Monday, 6 December 2021

POSTSCRIPT


Was this a pilgrimage? If so, it was a strangely protracted, episodic one. At 2206 kilometres in length, the amount of walking involved was roughly equivalent to journeying from Rutland to Rome or Santiago – slightly more in fact. In five and a half years, time had seen off two UK Prime Ministers, and we’d watched aghast as Trump came and went from the White House (for the first time?) Two months after I began the project, Britain voted to exit Europe, and the May and Johnson governments then twisted and turned as they effected that exit. In opposition, Corbyn rose, and sank again, amid enormous recriminations. We are in the middle of a perplexing national discussion about the rights of minorities, in which the right to be ‘mainstream’ (including Christian) seems increasingly obscured. Our uniquely British conversation about these matters is influenced by and mirrored in debates within other countries, developed and less so. A pandemic arrived out of the blue - to those of us who were innocents in epidemiology – and two years later it’s still with us. We’re told by one expert that we may be nearer its beginning than its end. Alternatively the arrival of the omicron variant may signal the start of Covid’s slow decline into being just another regular winter ailment. We all seem to have travelled a very long and weary way since April 2016.

It took about 676 hours on the road from Weston Favell to Peterborough, which makes for an average speed of about 3.3 km per hour (or 2.1 mph in old money). If that seems slow, well, no allowance was made for stopping and staring, or for eating the odd sandwich and drinking the occasional ginger beer. This was never an exercise in ‘power walking’. Slightly weird to think that this was about three months of my life, expressed as working days.

Of the 417 churches I visited (approximately 393 of which were in the diocese), 182 were open and 235 shut – and these figures were clearly skewed slightly, but not overwhelmingly, by the Virus. Since moving from urban Northampton to rural Rutland, my consciousness has been raised about the different challenges town and country face – from vandalism to staffing. I’m less inclined to be judgmental about the closed face of our churches now, but it still asks some questions about the C. of E.’s public image, and how we ‘do’ evangelism. And into the pot must now go how ‘eco-church’ sits with our extensive built portfolio.

The architecture and furnishing of these usually beautiful places of worship is awesome and humbling. The sheer amount of manual labour is staggering, the craftsmanship a thing of wonder. We owe such a debt of gratitude to the medieval workpeople, and then to the Victorian vision for evangelism. The C. of E. is currently involved in a great debate about how many new church plants can be initiated on housing estates up and down the land in houses, schools and community halls, (but not in purpose-built churches) – do I hear five thousand, no bid me ten thousand, I’ll see you and raise it to twenty thousand…  We are all currently in thrall to the magic of the computer. But IT isn’t the only way forward – though it is, in one sense, the most cost effective. Please at this point reference the parable of the sower. What is ‘good soil’?  Are on-line ‘communities’ the most desirable kinds of communities?  How do places become notionally ‘sacred’? Can one play basketball in a space, and 24 hours later maintain a sense of the numinous there? And if one does, how does one communicate that to someone outside the faith?  Will they see the hoops or will they see the altar?

I’ve become aware how great is the turnover of clergy. So many parishes and benefices I’ve passed through have been in vacancy. It would be an interesting exercise to see how many of the clergy to whom I wrote at the time are still in post, and how many have moved on. We put too much onto their shoulders, and they too readily accept it. The dynamics between clergy and congregation are now more discussed and rightly so. There are always atavistic, pre-Christian tendencies in play. Humans clearly often like to have intermediaries between them and God, to act ‘vicariously’ (!) for them, to explain, to guide. Yet sometimes we laity want to assert our rights to be the ones in charge. In short we want our cake and eat it (and these days, if it’s one thing the church is good at giving – it’s cake, or at least, this was true until March 2020 and the arrival of Covid. We’re even getting better at supplying decent coffee).

More trivially I clambered over more than 700 stiles, and opened more than 1400 gates. A single pair of Berghaus boots, and two pairs of Merrill trainers shod me all the way. My dad’s lovely knobbler staff was my constant companion, though I nearly lost him in a field near Preston Deanery. I also lost a hat in Braybrooke, and a map near Uppingham. I fell over five times, once at some peril to my life on the A605 near Titchmarsh, and another time with some uncomfortable and long-lasting damage to my hip and knee down a few feet of the railway bridge in Oakham. Partly as a result of Matt Dawson’s misfortune I became very wary of tick bites even in our overwhelmingly friendly countryside, and despite my predilection for shorts, increasingly swathed my legs in tough trousers and socks. There were a couple of dodgy moments with cattle. My ongoing advice would be never to underestimate their maternal protectiveness or teenage playfulness, and to take a conservative view, even if it’s inconvenient. The most beautiful encounter with an animal I experienced was with a grass snake by Ketton quarry. I won’t forget it.

I add here the dedications of the churches I encountered on my way. This list may not be statistically completely accurate, but it gives some pointers to who and what past Christians have thought important – and in turn asks questions of Christian worshippers today about their role models. We in the C. of E. have no power to canonise, but suppose we did, who would we choose?

 St. Mary’s (73)                            

All Saints (47)

St. Peter and St. Paul (29)

St. Peter (28)

St. Andrew (24)

St. John the Baptist (23)

St. Michael ( and all angels) (18)

St. Nicholas (12)

Trinity/Holy Trinity (8)

St. Mary Magdalene (8)

St John (the evangelist) (8)

St. Botolph (7)

St. Leonard  (7)

St. James (7)

(St James the Great) (3)

(St James the Less) (1)

St Lawrence (St Laurence) (6)

Holy Cross (5)

St. Luke (4)

St. Margaret  (4)

St. Mary and All Saints (3)

St. Matthew (3)

St Mark  (3)

St Edmund (3)

St. Martin (3)

St. Bartholomew (3)

All Hallows (3)

St. Denys (Dionysius) (3)

St. Helen (3)

St. Giles  (2)

Emmanuel (2)

St. Benedict (2)

St. Columba ( & northern saints) (2)

St. George (2)                                      

St. Katherine (Catherine) (2)                

St. Augustine (2)                                   

St. Faith (2)                                         

St. Stephen (2)                                     

St. Mary and St. Peter  (1)                  

St. Mary and St. Edmund (1)              

St. Alban (1)                                       

Holy Sepulchre (1)                               

All Saints and St. James (1)                

Christ Church  (1)                                

Christ the Carpenter (1)                        

Christ the King (1)                                

St. Peter and St. Andrew (1)                 

St. David (1)                                        

St. Francis (1)                                     

St. Paul (1)                                         

St. Rumbald (1) probably =                                    

St. Rumwald (1)                                   

St. Guthlac (1)                                     

St. Barnabas (1)                                    

St. Pega (1)                                            

Church of the Holy Spirit (1)               

St. Remigius (1)                                    

Whitefriars (1)                                       

BVM & St. Leodegarius (1)                 

St. Oswald (1)                                       

St. Etheldreda (1)                                   

Church of the Epiphany (1)                  

St. Kyneburgha (1)                                

St. Mary Magdalene & St. Andrew (1)

Women are better represented in formal church life than they were, but not all Anglicans agree even now that this is God’s will. Are complementarian ideas merely prejudice repackaged? Ironic then, that so many of our churches are dedicated to Mary. Or is it?  Depends on the image you have of the mother of Jesus. Equally tellingly, neither the Gospel writers or (particularly) Paul attract dedications. The latter is just too difficult, too choleric. You wouldn’t want him to be your presiding genius, would you?  Yet notionally he’s responsible for most of the New Testament. But he's OK if we add St. Peter as a balancing personality. Because that always worked so well. Matthew, Mark and Luke don’t do a whole lot better. Why? Is this a peculiarity of our diocese or a nationwide preference? The variety in the list is wonderful, intriguing, and sometimes eccentric.

I’m going to end by quoting an old and much admired teacher of mine, Rev. Prof. Stephen Sykes, sometime Bishop of Ely and Principal at St. John’s Durham. I had the great privilege of being supervised by Stephen in his younger days at Cambridge when a course on dogmatics rather unexpectedly formed part of my final degree. Much other teaching at my alma mater had been dry and undistinguished. Some of it had been downright intimidating. In stark contrast, Stephen was friendly, engaging and holy, as well as being super-bright. He became Dean of Chapel at an astonishingly young age. In his 1984 book ‘The identity of Christianity’ he wrote:

            ‘The major part of Christian history has assumed that the community of true believers will actually be of one heart and mind. Discord, on this account, is a phenomenon of the margins.  I propose a wholly different picture, to the effect not merely that it is inconceivable that Christians could agree with each other, but also that it is actually undesirable that they should do so – with the proviso that they should share enough in common to be capable of worshipping together.’

I too find this a rather surprising, stand-it-on-its-head thought… and yet immensely comforting and wonderful.

We are folks, BETTER TOGETHER and BETTER IN COLOUR.  We are Church.

This has been such fun, and I’ve learned so much. If you have been, thank you for reading.

 


 

Tuesday, 30 November 2021

I WAS GLAD

 

Man, those knees...

There are plenty of spaces in Peterborough’s short-stay car park, and even the payment machines are working today. It’s noon on Advent Sunday 2021, cold and sunny, and this is the final leg of my Big Walk, imagined and begun in the spring of 2016. The messages are still Better Together and Better in Colour. All along the way I’ve argued that if the Church of England is to survive it must very quickly draw together despite its wide spectrum of internal liturgical and theological differences, and celebrate rather than fear its diversity – which is represented in its history as well as its present. In other words, it must do the very opposite of what we read in the Church Times week by week, where personal disagreements are aired publicly and acrimoniously, hobby-horses ridden relentlessly, exclusive factional agendas pursued at the expense of harmony and good order. Individual churches may want to worship God in ways that are uniquely shaped by the people who come through their doors, but they must respect and love those whose mission is differently targeted, or our Church is fatally flawed. One size doesn’t fit all in the Kingdom of Heaven.

Sue and Matt are with me for these final few steps. We walk across the square to the church of St. John the Baptist, which is open because a service hasn’t long since finished. June welcomes us, though she and her colleagues are hoping to close up for the morning. When I explain who I am and what I’m doing, the welcome becomes even warmer, because, goodness gracious me, she’s been reading the blog – or at least the post which included Werrington.

St. John’s is a real Tardis, broad, long and generous, with oodles of space even with the bookstore at its west end. The altar, reredos and expanses of glass are lovely and inspiring. Another sidesperson draws our attention to Matthew Wyldbore’s monument on the south wall of the Lady Chapel. This eighteenth century M.P. once got lost in the fog on Peterborough Common, and found his way safely home courtesy of the church bells. He subsequently endowed the bellringers, left money for the poor, and provided that an annual sermon should be preached. Each year the bells are still rung on March 15th, the anniversary of his death. Quite apart from the wonderfulness of Matthew’s name, so glorious is this story that perhaps it should be told to each new incumbent as she/he takes her seat in the House of Commons. (Most of the current lot seem lost in a fog of some sort: few of them are much Summoned by Bells – unless it’s the division bell).

Saying goodbye to the St. John’s team, we return across the square which is now almost medievally deep in a pre-Christmas retail bustle. Music plays, people dressed in funny costumes waddle around, and some kind of graffiti competition is under way: the hieroglyphics are beyond my decoding. Then in the precincts, absolute calm.

Inside the Cathedral a baptism is taking place at the font immediately by the recently expensive front doors, a new baby introduced to the family of Christ - and on the first day of the new Christian year too. I wander up towards the roughly fashioned wooden front altar where it stands before the portable choir stalls, and unload the rucksack and staff which have accompanied me around the diocese these last five years. For me this is a singular moment. It reminds me of the time when the fourteen year old Matt and I went up to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. So loaded is it with meaning, my unspoken prayers are almost incoherent: something about thankfulness for the gift of life, and a hopeful petition that the English Church should continue to be a vector of God’s grace to the peoples it tries to serve. But you know what I mean, God.


An honours board along the north chancel records the names of the first Saxon abbots in Medeshamstede’s (later Peterborough’s) monastery, founded ‘in a fair spot, because on the one side it is rich in fenland, and in goodly waters, and on the other it has an abundance of ploughlands and woodlands, with many fertile meads and pastures’:  Seaxwulf, Cuthbald, Egbald, Pusa, Botwine, Beonna, Ceolred, Hedda, Ealdwulf, Cenwulf, Aelfsige, Earnwig and Leofric – and these all before the Norman invasion. Everyone knows that Katherine of Aragon’s tomb is here. We remember a recent exhibition of Tim Peake’s space capsule, derided by some in the Press, but a good reminder, as I personally reckon, that Christians must eagerly embrace the study of science. Less than a year ago and socially distanced we were listening to The Sixteen deliver their vocal perfection to an audience which also included our new friend from Morcott, churchwarden Jane Williams, now so sadly missed. ‘Sublime!’ was her reaction, and she might have been describing more than the music. We remember our own Evensong here with Weston Favell’s choir in 2007. Two psalms, not one, were prescribed for the service, which tested choir and conductor to the limits. This is our mother church, the place to which we cleave when local and personal matters become too hard to bear. Dear Lord, preserve her and those who work here, that she may be a blessing for many generations to come, if indeed our earthly world is more or less without end, as we pray.

There’s art on display today in the space before the high altar. Five thousand steel leaves are scattered there, each one with the word ‘hope’ stamped upon it. This is artist Peter Walker’s response to the pandemic, in memory of those who have suffered and died (we currently approach at least 145,000 deaths in Britain alone). The title ‘The leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations’ refers to a line in the twenty second chapter of the Book of Revelation. The Cathedral website says about the work: ‘The shape of a sycamore leaf has been chosen as it symbolises strength, protection and eternity as well as clarity. Steel has been chosen as the material for the leaves, to remind us of our resilience and collective strength (my underlining). As it moves around the country (for this installation is going to other cathedrals too) the steel will age, rust and change colour, just as the leaves of trees do when they fall each year. It is hoped that the simplicity and beauty of the installation will give people the chance to pause and contemplate their own response to the present situation’.

As we turn to leave, the sound of children’s voices floats down the Cathedral’s length. The choir juniors are rehearsing the chorus of ‘Ding Dong merrily on high’, striving for that elusive Goldilocks articulation in the chorus’s Gloria, neither too staccato, because that’s ugly, nor too legato, because that’s sloppy and imprecise.

By the Cathedral gate, on the doorstep of the tearoom, someone is more or less finally down and out on this unusually freezing November day. Two members of either the café or the Cathedral staff, are trying to get some coffee or tea into him. It’s a loving act that deserves a Caravaggio or Rubens to render into permanent visual record: the Church acting on its calling.  I used to think the gilded cross which hangs above Peterborough’s nave rather self-conscious and awkward, but now find it utterly moving each time I’m worshipping there. It carries the Carthusian Latin motto: Crux stat dum orbis volvitur – ‘The cross stands/remains while the whole world is turned’.

Stars in the bright sky:  1.5 km (if you count the walk to and from the car). One and a quarter hours. 2 deg C. Sun turning to cloud. One church, one cathedral: both open. Shoppers, tourists, children, OAPs, priests and vagabonds: all human life is here, waiting. 

I was glad,

Glad when they said unto me

Let us go

Into the house of the Lord

Our feet shall stand

Within thy gates O Jerusalem…

A final post (should that be ‘the last post’?) will be published on December 13th, with a summary of the last few walks, and some facts and figures about the whole project. 

And then, what next?

 

 

 

 

 


Saturday, 30 October 2021

CITY OF GOD

 

On my way into Peterborough, Lou Reed’s re-mastered ‘Transformer’ is on the car stereo. Reed had just left the uber-cool ‘Velvet Underground’ and this much praised album (1972?) was largely recorded in London with David Bowie, Mick Ronson and others, including the legendary British bass player Herbie Flowers. (Flowers was real. ‘Herbie’ was a nickname. He’s actually and disappointingly, Brian). These days ‘Transformer’ sounds tired to me, ‘Perfect Day’ apart, although others still champion the record, glam-rock flirting with Berlin style cabaret, but failing to embrace either genre satisfactorily, or so I think. It was the epitome of ‘counter-culture’ for a while, making transgender hip – and in it Reed may even have invented the phrase ‘coming out of the closet’ for all I know. These days to be transgender is mainstream, and not at all counter-cultural. Which is weird.

Am I grown up enough to try reading Augustine of Hippo’s ‘The City of God’?  Once upon a long time ago I was a student philosopher, but never got round to it (or the many other volumes I ought to have read!)  There’s a short chapter about Augustine in Rowan Williams’ ‘Luminaries’ which makes me think I should give it a go. As I understand it, this outstanding saint was defending Christianity from the charge that the new faith weakened Rome and was thus the cause of the empire/city’s fall to the pagans. There are parallels with today…

The Faith is under attack. No one with charisma and media presence is prepared to make the intellectual case for it. If anything, the Church is a target for blame. The charge is that we’ve connived at slavery, sexual abuse and exploitation of the earth’s resources. The old order is rapidly changing…

This entire final section of my Big Walk lies within the City of Peterborough. I begin at Itter Park in Paston. It’s half term, so there are children and parents, strolling, playing, buying coffee from the stand. I skirt the open field behind the tennis courts, and cross the A47.

Some people are amazing. Two middle aged ladies are patiently clearing litter from the verge of Fulbridge Road, dropping the detritus into a cumbersome cart which they’re humping and bumping over the tangled grass. It’s not a beautiful corner, and in most communities the rubbish would be left to fester, but these two volunteers have decided to devote a Thursday morning to making things better. I stand on the bridge above them, and think about calling down my respect, but the traffic noise is too great. I do swap a ‘thank you’ and a smile as a tattoo-ed young woman makes nice with me, giving social distance further up the road.

 

New England

Turning right into St. Paul’s Road I’m suddenly hit by evidence of social deprivation. There’s a smell of stale food, the streets become raggedy, the people seem tired, lame and poor. Though it’s only mid-day, a clearly drunk man is helped down the Lincoln Road, flanked by supporters to right and left. The area known as New England and to its south, Millfield, are host to an array of communities making faltering progress towards becoming New Britons. On hoardings and by their presence on the streets, I register Polish, Lithuanian, Slovakian, Turkish, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Hindu, Portugese, Filipino. There is the Timisoara mini-market. Here is the Afghan store. At the Baltic coffee house, the crowd seems South Asian.

There’s no shortage of built Christian witness. St. Paul’s sits in the middle of a one-way triangle, and then further down in Millfield I come to St. Mark’s. The Sally Army are here, and over the road from St. Paul’s is the Peterborough International Christian Centre. I’ve just passed the Gospel Hall and a Kingdom Hall. But how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?  It’s a shock, being in a proper city, after walking round a mostly green and pleasant diocese.

There’s an ironic inevitability in the gathering of these new communities just here. When the Great Northern Railway was built and trains began to thunder up the eastern side of Britain towards Edinburgh, Peterborough was one of the important rail-hubs (perhaps aside from Doncaster the most important) between London and York. There were engine sheds and a large marshalling yard to the west of the line, and the houses of New England were built for the men and their families who worked there. The optimistic spirit of the Victorian heyday was in the air, with a burgeoning empire and booming economy in a time (mostly) of peace and increasing prosperity. People felt they really were building a new kind of England. The thrust of that development went on for a hundred years, itself powering the nation’s financial health despite the hiccups of the two World Wars. Then, during the last fifty the white British population started to move on from New England into suburban patterns of housing it deemed more fashionable and comfortable, while the country slipped out of manufacturing into a service-based economy.

Internationally Britain is now in a very different place. Without a core industry to maintain in north Peterborough, will these new communities be an engine of progress for the nation or a drain on resources? We don’t yet know, but we do know that the Church of England no longer has the finance or sponsorship to throw up buildings like ‘The Railwayman’s Church’ (St. Paul’s Peterborough). In 1867 this was a brand spanking new facility; an attractive, visible sign of God’s grace and welcome. There was a great enthusiasm for spreading the Gospel among working people. Now in a multi-multi-cultural society, we have no confidence in preaching Christ as the way, the truth and the life. We tend to see Jesus’ call as one among many life options from which we could choose, as if we were buying a new computer or car. What will it be today, Kabbalah or the Tao? And even if we did claim primacy for Christian values and faith, we don’t appear to have the money to do much about it. So what do we do? Give up?

And, with the perspective of my many miles round this largely green diocese in mind, how do we reconcile the dispersed needs of the countryside, and the apparently urgent demands represented by the Lincoln Road’s staggering noontide drunk?

As a muso and at this time of year, my mind goes to that great (though rather jingoistic) Victorian hymn of Edward Plumptre – ‘through many a day of darkness…etc.’ The last verse goes: ‘And we, shall we be faithless? Shall hearts fail, hands hang down?/ Shall we evade the conflict and cast away our crowns?/ Not so. In God’s deep counsels some better thing is stored/ We will maintain unflinching: ‘One Church, one Faith, one Lord.’ If that hymn comes your way this Remembrance-tide, don’t you dare sing it without a tear in the eye or a wobble in the stomach.


Lincoln Road reaches a t-junction with Westgate. I turn left and spend a few minutes with coffee and cake in a strangely empty Beales department store. It’s recently re-opened after refurbishment. Peterborough has lost its John Lewis, and on the evidence of this footfall, I don’t give much for Beales’ chances. Out of town facilities, on-line shopping and the differently-placed retail needs of the incoming communities make this what commentators call a ‘challenging business environment’.  When I emerge again into daylight the streets around the Queensgate mall are thronged, driven into the open air by a fire alarm. Observing the blue lights reflecting off St. John the Baptist’s church in the square, I smile to myself that this is no new Day of Pentecost, though Stanley Spencer would have done a fine job of picturing Peterborough’s citizens running around in front of the Cathedral with flaming hair.


I walk on, past the market and the Passport Office, and admire the pretty glass and stone façade of St. Mary’s, which looks like a nice church to go to if you don’t fancy the wide open spaces of the Cathedral, though it seems a bit weird that there’s a modern church of this size just five minutes’ walk away from the Bishop’s Palace and all. What was the thinking behind that? The answer is of course ‘the parochial system’, about which there’s much debate at present. I’m on the side of those who wish to protect and nourish it, and I suppose the price of that is that sometimes anomalies will occur. And this is one of them. As with so much else, the pandemic heightens the intensity of critical thinking. If we weren’t all still half-Zoomed, if we weren’t cash-strapped, we wouldn’t think twice about the apparent double-up.

Up on Park Street sits All Saints Church, currently in vacancy, but offering shelter within its Anglo-Catholic tradition to musicians, philatelists, Yoga for health, and the U3A amongst many others, no doubt. As always in cities, you travel a block or two and the social dynamic alters abruptly, as a protagonist finds to his cost in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities. Drive down the wrong ramp in New York, and your world begins to unravel.  Even in London, it pays to know how the neighbourhoods do or don’t match up. Here, close to the King’s School, all is mostly comfortable and safe, at least on the outside.

I trundle on northwards and, heading for Dogsthorpe, take a careless wrong turn through the detached and bungalowed suburb, before reaching Christ the Carpenter church, a fifties’ style build with an attractive copper roof. In student days I think we came to play here. ‘We’ were ‘Twentieth Century’, a very uncool name even in 1970, heirs to the group of Cambridge beatniks who started to write ‘jazzy’ (well, not particularly) versions of favourite hymns. Get with it, daddio. The vibe was a Cliff Richard film c. 1959, but sometimes you can still hear their alternative tunes to ‘Oh Jesus I have promised’, or (more commonly)  ‘At the name of Jesus’.  I still have a soft spot for Geoffrey Beaumont’s jolly ‘Now thank we all our God’. The funny thing is that as they used to say about the sixties and early seventies, ‘if you remember it, you weren’t there’. And I can’t remember a single thing about the Dogsthorpe gig. It might have been a performance of Mike Lehr and John Lockley’s clever and inspiring ‘A Folk Passion’. Or perhaps it was one of our regular concerts, whose content might amiably ramble between Joni Mitchell, Roger McGough, Sydney Carter and Ten Years After - all in the service of the Gospel. Despite our flared trousers and flowered shirts, we weren’t very counter-cultural, just moderately dedicated, broke, followers of fashion. But today we Christians are truly radical, often working against the grain of society, and if we could only work out a consensus manifesto, asserting a completely different set of assumptions to those exercised by the vast majority.


The Church’s immediate future may be that we’re a ‘remnant’, but with Martin Luther I do believe that:

God’s word, for all their craft and force

One moment will not linger

But, spite of hell, shall have its course

‘Tis written by his finger.

And though they take our life,

Goods honour, children, wife,

Yet is their profit small

These things shall vanish all

The city of God remaineth.

 

Minutes to midnight:  12.5 km. 15 degrees C. Cloud and sun. Breezy. Six churches. None open.

Friday, 1 October 2021

BLOWING IN THE WIND


You know how it is. A scent on the air from a hedgerow bush, a particular kind of weather day, the DJ plays an old song, and, well, it isn’t déjà vu, but you’re cast back in time, searching for a place where the whole of life was before you, and the world was pure excitement and wonder. It seems to happen to me more and more as I get older. You make me feel so young…

This morning, stepping out from Newborough on a bright, breezy day, something triggers Free’s ‘All Right Now’ and I’m grasping for the tantalising Spirit of ’69. I hear it clearly in my head. Paul Rodger’s accurately gruff rock n’roll voice, Andy Fraser’s groundbreaking grumbly bass, Paul Kossoff on guitar. Can he really be the son of dear old cuddly David, who told us nice Bible stories on the wireless? But in the age of the first mini-skirts, ‘generation gaps’ are a commonplace. We’re about to learn something of fathers and sons, drug addiction, pain and death: the end of a hippie dream… 

All of this before I’m out of Newborough’s 30 limit. I give the cars extra width as I walk the long straight lane southwards – almost two miles of it. Normally that would mean vehicles zipping past at 70 or more, but the wise drivers know – fenland roads are uncertain, especially on a windy day. The tarmac bends up and down, side to side, and it makes for a bouncy suspension-twisting ride. I turn onto Bridgehill Road, and pass a collection of old Fords on a farmer’s forecourt, waiting to be broken for spares. There’s an unusual 1970 stretched Zodiac limo (perfectly matched to Free), a three litre Capri which might have been driven by Bodie and Doyle, and a Mark 2 Cortina of the kind which used to be legion on our motorways, invariably driven by nylon suited mid-range company execs and sales personnel. This isn’t helping my nostalgia vibe. On another right angle, Gunthorpe Road is definitely single-lane-with-passing-places, but it must be a well-known local rat-run because I’m constantly dodging traffic. Arriving at the Cherry Barn Garden Centre, I detour in search of a cup of coffee and cake, but what’s on offer doesn’t appeal so I overtake the tutting and mumbling exit queue, and use the ‘Dodds cyclepath’ to penetrate Peterborough near a roundabout, an entrance to the city different but indistinguishable from last week’s. Maybe I was lucky to emerge from ‘Cherry Barn’ unscathed. During this weeks petrol crisis, videos have gone viral which show drivers (male) brawling by the pumps over alleged queue-jumping.

Hazards of the Fens - check out the verticals

On the subject of flat lands, I was amused by a recent tale from acquaintance Marilyn in Morcott.  Apparently Rutland County Council had outsourced the cutting of our village verges to their Lincolnshire counterparts. When their team arrived, it was unable to proceed, because the village is on a slight slope, as are some of the verges. Lincolnshire’s ‘environmental husbandry’ works only on the plain and level. Up on the Wolds, at Louth for instance, the grass presumably remains unkempt and the bunny rabbits are happy…

I make my way to Paston and its All Saints church. After many years of living in Northampton, I know the demographics of that town’s various suburbs only too well – where the liminal spaces are – how the social housing sits – the turf wars between estates.  In Peterborough I can’t read what I see. I’m passing through a jumble of different kinds of housing – well-tended modern villas here, social housing there, new build, thirties’ construction…


 I also realise I’m still really bad at reading the age of churches from their exteriors. Even after five years’ writing this blog, I’m still remarkably unobservant. I look at All Saints, and think it might be Victorian, but it isn’t – it’s an ancient place, known as the ‘church in the fields’ until the nineteen-thirties. Later, gazing across the street at Eye’s St. Matthew’s I initially interpret it as medieval, whereas in fact it’s Gothic revival. 

I’m feeling footsore from treading tarmac as I pass through All Saints’ war memorial gate hoping the church is open or there’ll be a welcoming churchyard bench. But it’s not, and there isn’t one. I perch uncomfortably on an angled stone under the gate to drink tea and eat a Waitrose chicken and sweetcorn. The board opposite me records the death of a gentleman by the name of Vergette. It wasn’t a name I’d ever come across until recent walks, but there are Vergettes all over the place around Peterborough. The word has a heraldic meaning but can also denote a rod or clothes-brush, so maybe the Vergettes were once tailors.

A year or two ago, there was a run of apparently insensitive clergy comments chiding the laity for being one-day-a-week Christians. If you’re the priest of a congregation whose church is as firmly closed as this, it could be tempting to think your people only turn their eyes on God when they pitch up at Sunday morning worship.

In fact of course, we very often don’t know who does what during the six other days, either in private devotion or public witness to family, friends and colleagues.  But a church which is so dark at mid-day on Wednesday, and with no facility even to sit outside and chew a reviving sarnie, isn’t a good advertisement, particularly when it presents to the world on a prominent corner. Dear clergy and people of All Saints, I don’t mean to give offence by singling you out. This is a national difficulty for the C of E, particularly in urban areas where churches have to be defended from vandalism/desecration. I think back to a visit I once made to a museum of folk instruments during a spare hour in the Lithuanian city of Kaunas. The place was deserted (in fact I had the impression that no one had been inside for years) but its two black-skirted, elderly guardians made me very welcome, despite an utter and complete language gap, and with great attention to detail showed me many, many accordions. And many, many balalaikas. And quite a lot of wooden flutes. See what I’m saying?

I yomp through more housing estates passing all sorts and conditions of people. I dodge double buggies. I say hello to senior citizens. I cast a stern eye over primary-age ne’er-do’wells. On a bridge over the thrumming four-lane Parkway I steer round two blokes sitting on the concrete sharing spliffs whose fragrance follows me on the breeze for another hundred metres. Like garlic-lovers, their olfactory sense now screens out their personal odour. 

An unexpected shower blows in rapidly from the west, and I get rather wet as I skirt the Little Wood Nature reserve, before turning down into the village of Eye, where funeral homes seem to be a big thing, and traditional thatch and timber mixes it with new wave retail and service facilities. St. Matthew’s too is closed, but its non-original saddleback tower is a striking presence on the main street – actually very close to the road itself. Thereafter it’s long horizons and an almost four mile walk back to Newborough for me, frequently making those ninety-degree turns. I think there will be some awkwardness with crossing the major roads, but there isn’t, because Peterborough has a very good system of bike routes called Green Wheel. I encounter no bicycles at all on my way back to the car, but I’m very glad of the safety provision made for them so that I don’t have to play chicken with HGVs or souped-up Beemers. Instead I cross high above or duck under the seamless lines of drive-time traffic.

A companion through much of my Big Walk has been Diarmaid MacCulloch’s A History of Christianity. It’s a book I can’t recommend enough, a staggering achievement in the distillation of amazing academic grasp into a cordial within quaffable reach of the average reader (providing the average reader has staying power – the Penguin paperback runs to 1016 pages before references). He’s particularly good (pp. 968 ff.) about Pope John XXIII’s Vatican 2 Council. In the early sixties Pope John swam against the tide of Catholic orthodoxy, but saw clearly where change was necessary if the Church was to survive. He had his critics, and to some extent in Popes John-Paul II  and Benedict XVI those critics pushed back against his vision.

In a very different but equally revolutionary age, the Church of England (but arguably the Catholic Church also) faces a massive challenge. We change or we perish. It’s as simple as that – but the change may be more in attitude rather than practice – because a lot of change in practice has already occurred and it isn’t improving the situation. Mostly we just have to be better at who we are and what we do. I love the titles of the two main documents which dropped into Catholic in-trays as a result of the second Vatican Council. The first was Lumen Gentium (‘the light of the peoples’) which suggested a different future ordering of the Church, although in terms of papal infallibility for instance, it didn’t necessarily correct the likely errors of the past. The second, addressing the Church’s role in the world, was called Gaudium et Spes (‘joy and hope’).

How we need to radiate joy and hope to a desperate world and mediate light to each other!

One more river to cross…

Millimetres of tread:  19.5 km. Five hours. Sun, then cloud and rain, then sun again. 14 deg. C. A blusterous wind, which made the last miles hard work. Two churches, both shut. No stiles, no gates, two bridges. A sparrowhawk hovering above me near Newborough. 

Lord

Today at Morning Prayer

St. Mark the Lion

Rolling us on towards the crucifixion.

At the end of September?

Give me a break!

I find the story hard enough in Holy Week.

But now, with autumn closing upon us

And burgeoning darkness

And a pandemic

And petrol shortages

A cruel wind

Of human frailty everywhere?

 

Yet I know

We have to carry with us always

Incarnation

And salvation.

Help us to maintain

Joy and Hope

For all we meet

Through the grace of Him

Who is the Light of the Peoples

For ever and ever

Amen.

 


Wednesday, 22 September 2021

FLAT


There’s a long hold at the level crossing just beyond Helpston. An inter-city passes, then another, and finally a local train chugs by on its way to Stamford. (Do diesel trains ‘chug’?  This one does! Perhaps it’s poorly.) Finally I cross, and drive on to Glinton, parking by the church, marvelling again at that wonderful needle spire which so preaches a sermon in stone about the eternal sublime.

The weather forecast couldn’t make up its mind this morning – nothing dire, just a question of cloud or not, but right now it’s excitingly bright and breezy. There are often uncertainties on the map too, particularly when approaching conurbations. Will that path require the hazardous crossing of a dual carriageway? Indeed, will it still exist at all? Will the right-of- way which seems to fizzle out mid-field actually continue unimpeded into the track which apparently lies beyond it? A day’s walking is elevated by the knowledge there are obstacles to overcome. Yeah, right.

Out on North Fen Road, I turn right on the pleasant path which heads east towards Peakirk, musing on the experience of the last eighteen months. I’m shocked to read the Northampton Chronicle and Echo’s weekend court report detailing the indictments against numerous individuals in respect of Covid violations – for ‘being out of their house without reasonable excuse’. Even at this short distance in time, what we went through then seems an appalling curtailment of liberty, though of course there was a law, and if some chose to ignore it, then ‘law-abiding’ society has a right to see them brought to justice. However, I notice that the list of accused is largely male, young and with immigrant history. What conclusions if any should we draw from that about bias in the justice system or the tendencies of some population subsets towards rule-breaking? (It seems to me these are questions for the Church to consider too, in the light of patterns of church-going and our mission to the world.) 

I still hear references in Church circles to the current health crisis ‘being over’. It isn’t, not worldwide, not even in the UK (in fact, compared with the rest of Europe, particularly not in the UK, for reasons which still remain unclear). Gordon Brown has been a prophetic voice about the issue of vaccine-waste, and our need to be pro-active in providing aid to Africa if we’re to avoid a continuing world-wide Covid-disaster. Otherwise, as he says, we’re encouraging a factory for new Covid mutations.

Beside Peakirk’s village green, I and my jumbled head re-adjust to a very different world, because this low building is St. Pega’s church, the only one in the UK dedicated to St. Guthlac’s sister. I encountered him at the far end of the Diocese near Stony Stratford in Passenham, although locally it seems Market Deeping also does him honour. We’re deep in seventh-century Christian history and myth here - the kingdom of Mercia where Pega and Guthlac were nobility. After a soldier’s life, Guthlac renounced the world and fetched up not far away in Crowland, where he built himself a hermitage from an ancient burial mound. People came to see him for healing and advice, and after his death that holy place eventually became Crowland Abbey.  When Guthlac died, Pega left her own hermitage at Peakirk to tend the body and ensure his decent burial. She subsequently made a pilgrimage to Rome where she too passed away. Legend has it her remains were in turn brought back here to her East Anglian home.  People go bonkers about Arthurian stuff, but it seems to me this is a story that’s equally compelling and suggestive. All it needs is a Holy Grail.

Peakirk’s village green looks tranquil and – flat – but it wasn’t always that way. Geophysical research has confirmed the hunch and tradition that ‘Car(r) Dyke’ once passed through it. The Dyke is presumed to have been a waterway, about eighty miles long, constructed in early Roman times to transport grain south to north – but there are some puzzles. Some of the workings of the drains survive in banks and real water, but the gradients go up and down over low ridges, while generally following the edge of the obvious fens, and in places there are causeways across the Dyke’s course which are permanent undisturbed features. Perhaps they marked regional distribution points, and maybe it wasn’t only corn which was carried up and down. Later it seems that the Dyke may have become a territorial demarcation – though I wonder if this default explanation isn’t too easy – the same thing is said of the ‘Grimsdykes’ which can be found north west and south east of London. An unfeasible amount of labour must have gone into such earthworks if they were simply to indicate to A that they were crossing onto B’s land and might get their head chopped off.

In St. Pega’s churchyard, it’s chastening to see how many of the graves mark individuals who were the same age as me or even younger when they passed on. Heartbreaking too, to see the resting places of child siblings, or people in the prime of young life. Jimmy Greaves died last weekend, and although he was a decade older than me, he was the poster-boy for popular sport during my childhood. His ability to be in the right place at the right time as he scored his many goals for Chelsea, Spurs and England gave encouragement to those of us who played footie without the advantages of speed or size. He showed it was possible to compete by sheer wit, intelligence and anticipation. I’m getting to that point in life, where almost every day there’s news of the death of near contemporaries.

I cross the Folly Bank bridge, and to avoid walking along the very straight and potentially fast ‘B’ road to Newborough, zigzag along the lanes to enter the village by the back door. I pass Rattlerow Farm where there’s a very sinister sounding ‘Gene Distribution Centre’ (actually promoting better pig-breeding) and then the one-time hamlet of Milking Nook, which deserves a mention for its name alone. The door of a bungalow is open. I say hello to a lady who’s manoeuvring a wheelchair around her hall. My instant reaction as I walk on is to say a prayer for her, and then ask myself the question whether prayers as well as promises can be cheap. I think I’m right to be sceptical of my preference for the easy and holy option rather than giving costly, practical help where I ought properly to do so. However, calling down blessings on someone is good New Testament practice, and it does the person who prays good too.

This isn’t exciting walking, but there’s always something to see and enjoy. The practice of the last few decades has been to leave the stubble rather than burn it, and on a day like today, the brown and gold striations which result are beautiful in their own right. A hawk flutters over the road in front of me. Pigeons scatter. A late butterfly dances across a hedgerow. Newborough is harder to love. The land is now only about two or three metres above sea-level. Habitations tend to sprawl around the grid pattern of the village roads. There’s some new housing. I wince as I pass the recently built ‘Waterfall Gardens’, thinking that if the flood defences fail, this could be an ironic naming. St. Bartholomew’s church is at a crossroads near the centre of Newborough, a Gothic revival in yellow brick. As at Peakirk the church is closed, which is a shame because I should like to see the builders’ vision for its interior. At first, I have St. Bart’s down as a twentieth century building, and am surprised to see it actually dates to 1830, when it must have seen strikingly original, not from its design concept, but by its colour.

From Newborough onwards there’s more straight-line walking along lanes which give access to paddocks both tidy and untidy, caravan parks, and fields which don’t look their best at the back end of summer, until I cross the Werrington Bridge (or its modern road equivalent) and find myself back in Peterborough. For the moment the A15 is the city’s north-western boundary. Will housing and industry spill over towards Newborough in time? The scruffiness of the landscape between the two doesn’t bode well.

I walk around the pretty ‘Cuckoo’s Hollow’ lake and parkland, and home in on well-to-do Werrington, where the old village, like Longthorpe, has been incorporated into the urban mass. The very first thing I see is a banner which encourages the passer-by to ‘try praying’. This has the joyful ambiguity of being a proper Christian injunction, and a wry comment on the world and Werrington’s current plight. St. John’s church is locked, but what might apply in the wilds of Rutland doesn’t here: churches can only be left unsupervised at the parish’s peril. Next door is the ‘At Last’ tea room, which makes me giggle, thinking of Douglas Adams’ ‘The restaurant at the end of the universe’. Were this eschatological café open, which it isn’t on a Monday, I could just do with a cup of tea and slice of lemon drizzle. It doubles as a night spot, when cocktails replace Victoria Sandwich, and who knows what merriment ensues.

From Werrington’s village heart, Hall Lane becomes Fox Covert Road, which lines up the return route to Glinton. It passes beside an upper school where the kids are emerging at the end of their day, chaperoned by a formidable squadron of staff. The organisation required of teachers today is awesome. Forty-five years ago we had freedom to teach creatively within a much looser administration. A now widened National Curriculum, the transfer of responsibility from wider society onto teaching staff for the acquisition of knowledge, social skills and morality, plus Covid have narrowed the parameters of that freedom.

Crossing the green diagonally and doubling back on myself, I find Emmanuel church, which is the daughter of St. John’s. Its front door is about twenty-five metres from the entrance to the William Law Primary School, whose children are also bubbling out in time for their tea. They seem energised and lovely, so I’m guessing their staff are too (or maybe needing a nice long lie down!) What a great thing, that a church and school should be joined at the hip in this fashion. Earlier on in Werrington I passed ‘The Way’, which describes itself as a ‘family church’. I worry about this ‘negative space’ description. Does it imply that there are churches around which aren’t family churches, perhaps because they offer what some think of as outdated liturgy or practice? We should all be family churches, but every member of a family needs its own privacy and age-appropriate activity, as well as eating together every day and making whoopee once in a while. Don’t you think?

These days it’s hard not to think of ourselves as working for an ecclesiastical supermarket, constantly looking for our USP, branding ourselves for all it’s worth once we think we’ve identified it.

Swallows in a summer:  18 km. Five hours. Nineteen degrees C. Sun, then cloud, then sun again with a cooling intermittent breeze. No stiles. Five gates. Were there bridges? There must have been bridges. Four churches, all shut. Some cyclists, a couple of walkers.  No one to talk to today, and pigeons only offer dumb insolence. Finding one’s way around Peterborough is challenging.

 Lord

I hated Scripture Exams

When I was a kid

Actually, was terrified

That I’d let my parents down

By not scoring ninety per cent or more

In my knowledge of the Gospels.

But children these days…

Where would they get their bible knowledge?

Because without that stuff

So often rehearsed as a child

I’d be nowhere.

Do we all love learning

Less than we did?

And how much does that matter?

 

As so often, Lord

So many questions

And so few answers.

Amen


Tuesday, 14 September 2021

WOBBLE AND HOBBLE

 

Driving back along the Stamford road with provisions for a day’s walking, I’m dodging lycra-bound cyclists, racing or time-trialling or whatever – hundreds of them, all male, all earnest, mostly bearded, and grimacing. Nearing Morcott, I’m astonished to see a drone flying towards me following the pedallers, maybe only fifteen feet above the road surface. I think to myself ‘I’m not having that!’ and phone the rozzers, much good that it’ll do on a Saturday morning.

As you may guess, the members of this hip, self-regarding would-be-elite (no, not the police!) aren’t taking part in today’s ‘Ride and Stride’ which raises money for the Churches’ Conservation Trust, with half of it going to the individual parishes from which the walkers and cyclists come. No drones for us to make video records of our glorious progress from church to church, or analyse our style and gait so that we go farther and faster next year. This blog will have to serve.

My ‘Walking to Peterborough’ is really just an elongated version of ‘Ride and Stride’, except I’m not raising money by sponsorship. That good and practical purpose of today’s activity is a necessary part of helping the CCT survive to maintain its excellent work. More than that, today’s a countrywide occasion for bringing Christians together in awareness of our heritage, of the help-towards-the numinous which our lovely churches afford. Maybe stories will be exchanged, differences forgotten, new understanding forged, a sense of unity glimpsed. As always, Better Together, and on a lovely September day, Better in Colour. Hurray! Let a thousand anoraks bloom.

My spin on the day is to walk to each of the churches in our Benefice, and play some of Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues on their organs or keyboards. I begin at home, and stroll down to St. Mary’s Morcott…

                        ‘The tower’s mortar doesn’t lie

                        It speaks of practical common sense

                        A trinity of candles on the floor

                        A past a present and a future tense.

There are wrong notes and infelicities

No matter… 

where I’ve placed Book One on the organ’s music stand. I play the C major and C Minor. Yes, those ‘wrong notes’... My fingers haven’t woken up, and aren’t used to the sticky manuals, so there’s a whole bunch of ‘infelicities’.  I say goodbye to Tricia who’s on duty counting callers. Her husband John - who could lend me the odd year - is a doughty walker and is up at Oakham, crossing churches off his list.  He’ll be raising hundreds of pounds for the cause today. Then it’s back to Mill House to pick up a light pack and off I go, across the clovered field to the A47, and down the hill towards Barrowden. Gerry passes me in the Armstrong’s Volvo and gives me a cheery wave. 

                        ‘Tixover and Luffenham

                        Duddington and Barrowden

                        Each a wonder and a solace

                        Casting blessings from a high place

                        On the river as it flows…

St. Peter's Barrowden from Morcott Road

Richard is minding St. Peter’s until noon, and welcomes me. The church is set up for Sunday’s ‘café-style’ worship which will be followed by Harvest Lunch. I eschew the Makins organ, and play the G major prelude from Bach’s second set on the piano – it’s the one which might remind you of ‘Ski Sunday’, then follow it with the A Major pastorale, topped off with the Sicilienne-like E flat major and its solid fugue. Halfway through John Comber arrives. I think he may have come to play the Makins, but graciously says he hasn’t, and remarks that he didn’t know I was a musician. I remind him that I’ve sung to his accompaniment a few times now, and quip that of course this still may not qualify me.

The 48 Preludes and Fugues are a marvel: it’s no wonder so many keyboard players worship at their altar. They span so many styles, and are capable of being rendered in so many ways,  each one contributing new insights. If you’ve never come across it, try to find Anne Dudley’s version of the B flat minor prelude from the first 24, as Good Friday a piece of music as Bach ever wrote. Ace bass player Tim Harries, himself no slouch on the keyboards, once said to me ‘such difficult music!’, and the older I get, the more I agree. You can get away with playing a lot of music approximately, but not Bach. The impossibly intricate detail of the composition demands total accuracy and attention. Nothing can be out of place in the performance because nothing is out of place in the composition. The second set of 24 were composed twenty years after the first set and a lot of personal water had flowed under JSB’s bridge. I puzzle why he returned to the idea of composing a prelude and fugue for every key (hence the 24) when the first set had been such a tour-de-force. To my ear the second set is more complex and dense. They carry a sense of a life lived, have more weight, less obvious joy, though the C major fugue is pretty sunny. Nowhere will you find the utter carefree, sublime happiness of the C sharp major fugue in the first 24 (which I can’t get near playing, and probably never will, unless I take a year’s sabbatical from the world).

Through Barrowden’s beautiful village. There are Kevin and Alison standing in front of their gate. Here are some more affable people to say hello to. Then it’s down Mill Lane and across what are some of the few genuine water meadows still to be found – that’s to say they will flood during winter – and up into Wakerley. Last time I came this way on my Big Walk the ground was saturated, and the ancient track impassable. At Wakerley-among-the-quarries, St. John’s is open, but only a few people have visited so far. St. John’s is our CCT church, a grand building for what is now a very small community on the Welland’s south side, but Simon has opened it up for the day. Here I can only pay lip service to my promise to play. The organ is hand-pumped, the handle resting on a propped-up chair. I release it, and heave up and down for a few moments, then rush round to slide onto the stool to see how much I can play before the air runs out. The answer is about eight and a half bars, but in the process I’ve invented a new Olympic sport in the tradition of the triathlon. I suppose the extra elements might entail rushing down to the Welland bridge and swimming a hundred metres, before scrambling back up to the church on a mountain bike.

As I replace the pump handle, I read the graffiti carved in the wood above it: ‘This church is Norman and erly (sic) English. Sunday 1953.’ There are a few names, presumably choristers of the time, earning their stripes while an organist better than me bashed out some Widor or Mendelsshohn. Maybe even some Bach.

Visiting this church, quite proximate to the old railway whose low viaduct is still very visible (and walkable) back towards Barrowden, I’m reminded of Flanders and Swann’s ‘Slow Train’ written in the aftermath of the 60s’ Beeching cuts. Will we find ourselves writing in similar elegiac vein about our lost churches in twenty years’ time? Write your own ecclesiastical version of the following:

                        ‘No more will I go to Blandford Forum and Mortehoe

                        On the slow train from Midsomer Norton and Mumby Road

                        No churns, no porter, no cat on a seat

                        At Chorlton-cum-Hardy or Chester le Street…’ 

The Welland near Barrowden

On and on, following the north bank of the river where the meander leaves quite a steep drop down to the water by a grassy field, through a patch of woodland, and then eventually up to Percy Gilman’s fields, where a straw-stack the size of a major condominium awaits transfer to fuel a power station. The track down to lovely St. Luke’s is announced by a sign directed at walkers like me: ‘To the church’!

                        ‘A friend who is Reformed

                        Writes in admonition.

                        Candles may obscure, he thinks.

                        I say that where we’ll be tonight

                        There is no choice.

                        It’s that or nowt.

                        There is no cabling to St. Luke’s…’

 David is at the church door. He’s been waiting for visitors who’ve largely not come, St. Luke’s being out on a limb at the far end of the hamlet of Tixover, which is itself a single street stretching off the A47. Candles are indeed the only lighting here, and the organ has to be foot-pumped harmonium-style. I haven’t done this for years, but wheeze my way through a couple of jolly numbers, testing out what works and what doesn’t. David tells me that the bellows were fixed a couple of years ago after predations from local mice and temporary solutions courtesy of Mr Gaffer and his tape, but it sounds to me as if it’s going to be a job of work and some expense to keep the instrument going much longer. I wish I were a millionaire who could ride in and solve the problem: a nice little baroque job would look and sound appropriate here.

Up the lane to the A47, and along beside the Hall until the roadside path ducks to one side, briefly revealing the previous, more winding tarmac, then down across Duddington’s lovely bridge past the mill and up to St. Mary’s. Church warden Sandie is on her way, dressed up ready for a nice lunch, after a morning stint with the biscuits and lemonade. Here too, not many have passed by. At Tixover David had asked me where I was going next and when I said ‘Duddington’ he pretended to be momentarily perplexed: ‘But that’s not in the county…’   

 It’s true.  ‘Ride and Stride’ is organised on a county basis, but our Welland Fosse Benefice is divided between Rutland and Northants. Duddington (and Wakerley) are about as far out in the sticks as you can be in Northamptonshire, albeit the former sits beside a major road junction. So perhaps not many Northamptonshire walkers and riders make it this far, and Rutlanders eschew it as not part of the Shire .

I try out the little organ which Harry made sound nice last Sunday, and find the noises I’m producing are a little less musical, though I don’t know why. This instrument too seems to be missing a lot of notes where you’d want them. I wonder when a manufacturer will wake up and start making a sampled organ which is cheap, sounds good and really caters for the needs of non-organists in small churches. A simple, single manual with optional pedals?  No bangs and whistles, just £5000 of someone’s good money to make a congregation happy, and don’t worry about the fancy woodwork. Right now a pop keyboardist can buy an awful lot of synthesiser for five grand. To my mind there’s too much fuss and blag about electronic organ-building.  Duddington could perhaps do with a Clavinova as an organ alternative. Dear old Syd’s ‘One more step along the road’, will always have a touch of vaudeville about it, but played on a pipe organ it too easily reminds one of the fairground.

This walk reveals an odd thing about our Benefice. Our name is ‘Welland Fosse’, which refers to the ditch (!) or trench of the Welland, in which four of the churches sit. However, Morcott and South Luffenham are on the far side of the ridge, and there’s a peculiarity insofar as one can’t walk directly from Duddington to South Luffenham, though a series of zigzags will do it if the walker risks a perilous few hundred metres along the narrow verge of the fast and furious A47. I won’t, so retrace my steps to Barrowden, planning to walk the lane over the hill from there to South Luffenham. However, by the time I reach the beginning of the ascent I realise I’m out of puff. Twenty one or twenty two kilometres is my limit these days, and if I complete my walk the way I want to, it’ll be twenty six or twenty seven by the time I’m finished.  I accept my frailties and alter course for home.

I don’t want to push the comparison too far, but the Church too is having to learn the meaning of ‘a bridge too far’. As our son Matt would say, ‘Don’t let the best be the enemy of the good’. This sometimes goes against the grain for those of us (him and me) who were told, ‘Only your best is good enough…’  We have too much plant and too few people. Too much heritage and too little money. This is painful for a historian. We have a conundrum. We need a miracle or two. 

                        ‘Shall we run whooping from Morcott to Barrowden

                        Flaming out along our own Santa Pod?

                        Shall ‘The Street’ in Luffenham resound

                        With Swahili and Spanish thanks to God?

                        Shall sermons spill out from the Duddington stone?

                        Shall Tixover sheep dream a Lamb on the throne?


                        Expect the new in a heavenly shower

                        Hope for a thousand gifts to flower

                        The Fosse transformed by Holy Wind power

                        Praise him!’

The Pounds in your Pocket:  21.5 km. 6.5 hrs.  23 deg C.  No stiles.  Eleven gates.  Four bridges. One tractor a-ploughing. Pigeons everywhere. A flock of sparrows on Percy’s farm. Fewer Runners and Riders than one might have wished for.

 

With the exception of the extract from ‘Slow Train’, all other quotations in the above are from ‘Candles’ written for the octave of prayer for Christian Unity © Vince Cross 2021

 Postscript

The following day we hear the farewell sermon of Sarah Brown, Canon Missioner at Peterborough Cathedral. She’s leaving after nearly four years to become Dean at Hereford, a poacher turned gamekeeper. It’s a wonderful occasion and Sarah preaches memorably, challenging herself and her congregations with Mark’s account of the Transfiguration. The gist of her message is this. We Christians are first and foremost tasked with revealing God, and nothing else is of much account unless it works in that direction – not glorious churches and cathedrals, not extraordinary music, not elaborate worship and liturgy. Our concerns for these other things must be held in tension with Christ’s commission to his followers.

Her words make me feel like the rich young ruler (or in my case a moderately wealthy old codger…) The job seems impossible. The demands too great. How then can I enter the Kingdom of Heaven?

In memory of John White who Rode and Strode over many years, and went about doing good for his family, his clients, his parish and the diocese.