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Word from Wormingford

11 July 2014

In a graveyard, Ronald Blythe sees old friends coming up the path

CONSIDERING that the majority of churchyards witness to 1000 years of tears, it is strange that they are so pleasant to visit, to wander in, to sit in on a summer's day. "Peaceful", the visitors book says over and over again. Peaceful inside and out. "Do you remember when we threw a tablecloth over that table-tomb and had lunch?", I remind the lady doing the altar flowers.

The sky between the horse-chestnuts is enamelled blue. Opaque. Unseen birds call. Mown or unmown, the English churchyards are green and lively. Georgian gravestones totter, Victorian memorials soar, today's slivers of slate don't know what to say. Albert "Bert" in brackets. Rarely a biblical word.

I see them still coming up the path, the old ringers, the previous congregations. "So you've mended the wall!" It loomed out into the lane, and had done so for donkey's years. "It's the dead having a stretch." An undefeated spring runs below it, freezing in the winter; so that we slip and slide to our cars.

But not now. It is high summer, the heat fanned by soft winds. Early Trinity, and we are to be clothed with humility. And then comes the scary bit from St Peter, "because your adversary, the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about seeking whom he may devour. . ." But the bees swimming in my balsam remind me of the poor dead lion on the treacle tin whose gaping carcase has turned into a honey-pot.

Neighbours move away. We say goodbye in the hospitable house. Already there are gaps where familiar things had stood. "Oh, but we will often be back - you'll see." But they won't. Their time with us has ended. They walk round the big room, taking photographs. But the marks on the walls where the pictures have been say everything.

I talk to a gentle, ill man, coming closer to hear his whispering words. Yet there is happiness rather than sadness. A kind of acceptance for things as they are. St Peter, whose week it is, asks God to make us perfect, and to "stablish, strengthen, and settle us". But it is unsettling when old friends move away. I mean, where will we go for Christmas-morning drinks? Have they thought of that?

Some have gone to Scotland, and there will be postcards from the white house above the loch to prove it. I see them opening the deer-gates to let the car through, and me waking up in the rare Highlandair, and then driving to Ben Lyon.

Perhaps the young shepherd will bring his flock down from the hill, or the Edinburgh minister will be doing holiday duty at the kirk. The shelves of Scottish history will certainly be toppling in the drawing-room. Half a mile from the house, they will encounter Queen Victoria and Mr Brown having a picnic.

Perthshire amazes me - its scent, its indifference to human needs, its vast parishes, its blue ranges which should not have been clothed with pine forests, its stern nobility. Will the pine-marten run along the wall? For we all like to think that the places which have become ours for a week or two possess a perpetuity for us alone.

The white cat has never been to the top of the track. "Tell me what it is like up there." Dangerous: bends, haywains with bales, sabbath cyclists, congregations going home, dogs getting lost. She has made her summer bed in the vast stone sink which once stood in the farm kitchen. There she sleeps her nine lives away.

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