Sunday 17 June 2018
We awake to the sound of curlews. It’s an evocative cry, or more a whistle; drawn out and melancholic.
The bird life is good, here at Snaygill, even with the A65 just there, on the other side of the canal and hedge. Two pairs of swans with three cygnets each; one pair are good parents; the other much less experienced, we’ve gathered. Lapwings in the fields; and yes, larks as well. We can hear warblers churring away. Yesterday evening there were a good number – at least 30 – swifts wheeling high above, and swallows fast and skillful, alongside as we walked the towpath to Bradley, the next village.
Our mooring is alongside another boat which is painted almost exactly the same colours. We’re looking forward to meeting its owners. One of their friends popped along to have a chat on Friday evening. Once we get to know folk, we think we’ll be happy here. It’s almost exactly 100 miles from Liverpool.
As we arrive, we’re thinking of Hugh and Sammy who are on the other side of the world, visiting Theo and Hsuan in Taiwan. It’s Father’s Day today, and WhatsApp is busy.
With Tilda and Al – we’re blessed.
Skipton is a great town.
We set off from Gargrave on Friday morning early, the wind still significant, but nothing like Hector the day before.
Six locks – this is the last one, number 219 that I’ve gone through, with Viv, or Jenny or Peter’s help –
– and three swing bridges and we were into Skipton, with three more swing bridges, lifting the roads, making cars and people wait.
There was Black Velvet, moored up (Steve and Linda’s boat, that we went up the Wigan Flight with). No sign of them. And lots of other boats. A great atmosphere. We passed the junction of the Springs Branch, which is restricted to boats under 35ft, unless you’re confident you can reverse out avoiding moored craft.
The branch was opened in 1797 (the year Edmund Burke died) to enable Lord Thanet, who lived in Skipton Castle, to load his limestone, brought from the quarries by tramroad, to be taken to Leeds. It runs for half a mile, then becomes a ravine through ravishingly beautiful old woodland, now managed by the Woodland Trust. Peter and I walked up later that afternoon, after we’d enjoyed pies and mushy peas (Skipton is famous for them – the pies, that is. Mushy peas are not necessary something to be famous for).
Then we visited Holy Trinity Church, where once I preached when I was at Bradford, and Adrian Botwright was Rector. The church is lovely. We’ll go back on Sunday morning.
We’d walked into Skipton from Snaygill, once we’d met Sean and moored up, and signed a contract to say we won’t live aboard, or have too many cars in the carpark. He’d directed us to a laundry, tucked away behind the Plaza Cinema, which saw us lugging heavy bags up and down steep streets, until we found the laundry who managed to wash and dry everything in a couple of hours. Giving us time to wander. The Oxfam bookshop was a great place. I managed to find a copy of Lark Rise to Candleford.
It’s been in my mind, to read it again. Horribly sentimental as the TV adaptation, but a really interesting piece of social history – and also, it gives a baseline for biodiversity, then in the 1880s. The introduction by Hugh Massingham worth reading again.
George Monbiot, in his book Feral, explains that the natural world we grow up with is the one we think is normal. That’s the baseline we use to decide whether the natural world around us is degrading or improving. So the baseline Peter and I have is from the 1970s, before farming intensification really set in. Our memory is of species – flycatchers, hawfinches, corn buntings, butterflies – many of which are now rare, or have faded out.
Our children, on the other hand, have no such memory. What they think of as normal is ash die-back, no elm trees, and exotics, like Japanese knotweed. To read Flora Thompson gives another baseline – hers, from the 1880s: ‘stoats crossed the road in front of the children’s feet – swift, silent, stealthy creatures which made them shudder; bands of little blue butterflies flitted here and there or poised themselves with quivering wings on the long grass bents; bees hummed in the white clover blooms, and over all a deep silence brooded’. (p. 35).
Lark Rise to Candleford. Larkrise to Skipton.
I’ve been trying to work out what this blog is really about. It’s been a travelogue, of course – tracing the daily, onward chugging from Prickwillow to Skipton, up through the heart of England, along a route that isn’t the normal one, any more, to get from A to B. Six weeks, and blessed by the weather. It’s been idyllic – the chance to think deeply about my life, and sense of vocation, as Peter and I begin a new chapter in Cumbria.
The canals are a delight – and should be a national park in their own right, dedicated to preserving and developing the biodiversity that flourishes in these corridors of wildlife. You see a different country from them, often high above, or contouring around, the local landscape; or taken directly into the heart of cities, unseen by the traffic and busyness around.
They were built for one purpose, and now have another – which is to provide the opportunity to slow down – whether on a boat, or a cycle, or on foot. The water and the towpaths are extrordinary. They give the chance for a different attention to the world around to grow and be nurtured.
As I’ve travelled with Viv, then Jenny, then Peter, it’s been a personal journey too. I’ve been surprised by my continuing sense of loss, even of lament. Reading Mark Cocker certainly focused my sense of lament for the losses sustained by the natural world around (and how long can that continue?).
But also the loss of an England that has passed – many Englands that have passed – from the 18C when the canals were being built, through their heyday in the 1830s, and then the development of different travel and communications systems, to the world of speed and instantaneity that we rely on today. There’s a loss to that – of care, community – which I believe was expressed significantly as people voted Brexit. I’ve been wondering about the deeply felt yearning for a past England, for different baselines, that motivates people today, who find themselves living either too fast, or too crowded, or too lonely. This isn’t nostalgia. It’s a desire for belonging.
And the Church. The way it offers belonging is so often the old-fashioned sense of rootedness; of living along others; of caring. The Church doesn’t thrive in a world where all is instrumental and contractual. And it’s not found a way to commend its traditions to generations who have not been formed with church-going, choir-singing habits.
The churches we’ve visited have held a sense of the Other, of God – Ely, Wadenhoe, Peterborough, Brinklow, Manchester, Wigan, Blackburn, Accrington, Skipton. It takes attention though, allowing the right hemisphere to soak in the encounter; the left hemisphere to stop analysing, controlling.
Perhaps that’s what I’ve been seeking, as I’ve undertaken this personal voyage. My own re-engagement with what is other to me – in the natural world around; in the different element of water; in the built environment of village, town, city; in the churches I’ve visited, the conversations and people I’ve met.
In Why Rousseau Was Wrong I explored how Roger Scruton explains the importance of a sense of loss. In Gentle Regrets, he describes how he regained his religion, and writes movingly about loss. He concludes the book with his reflections on the Jubilate Deo, Psalm 100. ‘Once we came before God’s presence with a song; now we come before his absence with a sigh’, he laments. What might it be like to lose religion, to lose what the Church of England brings to national life? Scruton writes in his final chapter ‘Regaining my Religion’:
If you see things in that way you will find it difficult to share the view of Enlightenment thinkers that religious decline is no more than the loss of false beliefs; still less will you be able to accept the postmodernist vision of the world now liberated from absolutes, in which each of us constructs guidelines of his own, and that the only agreement that counts is the agreement to differ. The decline of Christianity, I maintain, involves, for many people, not the freedom from religious need, but the loss of concepts that would enable them to assuage it and, by assuaging it, to open their knowledge and their will to the human reality. For them the loss of religion is an epistemological loss – a loss of knowledge. Losing that knowledge is not a liberation but a fall.
In our civilisation, therefore, religion is the force that has enabled us to bear our losses and so to face them as truly ours. The loss of religion makes real loss difficult to bear; hence people begin to flee from loss, to make light of it, or to expel from themselves the feelings that make it inevitable. . . . Modern people pursue not penitence but pleasure, in the hope of achieving a condition in which renunciation is pointless since there is nothing to renounce. Renunciation of love is possible only when you have learned to love. This is why we see emerging a kind of contagious hardness of heart, an assumption on every side that there is no tragedy, no grief, no mourning, for there is nothing to mourn. There is neither love nor happiness – only fun. For us, one might be tempted to suggest, the loss of religion is the loss of loss . . . Except that the loss need not occur. (Scruton, Gentle Regrets, pp. 225–239 passim.)
It’s a passage that’s stayed with me since I first read it. It begins to come close to a constant sense of lament that I feel – particularly as I contemplate the natural world around under such pressure; but also as I think about the Church and what it has meant, and could offer more, to enable the encounter with what is Other in our lives.
In my next book Full of Character I explore the distinction between autonomy and heteronomy. The engagement with what is other to us is the key. That’s what’s been the main thing I’ve gained from the last six weeks. Letting go of that all-pervasive sense of autonomy that we value so much in Western culture today, and embracing what heteronomy offers – the engagement with otherness.
Friends are the most obvious. Friendship is one of the best places to be.
We celebrated our arrival not with a large gathering, but with six old friends from Lancashire and Yorkshire – Harry and Eth,
whom we’ve met before as they’ve helped with laundry, and opened lock after lock up the Wigan Flight. Harry, bless him, has provided us with a shore to boat electrical line out of one of his four sheds.
Thelma has been a constant friend since we left Bradford, and David and Sally too.
Here’s Thelma and Sally …
Jacquie is the reason we’re at Snaygill. She and her brother have a boat here.
So they all came for lunch on Saturday, and a walk along the towpath. Unfortunately, David, and Jacquie, had to leave straight after lunch. But here’s the rest of us.
Today, Sunday, Peter and I leave for Workington. So the trip is over. I need to get up, now, to go to Church!
Thank you for following the blog thus far. I’m thinking of continuing …
but not from The Lark Ascending, as she now is at rest (for the time being) at Snaygill.