Jay’s grave and the church

I attended a school, long since closed, on the road between the Dartmoor villages of Manaton and Widecombe. It was a wild and beautiful spot. If you walked up the lane at the back of the school, climbed over the gate and took the road to the right toward Hound Tor, after a few hundred yards you came to a grave at the roadside, at a point where a bridleway formed a crossing with the tarmaced road. It was Jay’s Grave and every boy in the school knew why the grave was there.

An orphan, Mary (or, according to some sources Kitty) Jay was an apprentice at a local farm around 1800 and fell pregnant to one of the boys on the farm. A poor girl, with no family to whom she could turn, she could not bear the shame and stigma heaped on unmarried girls who found themselves in her situation, and she hanged herself in one of the barns at the farm.

None of the local parishes would allow her to be buried in consecrated ground and her body was laid to rest at a crossroads between Widecombe and Manaton.

There very quickly grew up a local tradition of placing flowers on her grave, the ordinary people obviously feeling she had been wronged. In 1860, James Bryant, a local landowner who had heard the stories that grew up around the grave, had the grave excavated and having found the bones of a young woman, placed them in a coffin and reburied them.

According to some traditions, it was in the year 1806 that Mary Jay died. For more than two centuries the grave has been a reminder of what the church is like. 200 years of people regarding the church in a less than glorious light. Whatever the niceties of church doctrine in centuries past, whatever the theological points, when I was at school there was never a single person who thought it right that the church should have treated a young woman in such away, if this was what the church was like, then we wanted nothing to do with it.

The burial of Mary Jay was not just about the treatment by the church of one individual, it was about the way that the church treated ordinary people. To the people who week by week put fresh flowers on the grave, (there were purple flowers there this evening) and to those who leave other tributes (including the coins now left at the top of the headstone), Jay’s Grave remains a witness to people in the 21st Century of the church’s belief that it had the right to treat ordinary people just as it wished. When one looks at the reported cover-ups in the Bishop Peter Ball case, including by the Archbishop of Canterbury, there is not much sign it has changed.

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Seaside fare

Cornish pasty and chips, it must be nearly the ultimate in excess. Brought up to believe that a pasty was a complete meal in itself, with meat, potato, and vegetables,  a voice echoes down the years suggesting that there is no need whatsoever to have chips along with a pasty. Of course, the voice is right, it was an entirely unnecessary indulgence and a pasty in itself would have been quite sufficient sustenance, but with liberal sprinkling of vinegar and shaking of salt, the chips were a delight. And what is the point of going to the seaside if there is no excess?

Trips to the seaside were always a time when normal rules were suspended. In High Ham, the annual outing to Weymouth in Dorset was always an occasion for much eating. There would be sandwiches at lunchtime, so as to be able to spend as much time on the beach as possible, but in the afternoon there might be the opportunity of ice creams or candy floss, and come teatime there would be a meal in one of the town’s cafes. Usually, it was fish and chips and peas with bread and butter along with cups of tea. On the journey home, the bus would stop in Dorchester, some would take the chance of a quick half-pint in a pub, and for those of us too young for beer, there would be bags of crisps. The seaside was about enjoyment and enjoyment meant lots of food.

It might be the abiding influence of those village outings, which for some people were the only time in the year when they saw the sea, but trips to the seaside have always seemed an opportunity to engage all five of the senses. The sights and sounds, the smells and the feelings, join with taste in providing a day of sensory experiences. To go to the seaside and not to eat would seem to miss out on an important aspect of the trip.

Should there be an inclination to think that seaside fare is not a major attraction for visitors, then walk down a promenade, or through the streets of a seaside town, and observe just how many places there are offering edibles of varying degrees of healthiness.  Among the abundant choice of sweets, the sticks of seaside rock, the numerous choices of fudge, the many varieties of ice cream, and the wide selection of other confectionery, a Cornish pasty with chips is a concession to healthy eating.

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Ranking trees

There seems an order among all things. Whether it’s the value of rare metals, or the cost of houses, or the price of cars, there is a ranking, a pecking order, a hierarchy. Sometimes the order does not relate to intrinsic value; thinking about paintings, there is not such a great difference between the cost of canvas and frames used for various works of art. The difference in value is something attributed, a van Gogh might have been painted on indifferent canvas and framed in a plain wooden frame, but it will be worth many multiples of a work by an amateur artist on similar canvas with a similar frame. Ranking is as much subjective as a reflection of actual worth.

Growing up in rural Somerset, the trees across Sedgemoor were predominantly withies, the willow trees that grew at the sides of the ditches that drained the low lying, peaty ground. In the village, there was a greater variety, horse chestnut and beech trees grew on village greens; there was an ash tree at the edge of the school playing field; before being destroyed by disease, elm trees grew in a line behind the Dutch barn at the home farm; orchards were filled with various sorts of apple. What we lacked were majestic oaks of the sort to be found in places like Surrey.

Oaks had an almost mythical place in people’s thinking. In Somerton, the Royal Oak pub was a reminder that Charles II had hidden in an oak tree as he fled from the forces of Oliver Cromwell after defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651. The Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 was commemorated with the observance of Oak Apple Day on 29th May each year, a public holiday that was kept for two hundred years until its abolition in 1659.

Oaks had that royal association and they had a naval association. Hearts of Oak was the march of the Royal Navy. The great ships like Nelson’s HMS Victory were built from oak. Oak had a sense of sturdiness, solidity, even majesty. The elm and the ash, the horse chestnut and the willow, none of them had the dignity of the oak.

Passing years have brought encounters with oaks that were less than majestic, gnarled and knotted specimens that grew crookedly and would not have provided much timber for building anything, let alone great sailing ships. There are oaks clinging to river banks, oaks holding on to rough hillsides, oaks battered by storms, growing sideways in the wind. No king would have found refuge in such trees. There are fine oaks and there are oaks that are not so fine, being disappointed at their absence from the village is as subjective as any other ranking activity.

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Doing maths

There is a sense of the world having changed without me being aware of it. The teaching of religious education was always something of an educational backwater. There was no groundbreaking research going on, no new discoveries about which to talk, nothing that could have counted as innovation or invention. There were many variations on a theme, but the theme did not change. The teaching of religious education looks essentially as it did in the early 1980s, bookish and propositional with little to differentiate it from that of generations past. Look at the content of any catechetical course and it is unchanging.

Encountering the world of secondary school mathematics teaching was like entering a different world: interactive technology in the classroom and an abundance of complex material online. Sophisticated websites like Wolfram Alpha offer considerable resources even to those who do not subscribe; Khan Academy is my favourite.

Sal Khan is a Bangladeshi-American who lives in Mountain View in California. Sal himself presents many among the six thousand videos that the Academy have online. He teaches maths with a self-effacing good humour. There is a sense in listening to him that he is someone who is a friend, someone who is used to dealing with a dull student who sometimes struggles to get his head around the concepts. There is always a feeling of accomplishment at the end of each presentation. As well as the videos, the Academy includes interactive exercises and structured tests. It is all available free at the point of delivery, to anyone in the world who is able access it. There is no pressure for subscriptions, or even for a donation.

There is an infectious enthusiasm among those responsible for the online maths material. Perhaps enthusiasm and a mood of excitement with the material are to be expected among those who take their subject onto a website, and perhaps their work will increasingly be the way of the future.

Already both teachers and students make regular use of materials from online tutors like Mr Barton. Visiting a school recently, I was asked by Year 10 students if I was Mr Hegarty. Having read the Hegarty Maths website, I smiled and said that I wished I was. To be Mr Hegarty would be someone whose work has benefited countless thousands of students.

Clicking through a succession of school maths websites, I wondered how much longer it would be before the Internet became the classroom – even for those in school. It’s all a world away from the catechism.

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Who started it?

Cock o’ the North is a tune favoured by troupes of Morris dancers. The tune is not an English one, despite the enthusiasm with which it is played by Border Morris musicians, it was the regimental march of the Gordon Highlanders. It was suggested that the Duke of Gordon was such a powerful man that he was known as the “cock o’ the north.” The earlier title of the tune, it seems, was Jumping Joan. Prior to it assuming that title some three hundred years ago, if it came from the Scottish highlands, it probably had a Gaelic name.  If one turned to oral tradition, stories of the origins of the tune would probably be as plentiful as the different renditions of it.

There are numerous sets of words to the tune, some less polite than others, many of them beginning with the line Auntie Mary had a canary up the leg of her drawers. (The version I encountered in Ulster in the 1980s substituted De Valera for Auntie Mary and had the canary emerging from the leg of the drawers while whistling the Protestant Boys).

The tune may have evolved over centuries, and have been an amalgam of various predecessors, to the extent that no-one can claim to have been the composer. (The long evolution of a piece of music does not always prevent someone claiming they have written it; a setting of the Irish traditional air The Hills of Donegal was presented as the composition of an evangelical Christian songwriter in one volume of “praise” music).

Unlike the music, words tend to have a more distinctive authorship. However much the lines concerning Auntie Mary or Eamon de Valera may be lacking in merit, someone, somewhere, at some time, must have taken a conscious decision to devise those lyrics and to set them to those notes. Bawdy lines concerning Auntie Mary, or sectarian lines concerning the man who was Irish taoiseach and then president, were the product of an individual putting the words in those forms. Someone sitting in a pub, or walking down a street, or lying awake in bed, or wherever they were, must have had the tune running through their head and thought, “what about singing those words?” Not only that, they must have shared their thoughts with others and those thoughts must have been widely shared, yet there seems no record of such a process.

Perhaps the Internet will mean that future generations will be clear about the origins of who started traditions, although, human nature being what it is, there will probably be as may claimants as versions of Auntie Mary.






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