THE OTHER DAY, I opened up Upton Cressett to support the Shropshire Historic Churches Trust annual 'Ride and Stride' charity day. We are not normally open on Saturdays but after I received a bulky church participation pack - including stickers - in the post from the Reverend David Crowhurst, an executive trustee of the Shropshire Historic Churches Trust, who used to be the vicar in Oswestry, I felt summoned to action.
The idea is for cyclists and walkers to visit as many local churches as possible in the county - the more remote and little visited the better - between 10am and 6pm. Although Upton Cressett's fine Norman church of St Michael is maintained by the Church Conservation Trust (CCT), we mow the churchyard and generally keep an eye on the beautiful 12th century property where the BBC filmed an episode of The Old Curiosity Shop in the 1970s.
As I mentioned to the Rev Crowhurst over the phone, there are 'challenges' for any cyclist who decides to ascend the famed ancient Meadowley Bank that leads up to Upton Cressett. It is a one-in-four gradient hill that is used by the British Tour de France cycling professionals for 'trials' and practice for taking on the steepest parts of the French Alps. On a typical weekend in the summer we maybe get four cyclists or walkers, often those who are making a diversion from the famed Jack Mytton Way - less than a mile away - which attracts thousands of riders, walkers and cyclists each year.
SO FOR THIS 'Ride and Stride' charity day - a national institution across the country that has been going for over 25 years - I thought we should get at least a dozen or so sponsored hardy walkers or cyclists. The weather was fine. Fearing a stampede of thirsty participants, orange squash by the bucket was bought, cakes ordered and a notice was pinned to the ancient oak door of St Michael's Church saying that anybody who had made it to Upton Cressett was welcome to enjoy free refreshments in the Gatehouse dining room.
I put the notice up at 9.45am and returned to the house to put the kettle on, ready for the first batch of tea from the early morning riders or walkers. By noon, the teapot remained untouched and the orange squash unloved. Nobody arrived. By 2pm, still nobody had showed up to the Upton Cressett church.
It was only around 3pm, when the Rev David Crowhurst himself showed up with various maps around his neck - having walked not up the treacherous Meadowley Bank but emerging via a medieval public footpath from behind the house on the other side - that I had my first sponsored visitor. David politely declined the biscuits, cake and tea and asked for a glass of water. Tap water.
As David - a towering man with a love of classical music who was the much respected vicar for Oswestry St Oswald for twenty years - sat down to enjoy his glass of water, I asked him why he thought Upton Cressett was not getting more 'Ride and Stride' visits. Was it because today's softie cyclists were put off biking up - or pushing up - the punishing Meadowley Bank, a hill that makes the famous 1930s Grossglockner High Alpine Road in Austria, which was used for motor-racing hillclimbs, suddenly seem like an amble through Hampstead Heath?
OR WAS IT that people simply weren't interested anymore in spending their weekend mornings putting on their bicycle clips and biking around old churches - as they were in the days when John Betjeman was 'Summoned by Bells'.
His 1960 poetry collection describes how, as a boy at the Dragon prep school in Oxford, he became intoxicated by an addiction to visiting churches. For the rest of his life, he could rarely resist the allure of local ecclesiastical architecture, often intertwined with the thrill of a bicycle ride. For Betjeman, bicycling was not just an architectural adventure but also caught up in a middle-class sexual fantasy, perhaps most famously in Myfanwy:
Smooth down the Avenue glitters the bicycle,
Black-stockinged legs under navy blue serge,
Home and Colonial, Star, International,
Balancing bicycle leant on the verge.
Trace me your wheel-tracks, you fortunate bicycle,
Out of the shopping and into the dark,
Back down the avenue, back to the pottingshed,
Back to the house on the fringe of the park.
David remained the only visitor to the Upton Cressett church all day. His view was that faced with a choice of climbing a local Everest to get a free glass of orange squash, or biking along a less punitive route to visit more churches, the latter held more appeal. But what about the adventurous biking spirit? The sense of bicycling into the unknown?
The truth is that most people today are not up for an ecclesiastical country adventure, especially if the reward is only a custard cream washed down with barley water. Most people would probably rather sit at home and watch the Rugby World Cup in the morning, or pop down to the local market town to buy a cheese and leak ready-pie from their local butcher to heat up in the microwave while watching Strictly Come Dancing at 6pm.
THE LACK OF 'Ride and Stride' interest in our little but beautiful church of Upton Cressett - which is not consecrated and has no active services partly due to the tiny size of our local parish - raises the question of what is the purpose of such rural churches today?
The Anglican Church has every reason to be worried about this endemic of ecclesiastical apathy. Indeed that is perhaps one reason why the Anglican Church last week announced the novel idea that its many underused churches - especially rural churches - are joining forces with local Citizens’ Advice Bureau (CAB) to make it easier for people to access its community advice services.
This partnership between the CAB and the Church is aimed to provide 'face to face' advice in the local community, cutting down on the significant distances users may have to travel. The arrangement would be a sort of civic confessional with an emphasis on easier CAB access for those living in remote communities. To this end, the Citizens’ Advice has produced a pamphlet called 'Faithful Advice' - a guide for places of worships in setting up advice sessions in their buildings.
The body - whose urban premises are often graffiti scrawled doors down alleyways in inner cities - says that, with public sector cuts, churches have a 'vital role' to play in offering suitable premises for advice sessions. Certainly it is true that churches have long ceased to play a purely religious role in the local community. Many churches, for example, also play host to meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, or other similar self-help and self-support group community meetings, with much success.
The Rt Rev John Gladwin, former Bishop of Chelmsford and chair of Citizens’ Advice Bureau, has gone on record to say: 'In an era when the demand for advice services is increasing and locations such as libraries are facing closure, advice agencies must find cost effective ways of ensuring people can get the face to face advice they need.’
Pilot schemes have already been tried out across the country, in turns out. At Spilsby Church in Lincolnshire, funding has been secured to enable the church to be fitted out with new toilets and 'interview rooms' and the upstairs of the church has been converted into a ‘Bunk Barn’ offering basic accommodation to tourists as part of the project, which also involved partnering with the Church of England and Age UK.
THIS ALL SOUNDS very laudable but, on close reflection, I am not sure that the point of a church is to be a place to drop by to go to the lavatory, or a place to 'bunk' down for the night. There are no loos, no heating, and not even any electricity in the 12th century church of St Michael at Upton Cressett. The church is empty most of the time but every time I step inside its timelessness reminds me of the sacred moment of time and history captured by TS Eliot in his last of the Four Quartets, Little Gidding.
The other day - while attending the public inquiry in Huntingdon for the wind farm proposal at Kimbolton Castle - I visited Little Gidding in Huntingdonshire, a tiny old historic church - not unlike Upton Cressett - that has been described as 'difficult to find but unforgettable when found'. The last time I had been there on a cold spring evening in the late 1980s, I recall, when I was revising for my English finals at Cambridge (TS Eliot had been an honorary fellow of my college, Magdalene, where part of the manuscripts of the Four Quartets were housed) and was suddenly moved to drive and visit the chapel (about 45 minutes from Cambridge) in which Eliot sets the conclusion of his final meditation on Englishness, landscape, renewal, faith, history and rebirth.
Little Gidding is reached at the end of a tiny cul de sac. It is a secluded place whose own history has borne witness to turbulent times over the last thousand years. King Charles I visited in 1642, and sought refuge there in 1646 during the dark days of the Civil War; Eliot visited in 1936 and reflected upon the Church and its history in Little Gidding.
The 'Four Quartets' reflects on the importance of time and the intersections of 'timeless moments'. Eliot experienced such a moment at Little Gidding on that spring afternoon in 1936 and wrote the final part of his final work shortly after the visit. After it appeared in 1942, he published no more poetry. He died in 1965.
Often, when I step inside the completely silent and empty church of Upton Cressett, I think of Eliot's lines from the end of Little Gidding:
A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter's afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.
That is what I would like to see on a plaque engraved in local slate by the medieval door of Upton Cressett's church. Not a Citizens’ Advice Bureau sign welcoming visitors to use the new lavatories, the new 'interview rooms' and a sign indicating where they can climb up inside the bell tower and spend the night in a CAB-funded Ikea bunk bed.
On second thoughts, perhaps it's for the best that nobody showed up on 'Ride and Stride' day. One thing is thankfully certain: the money raised would never fund the new toilet or hotel facilities.
A LAST POINT and another regrettable aspect that the historic, tiny and remote rural churches of Upton Cressett and Little Gidding have in common. Unfortunately, developers wish to erect Goliath-like industrial wind turbines within close proximity to both historic landscapes. Close to Little Gidding, Energy giant Npower-renewables, part of RWE Group, is proposing to construct eight giant wind turbines, up to 126m (416ft high) – among the largest in the UK - at Bythorn and Molesworth on the Cambridgeshire North Wolds.
At the hamlet of Upton Cressett, Sustainable Bridgnorth and Sharenergy - working with Welsh power giant Natural Power - are proposing a wind farm development less than a mile away on the Jack Mytton Way at Meadowley.
Worse still, the developers claim they represent the 'local community'. I was dismayed to read a letter published in the New Statesman magazine this week - following my cover article ('A very English revolution') - from Bob Ensum, head of Sustainable Bridgnorth, who arrogantly and disingenuously claimed that 'the developer is the local community'. If Ensum dares to show up at Morville Village Hall at 7.30pm on Wednesday 28 September, we will see that the local community begs to differ.