Monday, 10 February 2020

North and South

A woman riding a pretty brown mare and leading a pony with her spare hand comes towards the Audi as I drive the lane to Braunston (Rutland). I slow to walking pace. Then without warning the mare rears at the car. Thankfully the pony behaves perfectly but still it’s a ‘moment’ that makes the heart go boom diddy boom. 

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
I’m scared.
A coming storm.
My own mortality.
Bad politics at home and abroad.

I know.
Nothing can separate me from the love of Christ.
But just right now
I don’t feel it.
Sustain me
Lift me up.
Help me to be brave for others.

Tuesday, 4 February 2020

Both Sides Now

Well, as a matter of fact it is very cloudy*, actually misty and dreakh, as I park the car opposite the church in Belton. A pretty young woman walking her dog greets me with a cheery hello. This of course gladdens my heart, but the emotional lift is mitigated by the understanding that what she sees is a daft old codger inefficiently compiling his stick, hat, boots and pack from the tailgate, and were I my former youthful and handsome self (I should've been so lucky!) she’d probably have ignored me. But let’s be sunnier than the weather. Maybe sociability and good manners are just par for the course in Rutland.

There are very lovely views to both sides on the way over the border to Loddington. I’m in Leicestershire now, and for a reason. The Dioceses of Leicester and Peterborough share a retreat house at Launde Abbey, and that’s where I’m headed. But first, Loddington, to which I descend by a lane on which not a single vehicle passes me in the couple of miles from Belton. The church of St. Michael and All Angels isn’t where you’d expect it to be - near the crossroads in the little village. It’s over a field, through a gate and up a muddy green track fringed with a carpet of snowdrops. In fact, there are no metalled paths to the church’s door at all. My exit to a lane which doubles as a stream for thirty metres is also grassed, with the exception of a few rough stone steps. This was a plague village and when it was rebuilt the new houses were placed at a distance to all those bad, disturbing memories.

As I write this of course, the novel coronavirus is big news, and who knows what threat it may yet pose beyond the Chinese frontiers. I ask myself, if the worst came to the worst, what should Christian congregations be encouraged to do? I only observe that our consciences sometimes make us reluctant to stay away from worship and allied events (choir practices, shared lunches, PCCs etc.) because we feel we’re letting God down by our absence, and so opportunities are given for viruses to do what they’re built for, and replicate. We have some means at our disposal to gather together collectively on line, but inevitably this would exclude some older and poorer members – exactly the people who need community and communion the most. We were very good at hand sanitisation during the swine ‘flu epidemic. Will that be enough this time? Please God, yes!

The road climbs again past an obviously converted one-time school house and ‘School Farm’, both dated to around 1870, at the beginnings of elementary education for all, although how many children were ever catered for in this sparsely populated area I don’t know. At Copthill Farm the ewes are ready to drop, and I think of the lovely Scottish air ‘Ca the yowes’, and then of my favourite TV ad – for Specsavers – the one where the short-sighted farmer accidentally shears his collie. (The music for that is an Irish song called Mo Ghile Mear… which reminds me a bit of the better known Scottish ballad.) 

At the top of the rise, there’s a splendid view down to Launde, comfortably set down among the low hills. The ‘Abbey’ looks Victorian now, but inside are remnants of its former buildings and status, notably in its small chapel. An Augustinian priory was founded here in 1119, by Richard Basset (long-time visitors to this blog may remember my visit to Sutton Basset a year or so ago, out on the Diocese’s western flank). Thomas Cromwell took a shine to Launde and had it earmarked for his personal enjoyment, but the King removed his head shortly afterwards, and occupancy was left to Thomas’ son Gregory, who’ll be well known to readers of Hilary Mantel.

(Reading back the next few paragraphs, I realise I've come over all intellectual, so either skip a few, or sit in for a bit of Radio 3. I know, I know, it's not a way to build readership in 2020. I'll try to remember to be more rock n'roll next time...) 

How do you feel about ‘retreats’? They don’t come easily to me, I must admit, but I see their merits – and maybe some dangers. Sometimes parish life becomes sooo intense. Little niggles become big issues and people fall out with each other from misunderstanding rather than real differences. As in families, a little time away, even for just 24 hours, can lend a bit of perspective to events, and help set new and better priorities, or re-establish energy for existing ones. On the other hand, the exclusion of key individuals because of cost or other commitments can entrench distrust…

It seems marvellous to me that we have a safe space where all Anglican traditions can come together and find something which speaks to their particular path to God, and as far as I can judge Launde provides that. As so often I turn to Diarmaid MacCulloch, who writes as a critical friend to the Christian faith, rather than as a devotional aid (though perversely, I often find what he says helps me at least in that way too).  In his History of Christianity he writes (pp. 487 ff.) about the Hesychasts and their opponents within the Eastern church during the fourteenth century. At its heart this was a debate/controversy concerning the knowability or not of God, and how one could know him. It’s a tension between personal revelation and tradition/scripture which plays out repeatedly, one could say, in the phylogeny of the Church (the ebb and flow of theory and theology) and in our own particular ontogeny – which is to say we as individuals may feel either thing to be most important at some time in our lives, or even to think both things central/crucial at the same time.  (Is such a thing strictly possible?)

By inclination, and partly by training, I’m a shades of grey person. I tend to see merit in both sides of an argument, and generally think that no one has a monopoly on the right belief or moral attitude. There’s a lot to be said for Hegelian dialectic as a process where (in its most naïve sense) a synthesis is arrived at after the propagation or proposal of a thesis and its antithesis. Even as I write this, I’m thinking of a piano-playing debate I’ve stumbled across about how one should approach Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words? Does one take seriously the comparisons some have drawn with Mozart, and like a youthful Barenboim, play the Lieder lightly and in a kind of ‘surface meaning’ way, or as might befit a composer living when Mendelssohn did (Victoria and Albert’s Elton John-alike!), tackle them with fully-blown Romantic sonority and the largest possible dynamic contrast? Is there a Hegelian solution here? Not really.

Well, you can take your pick re: Mendelssohn, and it’s of no great consequence, and as BBC interviewers are apt to do, opine that it’s a debate which will run and run, though goodness knows some people will get all het up about anything. But seeing Both Sides Now in matters of faith (or social policy, or politics) sometimes just leads to incapacity: we’re rabbits in the intellectual headlights. Which can lead critics to mistake this for being a paid-up member of the Laodicea (Revelation 3: 14-22). But there’s nothing lukewarm about aporia. It can be a hot anxiety.

Still with me…? As I say, I like to think Launde and similar places are safe spaces where all of this can be explored, along with the day to day, mundane nitty gritty of living the down and dirty Christian life.

Talking of down and dirty, that just about describes the next three quarters of an hour, having eschewed the metalled route on towards Withcote, and chosen the hem-hem more direct approach by a path over the hill. It’s sodden and pitted and ultimately frustrating because I can’t find a way to what from the pictures looks like a perfect little Georgian chapel maintained by the Conservation Trust, and which is now always open, according to the kind ladies on the Abbey reception desk. Then the path veers uphill again over three more fields of increasingly mucky pasture until it gains the ridge at about 180 metres, where a farmer has blocked the right of way with an electric fence. Sigh! At least the views west over Leicestershire are some compensation.

Then it’s downhill all the way to Braunston-in-Rutland (to be distinguished from the Northamptonshire canal village) along a stretch of road known as The Wisp. I’m going to make a guess that this was where the mist gathered, though the Web tells me ‘wisp’ is also a collective noun for snipe. Who knew?

The clock on All Saints church in oh so pretty Braunston is bright blue, and large, and stuck on the tower in most unusual and whimsical fashion. The churchyard is also host to a Sheela-na-gig which formed the one side of a doorstep, such that the fertility (?) carving was hidden for centuries and people would have trodden on or across it on their way into worship, knowingly or not. Both these things suggest a long-standing vein of good humour in Braunston to me. And no one quite knows what to make of Sheela-na-gigs.

The day’s drawing in and the way back to Belton is up hill and down dale by pleasant and straight lanes. The light level’s very low, and I’m reminded of those wonderful gloomy early Mondrian paintings where perhaps beguiled by Theosophical thoughts he’s fascinated by the lack of light across the flat Dutch landscape (or maybe just trying out a challenge on light-obsessed, value-light Impressionists). The birds fall silent, except for a solitary screech owl and the flap and call of a pheasant I disturb as I pass. I relax my brain, and let the legs take over.

Members of the PCC: 21 km.  Nearly six hours. 11 deg. 6 stiles. 7 gates. 4 bridges. The church of St. Peter, Belton conveniently open as I return, so that I can divest myself of trousers that post-Withcote look as if I’ve been caving. Taking one’s trousers off in church feels particularly transgressive.

When all’s said and done
We’re no better than the ancients.
We stand in awe
At the mystery of the world you’ve created here
And the greater mysteries that lie beyond.
We thank you for the extraordinary beauty
Pervading the natural world around us
And the people we know and love.
Our heart fills with gratitude
That we’ve been granted the experience of this day.
We pray that our response to your love
May not be found unworthy.
We pray it through your Son
Our Saviour, Jesus Christ.

*Bows and flows of angel hair
  And ice cream castles in the air
  And feather canyons everywhere
  I’ve looked at clouds that way

  But now they only block the sun
  They rain and snow on everyone
  So many things I would have done
  But clouds got in my way

  I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
  From up and down and still somehow
  It’s cloud illusions I recall
  I really don’t know clouds at all.
                        Joni Mitchell