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Word from Wormingford

09 May 2014

An axehead prompts Ronald Blythe to think of things lost and found

A WILD wet day. Chilly, too. Gloire de Dijon roses rock against the window, and a squirrel is eating a crust with great delicacy on the lawn below. It nibbles as though it is playing the flute, holding the bread out at an angle, noting the crumbs.

It is barely light, and the hill where my neighbour, Mr Brown, came across the axehead looks drenched. He brought it in, and laid it on the kitchen table. "There. Never been used." Someone had dropped it on the high ground in the Bronze Age. What a loss. It had worked its way up through the flinty earth. We washed it under the tap, and it shone.

We imagined the finder retracing his steps a hundred times over the hill, weeping with disappointment. Maybe calling out to his axe in a language we will never know. "The museum will tell us all about it." Yet, in a strange way, in its worked-up state it was informative enough.

Shepherd Sunday. I preached on losing and finding - a favourite theme in the Gospels. Ages ago, someone I knew had lost his daughter to the Moonies, and when, after the greatest difficulties, he found her, the girl had to be helped to find him; for the sect had wiped her father from her memory.

The Gospels are full of finders and losers. The psalms, too. They preach precariousness. Yet, at the same time, they despise safety first. Both are filled with wanderers. With people getting off the beaten track in both the temple and the synagogue, questioning, arguing. People longing to find home, but turning up in barren debates, prodigals from faith.

No sheep in sight on my hill this wet April morning, only a girl on a pre-breakfast love-errand to a horse, which looks up, then goes on grazing.

When I was a child, I used to wonder, in an Orwellian way, why farm animals - horses, particularly - tolerated hedges. Why didn't they jump over them and gallop off to Bedfordshire, this county for some reason having become a far freedom in my imagination?

Staying on the Welsh border with the poet Edward Storey, I would lie in bed waiting for morning tea, and watch Dafyd the young shepherd bring his sheep down in the soft greyness that is not at all like the Stour Valley greyness, but a kind of muted country all its own, and which I think I can smell when I reach Presteigne.

Certainly, it tells me that it is the climate that alone could produce writers such as Thomas Traherne and Henry Vaughan. The latter once prayed:

Either disperse these mists, which blot and fill
My perspective still as they pass,
Or else remove me hence unto that hill,
Where I shall need no glass.

There are no sheepdogs in the Bible. Its shepherds do not drive sheep, like Dafyd, but lead them. "Lead us, heavenly father, lead us. . ." In the vestry, the bishop unscrews his crook and fits it into a case.

Above my ancient farmhouse, Horkesley betrays its origins: from hurk - "a temporary shelter for young lambs, formed of hurdles wattled with straw." Lower Bottoms, the pastures of my house, lie below the track, dense with buttercups and sodden grass. Yet the old pasturage of the faith seems less evident in East Anglia than on the edge of Wales. It is those unhedged-about flocks!

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