Monday, 4 November 2019


I park the car near Apethorpe’s stocks, and bring to my mind’s eye the political scoundrels I’d like to see sitting there, justifying their inanities, half-truths and knowing lies in the face of the public’s rotten tomatoes (Don’t hold back, now!) At the village limit the road’s still damp by the little stone bridge despite a dry couple of days: the rain of a week ago was intense enough to make the stream flood. An autumn track hung with brown and gold veers away to the left. I follow it up the rise towards Bushrubs Wood, sharing a morning hello with two lady riders, who’ve politely slowed so that we can pass without a hoof-spatter of mud. The horses look askance: I just cost them a premature end to an energising gallop. Bluefield farm is an attractive spread beyond the wood; a lovely, tranquil place to live. Was flax a major crop here years ago?
Clockwise progress today.  Now the daylight hours are shorter, I don’t fancy picking my way through the trees after twilight were I to have a bad map-reading day, so we’ll do the bosky bit first. By the entrance to the privately owned woods of Little Morton Sale, a notice tells me to keep to the path or take the consequences. Turning left up a track as wide as a ‘B’ road between lovely broad-leaved cover, a strongly constructed estate bridge takes me over the cut of the railway which once ferried the citizens of King’s Cliffe to Peterborough’s shops. Up ahead I think I see a deer, but it turns out to be a lanky, over-inquisitive hound taking its jogging owner for his daily constitutional. I shoo its rude nose away. Eventually the woodland clears to old quarry workings on either side, the track now paved with densely packed hardcore, emerging anticlimactically by a noisy industrial park, clank and grime. Across the Roman road I enter the Forestry Commission greenery of Bedford Purlieus, where Time Team once searched for high status villas, and were disappointed (although do archaeologists ever admit regret?) that the local inhabitants two thousand years ago weren’t all that posh. Well, yes. This is artisan country. Anyone who made it big cleared off to Gloucestershire to find more genteel neighbours. Plus ca change. On the eastern edge of the Purlieus I’m curious to see ‘Cook’s Hole’, but find the path diverted because of the ever-expanding quarry: there’s now a hole bigger than Cook ever imagined, whoever Cook was. Crossing the A47 with care on a really hazardous bend (N.B.) I take the lane into Thornhaugh.

There’s a sign which says I’ve arrived at the village limits, but actually the settlement is still a good twenty minutes away on foot, where there’s another sign plus a twenty mile an hour speed restriction. (Who lives here then?) In sheer acreage Thornhaugh is an unusually large parish for the number of residents, and the Big House is left out on its own behind the usual defensive walls and gates. Once upon a time it probably made its own arrangements for religion:  St. Andrew’s, the village church, is sunk down among the commoners’ cottages in a little valley well out of sight of the aristos, far too long a walk for dainty and noble ankles. I’d wondered how to pronounce the village name, but as you can see, it’s Thornhaw. A notice proclaims that it won a Proby award (surely not PJ!) as a best kept village in 1991. It’s still neat as a pin, if a little clinically so.  A familiar refrain:  the church is closed, so I sit on a bench by the door, open a packet of sandwiches and watch the world for a while. A note in St. Andrew’s porch tells me that the church is part of the Watersmete benefice, so-called because all of its six parishes have streams or rivers flowing through them. In Anglo-Saxon Thornhaugh means ‘thorn-enclosed low lying meadow beside a stream’. The note further implies that within living memory the mill here was used to crush bone into meal. 
I’ve had the best of the day. Without me noticing the clouds have gathered, and the breeze has ebbed away, so the afternoon will become dull and less bracing. The exit from Thornhaugh is humdrum, untidy suburban semis overlooking scrappy fields. As I pull up the path back towards the A47, there’s a strong chemical smell, presumably crop spray, and I replay an iterated internal argument.
Q. Might whatever this substance is give me cancer/cause my limbs to wither/accelerate brain decay? A. Surely not. Otherwise it would damage consumers of the crop, animal or human. Q. But that’s what happens all the time, isn’t it? People think stuff is safe, and then only when it’s too late they find out it isn’t. A. Well, the farmers wouldn’t knowingly expose themselves, would they? Q. I refer the honourable gent to my previous answer. How would they know?...

 By the entrance to Wansford I detour into the village Pasture, maintained as a Pocket Park, grazed by two mournful long-horned cows, who ought to be as happy as Larrietta, given all the nice organic stuff there is to eat there. The legend at the Pasture entrance reminds me that I’ve crept across the border into Cambridgeshire: in Thornhaugh I was actually north of Peterborough. Down the road, St. Mary’s church looks more substantial in profile than it is inside, where it’s cosy, intimate and comfortable. I read a psalm and use their loo. Think outside the box, Church House, there’s a coffee table book to be made out of C of E toilets, often cunningly contrived in nooks and crannies of ancient architecture.

The graceful spans of Wansford’s ancient bridge are the backdrop for a horsey field. A notice tells me not to feed one of the inhabitants: it’s been poorly, and recycled Macdonald’s won’t aid recovery. The Nene Way to Yarwell is very squelchy: the water meadows have been doing what water meadows are supposed to do. The Angel at Yarwell is festooned with cobwebs (artificial!) spiders, skulls and all the usual Hallowe’en tat. Eleven years ago when I visited friends in South Carolina, I was fascinated by the prevalence of temporary graveyards in front gardens and witches’ hats by front doors as the first Obama election came to its climax. I haven’t seen any make-believe cemeteries in Weston Favell yet, but I guess it won’t be too long. As a reply, there’s a fine and tasteful display of pumpkins in the windows of the little church of St. Mary Magdalene.
Every year I ponder whether the function of our solemn, annual remembrance of the departed is replicated in the secular Hallowe’en. Are we all really dealing with our own mortality? Maybe even the recent youthful fixation on ‘zombies’ (and I don’t mean the fine Rod Argent/Colin Blunstone sixties’ band) is dealing with a fear of losing one’s identity in e.g. dementia. In a few days’ time we’ll make our Weston Favell All Souls’ commemoration, which always provokes such a mix of emotions for me. As the names of deceased parishioners are read, their faces come powerfully to mind, and it’s hard to believe they’re not still with us in the pews week by week, dispensing kindness and faithfulness, being tiresome as fellow-worshippers can sometimes be. And then there’s the terrifying thought that one day my name will be among them, and that others will think of me in much the same way. And somewhere in the mix is a ridiculous, funny memory of Sir Michael Redgrave reading the ‘List of Huntingdonshire Cabmen’ on Spike Milligan’s quirky, subversive, Q7 telly programme of yesteryear. I always have to check that I’m not smirking inappropriately!

                                                                     Ford at Nassington 
Nassington isn’t far along a muddy by-way, where a mum’s dutifully allowing her two tinies to splash and dirty their trousers in the ruts and puddles. As I get to St. Mary’s (the Virgin this time), the air’s filled with the sounds of a thousand starlings perching on the knobbly bits of the spire (there’ll be a technical term, but I don’t know it). Though Cromwell’s men scraped most of the walls clean, ghosts of some of the paintings remain, disappearing into time’s distance like the image of Jesus on the Turin Shroud. In the north aisle stands the bottom half of a Saxon cross, astonishing to contemplate, a link across a thousand years of time to people who thought (so we believe) more or less as we do about faith and mortality, inducing shivers of wonder, making Nassington in Tom Wright’s words ‘a thin place’.
As I walk on, I hear half term happening somewhere on the heritage railway between Yarwell and Wansford: ‘Everyone loves the sound of a train in the distance…’ (Paul Simon), Thomas the Tank Engine delighting yet another generation of small children, a note friendly and lonesome all at the same time, counterpoint to the calls of the hawks hunting above the fields. It’s properly autumn, now, lowering and grey, with that strange, suffusing glow lent by a carpet of multi-coloured fallen leaves.
Votes cast: 19 km. 5.5 hrs. 11 deg. Clear at first with a keen easterly wind, dropping to leave a calm afternoon under the increasing cloud cover. Four churches: three open. Three stiles. Seventeen gates. Two bridges. Do be careful of that crossing on the A47!

A thought strikes me as I hobble back to the car. As we peer through the Brexit cloud of unknowing (with another general election now set to further weary the people), I realise that for me the impossibility of resolution has a familiar feel. Frustration about it sits on me rather as it does on my contemplation of the Christian Trinity. None of us can quite see, or perfectly articulate, how God is One and Three at the same time – which is perhaps why clergy fight shy of preaching on Trinity Sunday. In the end I’m happy-ish to live with the ineffability and mystery of traditional doctrine. But with Brexit, in the end, there’ll have to be a practical choice between A and –A. Everyone knows it. And it will leave a great number of people unhappy because they’re losing faith - of a kind.
I thank you for the great cloud of witnesses
People humble and high-born
Differently-gifted to me
Some who have gone before
And some who are yet to see the light of day
Testifying to the wonder and mystery
Of the world you have made
Bearing me up
On the wings of their faith and steadfastness.
May I be worthy
Of their example and teaching
In words and in action