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Word from Wormingford

21 August 2015

Vestry photographs can reveal the nature of a place, says Ronald Blythe

THE peerless English summer proceeds. I sit in the garden, reading and making notes for a winter book. The white cat sleeps on them; the birds sing above them. An unseen harvester plies up and down with orchestral shadings of sound, and a song thrush never stops.

For no reason at all, I am with my brother in Myddle, a village not far from Shrewsbury, where he is a teenage trainee on a fruit farm. It is winter, and the snow is faintly falling. We share an enormous bed in his lodgings, the one in which the Bruin Boys sleep in Tiger Tim’s Weekly. His landlady brings us hot water in a brass jug at seven in the morning, and gives us breakfast on a starched tablecloth.

My brother, fearing that she has missed out on life, has taken her to the theatre, and to a teashop for lunch. She is scandalised by the price of everything. Her theatre operates just outside her window. A neighbour clanks her way to the pump with zinc pails. "She’s early," or "She’s late." Our heads are little scrapbooks.

It is Trinity something.


We have done with dogma and divinity
Easter and Whitsun past,
The long, long Sundays after Trinity,
Are with us at last;
The passionless Sundays after Trinity,
Neither feast-day nor fast.


What else did we do in Shropshire? We climbed Shrewsbury Cathedral tower. Round and round to the top. Just as we climbed our Suffolk churches, especially Lavenham, where the verger would bellow "Come down, you young varmints!" Supposing he locked us in? Our skeletons would fall to pieces under the bells. And serve them right, them young varmints.

Boys left their names all over the place in ancient churches, but rarely girls. Harry Briscow, 1727. Singing until his voice broke, and later in another key. And from the back, never in the chancel. The fury when "high" Victorian clergy brought the choir forward knew no bounds. My friend Gordon’s father, who died watching a cricket match, changed churches when the choir robed.

And yet, in the parish portrait gallery, those vestry photographs of 40 or more boys and men as whitely robed as the paradisal singers round the throne of God, offer to someone like myself a kind of illustrated "Myddle" into which I read a parish’s Hardy-like particulars, and in which, along with the incuments’ board and the gravestones, the nature of a place is revealed.

It took a long time — often centuries — before most parishes had their own guidebook. Now they are among my favourite reading. I have written a few myself, including one to All Saints’, Aldeburgh. John Betjeman gave me a prize for it. One has to boast a bit in life. I have a photo of his doing it in the crypt of a City church, where sherry and sandwiches were laid out under the grieving memorials. I would glimpse him in north Cornwall, trying to stay alone.

David’s harvester roars away. Young birds and dragonflies are caught in old rooms, longing to find a way out.

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