Ronald Blythe marvels at snowdrops as he works in the garden
IT IS all too easy in a ramshackle old farmhouse garden to miss a great flowering: in this instance, the show of snowdrops that climb from the low eaves of what were once the dairies to the fields, taking in the badger sett on the way.
The snowdrops at the front are glorious enough, but those at the rear are breathtaking. It is oceanic: a white sea, from which rises a long-barren tangle of ancient fruit trees. Nettles will eventually hide their decrepitude. At the moment, the snowdrops are giving them a kind of life, of vitality. And the temperature is delicately warm, like the south of France. All this on the Suffolk-Essex border, the River Stour glittering a mile or two away, and the white cat sunbathing on a window sill.
I read about snowdrops in my friend Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica, and in The Illustrated Dictionary of Gardening, 1887 — a mighty work, which was propped up by John Nash’s chair, its back broken, its glorious pages tumbling about a bit in old age, but its information still as fresh as a daisy for all that.
Here and there some pencilled additions, like those in my mother’s Bible, fade in the margins. Snowdrop: see Galanthus nivalis. So I haul down Vol. 2 to find that gála is Greek for “milk”, and that ánthos, of course, is “flower”, added to which that snowdrops will thrive anywhere, and will multiply like some mighty nation and cover any kind of soil. And they are doing that at this February moment. I am in summer-gardening oddments, and silent gulls, blown in from the seaside, take it all in.
What for matins? Something reaching out from the Epiphany to Septuagesima? Or is this too soon? I find myself rewalking old miles, but in my head. Allan — with two lls — had driven me to Pendle Hill, where the Quakers had found the eloquence of silence. It was raining as we drove to its base, and Bowland appeared in variants of drizzle. Allan said something like “There it is, Bowland,” and stayed in the car, and I got out and climbed. It was a little like George Fox, I thought, whose companion was lame; so he found the way to silence alone. He was 28.
Pendle Hill, in Lancashire, needs another 170 feet to qualify as a mountain. Treeless, but evenly covered with cotton-grass, mare’s tail, and butterwort, and dotted with little bushes of cloudberry, it has a sloping flat top and chasmic sides. I remember thinking that it must have confronted young Fox with strange religious questions. Hills do not necessarily make their climbers ask why.
Raindrops the size of old pennies battered me, and thoughts the size of belief battered young Fox. I followed Fox’s path. I could hear Pendle’s rivulets clinking and gobbling their way down to the moorland farms.
Allan and I were on our way to Lindisfarne when this mighty scenic obstacle stood in our path, saying: “Look at me! I told religion to hold its tongue!” All that preaching, all those words, and never a let-up. What about singing? Do Friends sing? Yes, if the Spirit says “Sing!”
Fox was the kind of traveller who described how hard it was to get about, and rarely what one saw on the way. Most English travellers did, then. They were listeners, not sightseers. Hence the immense sound of Pendle’s silence in Fox’s ears. It must have been like God talking to that temple boy in the night.
All I heard on Pendle Hill was weather. It spoke wildly. It orchestrated the huge view. Other than on 11 November, any kind of unannounced silence in church creates anxiety. The ancient building says “I have been talking for centuries.”
Winter sunshine leads Ronald Blythe to think of the summer ahead
O, TO be in England now that January is there. Soft winter winds brush the flowering bulbs, and a chattering army of walkers breast the hill. To find snow and ice one has to travel to New York, on the nine o’clock news. The air is gentle, and blows in from the east coast — not that one would know it. Or that Christmas is just a month past.
I have no complaint. Spring in winter suits me fine. The white cat is not so sure, and clings to the split logs that wait by the stove. I think of the monks taking turns to bake by the fire in their warming-room, holding up their habits to scorch their bare legs.
But, at this January moment, the sun is invading the ancient rooms and challenging the central heating. As for the birds, they are singing their heads off. And I think to myself, it is all to come: the summer itself, the empire of leaves, the roses, the Stour reflecting it, the corn declaring it.
But what to say on Sunday? This is the imperative question. A friend and I were once driving home from Wales on a wet Sunday morning, when we decided to go to church en route. We ran from the car to a small Victorian building, which clung to a steep bank, in which a dozen or so people were singing Isaac Watts’s brief “This is the day the Lord has made”. Still singing, an elderly woman left her place to brush the rain off our coats.
A youthful priest gave a fine address from the chancel step. No one looked round to see who owned our added voices. Candles wavered in the draught. Such care was taken. Hurrying back to the car through, by now, a torrential rain, we drove on. “To think we might have missed it!” we said.
Exactly what we could have missed it is hard to say — although it was of great importance, or I would not still have it in my head with such clarity all these years on.
Queen Victoria once saw scores of Highlanders walking to a glen, their Bibles tied up in white handkerchiefs — their lunches, too. Might she join them? It wasn’t raining. They sang psalms, and broke bread. A compulsive writer, she was persuaded to publish that enchanting bookLeaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands from 1848 to 1861. Her energy is exhausting, even at this distance. Terrible weather was no deterrent to her endless excursions with Albert.
“We then came to a place which is always wet, but which was particularly bad after the late rain,” although this did not deter her. On and on they went, the Queen and her husband, their drenched court, their never-to-be-repeated happiness, the little Queen and her beautiful husband, riding and tramping across Scotland, their earthly paradise.
Although I had once walked in James Bothwell’s footsteps in my youth, it was my friend Christopher who drove me across vast Perthshire, and introduced me properly to Scotland — who provided a kind of residency during the surprisingly hot summers and an almost absence of rain, hardly a day of which I can forget. And it was the poet George Mackay Brown who brought me to Orkney.
Now and then, I take down fat photograph albums, and there we all are, youngish and grinning away. I can nearly smell heather. Queen Victoria very much liked the Kirk. Approved of it. She said: “Religion makes one think of what one would not otherwise think of.” My spiritual landscape was Glenlyon, that vast valley all in shadow, yet bright and somehow celestial.
Ronald Blythe sniffs the air and looks out on a white landscape
WAKING early, I can smell that frost has performed its secret ministry, as Coleridge put it. The scent of it is indescribable. Jack Frost has not filled the window-panes with his artistry; so I look out on to white pastures and rose beds. It is not as cold as the radio insists.
The embers of last night’s logs will blaze at a touch of the bellows. Soft white ashes have a spark or two in them, and the brick surround is warm to the touch. When I shake hands after the service, some are permanently icy, some always warm. The cold ones accompany a little apology; the warm ones a little smile.
From my desk, I can see women walking the skyline. They are in silhouette, cut paper shapes balancing between two parishes, their joyful dogs as well. The January garden is April-like with flowers, primrose, and stubby bluebells below the greengage trees. But no birdsong to speak of. A mild winter we may have of it, but wild creatures take no chances. There is a time to be dormant, and a time to rub one’s eyes and emerge. Which is not January.
Country people no longer say things such as: “We shall pay for this!” Or “We need a good freeze to kill everything!” And walking is not what it was. Not even after Sunday dinner, now called lunch. I hazard a bit of weeding. The white cat and Jean’s horses hazard nothing, and keep a weather eye open for the unpredictable turns of nature.
At matins, I preach on the ascent of the disciples to apostleship. They were to leave all that was familiar to them, and take Jesus’s teachings out into the world. It filled them with dread. Some of my neighbours go nowhere, and yet have a comprehensive view of life. Some take the village with them, no matter what distance, and the places they see are grateful for it.
Peggy Cole, who played more than a part in my film Akenfield all those years ago, has died. She was a perfect example of that wonderful regiment of women which orders England’s village life. Her garden was the old classic mixture of vegetables, fruit, and flowers, and her home-made-wine and -jam shed was a rebuke to the recent measuring out of how much we should drink or eat and its thimblefuls.
The Collect for Plenty in the Book of Common Prayer would have suited Peggy. Her flower beds and fruit cages romped together, her runner-beans and sweet peas were glorious mixed marriages, her rhubarb and salads hid every inch of soil, and she gave away anything we wanted, along with excellent advice, given in a kind Suffolk voice. Women’s Institutes throughout the land heard it.
Her husband, Ernest, and I were churchwardens when we were at Charsfield. Should I visit it these days, I like to wander through the memorials inside and out, giving goodbyes and greetings, a friend’s car and not my bike at the gate.
The Virgin’s monogram is clean-cut on the tower. Tall grasses part in summer to reveal it. Small red-gold Tudor bricks hold firm. Most of us have a not-at-all-spectacular shrine in our history to which we can return, counting our few holy footsteps. It was here that I preached my first sermon — on the Lord’s Prayer — to an encouraging Irish canon and half the churchyard.
Shortly after leaving this Suffolk village, I helped to edit the New Wessex Edition of the works of Thomas Hardy, and I saw him in my mind’s eye, dreaming in his Dorset churchyard, putting two and two together.
Faith and faithfulness
Today I’m at my desk planning the service for St. Valentine’s Day, 14th February, which this year falls on a Sunday. It’s too good an opportunity to miss – the service will be a Celebration of Marriage, and I’m looking forward to it!
One part of the Marriage service has got me thinking – the bit where I ask the bride and groom: “Will you.… be faithful to him/her to the end of your life”. We know what that means, but it does show that there’s a big difference between being ‘faithful’ and ‘full of faith’. Being faithful could just mean not being unfaithful; but what’s the connection with our usual understanding of the word ‘faith’?
Faith is often the word we use to describe that part of our society which declares a belief in God, and all that goes with it. One definition in the Bible is “Faith is being sure of what we hope for, and certain of what we do not see (Hebrews 11:1). But there’s lots more to faith than a belief. For instance:
Faith is about trust – which we all display in many things every day. You have faith that the chair you’re sitting on right now will bear your weight (admit it- you’re suddenly aware of your surroundings!); that the phone you use will connect a call; and so on. That trust has been earned by the action of others and by our experience. Marriage and in fact any community relationship rely on our faith and trust in others.
Faith is about devotion – obviously, devotion to one another in marriage, and of a Christian to God and His teaching. And our devotion to others enables them to trust us.
So surely the model God gives, and marriage demonstrates, is the benefit of us all being a “community of the faithful” – devoted to the wellbeing and support of others, to the point that there is mutual trust. Ah, you might say – I don’t even know everyone around here! Yes, but remember those days when you started getting to know someone really well? Perhaps building up relationships now can be as exciting as our courtship days, when acquaintanceship grew into actually wanting to be with someone, and feeling sad when apart? And then that great feeling of knowing someone actually loves you?
I’m delighted to say that in the two years I’ve been Vicar here, I’ve made many good friends; you may have made many more! So, as well as continuing to build on that trust and devotion, it will be good for us all to celebrate this month – marriage, if we can, but certainly the blessing of faithful friends in this lovely place.
Yours in Jesus
The snow reminds Ronald Blythe of holidays in Scotland
THEY promise snow, and back it up with descriptions of Moscow, where it is raked up and put in the river. Here, in the Stour Valley, snow-laden skies hold back their burden, and it doesn’t seem cold enough for a wintry landscape. All the same, the white cat finds a radiator, and the horses are being led in.
I think of Scotland in summer, with its snow-capped hills, and of the steep track to the high house where we spent so many summers, opening and shutting deer-gates all the way. Ever since I was a boy, I have thought about what was happening to familiar places when I wasn’t there. And particularly when they were in Scotland.
We were a party of eight at the village of Kinloch Rannoch, in a big house above the loch. We collected wild flowers, paddled, got lost, found ourselves, wondered how little farms could make a living, and, in the evenings, read old geographies. And I would remember my East Anglian neighbour Mr Brown, whose farmland touched mine.
Almost 100, he would talk to me about Ayrshire. Once, I sang him a song about the Covenanters and Claverhouse: “To the lords of convention ’twas Claverhouse spoke. ‘Ere the King’s crown shall fall, there are crowns to be broke.’”
When I took his funeral, the East Anglian church was full to the brim with local Scots.
Mr Brown would tell me how his family emigrated to our rich soil before the First World War, the plough horses kicking in their special train, and even the last of the Scottish hay carrying its heathery scent to Essex.
Mr Brown was born at Michaelmas, and died at Michaelmas, with just a century in between. The special train from Scotland to the East Anglian coast cost £10, and contained everything the Browns possessed.
John Clare, our finest rural poet, had Scottish roots: an itinerant schoolmaster had bred him. Like Laurie Lee, he left home with a fiddle. What more did a handsome lad need? Clare needed the Great North Road, but his journey back to Northampton is one of the most tragic in English literature.
Sometimes, en route to church, we slow down for a glittering battalion of Sunday cyclists, nose to road, ears to the swish and hum of life, and I remember my Raleigh days and how wonderfully solitary they were. They say that there are something like 600 parish churches in East Anglia, and I must have propped up my bike against them all. A vast pile of guide books testify to this. Needing to verify some architectural fact, I opened a cupboard, and a torrent of them fell to the floor. And this put me back in the saddle.
Today’s traffic makes church-crawling on a bike hazardous, they say. Yet the visitors’ books at the back of our churches are filled with names. And fatuous “Very peacefuls”. But who can hear what these sacred interiors — not to mention their consecrated surroundings — have to say to Edward Everard from Swansea, or Linda from Camberwell? My friend Richard Mabey and I used to look for rare grasses spared from agricultural poisons, the latter not nearly as prevalent as they once were.
What I mourn is the loss of faith in the inscriptions. Generally speaking, their Christianity is uncomfortable, uncertain. Or, maybe, just its language is. As for me, I walk around churchfuls of neighbours who don’t seem at all “departed”. Any more than they do in my farmhouse, listed “1600”. It can bear a ton of snow.