Glory of the garden
IN THE last week of May, I was recruited by a YouTuber, Geoff Marshall (railway vicars will know), to help him to conquer the Heart of Wales line. He was getting off at each of its 22 request-stop stations, waiting for the next train, getting on, and then getting off at the next stop — and so on.
Most of the request-stop stations are in the middle of nowhere — except Llangunllo, which is in Mrs Deakins’s garden. The adventure was to take four days.
Although I managed to finagle myself into one of the days’ filming (ostensibly to chat about choo-choos, but mostly to plug my new book), my main task was to drive around mid-Wales, meet Geoff at various stations, and supply him with sandwiches. This meant that I got to drive between lonely railway halts, along mountaintop roads, with the hawthorn hedges in the valleys the best anyone can remember, startling as snow in May.
It was a wonderful spectacle, and it seemed to me that we still live in the Garden, if only we could see it right. But then I am an old hippie.
GREAT YouTube channels beget imitators; and so it was that a fellow old hippie saw one of Geoff’s films, and asked me to do a voice-over for a video showing a drone flight from Leominster to Presteigne, following the course of the long-disused railway line. Afterwards, he told me that he wanted to make a film about the C of E, and that, since I was a vicar, I would be the guy to help.
He was disappointed to learn that I’m merely a communicant member of the C of E who owns up to it publicly (although admittedly I’m also on the PCC and the deanery synod — mostly to garner humorous column-inches, though so far without any luck).
He said, “But you’re something though, right? Like a verger, or a dean, or something? What was that thing you did a few years ago that you wrote about on Facebook?” “That was me being confirmed.” “And that’s not the same as being a vicar?”
After a fruitless hour trying to explain the difference between laypeople and clergy, a dean and an archdeacon, a bishop and a monk, I said: “As for the rest of it, you’re the same age as me. Don’t you even remember All Gas and Gaiters?”
He did not. And if you don’t, either, all the episodes now seem to be available on YouTube.
AFTER my pal left, I watched a couple of episodes. Robertson Hare as the sherry-bibbing Archdeacon had me in fits when I was eight, and I still found him funny 57 years later — though perhaps I shouldn’t.
He liked to put his gaiters up in company with the Bishop, and enjoy a few sherries and a nap in front of the telly, while Derek Nimmo’s ineffectual Bishop’s Chaplain, Noote, did all the actual work, which mostly consisted in thwarting the somewhat hard-line Dean of St Ogg’s, played by John Barron (best known as CJ in the original TV version of The Rise and Fall of Reginald Perrin).
I remember it well from my far-off, black-and-white childhood, though not as well as I remember Higham Ferrers Church, lit by candles for sung evensong, when — also aged eight — I was a choirboy in Technicolor ruff and cassock. We had a lovable rector who used to visit his parishioners on a Norton 750, an excellent choirmaster who took us seriously, and we all got a turn on the thurible.
These impressions ran together with All Gas . . . to form my early impressions of the Church: beautiful, intelligent, magical, kind, funny, work-shy, eccentric, occasionally tipsy, and, above all, concerned with the worship of Jesus Christ. I cling to this image still, despite everything.
Light my fire
A CHURCH near by held a series of talks in the weeks around Pentecost, and I was invited to take part. The series, “Ignite Me”, was organised by the churchwarden, who was concerned that no churches in the area were involved in mission.
“We need young people,” he said; and so 65-year-old I stood up and talked to some people, mostly of my age and older, about my “spiritual journey” from blissed-out stoner to someone trying to remain true to the Church that an eight-year-old imagined.
An important early part of this “journey” was reading Sea of Faith, and taking the opposite view from Don Cupitt’s. This may seem odd, but I’ve met a few people who decided to follow Christ after reading that book — more, in fact, than I’ve met Christian atheists. This is a useful example of why literary critics are not always interested in an author’s intention.
MY WIFE and I managed to get away for a few days at half-term (she has an actual job), and we went to stay in south Suffolk, mostly because of my belated discovery of Ronald Blythe.
We ticked off churches furiously, much as Geoff ticks off stations. A must-see (and there were lots) was Hadleigh, rich in history and historians. We were given a brilliant tour by a local expert, Jan Byrne, who told us something of the extraordinary story of the church and its surrounding architectural treasures.
It occurred to us that all churches should be so lucky in their local-history groups — and that perhaps a sense of the deep history of the church is as missional as old hippies rabbiting on.
Ian Marchant is an author and broadcaster, and the founder of Radio Free Radnorshire.