Awaiting a Church of England resurrection

Walking in the village churchyard of our Somerset village, lines of John Betjeman surfaced in the consciousness. A holiday in Ireland prompted Betjeman to reflect on his experiences of the Church of Ireland.  In his poem Ireland with Emily, he conjured a vision of the Church of Ireland as an institution that consisted in crumbling buildings and isolated handfuls of people who were the last of the line.

There in pinnacled protection,
One extinguished family waits
A Church of Ireland resurrection
By the broken, rusty gates.
Sheepswool, straw and droppings cover,
Graves of spinster, rake and lover,
Whose fantastic mausoleum,
Sings its own seablown Te Deum,
In and out the slipping slates.

Betjeman’s suggestion that people might be awaiting a “Church of Ireland resurrection” seemed a piece of gentle mockery, a jibe at those who had so much lived their lives as a people apart from the general populace that on the last day it might be thought that they would look in hope of a Protestant Second Coming.

Perhaps Betjeman could not have imagined that the Church of England he knew and loved would follow the same course. In our group of parishes, there are already two churches that have been made redundant, frozen at a point in time at which they will forever remain. Most of the remaining churches will be gone in the next ten years or so, there are simply not the congregations to sustain them. The buildings will remain, in the care of trusts, the centuries of history they represent telling the stories of the communities they once served.

The gravestones at High Ham church are mostly Victorian. More recent interments are mostly in the village cemetery. Only part of the churchyard is regularly mown; the rest often disappears under a cloak of long grass and weeds. The headstones are crumbling, fading, sometimes broken. Some are shrouded in moss or ivy. Some stand at precarious angles, threatening to collapse to the ground long before Doomsday is reached.

If John Betjeman had walked in our village churchyard, wouldn’t he have been inspired to thoughts similar to those he had experienced in the company of Emily? Would he not have noticed the extinguished families and the crumbling stonework? Would he not have reflected on a culture now so forgotten, now so removed from contemporary life, that the resurrection it awaited was one of a peculiarly Church of England kind?



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Misty mornings

Wisps of mist lay across the fields this morning. To have descended from the hill at half past five would have meant being engulfed in a thick greyness. On Sedgemoor, there is a dampness that never quite retreats, those who lived in low-lying cottages in former times would have talked of moistness filling the walls of their houses all the year round. The high moisture content of the walls of farmhouses tended to make the houses cool places, unfriendly to small boys with asthma.

Mist in childhood days might have been something unwelcome, or it might have been the sign of great things to come.  Mist here in November is mist of the unpleasant variety, it is a mist that wets you, that chills you, that fills your lungs with an unpleasant coldness. It is a mist that clings and lingers, strong winds and falling rain are preferable to the grey blanket that holds the smoke of fires and every other pollutant in the air

On summer days, though, particularly during the warm days of August when summer is at its height, the mist of the early mornings is something altogether different. August morning mists are the harbinger of warm and bright days and blue skies.  Misty mornings are always more welcome than cloudy mornings when the blanket of grey overhead becomes heavier and heavier until a sudden flash of lightning announces and heavy raindrops announce that the weather has broken. Drive along the road here, decide Stembridge hill on the road to Somerton, and the summer mists along lanes too narrow for two cars to pass, will break and disperse fade to reveal lush green meadows or fields of grain or orchards that have again appeared in our cider-drinking county.  Going through the mist, there will be glimpses of rabbits and pheasants running for cover from the oncoming car – and, along our road, even occasional glimpses of deer.

Mists were always fascinating. They can make familiar roads mysterious.  Shapes can change; houses that you pass every day have a different air about them.  Concentrating on the way ahead is always necessary, but in the short field of vision, attention can be drawn to things that have been previously slipped by unnoticed.  It seems odd that mist, something that obscures things, can sharpen your awareness of their existence.

Summer mist is a shrouding, but also a foreshadowing of a glorious day. The mist this morning was neither summer nor winter. When will the sunshine return?


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Brean and Duluth

The mobile billboard standing in a field beside the M5 motorway is unambiguous in its claims, “Unity,” it declares, “the South-West’s Premier Resort.” Without wishing to detract from the claims of the complex at Brean Sands, it is not hard to imagine that there would not be dozens of resorts in Devon and Cornwall that would regard themselves as considerably more worthy of making such a claim. There would even be a few in Somerset claiming superiority over Brean.

Making bold claims regarding a place has a long history. “Boosterism” was common in the North America of the mid-Nineteenth Century. To encourage the building of the railroad to a town, an essential of economic development, representatives of the town would make all sorts of exaggerated claims. Boosterism became so absurd that it was satirised in a speech in the United States House of Representatives in 1871. J. Proctor Knott, a representative from Kentucky, opposed the Saint Croix and Superior Land Grant, the application for which had been based on boosterism. J. Proctor Knott’s speech was called “The Untold Delights of Duluth,” it includes the following lines:

Duluth must be a place of untold delights, a terrestrial paradise, fanned by the balmy zephyrs of an eternal spring, clothed in the gorgeous sheen of ever-blooming flowers, and vocal with the silvery melody of nature’s choicest songsters . . .

. . . As to the commercial resources of Duluth, sir, they are simply illimitable and inexhaustible, as is shown by this map. I see it stated here that there is a vast scope of territory, embracing an area of over two million square miles, rich in every element of material wealth and commercial prosperity, all tributary to Duluth. Look at it, sir [pointing to the map]. Here are inexhaustible mines of gold, immeasurable veins of silver, impenetrable depths of boundless forest, vast coal-measures, wide, extended plains of richest pasturage, all, all embraced in this vast territory, which must, in the very nature of things, empty the untold treasures of its commerce into the lap of Duluth.

To claim that one’s holiday park is the “south-west’s leading resort” smacks of the booster tradition particularly when The Beach Guide says,

The 7-mile stretch of sand and dunes that make up Brean beach lies just over two miles down the coast from Weston-super-Mare. It boasts one of the longest stretches of sand in Europe and at low tide a vast expanse of mud flats are exposed. It is however dangerous to walk too far out at low tide and there are warning signs about staying away from the mud flats on the beach.

(“Boasts” is an apt word for the claim about the length of beach. The vast line of beaches stretching the two hundred miles from Gironde to the Pyrenees in south-west France rather dwarf those of the Somerset coast).

Perhaps the greatest achievement of boosterism is to get noticed, perhaps the billboard will attract attention – Newquay, it’s not, but Brean’s visitors seem content.

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Teachers are real people

There were two teachers at High Ham primary school, ladies who had devoted their lives trying to impart knowledge to unpromising children in a rural backwater.  Miss Rabbage lived across the fields; the roof of her green Austin A35, parked in the road outside of her solitary house was just visible above the hedge.  Miss Everitt lived five miles away in Somerton, which was such a distance for a small child in those years  that it might have been a foreign country.

What did they do in their own time? What did they do during the short summer holidays?  When the middle of July was finally reached, did they leap with delight that their days would be their own?

Perhaps Miss Everitt went off for a two week Clarksons package to the Costa de Sol, drinking sangria each evening and returning with a sombrero and a big toy donkey – it doesn’t seem likely though; Miss Everitt would not have spent the whole year teaching us common sense only to spend the meagre teacher’s salary on the frivolous.  Miss Rabbage was much easier to monitor; the A35 a sure testimony to her presence in the village.

Only once in all the years did I ever set foot in Miss Rabbage’s garden.  My mother was anxious that my sister and I spend the afternoon at the school swimming pool, the worst imaginable fate for a ten year old who could not swim and who hated getting into the water, and who hated even more sitting and watching while others moved up and down the lengths with swift strokes.

“Miss Rabbage said that if we couldn’t swim we couldn’t go to the pool”, I asserted defiantly.

My mother looked at me, “Did she?”

“Yes”, I said.

“Right”, she said, “we’ll find out”.

My sister and I were marched to Miss Rabbage’s house.  Standing in fear and trembling as my mother knocked at the door, we heard footsteps coming down the hall.

Miss Rabbage answered cheerily, “Mrs Poulton, you’ve come just in time.  Would you pull up the zip at the back of this dress; I find I can’t reach it”.

Miss Rabbage turned her back while my mother pulled the zip on her summer dress to the top.  Turning and smiling she said, “How can I help you?”

“Ian says that you told them that if children couldn’t swim, they couldn’t go to the pool”.

“Oh no”, she replied, “he has misunderstood.  What I said was that if they weren’t swimming, they weren’t to come to the pool.  People were coming and using the school field with no intention of going in the pool; if children are coming it must be to use the pool”.

I knew perfectly well the difference between ‘couldn’t’ and ‘weren’t’ and what had been the original intention of what was said; my first attempt at spinning words had ended in miserable failure.

The memory of standing in her garden that afternoon remains chiefly, not because of the unsuccessful attempt at avoiding the school pool, but because it was the moment when I first realized that teachers were also people.  To glimpse beyond the outer appearance to the person beyond, in an age when baiting teachers was fair sport in many schools, was an important lesson for a Somerset summer’s day

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Doing my A Levels

I know exactly where I was forty years ago today. Monday, 4th June 1979 was the first day of the GCE A Level examinations. I spent the morning sat at desk in the sports hall of Strode College in Street. The first paper of the Northern Universities’ Joint Matriculation Board A Level examination season was English Paper I, from 9.30 am until 12.30 pm

English had been one of my favourite subjects when I had been at school. By the time I was at sixth form college, all the fun had gone out of it. English meant English Literature and English Literature meant the surgical dissection of texts. Nothing was read for enjoyment; it was for analysis.

The reading list was not exactly one to excite teenage boys, which was probably why the class was overwhelmingly female. Although even dullest of reading lists would not have been sufficiently conservative for the parents of one girl in the class whose parents withdrew her from the subject because they considered some of the reading material to be “immoral.” Looking back now, Chaucer was probably the writer who caused the problems, his medieval earthiness being too much for the evangelical Christian family.

Hamlet and King Lear were the Shakespearean element. I didn’t like Hamlet. It wasn’t that I didn’t like Hamlet the play (although five acts did seem overly long when most of the action could have been covered in a couple of scenes). It was Hamlet the person whom I didn’t like. King Lear had no light moments, it was just bleakly depressing.

Jane Austen’s Emma was the novel. I thought it was superlative, that nothing in the world could match it for boredom. I had no interest whatsoever in Regency manners or arrangements for balls

Poetry included Gerard Manley Hopkins and William Blake, (only years later did I discover that Blake hadn’t written the music for Jerusalem), and Chaucer.

The other drama included Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Sean O’Casey’s Three Plays. Stoppard was probably a step too far for the rustics like myself and O’Casey loses a lot of its power outside of Ireland.

English Paper I was Shakespeare and Austen – it was a bleak start to the examinations. My tutor’s prediction of an ‘A’ grade ended up as an ‘E’, a bare pass, when the results came through the following August, and that was only after an appeal.

I retreated into the other subjects; economics had a beauty about it, a poetry of its own, while history was filled with a gritty reality.

English Paper I was a moment still fresh in the memory.

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