BLOW THE WINDS NORTHERLY
AN ENGLISH SPRING
Today, the 8th of May, in the wide, lush, fertile Blackmore Vale, at Sturminster Newton in Dorset, the temperature is unlikely to rise above nine degrees celsius. Apparently unperturbed by this the hawthorn in the hedgerows is about to burst into blossom, its myriad tiny buds, though still tightly clenched, are white with promise. The blackthorn blossom has now all but gone, but apple, pear and other blossoming fruit trees gladden the heart in gardens, orchards and hedgerows. The floors of the woods and copses still seethe with bluebells. The horse chestnut trees are already fully leafed and candled, but the oak and ash remain hesitant and dilatory. In a churchyard yesterday I stood beneath a huge copper beech tree in new and vibrant leaf. With me, beneath its glorious spread, were a few late daffodils still in good heart and health, crisply and defiantly yellow. The churchyard, as lovely as any I have encountered yet, with a forget-me-not lined pathway to a perfect lychgate, was that of Shillingstone parish church, a village to which I had walked three miles along a path that used to be a railroad. A lovely walk on a cool day and at the end of which, to my delight, I encountered as well as the lovely church the first rookery I have spotted on this trip, only half a dozen great nests, but well and noisily attended.
The English picnic
Here in Dorset, the south of England, we are more than 50 degrees north in latitude. There is nowhere in Australia or New Zealand that is as far south as is Sturminster Newton north. Little wonder then that it is often very cool indeed here in spring. Invercargill in the deep south of New Zealand is only 46 degrees south. Cape Bruny lighthouse on Tasmania is only 43 degrees south. That England is as pleasantly temperate as it is, we are told, is because of the warm embrace of the Gulf Stream, an ocean current that flows up the north Atlantic and down the west coast of the British Isles.
Later on this same cold spring day, with two friends of David and Rachel, we went picnicking with English fortitude and optimism of the sort that imperialised, for better or worse, a good half of the globe and won two world wars. We sped off to the coast through Wareham, past Corfe Castle, through Kingston and Langton Matravers to St Aldhelm’s Head, upon which promontory there stands a most remarkable and ancient chapel, St Aldhelm’s. We walked pretty well a mile in a cold wind that threw occasional sprinkles of icy rain in our faces, lugging wine and excellent food to the chapel, isolated and exposed on its 350 foot high headland. The chapel is unusual, being square in shape, with each of its sides only about twenty five and a half feet. It dates from the 12th century, though probably as a Christian site well before that, and its impressive, low, stone-vaulted roof is supported by a massive central pillar. Dark within, it is apparently still regularly used for worship, there being two black iron candelabras ready to receive real candles as necessary, and pleasingly there were fresh flowers upon the font. How wonderful it would be, I thought, during a wild storm with candles all aflicker, to celebrate God’s love in so ancient, isolated and dark a little cell, rugged and wrapped up in God’s love as well as layers and layers of clothes. As part of the 1300th anniversary of St Aldhelm’s consecration as bishop of Sherborne, the chapel’s new altar was consecrated in 2005 by Archbishop Rowan Williams.
The chapel is situated on the South West Coast Path which, from South Haven Point near Poole in Dorset, follows often spectacular coastline for six hundred and thirty miles right round Cornwall to Minehead on Somerset’s north facing coast. This being so it attracts visitors and pilgrims in fair weather and foul for shelter, rest or spiritual refreshment. We spread our picnic of quality fare on the rough flagstones of the quadrant of the floor by the door, hidden by the central pillar from the altar, so a narthex of sorts. After cracking a bottle we asked God’s blessing upon both food and wine and made merry with gusto, a Eucharist of Eucharists indeed. The light rain and cold wind outside grew truculent and restless at our successful thwarting of their spoiling tactics. Several groups of walkers or pilgrims walked in, amused and possibly envious of our repast, though declining our offer of a share.
The meal completed, our chops well licked, we decided to walk back a different way, along the cliffs and then inland and back to the car park. As the picnic gear was heavy and cumbersome we decided to defy the ban on cars driving to the chapel and so stored our baskets and remains under a blanket on a dark back pew to be collected in the car later. This done we headed off in a thin and bitter breeze more or less westward along a stunningly beautiful coast toward’s Chapman's Bay, there was one diversion all the precipitous way down to the beach and many stops to attempt to identify local birds, before we turned inland to the car and then the retrieval of our gear. A memorable foray.
The English village
I take much delight in the many lovely villages scattered across the Blackmore Vale, linked together by deep, well hedgerowed, narrow and twisting roads and lanes. I note with interest that even those villages that have been all but ruined by development, industry and less than lovely housing development schemes, have at their heart a parish church and that around the church are almost invariably ancient and lovely old houses, shops and pubs. They nestle together with a sweet, architectural integrity, gracing narrow, ancient and difficult-to-negotiate-by-car streets. If you want to see the best of an old village, make for the parish church.
This to me is sweetly symbolic of society at large. If you want to find, the beauty of tradition, unpretentious decency, integrity, modest goodness, reverence, sacrifice and beauty, always make for the Church. In a mammon-mad, frenetic, directionless, purposeless world, head for the altar.
On Sunday the 9th of May I preached in Sturminster Newton Church. The best thing about the service was not the sermon, it was that the choir sang the first anthem I can ever remember hearing: “Blessed be God the Father.....” by S. S. Wesley. When I was six years old, before heading off with my family to Tristan da Cunha, my father, who ran just such a choir as the one here in Sturminster, arranged for that choir to sing this anthem with two twin cousins of mine, Michael and John Neaum, who had exceptional treble voices, singing the beautiful duet in the middle of the anthem: “Love one another, with a pure heart fervently, see that ye love one another....” Listening to the choir before the service practice it, and then during Communion sing it most beautifully, is likely to be the greatest moment of nostalgic joy vouchsafed to me during the whole of my six months holiday.