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Word from Wormingford

21 January 2009

Ronald Blythe calls to mind George Fox and Pendle Hill

A STRANGE day. Two hours of brilliant sunshine, and many hours of freezing fog. Except it isn’t freezing — just as cold, but liquid, lanes all sloppy mud, and the wetness being blown out of the trees by a slight wind.

I would have stayed indoors, but for urgent business with our village post office — for which God be praised. Heather emerges from what Thomas Hardy called “her penetralia” to sell me three books of stamps, and I find myself remembering a lifetime of country shopkeepers who briefly emerged from a curtained holy-of-holies to serve me; and that never once have I seen inside these secret rooms. But then their potent mystery would be gone for ever. Heather and I tell each other what a ghastly day it is. And then she’s gone.

Back at the farmhouse, Jonathan has taken my rubbish up to the top for the dustmen. It sways garishly on his muddy runabout, a basic little vehicle, which looks as if it is constructed out of Meccano. The dustmen are exacting, and have to be waited on hand and foot according to the conservation faith. It is a blue day: bottles, Whiskas tins, and The Times.

Ten thousand starlings fly over, all talking at once. And then comes the wondrous sight that I could not have seen yesterday, and can only just make out today, as the light is so bad: scores of matt-white snowdrop heads in the mulch below the quince tree.

The white cat sits on a brick surveying them, or rather surveying why I am hanging about in weather like this when it is tea-time.

The Epiphany weeks pass. We are to remember George Fox. I went to find him once on Pendle Hill, in Lancashire. He had been travelling about for a decade before, aged 28, he saw Pendle Hill rising out of Bowland, like, William Penn said, “a great auditory”. What a natural pulpit it would have made.

But, descending, Fox mounted a haystack and said nothing, not a word, to his expectant congregation of Seekers. This was the first Quaker sermon — silence. He had a young friend with him, Richard Farnsworth, who had been hurt in some way and so was unable to climb Pendle: how regularly people have climbed mountains to find God.

I must admit that when I climbed Pendle in the rain, I was as keen to take in that mighty view as that inner voice that would create the Society of Friends. Also, I had been reading David Pownall’s wonderful book Between Ribble and Lune, and was still caught up in his vision of Lancashire. And I, too, had left a companion at the bottom, my dear hospitable friend Allen, nice and dry in the car.

Thomas Carlyle wrote that perhaps the most remarkable incident in modern history is not the Diet of Worms, still less the Battle of Waterloo, but George Fox making himself a suit of Leather! And he quoted the quiet craftsman’s words: “Will all the shoe-wages under the Moon ferry me across into that far Land of Light? Only Meditation can, and devout Prayer to God. I will to the woods: the hollow of a tree will lodge me, wild berries feed me; and for Clothes, cannot I stitch myself one perennial suit of Leather?” Thus, continues Carlyle, “from the lowest depth there is a path to the loftiest height”.

I suppose he meant from cobbling to Pendle Hill; from being a tradesman to being a prophet.

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