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Word from Wormingford

04 July 2014

Ronald Blythe preaches about prison writers, and smells cake and flowers

AND from Anglican matins to East Anglian Nonconformity at Walpole Old Chapel on a burning Sunday afternoon. The cornfields sizzle, and the familiar scenes hurry by.

I mount the pulpit to talk about John Bunyan. We sing "He who would valiant be" with Tony at the harmonium, if not lifting the roof elevating our faith. The River Blyth flows out of sight; the graveyard is feathery and unmown.

The chapel was built a decade or so after Bunyan's death, and it remains a perfect architectural response to what remains of our inbred Nonconformity. Beginning as a Tudor house, it was stripped out and simplified for God.

There will be tea and cakes - "This was the Queen Mother's favourite sponge." I wander about the burial ground. "And here they all are," Nina, the poet, writes.

Samuel Stopher, Mary Stopher,
Timothy Sparrow.
All gone, come to full stops
Of stone.

When I was a boy, there was a lending library where I could borrow Baroness Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel novels for tuppence a time. It was a kind of corner shop, with immense timbers, and part of an ancient house where Bunyan had stayed when he came to give the Suffolk Dissenters a piece of his mind.

He was an impressive figure: large, commanding, muscular from humping an anvil about, and strong-voiced from preaching in the fields near Bedford. Had the Church of England not locked him up for this, he would most probably not have written a word. As with St Paul, and a whole host of prison writers, he called for a pen when the key turned in the lock.

I imagined Bunyan in the timbered room, now lined with novels; or tying his horse to a gigantic nail that protruded from the blackened king-post.

A marvellous find at Walpole Old Chapel was David Holmes's An Inglorious Affair, which tells of a classic Nonconformist row in Suffolk in the 1870s - something against which the Trollopian quarrel of the Church of England scarcely raised a voice.

It all began with a harvest-tea meeting and an argument about singing the Gloria. A youthful organist asked the choir to sing it in the Congregational Chapel; the Baptists cried "No!" The Congregationalists then kept the Baptists out of the church for ten years. The whole town was up in arms over the Gloria - "In Halesworth, they talk of nothing else."

Standing in the scrubbed, pale, and infinitely sane interior of Walpole Old Chapel, with the delicate scent of home-made cake and wildflowers drifting up the pulpit, and with Bunyan filling my head, all I could feel was this perfect summer's day. Also a sense of ownership - that in some way I belonged here, and it belonged to me.

During the 17th century, it was taken to Massachusetts, this Puritanism with its arguments and triumphs - there to become native in a different sense.

Once, walking in Cambridge, Mass., with its London plane trees, and its Fogg Museum, containing a roof angel from a Suffolk church, I thought I could smell what I am smelling at this moment: some indefinable odour of place. Particularly when the sun brings it out.

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