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Word from Wormingford

06 September 2013

Ronald Blythe finds that hymns sung on a visit to Wales stay in his mind

AUGUST ended in airy sunshine, and, mercifully, in the début of my dear hornets. Every year, there is a dragged-out absence, and then, suddenly, the annoyed hum as they knock into the lampshades and have to be shown the door. What handsome creatures they are.

Then, a journey to the Welsh Marches. England drops behind, and the western hills come into view, soft in their greys and purples. To Presteigne, that little town on the River Lugg ("light") whose mystery I have never been able to fathom.

It is the Festival of Music and the Arts. A few strings of faded bunting announce that something is going on, but the music! Who would not cross England to hear it? My contribution is a lecture on the potter's contribution to human happiness, given as a sermon in St Andrew's, at the eucharist. We sing "Christ is made the sure foundation." It is altogether wonderful; hundreds of voices pouring perpetual melody. I am singing it still, days later.

My host is the poet Edward Storey, whose contribution is to sing the enchantment of neighbouring Discoed, a minute parish two miles away - a shepherd's place, a bird-gathering place, where, from my early morning window, I can watch sheep cropping Offa's Dyke.

These annual excursions are precious. I see and hear many of the same things, but each time differently. And Debbie, who once talked to me about being ordained, will be, in a few days' time, in Hereford Cathedral. She brings me bread and wine. The festival choir sings William Byrd's Mass for Four Voices. It threads its way into countless subconsciouses. All these visitors! Although here and there a recognisable Presteigne face.

At the end, each of us, ungratefully, describes ourselves as a "pilgrim through this barren land". In my sermon, I describe God's asking each one of us: "My beautiful world - why didn't you enjoy it more?"

Home, through what should have been the Bank Holiday traffic. Only there wasn't any. Just a long run on sparse roads. And Bosworth and Naseby battlefields under our tyres. In my frequently hopeless way, I take a wrong turn, and we are in a mesh of sunken lanes. They are worth the confusion. Signposts point to the most unlikely destinations. How curious it is to hear them singing "consubstantial, co-eternal". The Essex countryside, in particular, newly harvested and looking too tempting merely to drive through, and, of course, full of song. Even my old farm-track added a few notes. Four horses in Lower Bottom lifted up their heads.

But in the late-summer garden, nature had better things to do. Taught by my betters not to cut down plants the moment they start to seed, I touched the "impatients" balsam, and felt the thrilling push of the pod between my fingers. I was a child again. Its contents flew. Life! That is the thing.

I scythed part of the orchard so that its seed fell into that furry darkness in which fruited trees are rooted, and made a proper step between August and September. The white cat climbed to the topmost branches and gazed down. Greengages were on the turn. And still the Presteigne eucharist rewound itself and played all over again. And the quietness of the Presteigne streets took over the noisiness of the Bottengoms lane, now that all my hornets were bumping their way into the grapevine.

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