NOW and then, not too often, I quote the Duke of Wellington when he was Prime Minister: “They are ringing the bells tonight — they will be wringing their hands in the morning.” The ringers of our tower at Wormingford go up a storey in a few weeks, as their ground floor is to be filled with all manner of conveniences.
The tower itself is unimaginably old; it is made of bricks that the Romans baked and the Normans brought from Colchester, just up the road. There is a little 1000-year-old window through which the evening sun sheds a beam exactly on to the altar. But evensong itself is far and few between, “Songs of Praise and old age between them having captured the congregation”. One of our parishes, Little Horkesley, maintains this lovely service come rain or shine, winter or summer. And, should I be present, I imagine the approval of Jane Austen’s relations, who lie beneath a great cracked slab in the sanctuary.
The end of August brings my hero, John Bunyan, into focus. He was a robust figure who, like some of us, was an enthusiastic bell-ringer — so much so that he thought that God might punish him for his delight in this art by letting a bell fall on his head. Bunyan turned his parish, Elstow, into a world allegory. He was a whitesmith whose trade was to mend pewter. He carried his anvil on his shoulder all over Bedfordshire, and when the official Church locked him up for unofficial preaching in the fields to an open air congregation, he wrote!
Authorities have never understood that marvellous words get written in captivity, from St Paul onwards. Prison books are free-ranging: a wind literature that flies through the narrow window of some grim cell. Or even from the disturbed surface of some fresh grave.
I am, of course, a dedicated churchyard scholar, and I read humpy old acres like a book — often botany, because of the rare plants which grow there, cocking a green finger at the lawnmower. I once saw a snapshot of my teenage self, propped against a headstone in Bures churchyard, a book on my lap.
I buried the artist John Nash in our churchyard, and had an enchanting verse or two from the Song of Solomon cut deep above him. But winds and rains have almost wiped the slate clean. Had it been proper slate, like the memorials of Cornish churchyards, the letters would have stayed readable for centuries. There are few Christian texts these days; only uncertainty or ignorance instead of the old poetry and hope.
Digging up a path to lay a pipe this week, old bones tumbled into view. A boy, a girl, an old man, perhaps, who walked in the church and who is now walked over, but whose spirit fills the air. We sing Bunyan’s sturdy hymn in which we make a pilgrimage by staying where we are, because “we know we at the end shall life inherit”.
I light the candles, put them on the altar, watch them last, watch them waver, and then have Sunday lunch in the pub with Mike, the churchwarden; and then, in the afternoon, listen to music, smell summer flowers in the garden, and hear the swans fly over to the river, making a great commotion.
I am reminded of W. B. Yeats’s poem “The White Swans at Coole”, and I look for them in the bookcase.