Evensong – it’s not really an oddity, says Ronald Blythe

We have two evensongs, one every Sunday at Little Horkesley, one each month at Wormingford, one with the biggest attendance, one with the smallest, and both stemming from traditions that are largely forgotten.
Churchgoing rules and figures in the countryside were created more by the timing of the main meal on the sabbath than by its prayer pattern. To enable their army of servants to have time off for God, the middle classes had dinner at two instead of eight. They went to matins (and holy communion about four times a year), and their staff, having washed up, laid the table for supper and, dressed up, went to evensong.
There was much singing and, afterwards, long walks, then home again strictly by ten. And, of course, it was pre-eminently the service for the farmworkers and their families. Usually the best television of the week, plus, I used to suspect, some connivance by the clergy to rid themselves of this service, has resulted in the actual oddity of evensong in many minds.
It is, of course, liturgically most beautiful and spiritually entirely satisfying. Just to read it at home at about four o’clock sets the day right. If our three churches were nearer, I would read it in one of them, but they are miles away. So, I sing it alternately with Henry, the Vicar at Little Horkesley, along with this surprising-to-some large attendance; and every first Sunday in the month here at Wormingford, with the Colonel, the bell-ringers, and the churchwardens, the two candles wavering, the four hymns, too.
And I think to myself how good I am at Quiet control. Not even the wild goings-on of Jonah disturb us, or the lukewarm antics of Laodicea. All is submerged in ancient prayer. But for sermon I read both the great and small evensong folk something I have written about the sea-routes of the early faith, and I think I imagine its sound like the entrancing noise in a shell when it is clasped to the ear and entirely listened to.
To Norwich to talk to the annual general meeting of Age Concern. It is convened in one of those hotels that have conference suites, and I am met with a stand which says, “How to arrange your funeral”. We are far from evensong.
In my late 40s, I began to write a book about old age, feeling Time pressing on me. It was a philosophical riposte to Simone de Beauvoir’s brilliant Marxist tirade against the dying of the light, and also a kind of stand against some of the ideas that have created today’s old-age management.
An old lady was telling someone, “And when she saw me she said, ‘Why, you keep on looking younger!’” But what an incomparably better world it is for the old, with its dentistry, hygiene, pretty clothes, disposable income — and long, long years. Four-score-years-and-ten are becoming the norm. Christ raised only the young from their death, those like the governor’s daughter, or the widow’s son, or his friend Lazarus, who deserved a life to live, not those who had already lived it.

And so to King Street in Norwich, the city’s first entrance, by the side of which a very old woman went on living long after she had written a book called her Revelations of Divine Love. She said that “We need love, longing and pity,” curious necessities, some now would think. When she was 30, she thought it “a pity to die”; so she got better in order to be a writer, among other things.  (12.09.2007)

Ronald Blythe visits the home village of one of England's greatest poets

Off to Helpston for the 32nd time. For John Clare, its native voice, the first Sunday in July was the Helpston feast: "Wrestling and fighting, the ploughman's fame is still kept up with the usual determined spirit." Like his contemporary, William Hazlitt, another quiet man, Clare accepts violence in the village. He walks away from it, and into his intellectual world.

"Saw a bird that was an entire stranger to me about the size and shape of a green linnet, and with wings of a brown-grey colour, the crown of the head a deep black that extended downwards no further than the eyes. Went to see Artis [his archaeologist friend] who tried to look it up in his bird book. It was an unnoticed species of the linnet tribe."

Clare was all too noticed for his own peace of mind. A ploughman who wrote poetry? People came to look at him in the fields. He tried to hide - an impossibility in a 19th-century village. And now we continue to look at him from all angles.

I read him yet again, before Alan and I set off for what is now the Cambridgeshire border, early in the morning. And there it is, the walled park that cost a pound a yard, the Clare Society, his birthplace next to the pub where he worked, the pleasures of repetition. Although not too much in my presidential address.

The white cat sees us off. For her, the top of the farmtrack is Ultima Thule. Only once in a dozen years did I find her up it, and had to call her back to her own two acres. Meriel the organist is taking her cat miles away, and is dreading it. But long ago some Suffolk friends drove their cat, Holly, to Cornwall, and suffered more than he did. Neither did he recognise me when I arrived, having become Cornish at once.

Today, reading in the study, I watch the horses out of the corner of my eye. One wears a white mask against the flies, the other makes do with her tail. There they stand, deep in horse talk, which is silent.

I have allowed the Himalayan Balsam to riot. It has explosive seeds. Touch their capsule, and they're off. A small child was more disconcerted than amused when invited to do this. Pretty flowers were not supposed to end their lives with such power. The gardener brushing against them with the mower is peppered with seed shot.

What do I say in church in early Trinity? Something I haven't said before, if possible. Shall I read Francis Kilvert? What was he doing on a Victorian July day? He died so young - 39 - and a week after his wedding. His coffin was carried beneath the bridal arch.

William Plomer, the South African poet, published some of his diary in 1939. Amid all the parish duties, there is a longing for girls. It also contains one of my favourite clerical anecdotes.

The curate took his candidate for confirmation when the bishop arrived. They were both youthful and nervous.

"Stand up!" the bishop cried.

"But I am the curate, my Lord."

"Stand up!" the bishop cried.

So the curate was confirmed.

This was on the Welsh border, you understand.

(18th July 2014)

In a graveyard, Ronald Blythe sees old friends coming up the path

Considering that the majority of churchyards witness to 1000 years of tears, it is strange that they are so pleasant to visit, to wander in, to sit in on a summer's day. "Peaceful", the visitors book says over and over again. Peaceful inside and out. "Do you remember when we threw a tablecloth over that table-tomb and had lunch?", I remind the lady doing the altar flowers.
The sky between the horse-chestnuts is enamelled blue. Opaque. Unseen birds call. Mown or unmown, the English churchyards are green and lively. Georgian gravestones totter, Victorian memorials soar, today's slivers of slate don't know what to say. Albert "Bert" in brackets. Rarely a biblical word.
I see them still coming up the path, the old ringers, the previous congregations. "So you've mended the wall!" It loomed out into the lane, and had done so for donkey's years. "It's the dead having a stretch." An undefeated spring runs below it, freezing in the winter; so that we slip and slide to our cars.
But not now. It is high summer, the heat fanned by soft winds. Early Trinity, and we are to be clothed with humility. And then comes the scary bit from St Peter, "because your adversary, the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about seeking whom he may devour. . ." But the bees swimming in my balsam remind me of the poor dead lion on the treacle tin whose gaping carcase has turned into a honey-pot.
Neighbours move away. We say goodbye in the hospitable house. Already there are gaps where familiar things had stood. "Oh, but we will often be back - you'll see." But they won't. Their time with us has ended. They walk round the big room, taking photographs. But the marks on the walls where the pictures have been say everything.
I talk to a gentle, ill man, coming closer to hear his whispering words. Yet there is happiness rather than sadness. A kind of acceptance for things as they are. St Peter, whose week it is, asks God to make us perfect, and to "stablish, strengthen, and settle us". But it is unsettling when old friends move away. I mean, where will we go for Christmas-morning drinks? Have they thought of that?
Some have gone to Scotland, and there will be postcards from the white house above the loch to prove it. I see them opening the deer-gates to let the car through, and me waking up in the rare Highlandair, and then driving to Ben Lyon.
Perhaps the young shepherd will bring his flock down from the hill, or the Edinburgh minister will be doing holiday duty at the kirk. The shelves of Scottish history will certainly be toppling in the drawing-room. Half a mile from the house, they will encounter Queen Victoria and Mr Brown having a picnic.
Perthshire amazes me - its scent, its indifference to human needs, its vast parishes, its blue ranges which should not have been clothed with pine forests, its stern nobility. Will the pine-marten run along the wall? For we all like to think that the places which have become ours for a week or two possess a perpetuity for us alone.
The white cat has never been to the top of the track. "Tell me what it is like up there." Dangerous: bends, haywains with bales, sabbath cyclists, congregations going home, dogs getting lost. She has made her summer bed in the vast stone sink which once stood in the farm kitchen. There she sleeps her nine lives away.  (11th July 2014)

Ronald Blythe preaches about prison writers, and smells cake and flowers

And from Anglican matins to East Anglian Nonconformity at Walpole Old Chapel on a burning Sunday afternoon. The cornfields sizzle, and the familiar scenes hurry by.

I mount the pulpit to talk about John Bunyan. We sing "He who would valiant be" with Tony at the harmonium, if not lifting the roof elevating our faith. The River Blyth flows out of sight; the graveyard is feathery and unmown.
The chapel was built a decade or so after Bunyan's death, and it remains a perfect architectural response to what remains of our inbred Nonconformity. Beginning as a Tudor house, it was stripped out and simplified for God.
There will be tea and cakes - "This was the Queen Mother's favourite sponge." I wander about the burial ground. "And here they all are," Nina, the poet, writes.
  Samuel Stopher, Mary Stopher,

  Timothy Sparrow.

  All gone, come to full stops

  Of stone.

When I was a boy, there was a lending library where I could borrow Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel novels for tuppence a time. It was a kind of corner shop, with immense timbers, and part of an ancient house where Bunyan had stayed when he came to give the Suffolk Dissenters a piece of his mind.

He was an impressive figure: large, commanding, muscular from humping an anvil about, and strong-voiced from preaching in the fields near Bedford. Had the Church of England not locked him up for this, he would most probably not have written a word. As with St Paul, and a whole host of prison writers, he called for a pen when the key turned in the lock.
I imagined Bunyan in the timbered room, now lined with novels; or tying his horse to a gigantic nail that protruded from the blackened king-post.
A marvellous find at Walpole Old Chapel was David Holmes's An Inglorious Affair, which tells of a classic Nonconformist row in Suffolk in the 1870s - something against which the Trollopian quarrel of the Church of England scarcely raised a voice.
It all began with a harvest-tea meeting and an argument about singing the Gloria. A youthful organist asked the choir to sing it in the Congregational Chapel; the Baptists cried "No!" The Congregationalists then kept the Baptists out of the church for ten years. The whole town was up in arms over the Gloria - "In Halesworth, they talk of nothing else."
Standing in the scrubbed, pale, and infinitely sane interior of Walpole Old Chapel, with the delicate scent of home-made cake and wildflowers drifting up the pulpit, and with Bunyan filling my head, all I could feel was this perfect summer's day. Also a sense of ownership - that in some way I belonged here, and it belonged to me.
During the 17th century, it was taken to Massachusetts, this Puritanism with its arguments and triumphs - there to become native in a different sense.
Once, walking in Cambridge, Mass., with its London plane trees, and its Fogg Museum, containing a roof angel from a Suffolk church, I thought I could smell what I am smelling at this moment: some indefinable odour of place. Particularly when the sun brings it out.  (4th July 2014)

Ronald Blythe sings one of Heber's hymns, and considers the Trinity

Duncan and I agree: it is a growing year. Things grow every year, of course, but not as they do in a growing year. The garden has shot up, gone skyward. Roses look down at me, as indeed does the white cat, who is either under a hank of cool grass, or dizzily aloft in a pear tree, taking stock of the universe. A cuckoo is not far off, its cry not yet doubling.
Quiet, empty churches relax after strenuous attempts to define the Trinity. Once-a-week friends come out like birds from clocks, and we say more or less the same things. Wimbledon and atrocity take turns on the television. The one so perfect, the other so wicked. Humanity is an enigma, capable of the best and the worst. What Christ must have seen before it saw him!
We sing "Holy, holy, holy", and, as always, I think of Reginald Heber, poet and bishop, who died young in India, after three years "crowded with toil", nursing the sick soldiers who were on the ship. The Church seems to have insisted on this missionary enterprise when Heber would have rather stayed at home in Hodnet, Shropshire, described by Leyland as neither town nor village.
When Heber was there, it had a rectory at one end, and a prison at the other. He fulfilled the requirements of a Victorian cleric by being well-born, selfless, and a victim of work. His Trinity hymn distances God, places him beyond mortal comprehension. Our few voices rise and fall.
Later, the car creeps down the ancient farm-track, caressed by overgrowth, disturbing bees, coming to a stop where the fruit trees begin. And now, as somebody wrote, the long, long Sundays of Trinity, neither feast-day nor fast.
Twice this week, birds have flown into the house - a robin and a wren - and beat against the windows, rushing from one to the other, shocked by looking out of glass and not being able to fly through it. I cup them in my hands, and they tremble; I carry them to the door, and the release is nearly as wonderful for me as it is for them.
The white cat, who either through sloth or being well-fed, has never eaten anything which doesn't come out of a tin, adds to their terror by just gazing at them. Old houses in the middle of nowhere are open houses to butterflies, harvest mice, and, once, a toad who liked a cool brick floor. At night, I sometimes hear a squirrel, but no rats. A man from the ministry did with these long ago.
But I have always been conscious of residents other than humanity who give this address, and whose claim for shelter is historic. Moths matriculate in undrawn curtains, and spiders make a new web whereI have brushed down the old one. When I was a boy, I would lie in bed and listen to a spider on a route-march on wallpaper which had come adrift, tap-tap-tapping in the dark. And the beams would give a little groan, worn out with having to hold up tons of house.
The south wall, laden with grapes, is now three feet in the ground, its orange bricks and pale beams interlocked in a kind of supportive marriage. Ancient buildings are like this, out of kilter, and the stronger for it. There is a lesson here. But the wide floorboards under the fitted carpet pine for bare feet.

To some creatures, these "funny old places" are both home and trap.  (27th June 2014)

A walking tour makes sense if you are about 20, says Ronald Blythe

PENTECOST - 70 days after the resurrection, when the house shakes, and tongues of fire become mitres. The old garden blazes with summer, which is not officially here. Pale-yellow irises, immense red poppies. The white cat hiding from the sun. Jean's horses swigging at the water-trough. Mr Cousins's bees and Tom's aeroplane buzzing around. Myself languid in the heat, and surrounded by Laurie Lee's books - I am supposed to be celebrating his centenary.
He is walking in Spain, just before the civil war. He carries a violin, and is 18, and penniless, joyful, and naïve. His life tumbles around me on the grass. Tumultuous birdsong. Cool aspen music. I planted these tremendous trees 40 years ago, and they have shot up so they can see what is going on over the hill. All the windows are open wide. The wavy pintiled roof sheds mossy cushions. The TV aerial glitters. In a brief silence, when the birds take a break, I catch bell-ringers' practice at Little Horkesley.
The garden is a kind of unintentional botany of autographs, of stolen cuttings, inherited plantings, and remembered species. Sometimes, the giver's name comes to mind, but not the plant. It has two heydays: spring bulbs, and this midsummer splendour.
The old farmhouse is, at this moment, nothing more than a prop to hold up foliage. It smells inside and out of mint and freshly shorn grass. Butterflies have to be rescued from double glazing, and the occasional swallow from my bedroom.
I preach on the moment when not only tongues of fire blazed on heads, but all languages were understood. St Luke's Acts of the Apostles has always enthralled me with its heat and voyagings, its insistence that the followers of Jesus should take to the road or the sea, and not remain a small Palestinian sect.
Of course, there were those who never left home but covered the ground mentally. It is what I am doing now, I tell Laurie Lee. I glimpsed him once when I was young. A friend said: "You see that man at the bar - that's Laurie Lee." He had walked all the way from Gloucestershire into fame. In Cider With Rosie - a great walk book - he describes it quite dangerously; for even now, all this time since, it is enough to make one pack a haversack and take to the road. Only it is best to be about 20 for it to make sense.
A friend starts up the mower. It vies with the bees. The horses toss their manes. David is having his funeral in the church, a Thomas Hardy figure from the last of the old farmworking race. He and his wife sat at the back of the church for always. A long weariness claimed him, wore him out.
The psalms understood such physical exhaustion. "Forsake me not, O God, in my old age." Although, wonderfully, the older one gets, the closer God is, it often seems. But, with the passing of men such as David, the gradual disappearance of those who bodies shaped the village fields, and whose faces met the village weather in all its moods, rural life in its classic shape is concluded.
He was cremated - a hurrying of his body into dust, and different tongues of fire to claim it. The church was full to overflowing for him

Voices of unseen riders converse as they pass the garden, and there is a slight stumbling of hoofs.  (20-Jun-2014)

Hopes are being pinned on recipes, reports Ronald Blythe

"I AM living on raw emotion," confesses a retiring cricketer on the radio, and so indeed we are. For, at long last, the Wormingford Cookbook makes its début. Forget Elizabeth David, Nigella and Rick: here are recipes that have lain at the back of our kitchen drawers or our consciousness for ages, or possibly since last week.
Collected by Cynthia over these past two years, they are a gift to the social historian, and no mean offering to ourselves.
Desperation forced us to this public exposure of our feeding habits. A busybody, seeing how the churchyard wall bellied forth into the lane, which it had done since we prayed for Queen Victoria, wrote to the paper. In vain we protested its safety. Nor did the authorities smile when we told them that it was caused by the dead having a stretch, as our grandchildren said. No, it must be "tied in", and that would cost £40,000.
It is a lengthy brick wall, but this is a huge sum! It took our breath away. At once we pointed out to the parish that it might not come to church, but it must inevitably come to the churchyard, if only in a plastic bag from the crem. It was its inalienable right, Anglican or Sikh. So it was all backs to the wall.
It was then that Cynthia thought of the Cookbook. So here we are in a tent, the Bishop, too, launching it. And beneath our feet lie generations of poor men whose bait at 10.30 each working morning was bread and cheese and an onion, the morsels chopped off with a clasp knife while the gentle plough horses snuffled into their nosebags.
My contribution to the Cookbook was for Quince Jam. I found it scribbled on an end-paper and dated 1828. There are Portugal quince trees in the garden, with their dense paper-white blossom and furry fruit, twisted limbs and breath-taking scent. One of them writhes over the old horse-pond, and is both young and ancient at the same time, like olives.
The biggest beanfield in the world rolls around my little wood, and the larks sing above it all day long. Below it the "bottoms" are covered with buttercups, millions of them, each petal laid like gold leaf on the valley, precious and bright. The minute stream glitters its way through watercress.
Once outside, I find it hard to go in again — to do anything other than stare and listen and allow the sun to touch me. It reminds me of lying above the seething Atlantic at Land’s End when I was a boy, and becoming mesmerised by the regular biff of water against rock, the crying birds, and the hot sward, and thinking, "Why go home? Why go anywhere?"
I preached on Christ’s homecoming at the Ascensiontide services, contrasting the King in royal state riding on the clouds his chariot with the beloved friend who blessed his companions before he vanished in the Cloud of Unknowing.
Not that I argue with the hymn-writers with their glorious departure language, for, as Mrs Alexander said, "ever on our earthly path a gleam of glory lies"; but the essence of the two Gospel and Acts’ ascensions is that of the clouded vision. At Bethany, the disciples saw so far and no further. They were not bereaved, because the Comforter remained at ground level, and would do so always.
The bell-ringers descend to sing, "Yet he loves the earth he leaves."