I gave up. Did I just lose interest? Or did the paths through the remaining tracts of Rockingham Forest look too logistically complicated? Forgetting’s an odd and unsettling business…and all the more as the years tick on.

I turn off the metalled road opposite Gretton’s pocket park and tread a hardcore track.  It’s already mid-morning break at the primary school, to judge by the distant infant shrieking. I’m on a plain above the Welland. On this clear September morning there’s the illusion of an immensely long unbroken view – but the mid-ground drop into and out of the river valley is hidden. Along a nicely planted bridleway beside a farm, down into a grassy dip, at an angle across a shorn field, and then I begin to hear a nervous horse behind me.  She’s being ridden ultra-cautiously by a lady who has for company an older gentleman on a pushbike. They catch up with me at a pair of gates. I try to be chivalrous to allow them through, but the gate mechanism is recalcitrant and I make a proper meal of it. The mare’s very jumpy, and with this new and incompetent human close at hand has to be coaxed along with soothing voice. The gent moans about the farmer. ‘The latches don’t comply for horseriding…’  I don’t know on which side of the hedge I’m to continue. He puts me right and the three of them are soon out of sight, the horse and rider making easy passage across the rough pasture, the bicycle and its passenger rather less so. The path crosses what I guess to be the old cutting of a long extinct ironstone railway, and then skirts a succession of woods: Dryleas Wood, Hollow Wood, Household Coppice, Lodge Coppice. The light is brilliant, the path dappled in the shade of the trees, the breeze lively and at my back. The path hangs a left by the lake at desirable Harringworth Lodge and continues beside a long wall which has been built with far more care than strictly necessary. Either there was always money hereabouts, ostentatiously displayed, or the wall demarked old-money agricultural from incomer industrial use.

Across the road, at the top of the hill, I have a distant view of the principal architectural interest of the day, the Harringworth railway viaduct. It flies across the Welland valley on eighty-two arches of forty foot symmetrical blue-brick span, a Midlands miracle of Victorian effort and engineering. There are twenty million bricks in the entire structure, all of them fired from local clay. HS2 eat your heart out. Oddly of course, to my twenty-first century eye, it adds to the landscape, rather than the other thing.

The other side of Shotley lies the village which gives the viaduct its name. There’s a little parked procession of cars by the roadside near the church of St. John the Baptist. A funeral, I think to myself, but no, the tailgate of each car is open, so it must be a walking group, divesting themselves of their boots. They’re from Melton and Oakham, mostly cheerful ladies who say I should have joined them this fine morning. I don’t know if this is a chat-up line, but just in case, I tell them I’m a pilgrim. They show suitable interest, though whether it’s the kind of curiosity usually reserved for an unusual museum exhibit on a U3A trip, it’s hard to say.
The church gates of St. John’s are in disarray, and the stone posts trammelled by the kind of useless red and white fluttering tape which indicates minor structural disaster, but which in Tibet would be taken for rather unimaginative prayer flags. Jan Gray, who’s come into the church to check that supplies are laid in for Saturday’s Ride and Stride points out for me the ornamental ironwork which used to greet visitors to the church, and is now stashed pro tem on the north side of the nave pending reparations. Apparently a lorry turned incautiously late one evening, and having done the damage, skipped the scene of the accident, not realising that he’d been caught on camera from a nearby house. Hah!

St. John’s is lovely. The organ is unusually placed, on a plinth above the Tryon family vault, very prominent from the p.o.v of the congregation: something not every organist would relish, and some a little too much. See those feet dance, baby! They have things set up that way in Blackpool’s Tower Ballroom where organ talent is celebrated as much as any rock n’roll guitar god. In the opposite corner the font is raised up a little too, which must make baptisms that little bit more inclusive and welcoming. The church’s information leaflet is, if I were being critical, a  tad dry, but tells me a few intriguing things. For instance, one of the bells, cast at the accession of James I, is inscribed ‘Nunc Jacobus ego cano vobis ore iucundo’ ( Now, I James, sing to you with a joyful voice ), which raises more historical questions than it answers.  And why, I wonder, is a clarinet once used in worship at St. John’s, now marked as ‘held, but no longer on display for security reasons’?
I wander along the lane which runs beside the noble viaduct before turning towards Seaton. I find it easy to forget the human cost as I marvel at such beautiful engineering. The hours were long, the working conditions primitive, the lifestyle not conducive to good family values. Some died. A leaflet from St. John’s tells me that there was a Curate of the Railway Mission, who tried to look after the souls of the hundreds of workers employed on the site, some of whom were housed in settlements at Seaton and Gretton. This is an untold piece of People’s History, now inaccessible.
There’s a good pub in Seaton awaiting the walker who’s toiled up the hill: The George and Dragon. Time was there was a pub in Harringworth too, but the White Swan (with a rep for being one of the oldest hostelries in the county), is currently up for sale. Has lack of custom been its downfall, or a disintegrating fabric?

 To some extent it puzzles me that churches within the same benefice vary so much. Jan tells me that numerically speaking, congregations in Harringworth are disappointing, yet the church there feels loved and welcoming. Initial impressions of All Hallows, Seaton are less favourable, but maybe I caught it on a bad day between cleaning sessions. Everything seemed untidy, unswept and clunky, and its website pictures rather flattering. However it’s open, and that’s a Good Thing, isn’t it, and as I passed through there was someone high in the belltower making sure everything was tickety-boo, and a woman was using the peace of the churchyard to read a book, though I couldn’t see whether it was Thomas Aquinas or Fifty Shades of Something. Interestingly, if you live here, the viaduct is ‘The Seaton Viaduct’.

The stroll on to Lyddington is thoroughly Rutland, pretty and undulating. I learnt the latter word precociously, because it figured prominently in the individually written route descriptions that once upon a time the AA would send members if they were making a car journey to some unknown and dangerous part of the country – in our case, being Kentish, to Pembrokeshire, Cornwall, or Yorkshire e.g. …In two hundred yards turn left at the crossroads, signposted Little Crockenhampton, and proceed along the A3406 for fifteen miles through gently undulating countryside…’.  As they arrived in the post these documents were among the sources of my many solo childhood anticipations, along with five shilling boxes of Brock’s fireworks (‘Pagoda Fire – what will that do?’), the shapes of wrapped Christmas presents and the progress of the Cox’s apples on our garden trees. My, we were newly arrived middle-class, but we were happy…

The path ejects me from a woody reverie into the middle of Lyddington’s stretching main street. Everything about the place speaks of a high status history – the width of the road, the sheer number of handsome dwellings with a long past, and at its heart the church of St. Andrew and the adjoining Bede House. The visitor enters the church under the tower through nicely etched glass doors. Inside is an enticing, welcoming space. St. Andrew’s immediately endears itself to me because by the south side of the rood screen is a modern carved stone head, matching the more ancient ones around the aisle roofs. It depicts the one-time Bishop Bill Westwood, who confirmed me at Emmanuel church in 1983. He is bespectacled and owlishly genial. He carries his crook, whose shape reminds one of St. Peter’s key. The likeness doesn’t quite catch his waspish side, but you can’t have everything. There are good concerts in Lyddington from time to time, and a grand piano sits, elevated, in a side aisle. We hope, don’t we, that those who come to listen to the secular, return for the sacred.
The Bede House is an attractive medieval building, once part of a bishop’s palace seized from the Bishops of Lincoln at the last gasp of Henry VIII’s purges, and turned into almshouses late in Elizabeth’s reign. It’s in the care of English Heritage, and since it’s Thursday, is open today. I poke my head in and out of the gift shop, and eat a sandwich at the table in the small garden, then look for a loo and find myself in one of the little cells. I retreat, intending to move on. A lady scuttles out of the shop. ‘There is a charge for admission, you know…’ she shouts across the grass somewhat combatively, and then returns swiftly to mind her cash register. I consider, and then follow her to ask politely where the admission charges are displayed (they’re not, and I’d genuinely thought that if I stayed to look around this would be a free experience!) She says that actually she agrees with me – they should be clearly posted. Later I look up the site, and see that an adult entrance charge of £6.50 is proposed. I’m torn. English Heritage does good work, and as taxpayers, I think we should help preserve our valuable past. But actually, the Bede House is rather a slight visitor experience for the money, requiring a fair bit of historical imagination. And the light, bright ambience of St. Andrew’s next door, Bishop Bill n’all, the property of the very cash-strapped Anglican church, is free to everyone. What do you make of that, pop-pickers?
I go down to the river once more near Thorpe by Water (or rather first up, and then down, which surprises me, not having looked closely enough at the contour lines), and then have a grinding trudge uphill to Gretton because a farmer’s ploughed out the footpath into stiff milk chocolate soil across three consecutive fields. Sue always says she can never remember from one extreme season to another the effect of summer’s heat or winter’s cold. And I forget until each autumn how hard it can be to make way over the tilled earth. How do women repeatedly offer themselves to the excruciating pain of childbirth?(assuming they have the choice!) Forgetting is a necessary part of human experience. And yet I have great difficulty with the expression ’forgive and forget’. If forgiveness is mere forgetting, what moral value does it have? And if I remember with regret and anger in my heart, as for instance I’ll probably do as we leave behind the fellowship of Europe on account of the prejudice of many and the privileged financial gain of a few, how will I really forgive? This paradox is understood by many where it comes to the crunch of principle – as perhaps in Northern Ireland, where the Battle of the Boyne is remembered and still, after centuries, unforgiven by some. We might want it otherwise, but reconciliation can never be a quick fix.

Here’s a kicker. One of the five rivers in the ancient, mythological Greek ‘Hades’ is Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, symbolically linked to personal death, and escape from the cycle of violence and sin. The Greek word for truth is ‘aletheia’, as in the gospel writer John’s ‘the truth will set you free’. So for an educated person in Jesus’ time the word literally meant ‘not-forgetfulness’.

But maybe I’ve told you this before: I can’t remember.

 Water under the bridge:  18.5 km. 6.5 hrs. 22 deg. C. Sun and cloud. An impish, lively breeze from time to time. A buzzard, curious about me, near Harringworth church, beautiful with the sun on his/her wings. Three churches: all open. 7 stiles. 15 gates. 3 bridges. One railway line to cross near the return to Gretton. Caution required here. To the north there’s a curve to the track which might give reduced time to the walker in the face of a southbound train.

Only you can do this
So please have mercy on your children.
Heal our memories of hurt and failure
And help us move on
To see you more clearly
Love you more dearly
Follow you more nearly
So that together
We build your Kingdom
Here on earth
Tending your garden of delights
As you always planned.

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Category Five

At the end of this episodic summer, the farmers have dived through a window of dry opportunity and suddenly the harvest is done. Where I walk today the fields have all been cut, but the stubble stands as proud as on the cheeks of any reality TV star, awaiting the plough.

 On the other side of the Atlantic, the Bahamas have been flattened by a Category Five hurricane, a meteorological rarity that’s becoming almost an autumn commonplace. What adds to its destructive power is that Hurricane Dorian has become stuck between two areas of high pressure, and, travelling at just one mile an hour, is expending its awesome power in the one place, like an earthly version of Jupiter’s ‘Great Red Spot’. It will probably head towards the US East Coast. Trump is so worried for his Mar-a-Lago resort that he’s cancelled foreign travel and sent deputies instead.

 After all my talk of circles in the previous post, today’s walk is a game of two straight, there-and-back halves, visiting places in the diocese that have become hard to reach because of geography or my poor planning.

 On a brisk, fresh day with autumn in the air, the sky Canaletto bright, I leave the car in the lane which is all that there is of the hamlet of Pilton, and head out on a hay-strewn, bone-dry path towards Stoke Doyle.  The path appears to be heading directly for Stoke’s little Georgian church, before it veers away through pasture to join the road. From a mile’s distance there’s an odd trompe d’oeil where a modern barn in the foreground seems to form the church’s nave beside the real tower. Once on the Oundle road, I pass the beautifully restored Mill House, a field of shorn alpacas and the Shuckburgh Arms (closed on Mondays!) and turn right down the lane to St. Rumbald’s.

 In a faint echo of the Brexit debate, you have a choice of belief in respect of the church’s dedication. First: the English candidate. It’s true that the county seems to have been a cult centre for the veneration of ‘Rumwold’ who in this diocese may be encountered variously in Strixton, near Wollaston, where the little chapel is dedicated to him, and in King’s Sutton where the saint was buried. Are you sitting comfortably? Rumwold was the miraculously gifted child of Ealhfrith and Cyneburh. Ealhfrith was the son of Oswiu, King of Northumbria at roughly the time of the Synod of Whitby (A.D. 664). Cyneburh was daughter of Penda, the Mercian King, so this was an important diplomatic marriage in the centuries before England finally began to coalesce under Alfred. The story goes that Cyneburh converted Ealhfrith, holding herself pure until he became Christian. When he said yes, so did she. Alas, Rumwold survived just three days before his death, but that was enough for him too to profess his faith as a Christian and preach a sermon. The Venerable Bede hints that the missionary St. Wilfrid spread his cult as he travelled. It was a time of miracles and marvels. Politics and religion coincided. A feast used to be celebrated in Stoke Doyle for Rumwold/Rumbald on the Sunday after All Saints Day.

Second: the international version. St. Rumbold was an Irish or Scottish evangelist, commissioned in Rome, who during the Dark Ages spread the Gospel in what is now Belgium until he was murdered by two men whom he told off for financial malpractice. The Cathedral in Mechelen is dedicated to him, and his relics are deposited there. If you want to celebrate him June 24th is the day. In a local postscript, to this day there’s a family in our parish by the name of ‘Rumbold’.

The interior of Stoke Doyle’s church is delightfully plain, dignified and unfussy. The current church replaced its dilapidated Gothic predecessor in 1727, showing a determination to do something new and different. The Georgian fashion was for clear windows, letting light into the mysteries of religion, celebrating God’s lordship over the natural; science and faith as one. It holds one important treasure in the side chapel, now a vestry. The son of Sir Edward Ward, one time ‘Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer’ ( a posh judge) lived in the local Manor House after his father, and financed St. Rumbald’s rebuilding. The price he exacted was to have his father’s noble form rendered in marble by a brilliant young Flemish sculptor, Jan Michiel Rijsbrack, who was later responsible for the tomb of Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey.  It is a lovely thing - even I who have little feeling for sculpture can see that – but I find it difficult to read. Is the noble Baron on his death bed? Or, a la Stanley Spencer, is he caught in the act of resurrection? Or is his attitude simply one of a habitual, careless disposition of justice from his couch? It is at any rate, a touching testament of a son’s love for his dad, accompanied by a lengthy inscribed tribute.
I’m lurking just inside the church door when in come Liz and her niece Sophie bearing flowers, and I unwittingly make them jump. Liz is in charge of Stoke Doyle’s contribution to the diocesan ‘Ride and Stride’ which will happen in a fortnight’s time. This excellent annual event raises money by sponsorship to be split between Historic Churches and local needs. When I tell Liz I’m from Weston Favell, she asks me if I know John White, and of course I do. He and Jane are stalwarts of our congregation, and for many years co-ordinated St. Peter’s part in ‘Ride and Stride’. Liz observes that St. Rumbald’s has a good acoustic, and it’s true. Sound waves can bounce off all sides of the little Georgian box: it would be a good place to come and sing Evensong one day. A pretty little organ too.

Just as time moves more swiftly the older one gets, so a return journey seems to pass more quickly, a sort of instant habituation to a landscape such that the brain bothers to take in less, or maybe is still struggling to process the information recently absorbed.

                                                              Gretton Baptist Church

Back at the car, I look at the map, and work out the quickest route by road to the second Walk Of The Day which will take me from Rockingham to Gretton and back. It takes a surprisingly long time to navigate Corby’s peripherique and the afternoon’s well started by the time I park outside the pub at the foot of Rockingham’s hill.

 There’s a famous hymn tune named Rockingham, and we sang it at Evensong last night, though not to the words with which it’s most closely associated:  ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’. The composer is Edward Miller but I’d not previously noticed the slight equivocation in its attribution. Although some books suggest he wrote the tune, in A&M it says merely that he adapted it. But from what? And if so, who was the original composer?  It betrays no great signs of being traditional, although I suppose if I close my eyes and stick a finger in my ear, I can just about imagine a demotic version. Beethoven and Schubert were adept at ripping off folk melodies and taking them up-market, so why not E. Miller? He was a Yorkshireman but ended his days at Wheatley in Oxfordshire, not so very far away, so I’m making the assumption that he was thinking of this Rockingham, so attractively situated underneath the castle above the Welland valley, and not another somewhere in the Ridings.

 Yesterday we sang it to ‘My God, and is thy table spread’. David the Rector remarked that it felt all wrong, and that’s an opinion with which I reluctantly agree. Doddridge’s words are well meant, but somehow too anodyne for a tune we’re used to rendering with contrasting dynamics – double piano for ‘See from his head, his hands, his feet…’, double forte for ‘Were the whole realm of nature mine…’ My retort was that Doddridge to Rockingham was a thoroughly Northamptonshire experience.

Philip Doddridge was a remarkable man. He was caught up in the fervour of Revival inspired by Wesley and others, but had his own particular take on the matter. Was there any ‘side’ when Wesley described him as ‘the late, pious and learned Doctor Doddridge’? He was orphaned by the time he was in his early teens, but even then his education and upbringing outside the Anglican mainstream was leading him towards a ministry of challenge which he informed by attending a ‘Dissenting Academy’ in Kibworth. In time he formed his own Academy in Daventry, and as Doddridge’s fame grew, this mini-university migrated to Northampton. It’s said that his hymns (numbering in the hundreds) were developed to illustrate the sermons he preached. The Doddridge Memorial United Reformed Church is still a part of modern Northampton. Perhaps his most famous lyric is the Advent hymn: ‘Hark the glad sound, the Saviour comes…’ and a majority of Anglican congregations probably sing it each year, the rebel returning home. William Wilberforce and Joseph Priestley both owe something to his influence.

The path to Gretton is a joy. Underfoot there’s a bit of everything, grassy tracks, stony paths, a passage through a recently cut field where treading through the hay gives the sensation of a walk through freshly fallen snow. After I pass under the railway line going north from Corby (mostly freight, single track, unelectrified) there’s a steep climb up the scarp which gives the Jurassic Way its name, and then there I am in the handsome town/village of Gretton. There is the Baptist church, resolutely, defiantly, proclaiming its identity as a ‘House of God’ by its low square architecture. There is Lydia’s coffee shop, where I have a mug of Americano and a piece of Victoria Sandwich. And here is St. James’ generous, open church with its amusingly wonky east window, an adapted-catholic ambience with a little chapel space for private devotion, candles, crucifixes, a tree of remembrance.
The clouds are gathering as I return to Rockingham along the valley, a few barely discernible flecks of moisture wafted on the lively breeze. I haven’t written a great deal about the British political backdrop to my Walk over the last three years, since remarking in June 2016 that we were entering a tunnel of uncertain outcome: it’s not the purpose of this project.  But now we are in our own Category Five. As this week we enter this first stage of what we must now assume to be Britain’s divorce from Europe, whatever that means, I think I see a necessary adjustment coming for members of the Church of England…perhaps for all Christians living in the UK, or at least that rump of the UK that will remain when the hurricane has passed. As a Church we’ve gradually become used (over hundreds of years) to a particular relationship with our state and a negotiated, compromise notion of democracy (How should a Christian feel about democracy?) But if a faithless, humanist State continues to co-opt us as a Church to endorse a changed view of how society should be governed, either populist or non-democratic, what then? Consider the roles the Catholic Church played in Poland under Communist rule, for a while merely the province of old people, then resurgent after 1989, now accommodating to liberalism. Or think of the challenge the Anglican Church made to South African apartheid during the sixties, seventies and eighties? Who are we? Where should the Church sit in a society which doesn’t accept our values, either at ground level, or in its government – by any major political party?  Are we in the tent, or outside?

Birds on the wire: 
(Pilton to Stoke Doyle and back)  5 km. 1.5 hrs. 20 deg. C. Six stiles. Eight gates. 2 bridges. 

 (Rockingham to Gretton and back) 10km. 3 hrs. 4 stiles. Twenty gates. Eight bridges. Two churches: both open.

 Kites hunting. Squirrels snuffling. Wagtails wiggling.

Little and Large…

If we are a remnant
How should I think of that?
Are we a ragged thing
A popped balloon
A fragment
Of something that was once
Beautiful and beloved?

Or are we torch-bearers
Guarding a flame
And the stuff of future legends?

Being me
Half empty, not half full
I see the downsides of both.
(Or so I think)
We shall be demoralised
Or hubristic.

Teach us good Lord
To be the leaven
In a doughy world
So that we all rise
In Glory
To celebrate You
As we should
For all eternity.

                                    One man and his dog: detail from old map: Stoke Doyle