In Search of Tranquility
It was a furtive life. Keeping my head down, shuffling from one concealment to another. Trying to avoid eye contact with the few people who were there, only speaking if spoken to; and then in a muffled whisper. This was at the Birdwatching Centre on the western shore of Rutland Water and I was in absolute heaven.
It hadn’t been on the agenda but the sign on the road to Uppingham changed my mind.
I had a job pulling myself away. The ducks were just beginning to reveal distinguishing features and a kingfisher had landed on a reed below the hide. Of course it was playing me for a pillock: mine was the only shutter on the otherwise empty hide that didn’t allow me a clear view. Moving would be a mistake but if movement was necessary, best to make it as slowly and carefully as possible. Mais tant pis. As soon as the shutter moved it flew off.
There is nothing less than glorious in seeing a kingfisher. Even its disappearance was as the electric blue flash that has become the accepted description. It’s all to do with colour. If it was dull brown it would be an oddity with its over plump body, over sized head and a dagger like beak that is half as long as the bird itself. It sits for long periods so if you get to see one you can be entertained for anything up to an hour. If you only see it fly it will be a highpoint in your day.
There was one further call before heading towards Uppingham itself. Twenty years ago I’d cycled around England telling stories in schools and arts centres. It was all properly arranged. It wasn’t just a case of rolling up and telling the Somerset variation of Jack the Giant Killer. I tend to go on long cycle trips at times in my life when I need space and time to sort through a big career decision or to overcome some crisis. In this instance it was coming to terms with the death of somebody close to me. On the journey I’d taken to calling in at every open church en route and reading a psalm. I read the Bible both as a religious book and as an important work of literature and the aim was to read all 150 psalms by the end of the journey. I would have managed it if I’d kept north of Watford Gap but southern churches are invariably locked and I only got into the 80s. Sometimes I’d light a votive candle, sometimes pray. Oftentimes I’d just sit still and think. And sometimes just sit.
In the tiny village of Brooke I found the quietness and ancient calm in the church of great comfort. There was nobody else there. I’d rather portentously read the psalm from the pulpit and sat quietly in the box pews. Nothing happened. There was no inner voice or sense of presence. I just sat and let the tears flow. After a while they dried. There was no religious experience but enormous comfort. It was a feeling that stayed with me for the rest of the journey. I felt I owed the church a big thank you and took a left turn away from the main road.
There was some building work going on in the village but, once parked and inside the ancient churchyard, it was all remarkably familiar. Inside, a smart elderly gentleman was preparing to climb a ladder watched by a lady of similar years who I took to be his wife; correctly I believe. I was welcomed into the church with a warmth often reserved for those who have provided an excuse to put off climbing a ladder. He, in particular, was keen to tell me about the church. I’m not always too welcoming of people who want to point things out to me. Daisy Christodoulou* may not like the idea but there are many more ways of delivering a facts rich education than having a teacher at the front telling us everything. But she is young and earnest so we can forgive her for being somewhat myopic and quite definitely blinkered. After three years of teaching many of us thought that we knew everything. Time has surprised us at how much we seem to have forgotten.
This couple were as welcome as they were welcoming. She continues her labours but he had taken me in hand and was bringing the most significant features of the church to my attention. There were facts. There were few skills involved once we’d mastered walking, talking and looking. The best and most memorable of the information was carried in story form. The pair treated the care of the church like a very important project. Stories and projects! How on earth did I manage to learn anything from this pair?
I was told of the earthquakes that gently shook the village for three days in a row in April this year. The second one brought down the marble memorial to William Baines Syson, Gent. What was remarkable was that nobody was hurt and that very little damage was done to either the heavy marble or the church floor. The stone had been put in place in 1848 and has been permanently fixed to the wall since then. Inspection of the fixings revealed that for nearly 170 years the memorial which weighs well in excess of a hundredweight has been hanging on the points of two tiny panel pins and sealed around the edge with a film of plaster. It was a wonder that it had stayed in place for 170 days let alone years. My faith was restored. So Victorians had bodgers and cowboy builders as well. I recalled a story I had been told as a boy on my first visit to York Minster, where a heavy stone fell from the tower onto the sleeping head of Roger of Ripon. The stone is on display. It is bigger than human head. It being the medieval period, his awakening was pronounced a miracle and the event is celebrated in a panel of the great Rose Window. There was no miracle. He was from Yorkshire. He was hard. Had a hard head.
There is a delightful Norman font in the church and some carved graffiti from 1664. The church was used in the making of the 2005 film, Pride and Prejudice when, according the lady church warden: “They spent a whole week filming in here and if you blinked at the wrong time you’d miss the whole scene when they’d finished.” The interior of the church became Tom Hollander’s (Mr Collins) church. The pulpit features strongly but poor old Brooke was considered too lowly in outward appearance. That privilege went to the church at Weekly in Northamptonshire.
The doors are as ancient as you can imagine doors to be. The grade 1 listing that churches like this possess can cause problems and confusion in interpretation. Just what can be renovated, and who should permission be granted by, are questions that vex church wardens, who have little reason to be versed in building law. In other churches they do what is needed to keep the stones standing. Here their reluctance to break any regulations results in delightful additions. Where the fish bone hinge has eroded away, it has been painted back into existence (from a distance).
My visit to the little church at Brooke couldn’t have been more different this time around. The noisy entry of the couple’s grandchildren, armed with questionnaires and crayons to unravel the facts of the church, makes sure of that. Last time I sat in peaceful solitude and found comfort. This time I’m surrounded by helpful and friendly stories. Once more I leave the village a better and a wiser man.
They’ve told me to call in at the church at Ridlington. It takes a bit of finding. It’s a proper English village away from the beaten track and far from the madding crowd. When I park here some curtains twitch and my progress, down the main street, doesn’t go unobserved. I don’t blame them for wondering who the stranger with a camera is. I’m sure they are as fearful that I may be a council official as a burglar. But it makes me smile.There is much that has been preserved in Ridlington. It is a more than delightful place to spend an hour and imagine what it would be like to live in a brown stone cottage with thatched roof with japonica and jasmine growing around the door.
A gaudy twentieth century object has become the symbol of the English village. Pre 1980s red telephone kiosks owe their survival to their attractiveness to middle England. In Ridlington they have found a modern use for it. No need these days for a public telephone so the kiosk now houses a defibrillator. I wonder if they queue up to use it and knock on the glass if someone seems to be taking too long.
One of the delights of having time, a fondness for poetry and a desire to wander, is finding the right location to read well loved pieces. You could read Thomas Gray in the village churchyard and it would add meaning to the verses; but this proves a fine location to read the some Edward Thomas and some Rupert Brooke. Here in a quietness that you only get in villages like this; it is much quieter than you’d find in the countryside itself; the words come to life. My visit coincides with the hundredth year since the outbreak of the First World war. It’s a good place to reflect on what life was like before the men marched away.
My friends in Brooke were right. The church here is delightful. In a glass case are the ancient instruments of a church choir from a previous age. Such a choir can be found in Thomas Hardy’s novel, Under a Greenwood Tree. Hardy loved the rural, the peaceful and the unspoilt. I think he would have enjoyed spending an hour in Ridlington. The twitching curtains would have made him chuckle too.
*A young and ardent advocate of teaching everyone by the methods that made her what she is today. Not entirely wrong but blinkered by the rightness of her vision. After three years teaching she felt qualified to write a book that sets out how to do it. Seven Myths About Education has sold well.
U is for Uppingham
Raffles and the Case of the Mysterious Sun Dials
I’m retreating down a dark and tree lined driveway, choosing to believe that the voice is coming from the street in front of me and not the gateway behind. I’ve been taking photographs through railings and generally snooping around in a manner that could be inferred to be consistent with a fellow whose motivations were dishonest. I’m pretty certain the voice is coming from behind.
It’s not the most threatening word but there is a questioning tone; almost accusatory. Apparently Beethoven was only selectively deaf. I imitate the master and, without quickening my pace, direct my feet to the sunny end of the street.
It really is a dark and overcrowded driveway. Trees naturally thin themselves when fighting for height and light. You rarely get an overgrown area of woodland without the interference of man. This avenue was almost a tunnel. If I do stop, I’ve decided to advise that someone gets out a bill-hook and a bushman’s saw. I’d rather not tarry though and the trees make it difficult to locate exactly where the sound is coming from.
It’s getting closer, and, if I’m not mistaken, the voice is now accompanied by the sound of footsteps. They are advancing at a slightly greater tempo than my own adding heater discordance to the scene. I’m becoming resigned to having to face my greeter; my questioner. I’m quietly going over the previous five minutes to see whether I have anything I need to explain. I can think of nothing. I’d wandered like the lonely cloud down a side street following a sign to “The Hall”. Found the hall behind closed wrought iron gates, taken a couple of shots through the railings just in case it turns out to have some historical or architectural significance, and wandered back again. The Hall had been a rather attractive building whose attractions were diminished by attempts to impress. The gravelled drive is composed of the wrong stone and the over-sized trampoline looks tatty and unused. All garden trampolines look tatty and unused even if they are bounced upon daily.
There is greater insistence now. The tone now carries arraignment and imputation. It is an awfully civilised tone though. I feel I may be jolly well told to clear off like the stinker that I am or to be made to feel a cad. I begin to imagine that I am being pursued by Leslie Phillips. One thing is sure and that is that my claim to believe the calls to be coming from the street is growing thin.
“Oh, hello. Are you calling me. I was sure the voice was coming from the street”
“Yes, sound does travel in a funny way in here. I really must start to thin out some branches.”
He pauses and takes the time to survey the thick foliage and gloomy undergrowth. I pause and for a while it seems as though that is the beginning and end of our conversation. I still feel like a boy caught scrumping apples and wonder if I am giving off any outward sign of guilt. He smiles. I smile in return. It seems the thing to do. I even consider whether it might seem appropriate to rise up on my toes and back again and suck in a lung full of woodland air.
“Are you the man we’re expecting?”
“I beg your pardon.”
I can’t quite remember exactly how I felt on this question. Certainly surprise made up a part of the mix.
“Are you the man from the council?”
Whatever emotional state I was in changed to relief. Ever since I promoted myself to snoop with a more expensive camera I have often been taken for a local government official. I am never doing any harm but, as an inquisitive traveller, I am often keen to see what there is to see and consequently I go up more alleyways and driveways than is perhaps common. One funny thing is that I rarely get stopped and questioned when casually dressed and carrying a pocket camera. When smartly dressed and with camera prominent, I attract attention. If times get hard and I am forced into crime then I will remember this. No future Raffles me.
“No, I’m just a tourist.” I pause again, and he seems to expect me to continue. “I followed the sign saying “To The Hall”. I didn’t realise that it was a private residence.”
“Oh yes it is,” he said in that annoying manner of making out that I really should have known that. “All the houses down here are private.”
Once again we look at each other and take it in turns to smile and then to look around at the trees and to imbibe a little more fresh air.
“You probably think Georgian don’t you?”
He’s taken me off my guard for a second time.
“Think it’s Georgian, don’t you?”
“What do I think is Georgian?” It was becoming surreal.
‘Uppingham. Many people think it’s Georgian, but it isn’t you know. It’s Medieval.” And he’s away. He seems a kind and gentle man; though probably the sort of man who knows a good deal more about trains than I do. “Oh yes, they make the mistake all the time. It’s the ordered fronts you see. They make the houses look very formal but behind those fronts are houses and shops of tiny rooms and winding passages.”
There’s another pause but by now I’ve worked out that my role is that of receiving information so I try out a third smile; an encouraging smile. It seems to work.
“Extraordinary preponderance of sundials. Uppingham. Famous for its sundials. There’s one on the house down here and three in the High Street. Can you see. There (he pointed to the vague distance. “Up there on the Crown. Unusual to get so many in the same vicinity.” The thought wasn’t a displeasing one but it was one that had a greater enchantment for him than for myself.
He was actually a really lovely man and he took the time to tell me all sorts of things about the town that I could never have found out from any other source. He tells me where to eat and what to look out for. I spend the next hour looking for sundials. I’d managed too much of my life without taking an interest. At the end of the hour I felt I had probably given sun dials quite enough of my time. If I get past ninety I will perhaps have to look at one or two more.
Uppingham is truly lovely. The colour of the local stone is lovely, the architecture is lovely and the weather was lovely. It is fairly close to being the quintessential English town. It is beautifully compact and I didn’t see an ugly building during my stay. Even the petrol station in the centre was somehow in-keeping. There are some less than wonderful buildings, if you look for them, but the space and arrangement of the town is such as to draw out the best in everything.
The town centres around a true market place. It is the only market place left in the country where an agricultural livestock show takes place in pens in the centre of a town. It attracts dozens of cattle, pigs and sheep and is apparently quite an occasion.
The market isn’t on on the day of my visit but a local man comes to sit next to me on a bench and tells me how it was a huge mistake to have left Leicestershire. (Uppingham is in Rutland, once England’s smallest county, and had spent a period of time being subsumed under the larger authority.) He cites startling figures of the number of people in the county who have had to seek advice on debt and bankruptcy. I had an inclination to disbelieve him but later looked up some statistics that suggested that affluence isn’t quite as obvious as it seems.
The clientele in Don Paddy’s are well enough heeled. The meals, according to the blackboard, are garnished with “well dressed roquette and parmesan shavings.” I settle for a cup of coffee and sit quietly. Men of my age and older are either wearing rather smart denim or even smarter corduroy. The elephant corduroy in shades of sand and damson that only people of a certain income wear. I work out that the jeans wearers are the smokers and the corduroy seems to indicate, along with some distinctive facial features, a fondness for whisky.
It’s A Level results day and mothers have brought out daughters to celebrate with other mothers and daughters. Future careers are discussed and decisions made, but never across the generations; mothers talk to mothers and daughters text.
The church is really lovely. I find churches invariably places of peace and tranquility so close to the hustle and bustle of the town. (Not that Uppingham is over bustling on this particular Thursday). There is no need to be of a spiritual persuasion. Churches are peaceful in a secular as well as sacred manner. I particularly admire the way some of the antique pews have been made into a rather splendid playpen.
In my burglar’s way I find myself accidentally wandering into the very heart of the public school that is probably Uppingham’s greatest claim to fame. Despite my socialist tendencies and upbringing I rather fancy I could study in a place like this. The list of former pupils is impressive. Stephen Fry was famously expelled. I’m pleased to be snooping in the footsteps of Jonathan Agnew and Mark Haddon. As a potential gentleman thief I am delighted to see that E W Hornung learnt his letters here. I’m also particularly pleased to see that they have their very own sun dial.
I only saw the Private Property sign on the way out.