ENGLISH GROUNDS (Features, 3 December 2021) is a book that knows its place. It doesn’t pretend to be Pevsner. It is not comprehensive. It doesn’t present a meta-narrative or a persuasive thesis.
It is a collection of vignettes, mainly about places in Wiltshire where Andrew Rumsey serves as a bishop, and where during lockdown he made many journeys on his own to get to know more deeply the land he served, its places and parishes. There is the odd foray south into Dorset. Even a few trips to Yorkshire. It is about how the associated memories of place are etched into a landscape and its communities; how they shape us and what might happen if we forget.
It is hopeful, beginning to map a way forward for a world beyond Covid, and with a deeper connection to the land and to our history. “The Wessex landscape”, Rumsey writes, “is no older than any other bit of Britain: it is just the pre-history here lies so close to the surface.”
It is written by someone who knows the importance of wandering from the path, of lingering and of looking carefully. What it creates is a tapestry of stories and reflections about different places which live together with each other, jostling for position, sometimes comfortably, but sometimes not, and which is just like the landscape itself, a jumble, where one generation builds upon another, knocks down or preserves, modifies and moves on. Each place occupies its own place and knows how to sit still.
The book is, therefore, more than a series of isolated sketches, but defiantly less than a worked-out thesis. And if the parts of the book are greater than the whole, I mean that as a compliment.
Like George Herbert’s poem “Prayer”, in which each line could be the title of a whole other poem, each chapter here could be a book, because it knows that the beauty and importance of each place matters, and that whenever you see a straight line on a map, be it an old Roman road or the way in which colonial powers carved up the continents that they conquered, you are in the presence of an occupying force.
Real places borrow the contours of the land for their boundaries and grow where they are planted. We meddle with this at our peril — or risk becoming another occupying force ourselves. The good things that we long nurture in our nation — be it Wiltshire or North Yorkshire, the Church, the NHS, local government, or schools — can happen only when we respect and understand the importance of place and how it has nurtured us and how it has a future that belongs to us and is our responsibility, just as much as the past. “Whatever else they are,” Rumsey says, “village churches are not museums.”
He goes on to say, towards the end of the book, that “whatever realm we seek can only be located among people intolerably different from ourselves, but with whom we share undeniable common ground.”
English Grounds is beautifully written. Rumsey has a pilgrim’s heart and a poet’s ear. If, like me, you are someone who reads with the book in one hand and a pen in the other, you will soon run out of ink, so many are the sentences that you will want to underline and come back to. Like a poem, the book gives up its mystery slowly, as if you have been for a wonderful, long walk.
As the title suggests, it is English, and it is grounded. I read it and found hope for England, for the English Church, for our parishes and for the places they serve. “The ways that endure”, Rumsey says, “will be those with the deepest roots.”
The Most Revd Stephen Cottrell is the Archbishop of York.
English Grounds: A pastoral journal
SCM Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.99
Listen to an interview with Andrew Rumsey on the Church Times Podcast