THE poets were mistaken. November is not the dreariest month, nor April the cruellest. January days, without the sparkle of a crisp frost or the hard brilliance of a clear sky, are gloomy. Inertia strikes. It tests the resilience of living alone. It is dull, dull, dull.
But my mood is lifted by the world of whippets, of which my family is now a part. Our Bertie is one of nine pups born to their mother, Florence, all bar one of whom went to local homes. On Monday mornings, the siblings gather en masse to romp gloriously off the lead in Blidworth Woods, springing through the bracken, leaping over fallen branches, racing like the wind. Dry leaves dance in the air and sand flies from the paths.
It is a whirlwind of joy in which Eric Liddell’s memorable line from Chariots of Fire comes unbidden to mind: “God made me fast. When I run, I feel his pleasure.” We finish with a no-guilt breakfast from the bacon-butty van, and the winter blues are banished.
I GET a further spring in my step with the arrival of a new pair of walking boots. They smell of leather and promise, and I am breaking them in by wearing them as often as possible — even around the house. I sense that Hermes (the winged messenger) is a little disconcerted at my doorstep appearance.
The myriad labels attached to the boots extol the “billions of microscopic pores in the proprietary membrane”: venting technology designed to keep me dry and comfortable in the widest range of temperatures and conditions. I have no excuse to stay in and brood.
I TAKE myself off to Derby Cathedral, to absorb the world of my present study, John Whitehurst FRS (1713-88), clockmaker, geologist, engineer: a key Enlightenment figure and a churchwarden of this building, formerly All Saints’ Church.
It is the most beautiful Georgian interior, flooded with natural light from clear-glass windows. I love the story of how the present building came to be; for what took place at Derby could be seen as the answered prayer of every hard-pressed incumbent: that the decaying edifice for which they are responsible might simply vanish overnight, and funds miraculously be found for a replacement.
The building’s predecessor is recorded as having become unsafe by 1723, when the incumbent, Dr Michael Hutchinson, apparently rolled up his clerical sleeves, hired a gang of workmen, waited for nightfall, and had everything except the Tudor tower demolished.
Thereupon, the Mayor and Corporation promptly donated to its rebuilding by James Gibbs, and opened a subscription list — to which Hutchinson himself made a generous contribution. Now that’s what I call vision and strategy.
MY SOUL is uplifted by the only two stained-glass windows in here: contemporary works of art by Ceri Richards, installed in 1965. They depict All Souls and All Saints, and I recall with a rush of emotion a privileged encounter here in 2002 with Leonard Childs, the skilled and gentle leader of the cathedral’s internationally famous embroidery workshop.
I’d come to interview him for the magazine Derbyshire Life & Countryside. For the cathedral’s 75th anniversary, he had designed a set of eight copes and hoods based on the bright blue and yellow colours and chi-rho motif of the Richards windows, to augment the vestments commissioned to celebrate the cathedral’s golden jubilee in 1977.
Almost shyly, he opened the cupboard doors to reveal the rails of vestments, and took me through their stories. Here, depicted in embroidery, was heaven and hell, salvation and damnation: here was nothing less than a whole history of the Church. He let me handle the fabrics — even the Persian-silk cope worn at the hallowing of the cathedral. The Richards copes were a feast of hessian, sari silk, organza, and chiffon: a glimpse of glory.
The entire collection was lost in an arson attack in 2004; ten days later, Canon Childs died in his sleep. Lost treasure, both.
Threads of light
I GET a further reminder of the power of needlework on an unexpected diversion to the Peak District church of St Peter, Alstonefield. In mid-afternoon on a winter’s day, the interior is dark. But someone has thought to remove all the hassocks from the floor, and display the doves, lambs, ears of corn, and flowers of the hedgerow depicted on them as the works of art they are, on the angled tops of the pews. Genius.
WE HAVE our first choral evensong since 2019. Our rusty, lockdown voices are pretty much restored now, and the months of practising alone at home are fading into memory. We are like expats returning to our native land, raiding the attic to dig out the treasures that have been stored in our absence.
Our favourite Mag and Nunc were always going to be a treat, but who could have imagined our rapture at simply singing the responses? And, where some choirs are reported to be reduced after the long periods of enforced silence, ours has grown. We have the gift of a new young soprano and a tenor, and our cup of happiness is full.
Pat Ashworth is a journalist and playwright.