One eye on the door
IT HAS not been easy, writing this particular Diary, because my current day-to-day existence is spent reading Marina Hyde Guardian columns, watching the BBC Parliament channel, gawping at Twitter, and sitting with my pals in Elda’s Coffee House, Presteigne High Street, asking: “What now?”
One piece of news that managed to be heard above the cacophonous charivari that has marked Boris Johnson’s honeymoon period in office was the announcement that the new Bishop of Hereford will be the Rt Revd Richard Jackson, currently Suffragan Bishop of Lewes (News, 6 September). The present Bishop of Hereford, the Rt Revd Richard Frith, was the man who confirmed me into the Church, and I was sad to hear that he is to retire in January.
That said, Bishop Jackson was once vicar of Rudgwick, the Sussex village where my mother was born, and where two of my great-uncles are on the First World War memorial. He was also Rural Dean of Horsham; so he would have had responsibility for Rusper, the parish where my ancestor, the diarist Thomas Marchant, owned the advowson in the early 18th century.
If the next Bishop is reading this, I’d like to say that we are very much looking forward to welcoming you to Hereford — but, when you come to Presteigne (and especially if you need to slip away afterwards), the large, bald man in Eric Morecambe spectacles trying to corner you into listening to a long disquisition on Sussex family history is me . . . and I’m sorry.*
I FIRST went to Rusper last year, in my pursuit of my seven-times-great-great-grandfather, Thomas. I ate dinner in the Plough, opposite the church: the pub where, in 1906, Ralph Vaughan Williams recorded “The Turtledove”, one of a handful of songs that folk-song collectors can be sure would have been known in the late 17th century. It’s therefore a good bet that my ancestor Thomas would have been familiar with the song, and I’ve learned to sing it; but what if he hated it? Would I like it if my seven-times great-great-grandchild rocked up in a time-machine, and started singing “Agadoo” at me? No, I would not.
On my second visit this summer, I was invited to morning coffee and a tour of the church by the current incumbent, the Revd Nick Flint, who insisted that we were cousins, since we are both descended from Richard Marchant, who died in Ditchling in 1661. Remarkably, given that we had only just become aware of one another’s existence, it transpires that another of Nick’s ancestors witnessed the will of the diarist’s grandson, William, in the late 18th century. The sands of time don’t always run away; sometimes, they settle into sediment, and can be dredged up — for good or ill.
Waiting for Godot
IN MY experience, the priest is the smartest person in the parish, and I felt this very strongly meeting Nick, whose expertise and knowledge of Sussex history were an honour and a pleasure to encounter. As I get down to methodical work on my ancestor’s diary, I feel sure that Nick will find me sitting on his doorstep wanting advice and guidance with alarming regularity. Not always a metaphorical doorstep, either.
This idea that the clergy are clever and worth listening to is one that attracted me to the Church. At the end of the summer, we have the Presteigne Festival of Music and the Arts, a feature of which is the festival eucharist. This year, the sermon was given by the Dean of Hereford, the Very Revd Michael Tavinor, and it was as bracingly highbrow as I’d hoped, treating as it did various musical approaches to the Sanctus. I was attracted by the Dean’s description of the Stravinsky Sanctus — “as if sung by a muezzin” — and, after the service, I went home to listen to it online.
I was reminded of a pal of mine, a performance poet who has a series of hilarious jokes about W. H. Auden, for which he has never found the right audience. Is it like that, I wonder? Do preachers sit on a sermon, waiting for the Radio 3 audience that never comes? In Presteigne (at least once a year), the audience does come, and it attracts the smart preachers that it deserves.
In church, with Betjeman
MY WIFE and I managed to escape a few times this summer on church-crawling expeditions, armed with Betjeman’s Guide to English Parish Churches. The first trip was to East Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire, where we saw the minsters of Howden and Beverley, and the abbey at Selby, among many others. We concluded that the Churches Conservation Trust does a magnificent job. It’s disappointing, sometimes, not to be able to get into churches that are still in use, when the CCT properties are open.
In North Lincolnshire, in particular, it seemed that it might be hard to find volunteer key-holders. One of the exceptions was Burton upon Stather — overlooking the confluence of the rivers Trent and (Yorkshire) Ouse — where the church was not just open, but open for business, as the village post office was in the porch.
We could not have been made more welcome by Jackie and Simon, churchwardens and Readers, who have kept the church open and vibrant and at the heart of the community. No matter how many beautiful and remarkable buildings we visit, it is always this that matters the most: that they are alive with loving congregations.
Ian Marchant is a writer and broadcaster.