Sunday, 18 October 2020

Me myself I*

 

I’ve not seen many wasps this autumn, but they’re everywhere on the ivy which decorates Pickworth’s walls and fences. The sky is blue, the sun warm, and like me they’re making the most of the shrinking hours of daylight.

I walk westwards looking out for the lime kiln where (possibly) John Clare made a living while every evening he wrote about hedgerows and flowers by the light of a whickering candle. I can’t see it because, and maybe the poet would have found this apt, the likely location is covered in bushes, general scrub…and wasps. There’s also a sign saying ‘keep out’ so perhaps too many Clare-freaks have been anxious to stand where the great man did. The path crosses a field on the angle and enters some woodland beside small pits where stone was once extracted for building or crushing, and then over a rise on the far side, my goodness, I’m not expecting the size of the more modern quarry which lies between me and Clipsham. It’s not quite on the scale of Ketton’s, but still pretty vast, with huge piles of spoil and impressive cliffs. The stone from here has ended up in King’s College Chapel, York Minster and the Houses of Parliament. Where the path leads down to its floor, a six-strong family of deer crosses left to right no more than thirty metres in front of me, the older females flanking at least one junior. One by one, with that peculiarly deft, precise agility, they leap a fence and disappear back into the trees. It’s a lovely unexpected moment. I’d been wondering whether to give the shorts one last pre-winter outing, and think to myself that the decision to remain in trousers was sound. No good avoiding Covid only to succumb to Lyme’s Disease. 

I’m la-la-la’ing the hook from Eric Clapton’s ‘Layla’ as I climb the steep exit from the quarry (yes, I know, this is something of a jump-cut from the bucolic to the bathetic…) I’m a fan of eighties music but the ‘Best of Clapton’ CD I was listening to earlier on in the car is a dreadful-sounding record IMO: gross drum sounds mixed far too prominently, too many notes, self-obsessed lyrics. I saw the all-star Clapton band in Birmingham at about that time, Phil Collins and Chester Thompson behind twin drumkits, Fairweather-Low on second guitar, big-bear Nathan East playing an apparently toy-sized bass and the excellent Greg Phillinganes on keyboards, Robert Cray supporting. I don’t remember them sounding all that bad…I was rather excited at the time. Sigh!

Pop music has always been rather ‘look at me!  Perhaps all music contains an element of that – we love to hear virtuosity, and my love for the piano was fuelled by hearing my wonderful teacher Robin Harrison hammering a school upright to within an inch of its survival with massive Liszt transcriptions e.g. Wagner’s Tannhauser overture (Robin’s speciality); more notes per minute than seemed humanly possible. But of course, at its core music is much more than this: careful listening between participants, the control of dynamics to make others sound good, the sympathetic placement of notes, the matching of harmony, tuning and rhythm, the acknowledgment of other people’s skills. It’s about ensembles as much as solos.

My wider search at present, and particularly in the Church, is for the communal, for consensus, for inclusion, for togetherness in the Spirit, for harmonious disagreement in God’s concert, a societal and spiritual version of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony where dissonance magically dissolves into majestic, deafening concord. What we currently experience politically and sometimes ecclesiastically is aggrieved division and dissent, with interest groups recklessly pursuing their own agendas. Collective improvisation in insensitive hands becomes the competing assertion of egos.  I know I’m repeating myself, and regular readers may be groaning at this insistent riffing, but post-Trump - as we must pray - and post-Johnson (ditto) there’ll have to be healing.

·       I’m an only child.  It’s odd for me to be saying the foregoing. Isn’t that ironic? (thanks, Ms. Morissette.)

·       The Virus spreads because of togetherness, but its aftermath is division. Isn’t that ironic too? (enough already, Alanis…)

·       This is one reason for the Eucharist – to hear the words: ‘the body of Christ’. So act like a body, dear people, not a bunch of dry bones.

·       ‘There’s no ‘I’ in team’. This is becoming increasingly funny as a slogan/clichĂ©/joke because spelling like the understanding of geography is becoming a lost art. Or perhaps the saying’s completely irrelevant, because Thatcher’s gnomic ‘there’s no such thing as society’ has turned out to be prescient. Apparently the only team now is my team.

The path arrives in Clipsham opposite The Olive Branch, a clearly superior nosh-spot. As I turn left up the road to Stretton, Range Rovers cruise by, before turning into the restaurant’s car-park, engines quietly purring and salivating prior to a not-so-trivial lunch. Deferring my lunchtime gratification for a while longer, I yomp up the road, admiring the autumnal colours in the roadside trees, and jumping out of the way of passing Chelsea Tractors, like an elderly Henry VIII doing a galliard, but less stylishly.


Apparently there are seventeen Strettons in England. Anywhere you see ‘street’ in a place name, even slightly disguised, you can be sure the Romans woz ‘ere: this is simply ‘the farm by the main road’, in this case Ermine Street. At the entrance to the village there’s a sign to Stretton’s inn, saying ‘The Jackson Stops’. This is a name I’m familiar with because they're an estate agency, so I assume the attention of passers-by is being drawn to the fact the pub’s up for sale. I’m nearly right. The firm did handle the transaction some years ago, but the new owners, perhaps out of sheer gratefulness, decided to adopt them with their new moniker. Perhaps they got a reduction on the fees. There’s a metal shroud over the north side of St. Nicholas’ church, and it’s shut, but I shelter in the porch for my sarnie, until another inquisitive black and yellow predator comes to share the space. I walk the long way round the houses until I can hear the noise from the adjacent A1, and then turn back towards Clipsham, passing the sign for H.M.P. Stocken as I do so (category C: past alumni include TV celeb Johnny Vaughan before he properly grew up).


I divert to my left to walk along the grass perimeter of ‘George Henry Wood’, eighty acres of relatively recent planting owned and maintained by the Woodland Trust where according to a web-listing you might find, in addition to eight different sorts of wasp, the Kentish Garden Snail and the Creeping Thistle Rust mushroom. Overhead the sun has disappeared and threatening, towering clouds are carrying showers towards the west on a brisk breeze. All afternoon they pass to the north and south, but miss me.

Clipsham’s church, St. Mary’s sits on the edge of the Big House’s grounds in a gently pretty location. Sheep feint to pose for me in the field to its south, and then, as sheep are wont to do, move at the last moment to spoil the photograph. I stick my tongue out at them, and pray for the human inhabitants of the village, wondering as always who they are and what they do with their lives amidst this pastoral loveliness. Leaving the village to the east, for the first time this autumn I find the fieldpath has changed from tacky to muddy. The Met has just pronounced October 3rd the wettest day ever recorded, if you take the UK as a whole. The total precipitation made for a volume greater than that of Loch Ness. The path becomes a track beside cover where there are hundreds, possibly thousands, of pheasants and their chicks. Being not the brightest things in mental plumage they scuttle on in front of me for hundreds of metres before finally diving and crashing away into the undergrowth. Others chuck and squawk their way out of the undergrowth as I pass so regularly that I stop reacting to their sudden avian eruptions. By a farm I say how-do to a lady in a natty felt hat. A few minutes later as I climb into the cool green of Pickworth Great Wood, she passes me in a golf caddy driven by her man. They’re exercising a lively, young black lab, and stop to ask me if I’d like to say hello – to the dog, not them. I decline the kind invitation. I suppose for elderly folk it can be the only way to keep their companion hound fit. I remember once passing a driver in a Kent lane, who was steering his Land Rover at a steady 20 mph with one finger, whilst holding a greyhound on a leash through the side window with his other hand. Don’t try that at home, children…


When I’m within a hundred metres of the car, I overtake a couple who are looking intently at their map. They generously remark that I look as if I know what I’m doing – which could of course be a paraphrase of ‘You look dirty and a bit knackered…’ They’ve walked from Clipsham, but the other way - through the quarry - and are now wondering as I did about that lime kiln. I explain where I think it is and we fall into conversation. I tell them what I’m doing, and give them one of my cards. They ask if I’m a bishop or something. I laugh and say they’re quite right, the previous Archbishop of York did something similar but no, I'm just a bloke. Seeing my name on the card they double-take because they’re also Crosses. Geoff tells me that though they live near Lichfield, they have family origins in Bermondsey, London, and I say that’s funny because some of my people peter out genealogically in that part of London. Truly it’s a small world, and I wouldn’t at all rule out the possibility that we’re related. Such coincidences happen more than at first seems feasible. I once met my dad in Chappells of Bond Street’s record department, him having travelled twenty miles in one direction, and me sixty from another, with no collusion. Oddly, although I was banjaxed by this event, he seemed entirely unphased. These new Crosses tell me that this is their first outing on the back of a Julia Bradbury collection of ‘a hundred best walks’, and it is a good walk that they’re going to do, through Great Wood and all those pheasants back to Clipsham. But I know how imprecise some walking books can be, and as I’m driving home, I hope they find their way safely, despite my well-meaning but probably unhelpful tips about following the field margins where the diagonal path gets sticky.


 *The title of a Joan Armatrading song and album c. 1977

 Strings to my guitar:  14 km. 4.5 hrs. 13 deg. C.  Fine but often cloudy. No stiles. 5 gates 2 bridges. 2 churches.

 

Our Father in Heaven

This is a familiar conundrum.

But

Did you put me here to ‘do’?

Or simply to ‘be’?

Am I defined by what you made?

Or should I be struggling to turn myself into something more –

Like washing powder

A new improved me?

And what about other people

Whom Descartes and others have suggested

Might all be mental or social constructs?

(Though really we all know that’s a load of bunkum, don’t we?)

Anyway.

I know there should be less ‘me’ and more ‘You’.

But what about more ‘we’ and less ‘I’?

And does it make any difference

Being an introvert?

(I mean, do you cut me more slack

Because I so often want to hide from people?)

 

I’m so good at excuses

And equivocations

And evasions.

Lord, help me through all my self-deceptions

To a better understanding of your will.

Amen.

Friday, 9 October 2020

Knobbled

 

Have you heard of ‘dragging’ websites?  No, me neither, until Emma Barnett on Radio 5 darkens the morning by interviewing Sali Hughes, a beauty ‘influencer’ who writes for The Guardian. Apparently, these are websites entirely devoted to denigrating individuals in the public eye who make their living or reputation from a web presence.

Just as when some years ago I was commissioned to write one of the many volumes of Macmillan’s ‘Puppy Patrol’ series for children, and so was set the task of concocting a winsome canine tale (!) about dog agility competitions, my life takes a rapid lurch across spacetime as I’m forced to comprehend yet another form of life of which I was hitherto blissfully unaware. It’s not thus been improved. Either by dog agility or ‘dragging’.

According to Sali, some individuals spend up to twenty hours a day contributing to and/or consuming this anti-celeb porn. She’s fallen victim, but at least Sali’s still here to warn the public, and hasn’t suffered a breakdown or committed suicide as others have done. I can’t think of a better argument for original sin and the power of evil. How can we ever now benignly control the Internet monster originally created for the betterment and drawing together of humanity? It’s the story of The Fall recreated.

Anyway that’s the overture to today’s walk, and I’m glad to exit the car and stroll up the Roman lane from Great Casterton towards Pickworth. Immediately I’m hailed by Mick who’s cutting hedges on a side road with his mate. He asks if he’s seen me before. I rack my brains and equivocate, slightly thrown because Mick looks very like piano-tuning friend and ‘Prince of Wales’ Rattler’ Clive Wood, fit and fifty something with rock star hair and shades. Mick’s interested in my walker’s stick, because he makes them as a lifestyle business . He happens to have a few on board the van so he shows them to me. His speciality is the ‘whistle-stick’. It has a detachable wooden whistle slotted into the thumbpiece - very attractive and useful. In Mick’s parlance my stick’s a ‘knobbler’. I say it was a present from my dad, and it’s been with me through thick and thin for the past twenty years, despite having been left accidentally on tube stations and in cornfields. I add that having just cleared my parental home, I’ve inherited a couple more, so sadly despite the beauty and usefulness of Mick’s work, I won’t need another one for the time being. It turns out he lives in Hardingstone - just a few miles away from where I live - and we swap favourite local walks before parting with a manly fist-bump. Mick doesn’t know just how much he’s cheered me up by his crafty skills and breezy manner after Radio 5’s morning glooms.

Opposite Mounts Lodge, I turn up the bridleway so I don’t have to slog it all the way to Pickworth by the metalled road, but half way to the village get confused by the angles of various tracks. A 4x4 creeps up behind me and revs its engine pointedly. I give way. The driver leans across the passenger seat and asks that ominous ‘Are you lost?’ question, meaning ‘What the jolly flamin’ roger are you doing here, my old son?’ He’s a gamekeeper. ‘Only,’ he continues, ‘I’ve got deer-stalkers up there…’ (pointing to a piece of woodland which my map tells me shouldn’t be where it is) ‘…and you don’t want a bullet whistling round your ears…’

We agree this wouldn’t be in either of our interests, so feeling like an incompetent wayfarer idiot I retrace my steps and pick up the bridleway where it undulates into a dip and out the other side, eventually to emerge opposite All Saints church. Sensitised by the hunters I’d just avoided, I can’t help noticing the delicate tracks of a small deer on the mud of the grassy path.

All Saints isn’t Pickworth’s original church, which lies under a field a few hundred metres away. The new one was built in 1821. Its interior chocolate colours are primly spare and Puritan, but everything is neat and appealing in rustic simplicity. Just a few years before its construction John Clare had been employed in the lime kiln close by – dangerous and unpleasant work, one imagines – heat, dust, emissions – but at least he had the consolation of his great love, Martha. She lived in the farm a couple of kilometres back towards Casterton. The poet’s industrial occupation is a stark counterpoint to his flowery, agrarian verse. 

There’s very little to Pickworth these days, whatever the reason for its depopulation, which some attribute to the Wars of the Roses’ Battle of Losecoat Field. A handsome stone carving commemorates the event on the bank in front of the church. Memories last long in the deep country. I walk east along the drovers’ road known as ‘The Drift’.  Where the path to Ryhall veers across some fields, I’m grateful to the four hikers who are preceding me across the untrodden earth, marking the way. At the crest of the hill we greet each other again – they’d pinched the bench outside All Saints for their lunch, where we said a first hello. I made do happily with a churchyard tree stump for table and chair.

Ryhall is an interesting place, beside the River Gwash and next to the old Turnpike which once bumped travellers onwards to Lincolnshire, Bourne and the Fens. There are two pubs, a small square and St. John the Evangelist’s solid church, on the side of which is a remain of the Hermitage where it’s said St. Tibba once resided. By the newish south porch there’s a sign which says the church is open, though it isn’t, so I sit on a bench and munch thoughtfully. An elderly lady, smiley, neatly made up, pushes her trolley along the church path in front of me. She’s doing short triangular laps through the churchyard, in one gate, out the other and along the road. At the third time of asking we swap a few words. ‘Got to keep going’, she remarks, which I take to mean in the wider, more existential sense rather than that she doesn’t want to talk. I am somewhat moved.


Seems to me that there’s a missed component to contemporary ontological thinking. Outside the church, but within it too, we concentrate on the possible, and never enquire about the likely significance of the impossible. This is quite understandable. We want to harry the scientists to find a cure or vaccine for Covid. We don’t want to contemplate the notion that there’s no cure, no vaccine. But the smiley lady of indomitable spirit can’t turn back time, because time only works one way, and in a real sense we don’t know why. In our current dilemmas the public and press is desperate to be told that health and safety can be preserved while boosting the economy. Yet this is impossible. It’s one or the other, not both. Heisenberg’s principle (yes, that old saw) tells us we can know the position or speed of a particle but not both. We cannot posit anything at all about what preceded the Big Bang. As Wittgenstein drew for us in the Philosophical Investigations, one can make a puzzle picture which viewed one way is a duck, and in another is a rabbit, and we can call this nonsensical thing a ‘duck-rabbit’, but we can only ever view it as one or the other. And Jesus is fully human and fully divine, but this too, outside of the formulae of Christian orthodoxy is… impossible. But it is a mystery, and perhaps makes much more sense if we view it in the context of all the other impossibilities with which we have to deal. But this stretches our notion of ‘Truth’ beyond the ‘coherence’ and ‘correspondence’ of twentieth century philosophy. And yes, I know I haven’t made a clear distinction here between logical impossibility and scientific impossibility. Nevertheless shouldn’t we in some sense reify ‘impossibilities’?

St. Tibba was a seventh century Saxon princess, who Wikipedia tells me is venerated in the Anglican and Catholic churches, and in Western Orthodoxy too, a niece of King Penda of the Mercians. She’s the patron saint of falconers, though no one on the Web will tell me why. And she was buried here in Ryhall, though her bones were carried off to Peterborough Abbey in the eleventh century. Wouldn’t it be nice, if today’s Ryhall church were to be rededicated to her instead of St. John?  After all, many places of worship carry his excellent name, and she is nowhere honoured. I feel a campaign coming on…

A late middle-aged couple stand talking quietly in the garden of a bungalow at the end of the village. The bungalow’s name is ‘Middlemarch’. My guess is that one of them is an English teacher. But which one? Of which gender?

The path propels me on past a happy, happy chicken farm where plump birds peck and feed in acres of prime grass, up a hill and down to Tolethorpe and its beautiful mill. Above my head towers the superstructure of the open-air theatre which does Shakespeare each summer. I expect this year was an exception. Let’s hope it’s business as usual next time round. Tolethorpe has a cricket ground too, but it’s nearly in Little Casterton. The outfield is less than pristine, though to be fair it’s now October (mind you, the professional season only ended last weekend!) A couple of chaps are lovingly seeding and preparing the ‘square’, putting it to bed for the winter. It’s usually a seasonal moment that would fill me with melancholy, but this time I can only hope for better times to come.

Beyond the cricket ground lies All Saints, Little Casterton. On the website: greatenglishchurches.co.uk  its author writes:  ‘…it is small, humble, little known, rather chaotic – and yet full of curiosities. It epitomises the’secret’ churches that (understandably) didn’t make it into Simon Jenkins’ book but which have so much to offer to those who dare to look outside the confines of the ‘recommended’ lists. It is a sort of antidote to overdosing on the diet of its more celebrated cousins and neighbours’.

I shall have to come back another day.

 (Mere) Prawns in the game*18 km.  5 hrs.  15 degrees C., and breezy with it, so not so warm. Three churches, one open. Pheasants everywhere. Two stiles, ten gates, three bridges.

Dear Lord and Father of mankind

Forgive our foolish ways;

Re-clothe us in our rightful mind,

In purer lives thy service find,

In deeper reverence, praise.

             John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-92)

 *Morning Prayer often makes use of Psalm 8, which begins ‘O Lord our governor’. In the recesses of my warped mind this carries me straight to dear George Cole, whose TV character Arthur Daley was always apt to say something like ‘Oh dear, oh dear, your guv’nor won’t like this. He won’t like it at all!’  On one memorable occasion Arthur/George also opined sadly that in the end we are all ‘…mere prawns in the game…’  Let’s hope this is a theological inexactitude.



Monday, 21 September 2020

Apple of my eye

 

                                                                The Old Forge, Tinwell

The sun has rammed his hat on and he’s already been out to play for a few hours as I cross the Welland out of Tinwell and hike the river bank towards Stamford.

The news isn’t good. The Covid figures are on the rise again - in the UK but also more notably in France and Spain. The government’s strategy will be to squeeze the brakes, and try to keep the economy going while depressing the spread of the virus. Can this be done? No one knows.  I want to pray: ‘Lord keep us all safe, but I’m old enough to know that in earthly terms one day sooner or later he won’t keep me safe. Anno domini and all that. So the most I can pray on this gorgeous morning is: ‘Lord, may we be safe today. Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings’.

There’s quite a stragglegaggle of people down by the water. An older lady ignores my cheery hello. Perhaps she’s deaf. A sprightly young woman with a dog returns my greeting, but rather too loudly because she’s listening to Adele on her headset. A guy with a pack is sitting in the long grass beside the path looking distinctly stoned, so I get nothing from him. A couple are standing facing the river, all concentration. I think maybe they’ve seen a kingfisher or an alligator, but as I get nearer I see they’re muttering into their cellphones. Maybe a multi-million pound deal’s in progress. Another dog walker turns his back on me, though we’re more than five metres distant from each other.

There’s a peculiar aroma of apricot bodywash on the air. At first I think it may have been the sprightly young woman, but she’s long in my rear view mirror now, so what can it be?  Maybe there’s a sewage facility somewhere near and they’ve done what they occasionally do at Billing and freshened the environment for a few miles around with eau de talcum powder – but this is more subtle than that. Well, Rutland’s more up market than Northampton. We probably can’t afford the apricot flavouring.

These days, when I’m out walking, I find I’m more aware of people’s personal fragrances than I used to be. Deodorant uptake seems to be a Big Untold Story this year. I put it down to my heightened wariness of other people: I’m constantly scanning everyone across all parameters lest they be a possible source of infection. Today, even as I enjoy Freemen’s Meadow on the approach to Stamford most people seem a little withdrawn and morose. Well, as I say, the news isn’t good.  Over on the school playing field, I notice the girl teenagers are back in ankle length skirts, as if escaped from post WW1 episodes of Downton Abbey. I know hemlines go up and down, but this novelty had escaped me until now, and I ponder its possible social significance over and above the need of the fashion industry to constantly renew itself. Does it mark the dawning of a new conservatism? Or is it a sub-conscious mimicking of the 1918 ‘flu pandemic? Anyway, the girls and their mums will get over it soon enough, once the skirts have suffered the scuffs and scours of a wet and muddy winter.

As ‘apples of my eye’ go, the view of Stamford from just here is high on the list: it’s mostly the reason I’ve strayed out of diocese/county (because of course Stamford is in Lincolnshire and therefore strictly speaking shouldn’t be included in my Big Walk!) The crisp stone buildings rise up gently from the Welland towards All Saints church. The conspicuous wealth of past generations oozes from every pore. Stamford was a river port, a place where the wool merchants of the North could readily access European trade from the roads the Romans had established centuries before. The very name Ermine Street tells a story. From here the fens stretch out towards the east and the sea. I follow the surprisingly thronged streets around to All Saints front door. It’s open, but as I learn from Jan and Kay who I find cleaning and tidying, this is the first week people have been let inside. It’s a lovely, generous building lit by Victorian glass, magnificent in the sun. The natural slope of the hill raises the east end in a way I find inspiring, echoing both the City of God and the hill of crucifixion. The church has a new priest, Neil Shaw. Jan and Kay think he has a job on his hands. The church has lost a bit of membership. There’s work to be done on relationships – but then isn’t that always so, when a new person arrives to begin their ministry? The interregnum was long. There are a number of beautiful medieval churches in Stamford, giving a clue to the town’s wealthy history, and Simon Jenkins has much to say about them, but All Saints should be its beating Christian heart.

The suburbs of Stamford stretch uphill halfway to Great Casterton along the former Great North Road, passing the site of the Toll Bar at the apex of the hill. The name Casterton requires little interpretation; a farm proximate to a Roman settlement that quickly arose around a military post. The church of St Peter and St. Paul is right by the road at the southern end of the modern village before the crossing of the River Gwash which would have encouraged its development. The poet John Clare whose bucolic verse is so widely celebrated in Northamptonshire and beyond, was married here in 1820.


I’m only a quarter of the way through my sandwich when the parish priest Don McGarrigle arrives in the church porch with his bicycle. Don is an engaging Ulsterman with a ready smile and lively, welcoming manner. I should think he goes down a storm with his parishioners, and considering he’s the same age as me (69) I can only admire his energy. He spends half his week being a Telecoms engineer. I’d already picked up a leaflet for last week’s CafĂ© Church before Don appeared, and had been charmed to see that each element in the worship is timed ( 10.38:  Talky Bit 1  etc.) for the benefit of those viewing at home. The final hymn (expected at 11.16!) is described as ‘Crashy Bashy You Shall Go Out With Joy’

Need I say more. To walk a couple of miles from the relatively High Church splendour of All Saints to this energising, humorous, people-friendly atmosphere in Great Casterton illustrates again my point: we need both places and others to maintain our balance as the Body of Christ. We are truly ‘better together’ – and ‘better in colour’.

Don has recently held drive-in services with the assistance of the local pub. He’s found talented local musicians to provide locked down support, whilst not excluding his nonagenarian organist. This is all wonderful, and I enjoy my twenty minutes inside SS Peter and Paul very much, without sparing John Clare a single thought.

Further up Ermine Street and just to its east, uncomfortably near the slip road to the A1 dual carriageway is Tickencote about whose St. Peter’s church Simon Jenkins is interesting but guarded, although he awards it three stars. Don McGarrigle handed over the keys for this tiny place of worship to the Churches Conservation Trust in 2019, but it’s still used for occasional services and weddings. Perhaps St. Peter’s is best thought of as a true travellers’ church, since human and animal traffic will have passed its doors in huge numbers over the centuries. Now those travellers will pause at the service station just down the road, but if they come to Tickencote at all, they’ll come to see a single architectural feature more overwhelming than in any other church I’ve visited so far on The Walk. The Norman chancel arch frames the altar like a huge stone fireplace, as if someone was presenting a huge secret to the world. In Simon Jenkins’ words:

            ‘…the great arch at Tickencote is like a peacock’s tail, comprising every motif of beakheads, crenellation, odds and ends of faces and much zigzag. The carvings are the forte of the composition, a mass of animals, heads and monsters. The origin of many of these figures is obscure, perhaps Roman, perhaps Saxon, perhaps Viking. “Once the floodgates of fancy were opened”, says the guide, “a full tide of grotesque imagery poured through…”’

For the rest, Tickencote’s church leaves me wondering. I know what I think of neo-Georgian architecture on modern housing developments – there are worse fashion tics, but it leaves me a bit cold. So what should I think about eighteenth century efforts to mimic earlier architectural forms? Perhaps it’s just a contrast to the human warmth radiated by Don McGarrigle, but I leave St. Peter’s Tickencote feeling a trifle chilly despite its one extraordinary interior feature.

Shortly afterwards I have an unpleasant encounter with canines at a farm near Great Casterton. OK, let’s not be coy. I have a run-in with a farmer lady and her three choc labs at Ingthorpe Farm. I arrive at the farm gate, having been much barked at from within, to attempt to walk the right of way which passes through the farmyard. A notice by the gate tells me that because we live in Covid times I should use an undefined alternative track somewhere to my left (why?) although there are no clear markings as to where that is. I stick to what the map says, but can’t open the gate because of the threat from the dogs. The woman calls in one particular snarling hound. I pass through the gate, and then all three dogs hurl themselves across the yard with the intention of eating me. She follows at a canter.

 Me: Thank you for coming to rescue me, but (and I continue somewhat fiercely, though not impolitely) this isn’t OK! This is a public right of way.

 Her: They wouldn’t do anything…

 Me: I don’t know that do I?

 Her: Well, you should use the other path…Covid… (mumbles)

 Me: This is the right of way… (beginning to walk away across the farmyard and looking for the exit…)

 Her: It’s not that way. Do you have a proper map?

 Me: (brandishing map) Yes!

 Her: (to my back and grudgingly)  Sorry…

So… some marks to her for the final, belated apology, but as I say, this isn’t OK either from a dog-owning or land-owning p.o.v. Clearly no proper diversion of the right of way has been granted, even if conceivably it’s been applied for, and property-protecting dogs can’t be allowed to harry walkers doing what the law says they can. And I’m fed up with having dog-owners assuring me their pooches wouldn’t hurt a fly, are great with kids, are just a complete darling etc. etc.. Every year people get badly bitten in public circumstances by out-of-control pets. Children are sometimes killed.

This week there’s been some publicity about ancient, grumpy rock singer and knight of the realm Van Morrison’s latest release of Covid denying/protest songs – government conspiracy etc. In my view a lot of this stuff is just tosh, but there are some worrying aspects to the behaviour of governments national and local at this moment (and this filters down to the way the folk in charge sometimes behave in churches). Laws are made on the back of a fag packet with no proper scrutiny. We’re now controlled to a degree unprecedented in peacetime. It's the unfortunate way of things that in the middle of this chaos and anxiety there’ll be attempts to smuggle in changes to society which aren’t necessary or desirable by any reasonable democratic standards. In this category, though some way down the scale of importance, could be changes on our rights to use footpaths as we have for hundreds of years (as part of a loosening of planning standards?) It’s not a time to let things slip, people. Exercise your rights, and complain where you have to. But if you’re walking through Ingthorpe Farm, take care. It’s a while since I’ve had to say it in these pages, but farmers are our friends, and need support and advocacy. And in return, they mustn’t regard other users of the countryside as their enemies. Or bringers of disease.

Ticks in the box (and flies in the flybottle)  16 km. 4.6 hrs. Flat and easy. Three churches – all open for one reason or another. Thank you, Don.  Five stiles. Eight gates. Four bridges. 20 degrees C. A warm dry day, but very breezy especially later coming back down to Tinwell. 

Lord

Help me to stand up for justice

And not only where it affects me

In some trivial way.

Let me hold dear

The rights of the dispossessed

The powerless

The poor and the weak

And truly to see Christ

In their faces

And so find strength

To relieve the world’s pain

By your grace

And the breath

Of the Holy Spirit

Amen.

 

As the grain once scattered in the fields

And the grapes once dispersed on the hillside

Are now reunited in bread and wine,

So Lord may your whole Church soon be gathered together

From the corners of the earth into your Kingdom.

 

‘I’m still the apple of my mama’s eye

I’m my daddy’s worst fears realised

I’m the other kind…’

(Steve Earle)

How extraordinary that this expression, like so many others, should find its way all the way from The Psalms into (relatively) contemporary rock music…



 

What was I saying?

 

I’m walking from my home church of St. Peter’s, Weston Favell to the cathedral at Peterborough by a series of circular walks. Each walk must touch the circumference of a previous walk at some point. Eventually I’ll have visited every Anglican church in the diocese, active or decommissioned, plus a handful in neighbouring dioceses. I pray for each parish as I pass through it, and send each incumbent a card to say I’ve been. I blog about where I’ve been and what I’ve experienced.

 The project began in April 2016, before Britain committed itself to Brexit, before the rise of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump. My theme was and remains that the Church of England is ‘Better Together’ despite our differences in liturgy and churchpersonship. We’re a national church who should be a Christian beacon to a country losing its way, and our common purpose should cause us to cherish what unites us, rather than individualising ourselves by dwelling on our personal likes and dislikes. One Church, one Faith, one Lord.

 And latterly, in the shadow of Covid, I’ve added the thought that we’re ‘Better in Colour’. Life in Christ is truly vivid, shot through with excitement, danger and confrontations. When we’re grey as a Church, or when we see things in terms of noughts and ones, or black and white, we’re probably missing the point.


Tuesday, 8 September 2020

Holding on by the fingernails

 

After one has crossed the railway line in Ketton, there’s a bungalow at the summit of a small rise named ‘Karajan’. I can imagine calling an Alsatian dog that, but a house?  Was/is the owner a musician, or a refugee from Berlin, or simply an enthusiast for the work of the great Herbert? Perhaps it’s a yelled reply, a one word denigration of the silky skills of Sir Simon Rattle. I’m not brave enough to knock on the door and ask.

The same lane - from Ketton to Collyweston - passes over the Welland and climbs the far hillside on a diagonal. To its right once stood the Palace of Collyweston, and very impressive it must have looked in stone and timber, the seat of Lady Margaret Beaufort and her Tudor successors until 1640, when it was pulled down. What remains today are the markings of the palace’s fishponds, and some significant walls around its lost garden. I pass through a gate into a space that wants me to admire a sundial. All I can see is a small lump of stone which might once have told the time but does so no longer. At the side of St. Andrew’s church is a an annexe which may have afforded Lady Margaret the chance to run the rule over the local priest and hoi polloi, but among the wonders of her palace she also had her very own chapel with a full choir, judging by the number of surplices she required to be made. Various opinions have been offered of this great woman from the ‘politic and contriving’ to far more generous assessments of her worth and achievements. She certainly knew her own mind, and used her great abilities to (literally) keep her head in troubled times, founding a dynasty which changed the shape of England in so many ways. I have personal reason to be grateful. Without her St. John’s College, Cambridge wouldn’t exist. My college boat club still honours her name, though perhaps she might think eight undergrads busting a gut along the Cam a very strange way to make lasting recognition of her life. We don’t choose that by which we are remembered. Hmm: a worrying thought, better not pursued… 

Half way down the High Street is a house fallen on hard times, but a marvellous opportunity for someone handy and enterprising, who, were they able to lick it into shape, might make a very good profit, or fashion a lovely, impressive place to live. It won’t be us, though. I ask a neat lady what’s the story, as she emerges from the convenience store/Post Office. She’s Scottish and hasn’t been in the village long, so doesn’t know, but Collyweston’s a nice place to live. She remarks that in these mask-wearing times it’s strange that she talks to many folk whose full facial features she probably wouldn’t recognise. She knows them only by their eyes.

I could walk to Easton on the Hill along the higher ground and the main road, but prefer to descend the hill, and climb again across the fields until I reach Ketton Drift. This will take me along the western edge of the hidden ‘slate’ quarries which are the main association of Collyweston’s village name. A roof of ‘Collyweston slate’ is a selling point in nice houses, but this slate isn’t really a slate at all. It’s a limestone left to weather until it can be flaked. As I walk the air around me rumbles and reverberates to the sound of unseen aircraft on exercise. Although the skies are partially clear, I can’t see them so they must be very high, but the sonic booms roll from left to right for a full half an hour most of the way into Easton.  Or perhaps they’re just ghost sound effects. Beyond Easton lies RAF Wittering, now only in use for light trainers, but once upon not so long ago, yet another major base for the nation’s attack aircraft. The planes I hear today most likely originate in Coningsby, much further to the north in Lincolnshire.

There’s a postscript to ‘Collyweston slate’. Allegedly, because the stone would invariably start to de-form after some time (though presumably it was still much preferred to the constant renewal required of thatch) and therefore be rendered all higgeldy piggeldy, it became a byword for something going awry, as in ‘it’s all gone collywest’ (a sort of ancient equivalent of something ‘going Pete Tong’). And this was reinforced by an apparently ridiculous male garment which became fashionable in late Tudor times, a kind of smock whose sleeves contrived to end up front and back, with open sides. This too then became known as ‘a Collywest’ – because basically it was a stupid, barking idea.

Easton on the Hill is a beautiful long village in tasteful, often creamy stone, the streets curving sinuously up to the church of All Saints, more or less the last stop on the way to Stamford. I’m privileged to find the church open and spend ten minutes enjoying the silence. To the right of the altar is a side-chapel which today is suffused by a magical pink glow reflecting from furnishings and glass. In the field beyond the church is a small circular garden of peace around the sculpture of an ammonite, and beside it, a stylised labyrinth laid out in stone. I find Neil and Julie there. Julie was born in Easton, but now they live in Stamford, and during these Covid times often walk from their home there up the hill and over the county boundary to the airy views we now share.

As I exit the church I see a couple of names of past incumbents. Culpepper Tanner. Chambers Bate. Don’t you just love that!

I mistakenly think a footpath must find its way across the little field to emerge near the National Trust’s ‘Priest’s House’, but discover it only issues in a garden, so retrace my steps until I can arrive outside the ‘Priest’s House’ by following the village lanes. I pass a bright yellow Chevrolet Corvette as I go, and spend the drop down to Tinwell writing a Steve Earle-like lyric about it: Bright yellow Corvette/All those dollars I spent/Left me deep in debt/No food no rent/Bright yellow Corvette/Best wheels I had yet etc. etc.  As Roger McGough once said:  ‘I don’t like the poems they’re making me write…

On the edge of Easton is a very comfortably proportioned house - the former rectory, far too grand for today’s needs. Here once lived Lancelot Skynner who was captain of the unfortunate HMS Lutine. She was a 32-gun frigate handed over to the British by the French royalists at the end of the siege of Toulon, to prevent her falling into the hands of the Republicans. In 1799 she was carrying bullion to shore up the Hamburg banks under a British flag, when she was driven onto a sandbank in the Frisian Islands and became a total loss. Only one man survived. It wasn’t Skynner. Famously, the Lutine's bell ended up in Lloyd's of London, and every time a ship founders it is rung.


I put aside Americana, and start thinking about a troubling letter I read in the Church Times some days ago, from a lady of senior years and long faithful contribution to the Church of England who’s thinking of handing in her membership card. She lives in Upper Boddington, which I visited on this walk a couple of years ago. I remember village prettiness and a worrying moment with some frisky cows. This lady has had enough of the C. of E. for a variety of reasons. I thoroughly identify with some of them: others are lower down my hit list. Her principal beefs are with lack of leadership during the current crisis, and a feeling that we’re not walking with Jesus in the way we worship and practise our faith. 

It’s been a rough couple of weeks down in my personal C. of E. cabbage patch too, throwing into stark relief all I’ve written here over the past four years. Do I believe any of it? Using that old Lyndon B. Johnson metaphor, am I better inside or outside the tent? Evangelicals would say that this is the Devil’s inevitable attack as I move towards the final weeks of the project, but that’s far too Warty Bliggens for me (in Don Marquis’s poem ‘Archy and Mehitabel’, Warty is a toad who considers that the whole cosmos was constructed entirely to grow toadstools for him to sit under).

The saddleback tower of All Saints in Tinwell is a reminder of one of the things which keeps me going. Faith in England has seen so many changes and the number of the saints who have gone before is so great that even if I feel like separating myself from those immediately around me, it seems a denial of our ancestors’ struggles and suffering to walk away simply because I’m hacked off with current leadership and attitudes. The question as to whether it’s OK to shake the dust off my feet in a particular place is quite different.

The rest of the day’s walk is a beating of the bounds of Ketton’s Cement quarry, which is actually a lot more picturesque and fun than it sounds. Two things to mention. One is that on the main Stamford road opposite All Saints stands what looks very much like a gallows, which if I were a resident I’d find a bit of a downer. Though of course it may be placed where it is to assist in speed reduction through the village, which is a Noble Aim.

The other is one of those encounters with the natural world which comes rarely to the walker, and which makes everything seem all right with the world. On a gently ascending section of the quarry peripherique I very nearly step on a grass snake, which has been sunning itself in a fold of the path. It is so glossily perfect, so wonderfully made, that it makes me gasp, and as it moves politely to one side and slides silkily into the hedgerow, forked tongue darting in the approved snaky fashion, I find myself cooing to it as one would to a baby.

Viral load: 19 km. Five and a half hours.  19 deg C.  Very still and calm, thus feeling mild even during the morning. 3 stiles. 9 gates 3 bridges. Three churches one of which was open. And a vision of perfection in that snake. For a moment I could see why some people keep reptiles – but still think they’re missing the point – this was wonderful precisely because the animal was free to do as it pleased.

 My Father God

 A bit strange don’t you think

That I can

Feel so uplifted

By this delicate little creature…

As I am also sometimes

By the little robin outside the study window,

And yet be brought so low

By the machinations and mean-ness

Of human beings.

 

Please help me to see

Everyone around me

As wonderfully and perfectly made -

As you intended them -

And love them

For their best selves.

And Father,

In my miseries

Over my own inadequacy

Help me to glimpse

The me you want me to be.

Amen.

 

 

Sunday, 23 August 2020

Pigpen

 

                                                        Inside Cottesmore church

The village of Exton is just perfect. There’s the Fox and Hounds advertising its morning coffee, and over there are be-rugged folks sitting under the trees in the middle of the greensward drinking it. Look, there’s a lovely cottage overflowing with hydrangeas, and here are some people saying hello, what a beautiful day, and where am I going, as I heave my sweater over my head and pull on my boots. And in the corner of the square there’s a dinky thirties’ style shop whose legend proclaims with a spice of eccentricity that the one-time owner was a ‘druggist’. Tom Lehrer is thereby summoned happily to mind, who pointed out that in the litany of (American!) village characters traditionally celebrated in song, one is invariably lacking - an omission he intends to correct forthwith: When the shades of night are falling/Comes a fellow everyone knows/It’s the old dope peddler/Spreading joy wherever he goes/Every evening you will find him/Around our neighbourhood/It’s the old dope peddler/Doing well by doing good. But not in Exton, by Jove, not in Exton.

Rising slowly all the while, a bridleway takes me through a farm to join the lane up to Cottesmore, passing the entrance to the Hambleton Bakery, whose delicious nutty product we regularly consume out of our local delicatessen. There’s a pedestrian and cycle path beside the road, so for once I don’t have to hop onto verges every twenty metres to preserve bodily integrity. After the village limit I do have to step aside as a young man walks towards me utterly absorbed in the contents of his mobile phone screen. He mutters an apology that isn’t an apology. I internalise a growl.

Opposite St. Nicholas’ church on the main drag, I identify another traveller. He emerges from the church path to sit opposite near the fish and chip shop with his lunch. I assume this means I’ll have to enact yet another beating of the churchyard bounds in lieu of enjoying the interior sacred space.  But praise God, hallelujah, St. Nick’s is open on Tuesdays, so I get to sit in the cool within and read two psalms out loud. I choose 84 of course: ‘How lovely is thy dwelling place, O Lord of hosts/My soul longs, yea faints for the courts of the Lord/My heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God. It’s an enormous relief to be in a building actually in worshipful use, despite hand sanitiser by the font, roped off pews and requests not to touch anything. These can be coped with, it’s the absence of the long-accumulated numinous in nave and chancel I’ve found so difficult to bear.

 

Cottesmore’s a military place. The RAF station used to be home to the full panoply of frontline attack aircraft: Hunters, Phantoms, Jaguars, Harriers, Tornados, but as British ambitions and interests contracted and hardware costs escalated, resources were re-allocated, and now the signposts direct to the Kendrew Barracks which houses over 1100 personnel, many of them from the Royal Anglian Regiment. However, as I walk out towards Greetham, the only reminder there might be soldiers about is a sign on the local car showroom offering insurance to the military at discretionary rates.

Once more there’s the benefit of a tarmac path beside the ‘B’ road all the way to Greetham, so I stretch out and relax into a blissful, mindless body-rhythm without the need to worry about stumbling over tussock or stone. St. Mary’s shows itself beautifully to the visitor beyond a little green down the village’s back lane. Another walker is doing the same as me, taking pictures of its slightly elevated mass, and sighing over the inconvenient siting of a street lamp. Judging from the size of his lens, unlike me he’ll be a serious enough photographer to afterwards remove the offending object for posterity’s viewing. Further down the lane a domestic fuel oil tanker is struggling to turn into a narrow entrance. The driver metaphorically scratches his head in my direction. ‘I don’t know as I’ll get in,’ he opines. ‘They said just to reverse…’ He spreads his hands. I say any arm-waving from me probably won’t help, and he agrees, so I move on past the well, and then the pub, until I’m beside a brook on the edge of fields which take me to the edge of Greetham Valley Golf Club.

 

We’ve started to take the Church Times at home, and as I walk I’m pondering what I’ve read in recent issues. Of course, part of its function is to act as a trade newspaper for the clergy – it’s where the adverts for jobs appear, and where details of new holy appointments and deaths are displayed. So for me as a newbie lay reader (in the sense of a member of the laity who’s reading the paper, rather than a ‘lay-reader’, if you get me) there’s a faint whiff of the CT not being meant for me. Some of the weekly main features seem to parade hand-wringing over-compensation for the C of E not being super politically correct, surprise, surprise.  There’s recently been much sensible (and some over-written) concern about racial prejudice and inequity in the light of #Black Lives Matter and last week there was a silly and annoying article by Tara Isabella Burton about the predilection of millennials for pick n’ mix faith, as if that were a new, good and necessary thing. Then again there was a very thoughtful retrospective about Anglican reaction in 1945 to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I happen to know and like some of the regular columnists, so that’s a personal plus, and the cultural reviews seem OK.  Yes, as so often, it’s the balance of interests between clergy and laity that don’t seem quite right, but not so absolutely wrong I could adequately rebut the charge I was being over-sensitive. 

The golf club stresses to players that walkers have to take preference when they’re on the right of way through the course, which is nice – it’s true on many courses, but the clubs often don’t bother to flag it up for their members. The path winds on, taking me into old quarry workings, now wooded, beside a stream which broadens into a marshy valley and then a silted lake. On the far side is Fort Henry, the preposterous, magnificent folly I mentioned a couple of posts ago, from which guests of the Exton Estate once watched scaled down re-enactments of naval battles. It looks somehow Scottish to me, a hunting lodge on the edge of a lonely loch. Near Inverary perhaps?

 

Under lowering skies, beyond a crosstrack I stroll down to the lumps and bumps of the deserted village of Horn, until recently given an honourable mention as part of Exton’s parish i.e. Exton with Horn, despite there being almost no houses within its area. There was a church dedicated to All Saints here once, back in early medieval times, so it’s right to include it on my travels, but of course I have no idea where the church might have sat. Close to the moated remnants of the manor house? Or back up the hill where it could be easily seen? After the building had fallen into disrepair, new rectors were apparently inducted under a thorn tree until a last appointment as late as 1809. Why? A reference to the ‘crown of thorns’ perhaps. But surely not the same thorn tree. Maybe successor bushes were planted to keep the tradition going. Dafter customs persist…

The track leads up beside a pig farm: a very substantial pig farm with hundreds and hundreds of residents, looking like a porcine caricature of a Breughel painting. The pigs are in large, separated, earthed pens kept from socialising more closely with walkers by an electric fence. As I pass, and they see/hear/smell me, they rush away up the hill to about a cricket pitch’s distance, then turn and look. Then, unable to restrain their curiosity, they slowly trot back towards me. I talk to them of course, as naturally one would. This is the very first pig farm I’ve encountered on the entire walk since April 2016. 

Famously, pigs are intelligent animals despite their ground-rooting and frightfully low standards of hygiene. Not only do we eat them, but their hearts can be recycled for human use. How do we feel about this modus vivendi et morendi?  Because all human life is here. Around me are peaceful pigs, pigs making a frightful racket for no apparent reason, pigs fighting and bullying, pigs having sex with other pigs, pigs making pigs of themselves – it’s all going on every minute of every day.  And one’s non-piggy heart goes out to them, and one’s eye sheds a tear for poor humanity, who shouldst know better, but has the same habits and traits, without in most cases knowing its need of redemption.

The skies grow very dark towards the east: the rain is clearly on its way. I scuttle back to the car for a sandwich and a drink to avoid getting soaked, as some of the dog-walkers marching purposefully in the opposite direction will have done.

Isobars on the chart:  14.5 km. 4 hours. 22 deg. C. Bright and breezy until the clouds gathered. Three stiles, two gates, two bridges. It’s the time of Dancing Butterflies by the edge of the fields. Mayflies. The corn uncut here, though the combines were out a fortnight ago near us . Best get the harvest in quick, or the crop may be damaged in the coming storm Ellen.

Father

I seem to have a capacity

For psychical disturbance

In the weirdest of places

And at the most inconvenient of moments.

I see a herd of pigs

And suddenly

A whole slurry heap of activities

And ideas

Starts to wobble threateningly.

Are we really meant to ‘subdue the earth’?

Adam on Countryfile

Really seems to have it sorted

About animal husbandry.

He loves his cattle and sheep

For real

But can let them go to slaughter

Without a tear

(Well only most of the time, I expect).

Whereas

I enjoy my burgers and chicken korma

On a very regular basis

But suspend my disbelief

Rather too actively and knowingly

When I say

Hello ladies

To the sheep I pass on my travels.

Do I have to plead guilty

To being a lifelong, gluttonous consumer

Of the world you gave us?

Animals? Trees? Non-renewables?

And what would be the alternative?

 In this

As so much else

I give my helplessness to you

And pray that you will forgive me my sin.

Amen.