I’m anticipating another mudbath out on the paths today, and though at the previous close of play my use of Belton’s church for the removal of filthy trousers was improvised, today I’m planning ahead. I park outside All Saints, Braunston and check the church is open: I’ll need it later…
I walk round outside the west end to inspect the church’s celebrity stone (see the previous post). I’m not convinced it’s a true Sheela, but what do I know? The carving’s very indistinct, and some say has been further damaged in recent decades. I wonder whether it’s a grotesque interior church feature removed in a restoration, thought inappropriate because it could be seen as a woman with bare breasts. How can I put it decorously? The figure lacks some of the other attributes one might expect in a true fertility symbol. Wikipedia opines it may have had an ‘apotropaic’ purpose – the evil eye and all that.
I take a path that crosses the little River Gwash to follow its line on the fields above. Where things get too sticky, I drop down to the roads to walk past the site of Brooke Priory. Above ground nothing survives. It seems to have been a poor place, providing for three Augustinian canons who once made themselves useful ministering to the bodies and souls of local residents. What may have been its only great treasure can still be seen in Oakham’s museum, a reliquary beautifully decorated in Limoges champlevé enamel applied to a copper base, discovered in the basement of the priory’s successor Big(gish) House. Such an artefact must have been revered and treasured, glowing among the dun colours of fourteenth century Rutland life, a focus for wonder and faith.
Sweet soul music, Wilson Pickett, Otis, and the Four Tops issue from the churchyard of St. Peter’s church. The tower’s being re-pointed, and minor works are in progress on the timbers. I chat to one of the craftsmen, who’s done a lot of stuff for the Churches Conservation Trust. St. Peter’s is a little star of a building with a bare chapel, lean of dry wood and stone. Simon Jenkins likes it too, and there’s even a photo of it in 1000 Best Churches, showing off the ironstone against a dramatic stormy sky. He says ‘We enter through the south door, a Transitional arch of the most ostentatious carving…box pews fill the nave, and in the chancel are boxed stalls…in the north chapel…is a 1619 alabaster memorial…despite its age (Charles Noel) is clad in ancient armour, like a medieval knight…the Norman hinges on the north door are extraordinary, even sinister. They are shaped like giant fishbones, centipedes or spiders, according to taste… What a place to work in for a week. Go and see it. If you do and it seems vaguely familiar, you may be right. St. Peter’s was recruited for the 2005 film of Pride and Prejudice. Keira Knightly woz ‘ere.
Away from the village I find myself climbing on what the OS assures me is my old acquaintance the Macmillan Way, though there are no signs to say so. Near the top of the ridge I turn left on a track much trafficked by tractors and horses. I squelch along, an elderly circus act, balancing precariously on its edges with my stick to reach the metalled lane of Brooke Road aka the Leighfield Way muddy but unbowed, bowling on down towards Oakham, county town of Rutland.
All Saints’ spire stands up proudly from the town centre: you can’t miss it. What’s the ‘emotive meaning’ of such a building for today’s residents? For me of course, it’s about (lol) inspiration. It tells me I’m in Britain, or at least in northern Europe. It’s a nudge to faith, a finger pointing to heaven. It associates immediately to all the lovely things and people I may find adjacent to it. The word ‘spire’ is possibly nothing to do with the Spirit or ‘breath’. Those who know link it to ‘spear’, and the pointy bits of flowers, shrubs and trees, but regardless, I can’t help thinking of a spire as funnelling down the wind of God’s goodness and channelling up the people’s prayers.
Oakham and Rutland have recently been newsworthy for an unsuccessful attempt to keep McDonald’s out of the county. Which makes the sign at the city limit announcing Oakham’s twinning with Dodgeville, Wisconsin a rib-tickler. You could say that under Trump the whole of the USA has become Dodgeville.
I walk across the Peterborough to Leicester railway at a level crossing, and then past Oakham Cricket Club, reminding me that England fast bowler Stuart Broad spent his teenage years at the town’s famous public school. Sound the klaxons: here comes a paragraph about cricket! Broad is still, I think, something of a curiosity for such a highly successful and effective player. As a schoolboy he was a batsman, but then he began to gain height (he’s 6’5”) and was turned into a quick bowler. From the comfort of my armchair he’s always seemed to have an ungainly action, not using his left arm to any great degree, and his wickets tend to come in great clumps, which alternate with ‘dry’ patches when his bowling seems almost benign. There was a time when he seemed destined to be a great all-rounder, but having been hit in the face by the Indian fast bowler Varun Aaron, the batting has fallen away. Nevertheless, as they say, he can still hit a long ball, and he has a scything, ferocious cover drive, on occasion enormously frustrating to opposition bowlers.
Oakham is the County Town time forgot. There are genteel ladies’ clothes’ parlours, design emporia, antiques for sale, posh cake shops, and yes regrettably, if you really, really want, you can get yourself a tattoo. Admittedly, the stylish Post Office has closed and relocated to McColls’ newsagents. The smart young people of the College stroll the streets at lunchtime, looking like the future Home Secretaries and Captainpersons of Industry they’ll undoubtedly become. There’s even a nice untrashy, old-fashioned market to sell you fruit, flowers, veg and linen. Before I investigate the town history, I have an Earl Grey and a clever sandwich at The Larder in Mill Street, where everything’s tickety-boo under the control of Alyson, Iain and Kym (this is sounding like a local paper restaurant review). If they cared to open up a second set of premises in Northampton, I’d probably be in there every day, and get myself a soubriquet, perhaps as ‘Vichyssoise Vince’. (From an overheard conversation I gather favourite and regular customers have been known to acquire pet names - with the customers’ permission and encouragement!)
So am I in the North now, or still in the South? Well, yes, technically I’m neither in one or the other: this is The Midlands. I’m certainly not in the East, where for televisual purposes Northampton has paradoxically ended up, along with much of the rest of the diocese.
It’s strange that more than a hundred and fifty years since Mrs. Gaskell published ‘North and South’, the UK is still in the throes of debate about the relationship between the two halves of England. Yet, having walked in my native Kent two days previously, there seem to be some not-so-subtle differences of attitude even between there and here (distance 130 miles). And all this despite the internet, and motorways, and the myriad readjustments to British life that have come about during our lifetimes. South-east of London there’s more than a small sense of nouveau riche: a defensiveness too. Everyone seems to want to mark and defend their property, and establish their wealth credentials in ways that sometimes look rather tasteless and crass to me. The manufacturers of iron railings, the better to surround the roadfront of one’s property, are doing a roaring trade. But then, I’ve been living in the ‘Midlands’ for forty-five years now, so I’ve become part of the divisiveness that accompanies diversity. These days all of us are more suspicious of the mildly strange or different. It comes as a shock to realise I no longer trust many of the people among whom I was born.
Trust, or a lack of it, is engendered in so many complex and varied ways (and now I’m thinking about the Church). It’s most obviously nurtured by seeing how someone behaves over a period of time, and being able to like and predict what they’ll do in any new situation. Yet language in all its nuances plays a part (how oldies despise the street talk of the young!) and perhaps body chemicals, and also our past experiences (our personal ‘baggage’). Then we must factor in ethnicity, and the customs of other groups/communities/families.
Among all the chatter about HS2, and the relocation of the BBC or the House of Lords, nobody’s talking much about building trust between north and south, between individuals within the Church, between clergy and people, between politicians and electors.
So back to the emotive meaning of the spire. You can make a case that there’s always been a vein of anti-clericalism in British (English?) culture, as evidenced by literary works from Chaucer to Austen. But the grooming scandals, and the boom in aggressive secularism, fuelled across the religious divides by anti-Islamic feeling, now has the middle class making a metaphorical sign of the cross whenever they encounter faith, except when they want to use the Church for rites of passage. And the middle classes have always been the drivers of British Christianity, haven’t they? So when the ‘unchurched’ see a spire, unlike us, perhaps they shudder, or say ‘not them again!’.
Is this something we’re prepared to accept submissively, like this weekend’s coming Storm Ciara, or the coronavirus? There was a chorus in Junior Praise which we used to sing, though it’s fallen off the hymn roster of late: ‘Be bold, be strong, for the Lord your God is with you.’ And there I go, preaching again. In Christ there is no East or West/In Him no North or South – nor Clergy or Laity, nor Catholic or Evangelical etc. etc.
The Great Hall of Oakham Castle is a blast, built for feasting, frivolities and much else by the Normans. These days you can go there to imagine yourself a judge or in the dock at an Assize, and you can hire it for your own wedding too, though I’m not sure where the ceilidh band would go. It’s been beautifully re-decorated, and is a great place for an educational visit. There’s a rack of period costumes to one side. A moustachio-ed gentleman from Moldova or Belarus under a misapprehension about my status asks me ‘Plis, is it to put on the clothes?’ I direct him to the enthusiastic council staff.
There’s something going on in All Saints church (another Simon Jenkins mention). It’s an Oakham School organ recital. I surreptitiously open the south door, and rather cartoonishly, every head swivels towards me in disapproval. I back away as quietly as I can to avoid interrupting the Buxtehude, and go round to the entrance under the tower for a peek through the glass. Not only is someone clearing the mice from the pipes of the Ken Tickell-built organ, but today’s scheduled programme is for ‘organ and drums’ which carries awful connotations of ‘summer seasons’ at Butlins’ c. 1970. I see a large Sonor kit sitting on the chancel steps and step away. I was never one for drum solos, although of course I may be about to miss out on a prog-rock extravaganza.
Out of town I walk across the Vale of Catmose to Egleton church (Eggle-ton? Eagle-ton? Egg-le-ton?) which sits prettily at the end of a field path, surrounded by snowdrops. The paths and fields are oh so slowly drying out, but will get another drenching this weekend from Storm Ciara. As I sit inside St. Edmund’s, I remember Jean Eggleton and a drama course at the Baptist church in Erith during the Easter holiday of 1963, at the end of a winter very different from this one. Then the snow was still lying in April, as it had been for the previous three months, even in suburban London. Jean was listening to her tranny, The Beatles were singing ‘I wanna hold your hand and life started to reveal whole new possibilities...
Well, I did promise you some rock n’roll.
Book of Numbers: 16.5 km 5 hrs. plus a 45 min lunch at The Larder. 8 degrees and mostly sunny after the early mist, although a little more cloud towards dusk. 7 stiles. 18 gates. 6 bridges.
Great Father God
A coming storm.
My own mortality.
Bad politics at home and abroad.
Nothing can separate me from the love of Christ.
But just right now
I don’t feel it.
Lift me up.
Help me to be brave for others.