Thursday, 24 October 2019

Missing the mark

                             It's been a very good autumn for funghi, but stay away from these...

Do I walk anti-clockwise more than I walk clockwise?  I think I do. And what should be read into this?

Today at any rate is an anti-clockwise day, beginning at Gretton and following the track south-east towards Kirby Hall. The early clouds have vanished: it’s a sparkling clear morning. A van splashes through the puddles behind me and I step onto the verge. The van veers from side to side of the lane ahead, avoiding a lorry tyre that’s been abandoned dead-centre. The van stops with a squeak, handbrake interruptus. I greet the dungareed farmer. His mood doesn’t exactly match the weather:

Me:  (sad shake of the head) ‘Pah. Have they left it for you to clear up then?’

Him:    (mumbling to himself…I don’t think he’s heard me: probably too much time too close to industrial machinery)  ‘Grmble, grmble, maudit gerbil…’

Me: (louder) ‘I said, they’ve left it for you to tidy…’

Him: (Not looking up. Shovelling muck into a pile I hadn’t seen by the hedge) ‘It ent my job. I dunno how the buggers got it ‘ere. They keep that gate back there shut nowadays. I give up…grmble grmble maudit…’

And indeed it isn’t his job, and it’s utterly mystifying why someone would drive a mile into the middle of the countryside to clutter up the lane. His job has probably been to dig out the ditches which line the track a little further on, painstaking but necessary work which reminds me how much patience is still required to keep animals safe and coax a living from the land. I couldn’t do it.

Eventually the track peters out, and its successor path climbs a little hill, skirts a copse and arrives at a stile from which there’s a great view of Kirby Hall. Though blind and derelict, it’s a fine, noble example of a ‘Prodigy House’ and its first owner was Sir Christopher Hatton. He also built the rather larger Holdenby Hall, thirty odd miles away. Prodigy Houses were a by-product of Queen Bess’s liking for making ‘progress’ around the Midlands, which I daresay was a mutually convenient way of keeping royal costs down and key individuals sweet. Who was sweeter on whom in this instance it’s hard to say. She liked his dancing (he apparently cut a mean galliard), and Hatton must have had a brain to match his shapes, since he became her mid-reign chancellor. He clearly valued her assets highly too, or was at least smart enough to pay them due homage: he gave her a ring which he claimed had ‘the virtue to expel infectious airs’. It was to be worn between Her Majesty’s ‘sweet duggs, the chaste nest of pure constancy’. Unsurprisingly there were rumours that they were lovers. Hatton’s lasting legacy is to have a school in Wellingborough named after him. Ah well!

A man short of stature, in clothes suggesting household repairs rather than rambling, and with no dog or walking paraphernalia, follows me purposefully from the surrounding fields into Kirby Hall’s drive. I say hello and he answers incomprehensibly. Was that Latvian or deep Northamptonshire dialect? Half a mile later he’s there close behind me again as I stand by a stile trying to make sense of a path diversion. Again, without offering any facial or bodily clue, he says something I can’t understand so I just smile encouragingly…but not too encouragingly. It’s a morning for mumbling. Perhaps I’m doing it myself. I choose the road, he the possibly-closed path. Then further on up, by a nice rule of three, he suddenly stumps out from the trees beside me. I move into a higher gear and leave him behind, speeding on to Deene with its chocolate box cottages, its stately home and high-spired St. Peter’s. Inside one immediately thinks what a big old pile this is for such a diminutive village. It’s now in the care of the Conservation Trust, whose work with smaller buildings is often so instructive, beneficial and worship-preserving, but they have a tough task here. Most of what one sees inside the building is already gothic-revival restoration, lovingly completed a hundred and fifty years ago at the instigation of the ‘Light Brigade’s Seventh Earl of Cardigan’s widow, a member of the local Brudenell family whose tombs are prominent in today’s church. Near the door I see a board which mentions a figure of £1.5 million to put things right. I think to myself that however beautiful the setting, we just can’t do this. Bar the discovery of a local saint and the founding of a celebratory cult here, few people will ever make a pilgrimage through the doors of St. Peter’s to find faith or even simply enjoy its lofty proportions.

The Greenbelt festival made its annual home at Deene for some years in the nineties, and then perhaps at least for one weekend a year St. Peter’s was full of people at prayer. Being here now causes me to reflect on my past as I awkwardly navigate around a herd of cows on the path to Bulwick.

WARNING: Old rocker’s reminiscences. Can cause drowsiness. Do not operate heavy machinery while reading…

We had various encounters with splendid Greenbelt throughout its earlier history. What a good job it’s done for making visible the fact that the Christian faith touches every area of life in ways that are surprising, radical, and un-churchy. In the absence of fifties-style Billy Graham evangelistic crusades, it and ‘Spring Harvest’ have been the poster events for The Church these past forty years. Greenbelt began in Odell on the Northants/Beds border. Bill Thorp’s lovely ‘Water into Wine Band’ sought relief from Bank Holiday soggy bottoms in our front room in August 1975, and I subsequently managed to park our Renault 6 on a festival site tree stump, wheels waving in the air, a feat apparently much more easily achieved than remedied. When the festival moved more or less down the road from us in Castle Ashby a few years later, Sue and I were part of a festival lunchtime radio roadshow with friend Myra Blyth and radio presenter Dilly Barlow, all jingles, interviews and panel discussions on abortion and South American politics. In 1987, I hit the mainstage, number two on the Saturday night bill behind Philip Bailey as one of the two keyboard players in Mark Williamson’s Bloodline. In fact the band had two of most things. Apart from me and six foot seven inches of Babe Ruth’s Dave Morris, there were two guitarists in the wonderful Robin Boult and international hit producer Alan Shacklock, two drummers including my mate Nigel Pegrum, and squadrons of backing singers, one of whose mics was turned off because he was singing so flat (though I think he may not have been entirely aware of this). There was so much on-stage smoke that the set became an exercise in solipsism. Not only could we not hear each other, the faithful reproduction of a 1953 pea-souper made it impossible to see each other too. I might use this as an excuse for my delivery of what on one of our more-bombastic-than-Muse numbers may have been the worst ever keyboard solo in rock n’roll history, or alternatively an inspired piece of dada-ist art, but it would be inauthentic of me to do so. There was a mixing-desk recording, but thankfully it never saw the light of day, and I ritually destroyed my cassette copy in red-faced disgust.

A couple of years later, the band I was then with, Beltane Fire, opened the whole weekend for die-hard, early adopters on a damp Thursday evening. We worked hard for meagre applause from punters who didn’t have a clue who we were, but at least I could see the drummer and bass player.

I never played at Deene Park.

                          Inside St. Peter's, Deene. (I had a go, but couldn't make it happen).

The nineteen eighties/nineties were a funny time. I was in my thirties and forties, a latecomer to the entertainment world, convincing myself that I wasn’t a failure for giving up on teaching after six years, striving desperately for recognition in an industry for which I wasn’t very well-equipped. I think now I lost my way, and compromised the ‘real me’, too desperate, too eager to please, too exploiting, too ridiculously obsessed with glamour and fame which never came. Perhaps we often feel that kind of thing about our pasts. Does it strike a chord with you in some way? Perhaps in twenty years I’ll feel comparable things about the me-that-is-now. All that blogging! What did he think he was playing at! The New Testament Greek word for ‘sin’ is ‘hamartia’, which famously comes from a family of words borrowed from the military or sporting worlds to do with ‘missing the mark’ (as perhaps in archery).  I missed the mark quite often, and of course I still do.

This seems like a cuddly, friendly way of thinking about ‘sin’, a long way removed from hell-fire preaching, or even the condemnation the apostle Paul hands out to the early Christian churches for their shortcomings. Some evangelical commentators seek to redress this by suggesting that implicit in the idea of ‘hamartia’ is that the person missing the target won’t ‘share in the prize’ (heaven?) or would be ‘letting the army down’, in a way that deserves punishment. Would it be fair to respond that not many archers deliberately try to ‘miss the mark’? Most of us are in it to win it. It’s just that all of us fail: our technique’s not good enough, the target’s too far away, our training wasn’t right. I prefer to think of God laughing at our foolishness and chiding us lovingly back to better ways. Elvis Costello sings: ‘Oh Alison…my aim is true…’  I don’t believe in a God who throws his creation away, who, in an old fashioned phrase, ‘sets it at nought’. And so on my more generous days I also think, notwithstanding confession and absolution, I should cut my sadder eighties’ self a bit of slack.

 But what about the real bad stuff, the meticulously planned fraud, the abuse of children, genocide?  I don’t know. I really don’t know…

Except that working these things through is also the stuff of pilgrimage.

 Bulwick was once on the main Stamford road, but was by-passed some years ago, and is a pretty, lively village with the Queen’s Head on my left and St. Nicholas’ church on the right. I’m served a restorative GB by the smartly dressed bar staff in the neat pub, and am amused to find that Bulwick’s local Big Family are the Tryons, which reminds me of the BBC execs’ difficulties when first introduced to The Goons – they read the groundbreaking comedy act as the Go-ons, which seemed to them far more in keeping with ‘variety’ theatre.  The inside of St. Nicholas tells me two things: that there are not huge numbers of worshippers, but that the people of the village care for each other and their church.

 The plight of their village shop underlines the fact. On February 22nd a chimney fire caught the thatch and the whole of Camille and Andrew Ortega-Maclean’s business and domestic life went up in smoke. The Pickled Shop had both become loved as a local amenity and was establishing a reputation as a supplier of fine foods in the UK and Europe. The couple walked out of the ruins with what they wore and nothing else. Now the villagers are crowd-funding Pickled Shop rev. 2, and as I pass today the builders are whistling and hard at work. Good on yer, Bulwick.


                    A kneeler in St. Nicholas', Bulwick. Deenethorpe was the site of yet another
                                                  tragic World War 2 air crash.

Shots in the locker:  19.5 km. Just shy of six hours. 14 degrees C. Clear skies followed by some lunchtime cloud, dissipating towards dusk. 3 churches. 2 open (but not All Saints Laxton, whose building and churchyard lie at the end of a little Church Walk with a small field to one side, today containing two tiny, perfectly pretty calves and two understandably protective mums.) 9 stiles. 14 gates. 2 bridges. A black (?) squirrel near Kirby Hall – I’ve only ever seen one before and that was in Woburn, but this one looked pretty dark to me from a distance of 25 metres. The constant mewing of kites hunting near Laxton, singly and in pairs. And the verbed-up sound of a barn owl, taking over the night shift near Harringworth Lodge as I made my way back to Gretton.

Forgive me my trespasses
And help me to forgive
Those who walk across my cucumber patch.
Grant me the capacity
So to learn from my past mistakes
That this day I better represent Christ
To those I meet
So that together
We bring about on our blue planet
Your kingdom of love, justice and equity.





Monday, 7 October 2019

Into the woods...

Shortly after leaving Southwick I get lucky. Crossing the stream, I glimpse a flash of electra-glide blue skimming the water: a kingfisher, still one of the most breathtaking sights in the British countryside, because relatively rare, and invariably fleeting. And just where it’s flying, on a branch overhanging the rill, a black and white woodpecker, whether lesser or greater spotted I can’t tell you, leaning away from the bark as an experienced climber would on a rockface.

An erratum – or at least, a misapprehension. I thought the ‘World Conker Championships’ were still held at Ashton, but a correspondent tells me that in 2013 they moved to Southwick, and will be held there this coming Sunday. The entry form is available on line, so there’s still time to compete if you feel the force is with you, though this year the conkers are small, and the horse chestnut itself is threatened - now classed as ‘vulnerable to extinction’ across Europe. Use it or lose it. And if you have a secret conker-hardening recipe, don’t give it away.

 On the far side of the field the trees await. On the subject of Stephen Sondheim (see my previous post!), my personal favourite among his musicals is ‘Into the Woods’. Little Red Riding Hood sings:

Into the woods and down the dell
The path is straight, I know it well
Into the woods and who can tell
What’s waiting on the journey?
Into the woods to bring some bread
To Granny who is sick in bed
Never can tell what lies ahead
For all that I know she’s already dead
But into the woods…
Into the woods to Grandmother’s house
And home before dark!’

 So LRRH is on a pilgrimage too, of sorts. Nursery tales are where we explore our shadow sides. We don’t know what we’ll find when we enter the childhood which is still part of us each and every day. The wolf may be lurking in unexpected places. And yet, for many of us brought up on tales on Robin of Sherwood, the woods are where we like to be, outlaws and fugitives on the run from Authority. Oh yes, my walks are full of fantasy.

 Fortunately man-eating animals as well as conkers are also virtually extinct in Howe Wood and Great Colsters. I emerge from the forest and follow the track round and up towards Lodge Farm. My phone vibrates. It’s Matt on Facetime, and we have a jolly conversation feeling very modern, him in a European capital and me in the middle of the Northamptonshire countryside, until he asks why I called him, and I say I thought he’d called me, before realising that because my phone was in my trouser pocket and I was striding out in the way men do, it had called him of its own accord. Later I find I’d unintentionally called my stepmum in much the same way.

 Apethorpe (‘App-thorpe’!) is a very pretty hamlet (with quite a few cottages for sale) and in thrall to its own adjoining grand-manner Jacobean house, once called ‘Apethorpe Hall’, now retitled ‘Apethorpe Palace’, on account of it having been a favoured hunting lodge for James the First, back when Rockingham Forest really was Rockingham Forest, and not just a disaggregated set of woodlands. Given his ambiguous reputation, one can imagine that ‘Into the woods’ had a different range of meanings for Jack and his boys (and girls!) 


                                Eighteenth century justice: stocks and whipping post: Apethorpe 

St.Leonard’s website assures me the church will be open, but it isn’t, so I scoff an M&S chicken sandwich in the porch and admire a view across to the older buildings at the back of the Palace, which is now privately owned but with some involvement from English Heritage, such that visits may be made to inspect its splendours during July and August. On the OS map there’s an intriguing reference to ‘Gold Diggings’ south east of the Palace. A very good English Heritage article on the web tells me that this was the site of a Roman villa, unusually posh for around here, with hypocausts, galleries, more than one range, painted walls, bath houses, altars, the real deal. It further points out that for whatever reason the parish boundary between Southwick and Apethorpe was aligned with the villa, so in all probability a folk memory of the place remained after its decline. From artefacts found locally around Apethorpe, human history here goes back much further than the Romans. How big was the Neolithic population of northern Northamptonshire? The archaeologists and historians tend to the very conservative about this. Unhampered by any evidence or academic qualification I’m inclined to think there were more folk around than generally reckoned, though of course, life was much nastier, more brutish and short than today. Life and procreation tends to the abundant, it seems to me, until it doesn’t, as with conker trees and snow leopards.
I walk on across the fields, flat except where they were once dug for clay, and then drop down to Morehay Lane and the eastern entrance to King’s Cliffe, still at over a thousand souls, a sizeable settlement, little changed in size over two centuries. Up at substantial All Saints and St. James the church ladies are cutting and arranging flowers for tomorrow’s Harvest service, sneezing as they do so. The bells of All Saints are right in the centre of the church underneath the broach tower, accessed by a magnificent metal staircase. From the congregation All Saints’ high altar is a distant feature. An everyday altar sits on the west side of the tower, fronted today by a harvest loaf, which I hope and imagine will be accompanied tomorrow by a plethora of harvest gifts in the old-fashioned way.

 I’m not sure I can explain why, but this part of the diocese is so different to the south. One breathes Viking air. Celtic sensibilities are far away. King’s Cliffe is a highly individual place, with tiny paths given the status of ‘lanes’. By name my next port of call even sounds like it belongs to Yorkshire – Blatherwycke. It’s true that here we’re less than ten miles from Lincolnshire where accents quickly change and vowels broaden in directions that suggest ‘The North’ rather than ‘The Midlands’.

 There are a few disagreeable few moments in the fields beyond the King’s Cliffe allotments. Why does my sense of outraged justice kick in so quickly and dangerously in public spaces when for instance in matters ecclesiastical I’m generally so slow to mix it with issues and individuals I think are out of order?

 I hear him well before I see him. Someone’s riding a trials bike at manic speed somewhere ahead of me, obviously doing some kind of circuit, because the sound comes and goes. Across another field boundary he becomes visible, driving his bike round and round a grass field, maybe touching fifty or sixty on the straight sides, scattering a group of grazing horses as he goes. He passes me, casting an f-off look as I lean on my stick to observe his behaviour. When he next passes, I take out my camera, and point it in his direction, but do not take a photograph. There’s no point. He’s unidentifiable in his helmet and leathers, and my lack of zoom ( as opposed to his excess of zoom!) means nothing useful would result. His bike has no number plate anyway. I stroll on, and cross another hedge by a stile parallel to Willow Brook. Now he’s crossed into this  field too through an open farm gate. He rides round to confront me. I reverse my hold on my stick and grasp it half way down, showing the knobbly end. I make myself look as big as possible (that's not very big, really!)

 Him (muffled):  Why you taking photographs of me?

Me:  I wasn’t

 Him: You was…

 Me: I wasn’t. You can have a look if you want… (showing him the camera)

 Him: You was. Suppose it was my thirteen year old daughter…

 Me: Do you have the landowners’ permission?

 Him: You the landowner then? Anyway, it’s a footpath.

 Me: Which means you shouldn’t be riding on it.

 Him: Why you taking photographs of me?

 At which point I disengage. I’ve been stupid of course. This isn’t a situation in which I should have intervened or appeared to intervene. If I found a bull inconveniently in a field, would I do anything other than give it a wide berth? I have no knowledge of his possible reaction, or whether he might be carrying a weapon, and I'm a long way from assistance in a place where mobile reception is intermittent. Ironically, as soon as I get home, I receive an advisory from our local rozzers asking me to let them know if I see someone riding a motorbike illegally or in a way likely to endanger life.
After something like this, you replay the conversation, and if you have an interior life as vividly melodramatic as mine try alternatives for size, in which you play a more heroic role. I think about phoning the police, and when I arrive at Alders Farm look for someone to confide in. I find a gamekeeper shutting up shop for the afternoon, but the fields to the east aren’t their land: he doesn’t want to know. Oddly, I see his 4x4 a little later, tracking me from the far side of the field beside Blatherwycke Lake. The game bird business is clearly a Big Thing here. Perhaps he had wondered if  I was trying to distract him while my accomplices robbed his pens or undertook some animal liberation stunt.

Within the Christian community (at least in person, if not in print), I am so much more willing to hang back and not offer criticism, even when I see injustice or offence being caused. Is this good or not? How do you act in such situations? As I’ve written a number of times previously, how we learn to disagree well is a major issue for the Church – and is becoming a big question in our future national life too. Walking together in the Deep Woods requires discipline, and the finding of a common purpose. Leadership and imposition are not the same thing.

The comedian/musician Graham Fellows (aka John Shuttleworth) wrote a song about Blatherwycke because he was passing up the A43 towards the A1 and the North after a gig, saw the sign to the village, but left it as a regretted road-not-taken. In truth, although the setting is quite romantic, the church of Holy Trinity set above the pretty lake, and the atmosphere of the once Great House still palpable, it might not have been the peak experience Graham/John was hoping for. The little church is in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. Had it been summer it’d have been open, and there’s an address for the key, but I have some long way still to go and I move on, fearing any lapse in waymarking or map-reading will leave me vulnerable to fatigue: there aren’t many features between here and Southwick, just a lot of trees, and to the west, wide open vistas, uninterrupted by much in the way of human habitation. Who cleared Rockingham forest and when? And as in so many matters ecological and social/historical, how do we feel when we compare this clearance/enclosing with the destruction of the forest in poorer parts of the world today?
Beats per minute:  21 km. 6 hrs. 17  deg C. No wind to speak of. Sunny periods. 9 stiles. 9 gates. 6 bridges. One out of three churches open. Not only a kingfisher and a spotted woodpecker, but also kites, buzzards, yaffles, pheasants and partridges by the hundreds, squirrels getting in supplies for the winter.

When I am deep in the woods
Help me to find my way.
May I recognise the shadows for what they are
And not imagine them as dark forces
Overwhelming me.
Help me to find friends
And avoid foes.
And teach me
That wherever I am
You are with me
And will keep my feet from falling.