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Word from Wormingford

09 January 2015

Ronald Blythe looks out at a winter scene that is neither 'wild' nor 'drear'

TWELFTH NIGHT. Shakespeare wrote his play for it, and King James and everyone crammed into Whitehall to see it. A boy sang "Come away, come away, death," and there was confusion of roles and gender.

It is enchanting at this moment: the old rooms are full of sunshine. The white cat frets at robins through the glass. It is a morning of great stillness and promise. The land-scape is bleached and waiting. The meadows are melting, and the ponds glitter. As children, we sang "Winter wild, and winter drear" in what were then bitter post-Christmas days - an out-of-date song from what I see now, which is a quietly beautiful landscape warming up.

Gardening comes to mind. Planting bulbs suggests itself. There is even that sweet scent that April brings. I hold a tiny phial of frankincense to a friend's nose, and say "Smell." Then I carry wood ash on to the bonfire site. Someone here would have done this when the boy sang "Come away, death" in Whitehall.

I tend not to make New Year's resolutions for fear of breaking them in February. But a new book begins to create its own order for the weeks ahead. At the moment, everything is out of date - the parish magazine with its pages of Christmas happenings, in particular.

I am always amazed by these publications, by what goes in them at all seasons, and what priests, churchwardens, bell-ringers, flower-women, organists, and the laity for miles around are up to. Those who organise things in parishes are still on the rota. Immortal, they are. Incumbents may come and go, but Peggy or Bob are still on the list for something or other. And the Lent readings are out.

Bottengoms, my old farmhouse, was always on the edge of things. Balanced between Suffolk and Essex, and between two parishes, and in a valley between two quiet steep hills, it must always have had a life of its own. As I do not drive, kindly neighbours bump down to take me to where I have to be on Sundays, not best pleased to get their sparkling cars muddied.

I have discovered a pre-First World War parish guide to the area, with photos of church interiors, and Edwardian naves and chancels, with a psalm, hymn, and matins still up on the board. I see bursting hassocks, paraffin stoves, and just a few roses in brass vases on the altar. But also a photograph gallery of keen young curates and irascible rectors.

I gaze into their pale faces and think of not far-away Flanders, but of congregations in their Sunday best, and I hear the old hymn-singing, full and loud, and I see local names everywhere. And the gentry in front and the labourers at the back. And I see the heavy altar frontals, plus flimsy heating. In boyhood, it was "Put another jersey on if you're cold." But I have no memory of being cold in church. I suppose the beauty of holiness kept me snug.

In St Gregory's, there was the mystical hissing of the gas system. And in the vestry, there was the decapitated head of an archbishop, named Simon, who was murdered during Wat Tyler's rebellion. Perhaps the local monks brought it to Sudbury hoping to set up a shrine with a profitable following. But all it got was a crowd of choirboys looking in the glass to comb their Brylcreemed locks.

The archbishop's vacant gaze looks back at their young faces. His face has seen Rome, Paris - everything, everywhere. Sic transit gloria mundi.

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