THE summer seems a distant memory — but I went to Cambridge in July to attend the annual conference of the Catholic Record Society. Its members were hugely supportive of my work when I was a student, and I now have the honour of serving on its Council.
This year, the conference was at Murray Edwards College — New Hall, as was — which is next to St Michael’s Priory, the Cambridge home of the Dominicans (the Order of Preachers). At the time, a friend of mine was serving his novitiate there. I made contact, and was duly invited to attend Sext in the priory chapel, and to stay to lunch.
As one grey-haired friar in a habit looks very much like another at first glance, it took a moment or two for the penny to drop that the meal was being served by Fr Aidan Nichols, a leading theologian and a prodigious writer of books, who happens also to be Prior.
My friend has since made his simple vows as a Dominican, and has been sent to Oxford to continue his studies at Blackfriars. I sent a college postcard in the internal mail to wish him well. His reply came, appropriately enough for a member of a religious community, on a card depicting the cover the 1960 Penguin edition of Ernest Hemingway’s Men without Women.
Warm in Wales
A SHORT Welsh jaunt made for a pleasant break from writing. I even managed to pick a couple of days when the temperature was in the high 20s, and the sun almost managed to blot out childhood memories of freezing wind, horizontal rain, and the smell of wet tweed.
My father used to humour my enthusiasm for romantic ruins by driving me to almost every roofless monastery and crumbling castle within a 50-mile radius. (Yes, that sort of child.) Llanthony Abbey won hands down every time, and still does.
That said, I don’t have to live there full-time. The Augustinians whose home it was eventually deserted the place, sick of the weather in winter and of being almost constantly roughed up by marauders. They downsized to Gloucestershire, where they remained until Llanthony Secunda — brand recognition, and all that — was dissolved in 1538.
This time, I was in the driving seat with my father as passenger; but we were on a different mission. After lunch at the Skirrid, in Llanfihangel Crucorney — the oldest pub in Wales, along with all the others that make the same claim — we motored down the valley past Cwmyoy, made a brief stop at Llanthony Prima, and then began the gentle climb up towards Capel-y-ffin, with its lovely little whitewashed church and chapel either side of the Honddu.
Mad, mad monks
TURNING off the road in middle of the hamlet, we made our way up a steepish lane overhung with trees. The clues began to present themselves on either side: at the bottom, a small stone lancet arch, and then a wayside Calvary further up. Soon, a sharp left-turn brought us to our destination, and we were greeted with by the image of Our Lady of Llanthony.
Llanthony Nova is part of the story of possibly the maddest thing ever to have happened in the Church of England — in which it then still was — and admittedly up against some pretty stiff competition since. For four decades, from 1870, it was the home of the monastery run by Joseph Leycester Lyne, better known as “Father Ignatius”. Like so many of his religious contemporaries he was part-saint and part-lunatic: Peter Allen’s new book, New Llanthony Abbey (Peterscourt Press), will tell you all you need to know.
The community, many of whose members were nearly as eccentric as their Abbot, folded shortly after Ignatius’s death in the first decade of the 20th century, and the whitewashed domestic buildings were later home to Eric Gill, his family, and the circle of artists he gathered around him. The spacious buildings proved conducive to Gill’s work; and the peace and quiet presumably gave him the opportunity to indulge a few of his hobbies, too.
The church has long since crumbled, but a distinguished-looking gentleman pottering about in a boiler suit turned out to be the secretary of the Fr Ignatius Memorial Trust. The annual pilgrimage continues to take place in late August, and he was giving the railings around the first and last abbot’s grave a fresh lick of paint.
TALKING of driving around the countryside — I have a new car. The old faithful that saw me through and well beyond university finally juddered to a halt after 15 years’ loyal service, give or take a few spectacular breakdowns in places that ranged from the middle of nowhere to smack-bang in the middle of the Hanger Lane roundabout in London at rush hour, and had to be scrapped.
I cleared out the glove box before it was taken away. Among other things, it contained, in no particular order: a first-aid kit (one triangular bandage and a pack of wet-wipes); a rosary (plastic, black, corpus missing); the front-door key to St Chad’s College, Durham (last used in 2003); a pack of lemon biscuits (stale, broken); a pair of socks (bottle-green, laundered); a tuning fork (always useful); a bottle of sleeping pills (out-of-date and certainly not mine); a pipe (briar, curved); and 24 ordination cards for the Revd Graham Lunn’s priesting and first mass, which I was clearly meant to have distributed in June 2012. Sorry about that, Father.
In the end, I settled for a modest Citroën tourer in midnight blue, which will tie me over nicely until the 1934 Lagonda arrives. Meanwhile, a friend who has just begun his curacy not far from Walsingham has acquired a new vehicle in Marian blue. It is, of course, a Fiat.
Dr Serenhedd James is director of the Cowley Project, and Hon. Research Fellow of St Stephen’s House, Oxford