Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Halloween 2018

An easy, obvious, and lazy post of my pumpkin and turnip lanterns ready for this evening!

Monday, 29 October 2018


It's good that Swanvale Halt church hosts music concerts (of different kinds) so regularly. We are particularly the venue for some of the events organised by John a local gentleman who left a City job years ago to work as a music promoter. As a result, many people come to the church who otherwise wouldn't find their way into it. The refurbished church building, where furniture can be moved conveniently (well, relatively so) into an endless variety of configurations, makes such events easy to accommodate.

John's team were in on Friday setting up for a Saturday concert this week, an especially large one which required extra work on their part. I got into church on Saturday morning to find that not only had the chairs and benches been shifted into the required layout, but the altar had been moved already into the chancel which during concerts becomes a dark recess, invisible behind the artists.

The church was going to remain open until about mid-day, and I had a meeting in an hour's time with a baptism family. Without its altar, hung with the green Victorian altar frontal which is the main point of colour in the building, it no longer looked like a church. The World is never absent from the Church: the two interpenetrate each other. But the whole point of having a church building at all is that what happens in it affects the world around it more than if it didn't exist. The constant sign of the sacred allows the presence and activity of God in the world beyond it to become open and visible. It is the mark of God's promise, and it's God's promise that makes the world sacred in so far as it is. I shifted the altar back into its proper position, at least for a few hours until the doors were closed.

I intended to tell John what I'd done and then forgot. Happily he is a tolerant cove.

Saturday, 27 October 2018

Alternative Centre

Several years ago now the young Lord Declan and Lady Minster moved from cramped and unsatisfactory Morden to Leighton Buzzard, but I'd never been to see them there until last week. Their new(ish) house is still part of a terrace but of modern properties rather than 1930s ones and faces a park, and there is more room to breathe, they find.

What they also find is that at a greater distance from London there is more sense of community in the pubs and bars around the town. Most notably there is Ollie Vee's Tiki Bar, which sounds horrendous but as one of the founders has a background in stage design the decor is actually rather impressing in a cheesy and tongue-in-cheek kind of way. There are lots of skulls and threatening-looking faux-Polynesian art around, and, upstairs, a gaping shark's mouth, so there is plenty for the odd Goth to enjoy provided they have a broadminded enough attitude. 'That's so hipster', my god-daughter said when I described it to her but in fact it's anything but. Every Thursday Ollie Vee's has a Vinyl Night when patrons can bring in their own discs to spin on the turntables, and Declan and Minster have been doing this for some time, building up quite a rota with a group of other customers. They tend not to inflict anything that challenging on the bar (no Diamanda Galás) but find it amusing to construct short sets from a bit of 80s cheese and glam interspersed with pop-Goth which others might just about have heard of. 

This odd little place does seem to have become the focus of Leighton Buzzard's alternative scene in so far as there is one. My joke that Tiki Goth is the Next Thing is old enough to be wearing thin now, but here it is almost a reality: I wouldn't have believed it had I not seen it myself. 

Thursday, 25 October 2018

The Effect of Familiar Words

Last year as my long holiday wore on I reflected how easy it would be to cease religious observance entirely, but this year it felt different; I felt quite excited at the prospect of returning to saying the Office properly and getting back into the full rhythm of prayer as opposed to the etiolated version I observe when not at work. Of course, that wore off. But it was different, anyway.

Being away from Swanvale Halt church for two Sundays found me first at an Episcopal church in the Borders - the only one for miles around that seemed to have an early service that day - and then at Guildford Cathedral for their 8am. In the Scottish church the very elderly priest made his way over to me before the service began with some effort and apologised a) for the fact that there weren't going to be many people there and b) that because he hadn't been expecting to take the service until very recently it would be 'a bit chaotic'. How chaotic could a said Scottish Prayer Book service get, I wondered? In the event I was unable to observe anything I could describe as 'chaos', although the priest did update the text at various points, which made me wonder what the point of using the old liturgy was. Conversely, I know you need to crack through the Book of Common Prayer at some pace or it runs the risk of getting bogged down, but at the Cathedral I did get the slight sense the celebrant would rather have been somewhere else, or perhaps saying something else.

The order in which the Prayer Book arranges the Eucharistic action puts the confession and absolution immediately before the Communion itself, with the intention of keeping sin and redemption firmly in the worshipper's mind before they approach the holy table, rather than at the beginning of the service where it is now. And it does so in intense and dramatic language: 'We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we, from time to time, most grievously have committed, in thought, word, and deed, against thy divine majesty, provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us'. We say those self-accusing words in the full knowledge that we are about to have forgiveness pronounced, and what are called the Comfortable Words spoken to us, assuring us of God's mercy. What's happening here is a rehearsal of the process of conversion. But whereas conversion is an extended business, as conviction of sin leads into the experience of forgiveness, in this liturgy the apparent jaggedness of the conflicting emotion is contained within a single action, moving in moments from one extreme to another, and the effect is a curious one: the sensations meld into one, a strangely detached state in which we hand both sin and forgiveness over to God in the knowledge that he knows more than we do. And that, I suppose, is joy.

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Deep Places

My last holiday post (I think) describes encounters with three dramatic Northumberland locations which I found affecting me in unexpected ways. The first was St Cuthbert's Cave, supposedly where the monks carrying the body of Cuthbert from Lindisfarne to Durham in about 875 to escape Viking raids sheltered on their journey. It's really just an overhang of rock and would only have provided shelter if the wind was blowing in the right direction, but nevertheless as you approach up the footpath through the woods its long, low shape promises a numinous location, and that's what you find. I'd been blown to and fro by strong winds and stung by rain all the way up the hill, but at least I had the car and a flask of tea to go back to, unlike the walkers I encountered at the Cave who were clearly in it for the long haul.

Looking out from the calm sanctuary of the overhang down the hill, I re-experienced a sensation which goes back to my earliest memories. My mum often told me that as a baby I sat in my pram playing with the rain on the canvas top outside the hood. I surely can't remember that, because nobody remembers what happens to them as babies: and yet any experience which follows that pattern - being somewhere dark and looking out at the rain - seems to carry an echo of that memory. It's at the absolute root of my sense of who I am.

From there I went to Yeavering, a tiny hamlet right on the north of the National Park. This is the site of Ad Gefrin, the 7th-century palace complex of the Northumbrian kings where St Paulinus converted King Edwin to Christianity. Thirty years ago I read about Ad Gefrin and Brian Hope-Taylor's excavations there and for some reason the place has always stuck in my imagination. My intention was to climb the path to the hillfort of Yeavering Bell, which you can see in the background of the photograph, but one look at it convinced me that even had it not been raining and blowing a gale and my knee not been playing up I wouldn't have attempted it. In fact, the site of Ad Gefrin is on the flat area to the north of the road, now distinguished by a monument and these carved wooden fence-posts. You can wander around the field where the buildings stood, read the interpretation boards, and try to imagine what it might have been like. Rain or no rain, I was glad to have re-acquainted myself with Ad Gefrin, this haunting place.

Finally, I wanted to see Linhope Spout, said to be the most impressive waterfall in the National Park. On an afternoon of more rain and wind I parked up a mile and a half away, which is as close as you can get by vehicle, and took the footpath over the hills. The waterfall looked nothing like the photographs I'd seen online, showing a quite mild cascade and people bathing in the plunge pool into which the water falls. What I found was anything but calm. The stream was in full spate, swollen by rainwaters, and trying to get anywhere near the fall would probably have killed you. Thousands of gallons of water smashed over the fall and into the rocks, spraying, spouting and roaring. It was a mesmerising display of natural power - but one I found very unsettling as I imagined what it might do to me. I was dizzied and disoriented. When finally I managed to break the water's spell and leave, I found myself almost tearful with relief, a very strange reaction. 

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Follies and Other Buildings

My long walk a week ago last Monday brought me to Twizel Castle, just over the Tweed into Northumberland. This was not long before the strain of walking against a 45-mph wind began to cause problems to the ligaments of my left knee, but at that stage I was still agile enough to hop over the fence (which you are NOT SUPPOSED TO DO) and look around the ruin. As I sat with a cup of tea I discovered from the detritus around that I had not been the only one to risk it. Twizel looks like a medieval castle, but isn't. It owes its ruinous state to the fact that it was never finished: built over the course of fifty years in the mid-1700s, nobody ever lived in it.

It was a far nicer day when I saw Hume Castle. This is a genuine relic of the Middle Ages, but not much is left from that time: the shell you see now is a modern restoration of an 18th-century reconstruction of a medieval castle, so it's really as much a folly as Twizel. 

Twizel and Hume are hard to miss, but I was surprised that so many other follisome structures I came across have not found their way into the tome to which all of us who are interested in such things turn, Headley & Meulenkamp's Follies. The Temple of the Muses at Dryburgh was erected in 1814 in honour of the Roxburghshire poet James Thomson, but although Headley & Meulenkamp mention the statue of William Wallace not far away, the Temple they never found:

On the way to the Temple from Dryburgh Abbey I also spotted the castellated Stirling Towers with their date-stone of 1818 (those are miniature cannons poking around the top), and a wonderfully OTT gateway which leads into an empty field: 

When I parked up by a little picnic site next to the A697 to look at the Mermaid's Well there in front of me was another folly gateway which doesn't appear to lead anywhere, if it ever did. There's no big house locally that it would have led to: its presence is as unexplained as the Mermaid's Well itself.

How this ordinary row of 19th-century houses beside the main road in Wooler came to have a castellated gable-end is anyone's guess, too.

I also achieved a long ambition of visiting Yester Castle. Some years ago I tried to reach it in the company of Lady Arlen but we were defeated by horribly boggy ground: this time I approached via the footpath from Gifford village. My theory had been that the walks along the steep-sided valley of the Gifford Water had been laid out to provide a walk to the Castle ruins and an appropriately Gothic experience for visitors to Yester House, in the manner of 'Gothic Gardens' further to the south (it's the only Scottish site of this kind I know of yet). My suspicions were confirmed by the artificial way the paths wind around the stream, and the two beautiful rustic bridges which have been built, entirely superfluously, to provide an additional thrill.

Finally, after a lot of winding to and fro through the woods, you reach the Castle. This medieval ruin was abandoned in the 16th century (though the falconer of the Hays of Gifford continued to live in it until the mid-1700s), and it's hard to see clearly, but it has a unique feature that sends an intentional shiver down the spine of the Gothic visitor. This is the semi-subterranean Goblin Ha', constructed in the time of Sir Hugo de Gifford allegedly - because, so the story goes, nobody could work out how such a marvel was built otherwise - with the aid of supernatural beings he summoned from the Underworld. You can't go in, but you can look through a grille at it, and even from that distance it has a genuinely nasty feel to it, as though something disagreeable has happened there. 

Opposite that row of houses in Wooler is a folly of a different sort. The Ryecroft Hotel was definitely there by 1954 but I don't know whether its brand of brick-and-concrete stripped Art Deco comes from the late 1930s or the early 1950s. The ten-bed hotel closed in 2012 and the building has been mouldering since then; in 2016 the purchasers were complaining that their planning applications were being repeatedly turned down, and that their insurers would insist on the hotel being boarded up, as it now is. It looks dreadful, and I suspect - though one local estate agent has a plan on their website for its redevelopment that incorporates the entrance and facade - its fate will be gradual decay until demolition becomes the only option.

Friday, 19 October 2018

Unexpected Wells

The Border country furnished the usual sort of damp-holes-in-the-ground trying to convince the visitor that they are significant springs of some sort, including the Monk's Well at Upsettlington - one of a triad of named springs, along with St Mary's Well and the better-known Nun's Well, all in adjoining fields in the Berwickshire parish of Ladykirk. The Monk's Well did have a surprise for me, though: the stink of bad eggs revealing the presence of sulphur in the water, a feature not mentioned by any written account of the well, not that there are many.

St Helen's Well along the River Till is supposed to be a medicinal spring, although it's not clear that this is because of any mineral property of the water. It's marked on the OS map and mentioned in Revd Wallis's 1769 The Natural History & Antiquities of Northumberland (it is only just in Northumberland by about a mile or so). Now it's mainly a tumble of stones over which the water runs quite plentifully. 

The Mermaid's Well near Lauder is also marked on the map, but if I hadn't seen a picture of it beforehand I wouldn't have made a detour to see what might have been very underwhelming. It's dry and ruinous, certainly, and you wonder how long it will be before it falls apart completely, but it was once quite grand. It appears to be 19th or perhaps even 18th-century, but I have no idea of its history. It's by a stream in a field, opposite a small house and why it exists at all is a mystery.

But the best well of all I saw (and frankly one of the best I've ever seen) is no mystery, nor really a holy well despite its location next to the St Cuthbert's Way footpath at Benrig near St Boswells. This is the Crystal Well, constructed in the late 1800s when the owners of Benrig House decided to divert the overflow of the spring that supplied the house with water into a grotto complete with a red stone basin and a bearded river-god's head over the entrance. Folly though it may be, it definitely looks the part, and even manages a degree of drama.

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Museums Around the Border

There weren't actually that many to choose from: at least, not many of the sort of miscellaneous local history museums that I find so much fun. The Museum at Berwick-on-Tweed, based in the old barracks, is exclusively about the Royal Scots Borderers and those regiments of the British Army that preceded it or into which it passed. I used to work for a military museum, but the Royal Engineers were a different matter from most of the Army: every time the forces wanted to test a new technology the Engineers were the guinea-pigs, which is why the collection at the RE Museum included stuff connected to the early days of telegraphy, flying, and tanks, as well as loot from across the Empire and beyond. Most other regiments have been to the same sort of places as one another in the same sort of conditions, and so I'm afraid their museums have a somewhat standard feel to them. At Coldstream, though, the nearest place to where I was staying, the wee museum did cover a bit of the history of the town as well as the Coldstream Guards, including the inevitable, but always welcome, case of chemist's jars and bottles. It makes the lack of a local museum in so interesting a place as Berwick all the more of a shame.

In Bamburgh I found that the museum was devoted to a single person, famous for a single incident - Victorian heroine Grace Darling, who took part in the dramatic rescue of the surviving passengers and crew from the wreck of the Forfarshire nearby in 1838. This doesn't sound promising, but the museum is very smart and the collection is surprisingly comprehensive, including the boat itself in which Grace, her father and brother battled the storm waves that awful night. Of course I failed to photograph that, preferring a display case full of tat.

A little bit down the coast from Bamburgh is Seahouses, where I thought there was also a museum; there isn't, at least now, but in the Tourist Information office there I learned of the existence of the Local History Museum at Belford. Belford is a tiny place, but I had to go through it anyway so thought I would call by. The Museum is based in a house on the main square: it seems to be a completely voluntary effort but at some point recently they've had a grant to produce some quite nice graphic panels and some proper display cases. It's just a couple of rooms, but shows what a community can do with determination and a bit of help.

There was nobody there. I went in, used the loo for which I was most grateful, looked about and left again. To my knowledge that's never happened to me at a museum anywhere.

Monday, 15 October 2018


The posts over the next few days will reflect on my week around the Scottish Border and Northumberland. I was staying here, at the West Lodge, Milne Graden, a lodge cottage extended at the back with a new kitchen and bathroom (they would have been hard to fit in the original building). The Milne Graden estate welcomes dog-walkers: it welcomes them fulsomely, and if you look carefully you might be able to spot the ceramic dogs in the windows of the Lodge. The house doesn't smell doggy, thankfully.

When I went to Berwick-on-Tweed the weather was gorgeous:

It was rather less good for a lot of the rest of the time ...

I made it down the coast to Bamburgh, Seahouses, and finally to Alnmouth, a place I've glimpsed from the East Coast Main Line for years and always found intriguing:

A trip to find Linhope Spout waterfall on Saturday took me into the hills, giving a sense of what the Northumberland National Park is like without having to walk ten miles into it:

And talking of weather, as I got up yesterday ready to speed to St Andrew's, Kelso - the only church for miles with an early service - so I could head off back home later in the day, a beautiful red sunrise greeted me. It proved to be the 'shepherd's warning' such meteorological phenomena are traditionally supposed to be ...

My wanderings through the week took me across the Border (the River Tweed) more times than I care to remember. As Scotland rumbles its way potentially towards independence from the UK, and perhaps with different customs arrangements from those pertaining south of the river - as opposed to just a few funny banknotes - the complexities of the matter become worryingly apparent.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

What Shall We Do With This Oil

The village of Emwood is about ten miles from Swanvale Halt. My friend Cara has just become its new incumbent and I went to her installation this week. In fact, Cara isn't just rector of Emwood but also of two other parishes which have been bolted onto it and actually transferred from another Deanery to make this possible. I think you probably need to be an Anglican to realise quite how tectonic such a move is.

During the service Cara's hands were anointed by the Bishop of Dorking. This had not happened to me when I arrived at Swanvale Halt, nine years ago now. Anointing on the hands with chrism is a standard element of the Western ordination rite though it was only introduced in Guildford Diocese a couple of years after I was ordained in 2005 and I opted not to go back to the cathedral to have it done retrospectively. Evangelical though he is, our diocesan Bishop Andrew was anointed at his translation so perhaps the motif is spreading out and it is now held de rigueur for any new ministry to be inaugurated not just by praying for the gift of the Holy Spirit on the new minister but signifying it physically by anointing with chrism. Or the Cathedral vergers could have been wondering what to do with all the oil that gets consecrated on Maundy Thursday and persuaded the bishops that taking a bottle out whenever someone arrives in a new parish is a splendid idea.

Emwood is very dark at night and I had never been there before, so it was an exciting occasion in more than just one way. I failed to kill myself picking my way along the paths, but an elderly gent making his way out of the churchyard came a bit closer to it.

Thursday, 4 October 2018


'Sermonettes make Christianettes' a former vicar of mine commented when members of the congregation complained that his orations were creeping beyond the twenty-minute mark. I've never believed that sermons contribute that much towards the spiritual growth of a congregation, or at least that their effect is most unpredictable.

On Sunday at 10am I mentioned some of the themes I described in my last-but-one blog post. I was in a good mood, even a spiritual mood when I wrote it, full of thoughts of Blessed Mary Fearon and the Little Flower of Lisieux. On Monday at Morning Prayer Hannah who organises one of the house groups where they discuss the preceding Sunday's sermon said, 'I just want to check - your sermon was about the importance of worship?' I was taken aback as I hadn't any thought in that direction at all: unfortunately Hannah is extremely sensitive and any suggestion that she might have 'got it wrong' would propel her into worry. Lillian the lay reader at first said she couldn't recall what the sermon was 'about' as such, but then said that if pushed she would summarise it as being concerned with the power, and also the ambiguity of prayer. I said both of those had come into it, but I thought it was important not to tell people 'what it was about' but to let them take away what they needed.

In fact I thought I was preaching about the vocation of all God's people. Perhaps I was; perhaps I wasn't. Perhaps, indeed, I should take a poll, and then I'd know.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Taking the Dirty Water

I sometimes give myself a challenge in Assembly at the Infants School, and as yesterday was the Feast of St Thérèse of Lisieux I thought a good challenge would be to say something about her that a mixed group of 5 to 7 year-olds could grasp. I'm not sure whether I succeeded, but it made me read a bit about her. I've had a copy of L'Histoire d'une Ame for years, but never read it. 

What a brilliantly straightforward, honest young woman Thérèse was. She wrote that she found writings about the spiritual life quite hard to take on board, whereas, when she turned to the Scriptures, everything became pellucidly clear and seemed easy to manage. I find the opposite; the parables and sayings of Jesus are multifaceted and ambiguous, pointing us beyond what we are and where we are towards a heavenly way of living but - absolutely necessarily - not describing in any detail what that might mean. The lives of the saints, however, show ordinary men and women striving to work out what the Gospel meant for them, and sometimes give me something I can aspire to.

Thérèse's 'Little Way' is like that: concentrating on the small and apparently insignificant things you are called to do as a means of self-forgetting. I liked one story I stumbled on in her book. One particular sister Thérèse shared duty with in the convent laundry had a habit of flicking handkerchiefs to lay them out for drying in such a way that Thérèse was usually splashed with mucky water. This was probably not deliberate (although it might have been as most of the sisters were considerably older than Thérèse and she found them tough to get on with). Thérèse admitted that her first instinct was to take an obvious step back when this happened and thus passively-aggressively to impress on Sister X her displeasure without actually saying anything, although presumably explosions of temper were not entirely unknown among the Carmelites of Lisieux, either. Then she reflected that it was not her business to correct her fellow nun, and that getting used to this little discomfort was a suitable occasion for the exercise of virtue. 'Another sort of asperges', she jokes in L'Histoire, turning this disagreeable sprinkling into a reminder of baptism like the scattering of water during Mass. And so the transgression of Sister X lost all its power to make her angry and became a source of amusement instead.

You might think this all a bit weird. But living in community is full of instances which raise the same questions. Had Thérèse confronted Sister X, the other nun would either have been horrified and penitent, or defiant and stiff-necked. What would have been the point of either? Negligently splashing dirty water did Thérèse no harm, and if it was deliberate, taking Sister X to task would only have increased the bitterness of the situation. They all had to live with one another, after all: there was no escape. Instead Thérèse's little act of sacrifice absorbed all the potential hurt and converted it into something else. Anyone who has spent any amount of time in a group of people apparently devoted to a common purpose but in fact gathering all the time a history of petty rivalries and resentments will recognise how more apparently common-sense approaches to them seldom do much good. As in the Carmel of Lisieux, so in much of life - including a parish church.