Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart’s heat…
T.S. Eliot, Quartet No. 4: Little Gidding
Our day shone with frost and fire, as we soaked up some of the joys to be had in Northamptonshire and Huntingdonshire.
Today’s road trip saw us begin in Harpole, and after a swift visit to Northampton to discover ice on the parkrun course, we hotfooted it over to Daventry for a lovely trail loop run.
We had stayed at Harpole the previous evening, and the website of the local church extended a warm welcome. This was confirmed when we arrived there to find the Churchwarden, Alan, making preparations for the Sunday Service and explaining how it was important to him to have the church open to visitors. One delightful feature of this church was a War Shrine. I cannot recall coming across one like this before, and we talked about the origins of First World War memorials as roadside shrines to the fallen. Movingly he also described the annual commemoration service, in which local children each have a card with the details of a local man who fell and process through the church before hanging the card on a display. Passing on the memory of the past to the future. Beautiful.
Harpole War Shrine
Next stop was Brixworth, said to be the largest Saxon church north of the Alps. Personally I found the exterior more awe-inspiring than the rather insipidly whitewashed interior.
One of those delightful `let’s see what’s down this lane’ moments then led us to Creaton Here we found a stunning memorial statue set into the wall.
The inscription on the red shield on the top right is from Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier, `If I Should Die, Think Only This of Me, There is some Corner of a Foreign Field that is Forever England.’ Little did I realise the remarkable story behind the memorial to Bob Wroughton, of which more on a future post.
Next stop was Earls Barton, mainly to see the awesome Saxon tower much beloved from the Ladybird book of Church and Cathedrals. This church had a much warmer feel than Brixworth, and my attention was particularly drawn to the beautiful war memorial window, with the insignia of the Royal Navy, the Northamptonshire Regiment and King George V at the bottom.
Earls Barton memorial window
We then called in at Rushden, particularly to see the birthplace of Lieutenant-Colonel Bernard Vann V.C., again to be the subject of a forthcoming blog post. We also briefly drove into the grounds of Wellingborough School, where he was chaplain in 1914. Very different from the schools we work in in Yorkshire is all I can say.
Then I had a stroke of inspiration. Something in my memory bank told me that Little Gidding was somewhere in the general area. I had read about T.S. Eliot’s poem when researching my PhD, in relation to the memories that British soldiers had of their country’s physical landscape whilst on long overseas service. Often this would be conceptions of parish churches and the faithful attending services at significant times of year. Google maps showed it was only about half an hour’s drive away, so off we went.
In fact we found three `Giddings’. The first stop was Great Gidding, where, apart from me managing to slip over on a banking coming from the church down to the main road, I saw reference to a US Airforce plan crash on 10 June 1944. It was 817C Flying Fortress called Bam Bam and had been flying from Moleswoth en route to Nantes. Six men had been killed, but the details of the event had been kept an official secret until 2014. This appears due to the fact that the crew had raised concerns before taking off about a suspicious smell of fuel but had been ordered to fly anyway. A recent search of the Alconbury Brook had discovered some of the missing parts of the aircraft.
Steeple Gidding is a little gem, maintained by the Churches Conservation Trust. The field opposite is full of earthworks, and a display in the church shows the layout of the deserted village.
Little Gidding was more than worth the to-ing and fro-ing. Parking at the end of a remote lane, we found a small chapel-looking building. It had been made famous by T.S. Eliot, who found an essence of Englishness and timelessness here. I can see why. The church itself represents the integration of Catholic and Protestant styles by its builder, Nicholas Ferrar, and there is a neighbouring retreat, Ferrar House, where people of faith can still meet. The interior is narrow and compact but rich. The windows refer to the Ferrar family, and to the retreat King Charles I found there whilst in hiding in 1646 during the English Civil War. This struck me in two ways; firstly the attempt by Ferrar to look beyond denominational differences in a period as divisive as the middle seventeeth century reminded me of the way that all forms of British religiosity were harnessed from 1914 onwards in a unified national endeavours in the great world wars; the second was the fact that wars, like Christiantiy, have been a perpetual fact in British history and that the study of one cannot be complete without an appreciation of the other.
This was indeed a spot which inspired contemplation and wonder. Our own winter’s afternoon had been well spent. A true sense of history being now, in the commemorations at Harpole, of history being then in the centuries of inspiration that have preceded us, and of the history yet to come in the desire of previous, current and future generations to leave words, buildings, spaces and thoughts to connect us all through time. To feel part of a continuous thread of humanity across the English landscape.
A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.
T.S. Eliot, Quartet No.4, Little Gidding