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Word from Wormingford

30 January 2015

Ronald Blythe celebrates a friend's birthday with songs and champagne

THE autocratic nature of a great frost - it imposes its will on the winter itself. I am aware of this before I draw the curtains. Below the old farmhouse, the Stour Valley has hardened and whitened at its command, and become another place. Not a sound, not a hint of what existed before the frost.

Flowers bloom - a flood of snowdrops and a splash of primroses, plus some final roses - but do so at attention. The horses have gone in from the cold, and the walkers have come out, their arms swinging and their talk carried by the clarity of the cold.

A dear neighbour gives a party. It is her 100th birthday, and a card from the Queen is pinned up in the Victorian schoolroom where we used to hold our PCCs and every other village parliament, the famous Wormingford flower show, and every other social get-together. We drink champagne and sing, see little difference in ourselves, wonder who the children are, and feel a kind of parochial love for each other.

A stranger, seeing my name on the church noticeboard, says that he has never heard of a lay canon. I think of the canons of my youth, who wore little rosettes on their big black hats, and of bishops in gaiters. Those were the days! The day darkens, and we bump our way home over the sleeping policemen who stop us racing up the track.

Neighbours, hurt by time, rotate in my head. And, of course, we all wish that Gordon had been with us; for, although he has been dead these many winters, it somehow does not seem right for him to be absent. Towards the end, he became worried about recognition in heaven - how a handful of particular people, including his wife, would "see" each other there.

Epiphany is the "seeing time", of course. And, of course, "In the heavenly country bright Need they no created light." So I preach somewhat poetically on this lustrous theme.

I think of poor young Reginald Heber, who, the Church of Eng-land insisted, should convert India, when, like certain priests, ancient and modern, he would much rather have lived out his ministry in a country parish.

My mother loved missionaries. Her lifelong example was Sister Joan, who taught our faith in Ceylon. The women she converted made my christening robe. When, in old age, Mother sailed to Australia, and the ship called at Ceylon, it was like stepping on to a holy land. She bought a small brass bell for me there.

It shares a window ledge with a Stone Age tool I found on the high ground of Wormingford, and a splinter of medieval glass from the bombing of Julian of Norwich's chapel in Norwich. Faith is often fragmentary. So, in a sense, is farming, and certainly life itself.

But not the Epiphany light. It should guide us into Lent. I remember a print of Holman Hunt's, The Light of the World, which hung in my bedroom when I was a boy. I feared it more than I liked it: the carrier of the lantern so tall and strange, the two crowns, one of shining gold, the other of thorns. But, later, I discovered that it was painted in an English garden - one not unlike mine, a bit prickly, needing some keeping in order, and in which robins and blackbirds sang at all times of the year. Although not now, not in a hard frost, not in a landscape that is momentarily soundless.

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