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Word from Wormingford

22 May 2015

Ronald Blythe welcomes Whitsun weddings in the village church

PENTECOSTAL skies, the returning birds all blown about, the trees shaking their new leaves, the spring colours muted. I garden in warm rain. The laburnums will bloom any minute now. The lilac hedge is a sight. Whitsun weddings in the church, the brides straight out of Thomas Hardy, the grooms all scrubbed up, the organ bursting forth, ditto the bells, and ditto the congregations in shiny cars.

I remember helping to edit the works of Thomas Hardy, and kind Mrs Jolly, who now owned Max Gate, his Dorchester house, giving me tea, and letting me see his bedroom. They had lit the fire for his last days, and thought he would like to toast a bit of bacon on it. His second wife, Florence, stood uncertainly by.

After it was all over, as they say, rather like the holy house of Loreto, his study was spirited away to the Dorchester Museum, to put into a glass case. It was a curious thing to do for a great writer, but then everything connected with Hardy's death was strange, the strangeness overcoming the morbidity.

But here am I, back from the cinema and seeing in the Wormingford Whitsun weddings the perpetuity of his characters as refashioned by Philip Larkin - and, indeed, as refashioned every late spring, the edible confetti being crunched into the gravel, the church packed with strangers, the cars a mile long. And the youthful people, unlike Hardy's congregation, silent when it comes to hymns, just politely standing up and sitting down.

"O thou Light, most pure and blest, Shine within the inmost breast Of thy faithful company. Where thou art not, man hath nought; Every holy deed and thought Comes from thy Divinity."

I re-read Francis Kilvert. In May 1871, the handsome curate walked to church early, "across the quiet sunny meadows. . . There is usually one day in the Spring when the beauty of everything culminates and strikes one peculiarly, even forcing itself upon one's notice and a presentiment comes that one will never see such loveliness again at least for another year.

"This is the day that Robert Burns delighted in, the first fine Sunday in May. . . 'I went into the churchyard under the feathering larch which sweeps over the gate . . . everything was still. No one was about or moving and the only sound was the singing of birds. The place was all in a charm of singing, full of peace and quiet sunshine. It seemed to be given up to the birds and their morning hymns. It was the bird church, the church among the birds. I wandered round the church among the dewy grass-grown graves and picturesque ivy- and moss-hung tombstones. Round one grave grew a bed of primroses. On another, tall cowslips hung their heads. . .

"The clerk began to ring the bell for service. My Father read prayers and I preached on the Master washing the disciples' feet."

I follow Paul through Asia Minor and into Europe. There were now more than 100 Christians, and he had to get them out of shaking rooms and into the world. Travellers all they had to be.

Bad news from North Carolina reminded me that I had walked there, unlikely though it sounds. But I had. I found guns in a cupboard, and the Book of Common Prayer by the side.

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