ASIDE from my duties as an occasional diarist for the Church Times, I’m also an occasional presenter for Open Country on Radio 4. I braved the sheeting rain and howling winds of May to record the show for the first time since the beginning of March 2020. This particular episode (due for broadcast in August) is to be called “In Search of the Source of the River Ancholme”.
Prevented by travel restrictions from canoeing up the Limpopo, the producer, Mary Ward-Lowery, and I followed the course of the modest Lincolnshire river upstream, from its confluence with the Humber to a damp patch in a farmer’s field in the parish of Fillingham, 30 miles away.
Mary is from that part of England; and I wanted to prove that there are adventures to be had in your back garden, if you are prepared to look. Wonders, too — we took a short detour from the course of the river to see the 1000-year-old graffiti of a Viking longship carved on a Saxon pillar in the crossing of Stow Minster.
THERE, we were given a guided tour by Dr David Justham, the churchwarden. Two pictures are scratched into the stone. The first shows a longship from the side; the second, a ship bearing down on you — prow on, square sail billowing in a following wind. In 1013, Sweyn Forkbeard sailed up the Trent to Gainsborough, where “the people of Lindsey bowed to him.”
Stow Minster was the mother church of Lincolnshire, long before the cathedral was started, and Forkbeard was a Christian who almost certainly came to the minster to worship. Dr Justham argues that the graffiti probably date from this visit.
Forkbeard was accepted as King, the first Danish king of England. For five weeks, Gainsborough was effectively the English capital, which is why the Wetherspoon’s in Gainsborough is called the Sweyn Forkbeard: as near perfect an example of bathos as you’ll find.
STOW MINSTER seems to grow out of the gentle Lincolnshire landscape, a sleeping Saxon giant. Inside, Saxon, Norman, and Early English features pile up on top of one another. There’s a Romanesque east end, reimagined and rebuilt in 1850 by John Loughborough Pearson, the architect of Truro Cathedral.
It’s a wonderful, monumental building, and it needs help — now, this minute. Dr Justham needs £3.5 million pounds to put it back in order. Congregation numbers hover at about 20.
“What are we to do?” I asked him.
He shook his head. “I don’t know. I don’t know why more people don’t want to hear our story of love and peace.”
And neither do I.
IN LATE March, on the first weekend that lockdown was eased in Wales, my wife and I hopped into the car and set off for our own backyard adventure. Half an hour away, along a single-track road with grass growing up the middle, its tarmac being washed away by spring rain, we came to the isolated hamlet of Rhulen, and found St David’s, whitewashed, with a wooden tower: an ancient testament to faith in these hills. We turned the handle. It was open.
Inside, it consists of a single room. The walls are painted mustard; the altar alcove, white. On the altar, a blue cloth, a wooden cross, some jars of fresh flowers. Inside the door, a notice from the churchwardens, saying that it was becoming increasingly difficult to keep the little church open, and calling for ideas for the building’s future.
The problems of Rhulen and Stow bear a family resemblance. The service registers by the door showed that at Christmas there could sometimes be 15, but at the monthly communions the average attendance was two. What are we to do?
HANGING on the wall above an old harmonium was a framed sheet of music, a hymn tune called Rhulen. My wife took a picture of the manuscript, which you can see on my website (ianmarchant.com). No one is sure who the composer is, but the most likely candidate is T. T. Phillips, a local Baptist minister. When we got home, my wife played it through, and it was a bit special. To an old pop person like me, it had “hit” written all over it. “We could write a hymn,” I said to the piano player.
This turns out to be much more complicated than I imagined. If you’ve seen the scene from Father Ted in which Dougal and Ted are trying to write an entry for Eurovision — that. My wife pointed out that “SM” means short metre: the syllables had to fall just so, and that was how the writer wanted it. I pointed out that the writer was mistaken, because the obvious hook (play it, if you can, and you’ll see what I mean) needed the syllables to fall differently. “That’s not a hymn, then,” said my wife, “that’s a worship song.” Until that moment, I hadn’t known there was a difference.
I binned my first attempt, and I’m still sulking. My songwriting talent, such as it was, has upped and left. Have a go. The words need to be set in high empty hills, in early spring, in praise of creation, and in celebration of our story of peace and love. I pray someone else might make a better pass than me.
Ian Marchant is an author and broadcaster, and the founder of Radio Free Radnorshire.