A cold coming

We arose to snow: a great creaking carpet laid over yesterday’s green and grey streetscape. So, unknown neighbours are out, working to the bark and spark of spade on driveway, rallying like a curling team to assist the antic, skimming motorists. A man I have never met before (or since) grins over the gate: ‘hilarious isn’t it? The snow gives us that sense of belonging together’, ‘…which we crave’, he adds, before trudging up the hill. It’s the ‘which we crave’ that stays with me – he probably knows I’m the vicar, but it was quite far to go, for a momentary exchange. Extreme conditions build neighbourhood, little doubt about that. We behave differently when deluged: familiar territory is transfigured, new routes are taken: the myth of independence thawing instantly. Different place: different rules.

According to American sociologist Erving Goffman, prevailing norms of local behaviour tend to be suspended at times of ‘crisis’ and ‘festival’. Parish priests, it strikes me, spend a fair proportion of their time inhabiting these contrasting states – explaining, perhaps, the curious permission we retain to act in public as if it was always snowing. That, in one sense, is the vocation of the local church: to live as if, in Christ, normal service has been permanently suspended. The old has gone: the new has come.

It being Advent, this symbolic blizzard – unifying crisis and festival – will be in the air whether or not the real stuff melts by morning. December deals in belonging, after all: shovels it on in deep, muffling drifts. We become attuned to our displacement with every keening carol, each cultural sign directing us homeward. Snow on snow. And though a cold coming for so many, the path to Christmas is the right one for rearranging our ideas of society. Here along the Surrey Hills – ‘the place where London ends and England can begin’ in G.K.Chesterton’s somewhat miscarried phrase – we have, for several years, engaged in a kind of festive psychogeography called the Oxted Adventure. Every night in Advent, for an hour in the evening, one small space (a garage, perhaps, or porch) opens its doors like a calendar to a gathering of locals. On some nights there is live music, or a seasonal story; on most, the familiar, indigestive blend of warm wine and mincemeat. The Adventure aims to be a journey home by another route, a parish map in the making. This year the North Downs are appealingly portrayed in Tolkienesque style: Middle England as Middle Earth.

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It’s the opening night, but I’m delayed in another small space: a recess in the wall of the boiler house behind Morrison’s supermarket. Here abides Simon – a man become, in the psalmist’s words, a monster unto many. A kind of local portent or parable, Simon made and lost a fortune developing the sizeable homes that decorate the A25, just yards away. Beside an acrid barbecue, attended by Magi firefighters, he now raves in the car park, para oikos.

‘You do not believe, because you do not belong to my flock’, Jesus chides the Pharisees, inverting the usual criteria for religious community. Believing in belonging is an attractive idea, perpetually frustrated by our desire that the world should belong to us (for ‘belongings’), rather than to the Lord, thereby finding our place as the people of his pasture. However, if creation is defined, not by an almighty accumulation, but a kind of divine allowance, stepping back to make space for another, then let it snow, let it snow.

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Small void

‘Men go out into the void spaces for various reasons’, began Sir Ernest Shackleton’s memoirs, which I picked up last week. ‘Some are incited by a love of adventure, some have a keen thirst for scientific knowledge and others are drawn away from the trodden paths by the mysterious fascination of the unknown’, he continues. Still others take the chance because it’s Half Term, so we settled for a few days under the vast skies of the Isle of Arran, at a softly rotting farmhouse in Blackwaterfoot.

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I was last there the week Elvis died, our asthmatic Austin Maxi overheating all the way and me stuffed between the suitcases in the boot. Punk’s zenith had somehow reached the Western Isles and I recall the front page of the local paper, The Arran Banner, fulminating at a brick having been thrown though the windows of their office, wrapped in a note complaining at the lack of punk coverage in their editorial. I found this hilarious then – still do – so I was glad to find the Banner resolutely upholding its musical embargo nearly forty years on.

Capsule-shaped, like a human head, Arran appeals by easily accommodating to the imagination. Covering an area roughly that of South London, but with only two principal roads – one a coastal circuit, the other a bisection of its highland and lowland halves – the island is small enough to know intimately, yet large and untamed enough to remain obscure. In the seventies, bikers from the mainland would set up semi-permanent camps on the beaches: our taxi driver to Glasgow was one of them, newly landed from thirty years on the rigs and yearning to be stranded on Arran again, with a just a tent and the scent of two-stroke.

While there, I read The Leaping Hare, George Ewart Evans and David Thomson’s fluentfullsizerender profile of a creature that, more than any other on the British scene, symbolises our need for a kind of domestic mystery, at once familiar and utterly remote. I didn’t spot any hares, though the lairds of Brodick Castle, their hallway a thicket of antlers, appear to have made a decent fist of de-wilding the island: some ninety stags’ heads are jammed onto the walls (or through them – I didn’t check the other side), in an overplayed charade of nature’s conquest. If these monarchs were never secure, happily the red squirrel still reigns on Arran and we were briefly ecstatic to see one scratch up a nearby tree, its fur an ersatz auburn, like Jeff Beck’s barnet.

Staring at the sea’s silver jubilee, we nearly missed the ferry for our departure. With seconds to spare, our party trundled up the gangplank in a steam of apologies, as the moorings untied, leaving behind a small void.

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Who’s afraid of parochialism?

The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, in his 1967 essay The Parish and the Universe, makes the provocative claim that ‘All great civilisations are based on parochialism – Greek, Israelite, English.’ Continuing, ‘it requires a great deal of courage to be parochial’, Kavanagh’s point is that parochialism involves recognition of and pride in, the authenticity of local experience, which requires no constant comparison with, or recourse to neighbouring forms of expression. As such, he writes:

Parochialism and provincialism are [direct] opposites. The provincial has no mind of his own; he does not trust what his eyes see until he has heard what the metropolis – towards which his eyes are turned – has to say on any subject … The parochial mentality, on the other hand is never in any doubt about the social and artistic validity of his parish.

While he is writing primarily about creative expression, Kavanagh’s conclusion that ‘parochialism is universal: it deals with fundamentals’ is a valuable insight into the shifting nature of English national identity, whose catholicity or ‘universal’ definition has, it is being argued, directly derived from a sense of local self-possession. The unavoidable problem for the Church of England, though, is that the seeds of its legitimacy are set in the historic core of political power: the resulting sense of ‘entitlement’ make the parish in its Anglican form deeply ambivalent for many and noxious to some. In the current situation, the account of England as a ‘Christian Nation’, as one narrative among many, remains highly contested – not least because, to borrow the late Doreen Massey’s phrase about space in general, ‘its symbolism is endlessly mobilized in political argument’. Similarly, in the topical question of whether England is a nation at all, such descriptions tend to be heavily freighted by those intending to re-create a sense of ‘Englishness’ in the wake of a resurgent nationalism across the British Isles.

Like all political positions, this one has besetting strengths and weaknesses: the latter always being various shades of nostalgic xenophobia – and, under certain conditions, their more chilling progeny. Its contrasting strengths, however, are communal cohesion and the resulting confidence to engage openly with those beyond our borders. Whenever received wisdom insists on the contrary – that social conservatism and attachment to territory are necessarily a symptom of something sinister – then extremism and insularity become self-fulfilling prophecies, being the only lens people are offered to view these allegiances through. England, owing to her imperious role in the formation and governance of the United Kingdom, is chronically prone to this condition – unlike the Scots, for example, whose commitment both to ‘Little Scotland’ and radical social inclusion is something the English can only watch with envy and (following the European Referendum) a heavy measure of despair.

Given this weighting, localised terms such as ‘parish’ inevitably list towards the past rather than the future, frustrating a balanced view in the present of their value and validity. Therefore, it is vital to recognise that neither parish nor nation are subject to any one geographical narrative, but are – and have been – constantly reconceived, according to the times. It is a commonplace that evocations of Christian society are returned to in times of crisis or national instability, but the fact that they are extremely ancient does not mean they are incapable of renewal. To take one articulation of this, Rowan Williams has written that, by asserting the public and political nature of religious affiliation, the ‘vestiges of a confessional polity’ retained by the state place the Church of England in a unique position to form local society in ways that provide far more than ‘a cheap pool of labour for projects of social integration’. Indeed, as the surviving embodiment of ‘local settlement’, the parish (both civil and ecclesiastical) remains an agent of the kind of social cohesion unavailable at the national level. As Patrick Kavanagh further reflects:

 It is not by the so-called national dailies that people who emigrate keep in touch with their roots … So it is for these reasons that I return to the local newspaper. Who has died? Who has sold his farm?

This comes strikingly close to what Ben Quash calls the ‘polity of presence’ at the heart of the Church of England’s national vocation. In his essay of the same name, Quash notes the marked contrast between the presentation of Anglicanism in the national and local newspapers:

In the local press, the Church’s role in community life – providing care, taking responsibility, focusing local activities, and all the rest of it – is described and acknowledged. In this context there is nothing odd about the place of the church.

Parochialism is the boon and bane of English politics. Yet, despite its significant drawbacks – wistful exceptionalism and reactionary jingoism not least among them – the ‘England-ness’ of the parish must be reckoned with if the Anglican vocation is to be fully understood. At heart, it expresses a vision for common life that is an integral strand in the complex weave of contemporary English identity: one that, in Julia Stapleton’s words:

defies categorization in simple cultural or civic terms, one that is not lightly dismissed as an inferior or deformed expression of nationhood, or as the thin end of the ‘ethnic’ nationalist wedge.

If, as Krishnan Kumar notes in the same collection of essays, it is more accurate to speak, not of English nationalism, but of an English national tradition, the parish has not only had the ‘hallowing’ effect on territory described above, but made national tradition inseparable from local description – has made England, as well as the Church, parochial. This has meant, not only that national life was imbued from the outset with a localised form of secular Christianity, but also ensured that Anglican ecclesiology has an inescapable secularity to it. Whilst this doubtless contributed towards the separation of Christian social ethics from their source in God, and thus the growing secularisation of English society, it has also enabled a form of what Simone Weil described as:

that mutual penetration of the religious and the profane which would be the essence of a Christian civilisation.

There is, in conclusion, an unavoidable perichoresis to the terms ‘nation’ and ‘parish’, which has existed from the earliest foundations of English society. Largely because of this, the parish embodies a similar mutual indwelling of ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ that has long endowed English life with a highly localised form of civil Christianity: even if, for many, this remains only as a trace element of cultural identity. One cannot sound the word ‘parish’ without both sacred and secular resonance, which gives unambiguous credence to the ‘of England’ definition of the national church. Indeed, the Church’s view of England is unavoidably an imagined projection or extrapolation of its parochiality – and if the national church falters it is usually when presuming a kind of strategic independence of the localities in which it still makes a peculiar kind of sense.

This symbiosis with place represents more than the outworn husk of religious hegemony (although it may be that, too): it reveals an ecclesiology that cannot conceive of a church without its corresponding neighbourhood. The unity of sacred and secular in the Anglican mind was never only political expediency – it was, at origin, a conscious synthesizing of the Protestant conception of ‘two kingdoms’, by which Richard Hooker, the architect of the Anglican settlement, could write of church and commonwealth as being ‘personally one societie’ – a perspective that underwrites the curious compound of parochial Christianity with far greater potency than the accidents of history might suggest. Whilst, from the world’s viewpoint, the Church of England’s institutional influence has long been shrinking like a balloon, this slow puncture has not, by contrast, shrunk the Church’s own view of its worldly reach and responsibility. National allegiance to the Church may be in free-fall, but the Church’s allegiance to the nation remains as lofty as ever. In this, the Church is not so much clinging to the myth of its own significance as to that of the places it exists to serve.

From the forthcoming book Parish: an Anglican Theology of Place

(SCM Press, 2017)

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White’s Ecology

‘Always include the local nature in the membership of the local community’ Wendell Berry

By any reckoning, Reverend Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne – staggeringly, the fourth most published book in the English language – is an unlikely success story. Essentially a journal of the fauna and flora found in one eighteenth-century Hampshire parish, its littleness is undoutedly the clue to its appeal. Unlike many clergy today, preoccupied with global dynamics well beyond their influence, White’s principal pastoral concern appears to have been the varying movements of toads across his rectory garden. Such micro-level attention – and his role as unwitting pioneer of a progressive view of nature that viewed the welfare of human and non-human culture as inseparably related – means that White emerges today as something of a local hero.

Scan 48In a fascinating introduction to White’s Natural History, Richard Mabey considers that ‘parish’ is the crucial idea behind White’s unparalleled description of local ecology:

‘Parish’ is a very laden concept. It has to do not just with geography and ecclesiastical administration, but with history and a system of loyalties. For most of us, it is the indefinable territory to which we feel we belong, which we have the measure of. Its boundaries are more the limits of our intimate allegiances than lines on a map. These allegiances have always embraced wild life as well as human…

Mabey coins the term ‘parochial ecology’ to capture White’s settled attention to Selborne – ‘the landscape of the pastoral dream made flesh’, but there is no ‘illusory’ nostalgia to this affirmation: for Mabey, it became a guiding theme for his pioneering environmental work, as expressed in, for example, Common Ground (1980) and Second Nature (1984). As he writes in the former: ‘The idea of parish … must underlie … a conservation policy which takes any account of human feelings.’

Highlighting another priest-naturalist, John Stevens Henslow, Rector of Hincham in Suffolk, Mabey argues that, for the man who taught Charles Darwin and encouraged his voyage on The Beagle: ‘Yet it was in his parish that his most important work was done … he was not just Hincham’s rector but its curator.’

Leaving aside the enviable freedom of the single-parish incumbent in this era to attend to broader interests, the essence of Mabey’s tribute to Henslow is profoundly significant. It is not his concern to explore the theological implications of being the ‘curator’ of a locality, nevertheless the resonances with the pastoral ‘cure’ under English law, still retained by the parish priest, are plain – and it may be contended with some force that truly parochial ministry is pastoral on both counts – formed by an ecology of care for a particular place, its people and their relation to the land.

One of the riches of the parochial tradition is thus what Oliver O’Donovan describes as the ‘reciprocal relation between nature and culture … mediating a possibility for human life in community’. By virtue of its territorial stability, the parish is uniquely placed to offer such mediation: a fact that has long been recognised in the pioneering work of Common Ground, the environmental charity that Richard Mabey founded in 1982 with Sue Clifford and Angela King. This saw particular expression in the Parish Maps project, which, for ten years from 1986, encouraged local neighbourhoods to depict in imaginative ways the territory to which they especially identified. Accepting the ways in which this scheme was ‘tugged away from the city’ by the inescapably rural overtones of the term ‘parish’, Crouch and Matless (1996) observed how it:

connects settlement and surrounding land … to a long English cultural tradition of presenting place, especially rural place, in reverential, ritual, sacred terms.

Whilst the imaginative affiliation of ‘landscape’ with rural, rather than urban topography became a conditioning factor on what was produced (and by whom), Common Ground chose the parochial concept, because, as Sue Clifford plainly acknowledges: ‘The ecclesiastical parish has been the measure of English landscape since Anglo-Saxon times.’ ‘Parish’, Clifford argued, offered what no other English term could: an equivalent to the German heimat – a way of describing ‘the intersection of culture and nature’ and ‘deeply felt ties of familiarity, identification and belonging’.

Digging more deeply into the affective connotations of ‘landscape’, however, the charity also offered ‘parish’ as their definition of English particularity expressly because of its rich notes of personal association and attachment – the ‘place of responses’ as Mabey has it. Parish thus becomes an imaginative bridge between ‘real’ space-time community and the less tangible, psychological responses that seek out a place of personal settlement and wellbeing. In Second Nature (1982) Fraser Harrison writes:

At least it can be said that we are saner, more contented people when we have … close familiarity with a small, parish-sized patch of countryside in which we can plant our experience.

The ‘belonging’ resonances of the term are hard to underestimate – and are a theme which the nature writer Roger Deakin picks up, with reference to John Donne’s poem ‘the Good Morrow’:

 A parish accommodates to the imagination because it is framed or contained … by ancient boundaries, natural and supernatural.

In a further assessment of Gilbert White’s parochial ecology, David Elliston Allen, in his landmark History of the Naturalist in Britain, described Selborne as ‘that secret, private parish inside each one of us’. Notwithstanding its need for cultural deconstruction (the ‘each one of us’ in Allen’s statement presumably being only those to whom the word parish carries such emotional significance), the idea of the parish as a secret place of belonging is deeply suggestive. Because, in the English context, notions of belonging are so tethered to a idealized conception of the land – ‘nowhere else is landscape so freighted as legacy’ observes David Lowenthal – such an account must resurface the route between nostalgia, utopia and a genuinely hopeful eschatology, so that parochialism is prevented from becoming, on the one hand, a hopeless quest for unattainable place or, on the other, a stagnant cipher for lost homeland.

The danger – heightened in the current climate – is that debate about place becomes unhelpfully bipolar, such that attachment to territory falls victim to easy caricature as reactionary, exclusive and politically right-wing, whilst liberal geographical discourse can appear detached and curiously placeless. The response must not be to dispense with the territorial principle for being locked into anachronistic perceptions of landscape, but to find the means whereby heritage – and the rediscovery of local ecology – becomes a key to unlock, not barricade, the future. To reverse the old hippie dictum, thinking locally but acting globally may be the best place to begin.

 

 

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Good Fences

“Good fences make good neighbours”. Robert Frost’s early poem Mending Wall, uses this gruff refrain from the old man next door to explore the paradox that boundaries are necessary in order for people to live together. “Before I built a wall”, Frost reflects, “ I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out”.

Despite the creosoted slats and fat batches of privet viewed through my window, physical boundaries give concrete form to a less visible social contract. Though shaped by landscape, gated and punctuated by signs, lines and barriers, a community begins, essentially, as an idea: its border a meniscus formed by the surface tension of people pulling together.

When these are imposed from outside– witness the crude, imperial carve-up of Africa in the 1880s or Europe after the Great War – they tend to end in communal dismemberment. Enduring community is internally conceived and exists as the product of a shared imagination, as the Marxist writer Benedict Anderson observed, in Imagined Communities, his seminal work on nationalism. Nations, he writes, are “conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship”, the limits of which are fixed in relation to one’s neighbours.

Boundaries are thus concerned with belonging – the consequence of what St Augustine called “the common objects of love”, notwithstanding the fact that, when people love in common, the objects of their shared fear and hatred are never far away. So then, to play borders down is not to belong: to love everywhere equally is to love nowhere very much.

Contemporary human geography tends to encourage the view that heavily drawn national and local boundaries are, at best, socially restrictive and, at worst, geographically redundant. In For Space, her apologia for a more ‘open’, dynamic conception of locality, the influential British Geographer Doreen Massey contends that, in the Modern era, space was seen as an essentially static commodity, ripe for conquest and containment. This, she argues, was profoundly flawed, geographically, as space, being a social product, always evades capture by its very fluidity. Her plea for a more ‘messy’ understanding of space and place is at its most winning in its desire that they should enable the ‘thrown togetherness’ that ‘may set us down next to the unexpected neighbour’. Against the rigid mapping of human territory, she writes: “On the road map you won’t drive off the edge of your known world. In space as I want to imagine it, you just might”.

But the vital counterpoint is that boundaries enable one to do just that – by delineating and describing the ‘known world’. Indeed, there is arguably no such thing as a ‘known world’ without a boundary, personal knowledge always being limited. Boundaries are thus a necessary part of human physicality: communities require them as bodies require skin. They exist in order to enable social inclusion, not frustrate it. For the sake of a clear and pleasant worldview, there is a temptation to remove them from sight: to make each one a kind of cultural ha-ha, giving the illusion of free passage until you realize the ground has disappeared underneath you.

As with neighbourhood, so with the nation. Alasdair MacIntyre (1984) has disputed the liberal idea that to act morally, ‘is to learn to free oneself from social particularity’ – to be, effectively, ‘citizens of everywhere’. On the contrary, he argues:

‘Where’ and ‘from whom’ I learn my morality turn out to be crucial for the context and nature of moral commitment, as any form of morality will be intimately connected with specific institutional arrangements.

Loyalty to a particular community, he continues, is ‘a prerequisite for morality’, concluding: ‘deprived of this community I am unlikely to flourish as a moral agent.’ In Mending Wall, Robert Frost questions the wisdom in bricking up a boundary where none seems to be needed – especially when there is so much that ‘wants it down’. As for his neighbour, he reflects:

He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

Nevertheless, the shared task of reconstructing the wall – dismissed at first as “just another outdoor game: one on a side” – becomes both the occasion and the fulcrum of his relationship to the old man next door. The pressing contemporary challenge is thus not how to dismantle borders, but reconfigure them so that both ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ relationships are enabled in morally and socially positive ways.

Fundamentally, this requires starting, not at a community’s limits but at its centre, for boundaries are merely the extension of our core vision and purpose. If your society’s borders have gone haywire, something is badly wrong at the centre. When, however, the ‘soul’ of a community or nation is secure, the borders can afford to be less so, paradoxically, because – to employ the familiar trope of neighbourhood – this is the kind of place where you can leave your door open. May it become so here.

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Crow in the beanfield

Friday’s referendum result marks a seismic shift towards localism and nationalism (essentially two scales of the same thing) in reaction to deeply unsettling global currents. Despite the feeling that we have willingly sliced off one of our limbs, this isn’t unfamiliar territory, especially for an island nation that, throughout my lifetime, has been ambivalent at best about fully connecting to Europe.

Like all political positions, this one has besetting strengths and weaknesses: the latter always being various shades of nostalgic xenophobia – and, under certain conditions, their more chilling progeny. Its contrasting strengths, however, are communal cohesion and – believe it or not – the resulting confidence to engage openly with those beyond our borders. To play down boundaries is to not belong anywhere in particular: which is why internationalism, by denying cultural identity, is equally prone to fostering bigotry. Good fences make good neighbours, as Robert Frost’s poem Mending Wall goes.

It is both inaccurate and deeply pessimistic to claim the unhealthy side of this stance as the sole cause and inevitable consequence of yesterday’s result. And if liberal opinion insists that social conservatism and attachment to territory are necessarily a symptom of something sinister, then extremism and insularity become self-fulfilling prophecies – being the only lens people are offered to view these allegiances through.

The problem for English media and politics – and the downfall of this mess of a campaign – has been that hardly anyone from the left dares to engage with the positive side of national feeling. Clearly, this isn’t the case for Scots, whose commitment both to ‘Little Scotland’ and radical social inclusion is something the English can only watch with envy and, after Friday, a heavy measure of despair.

Farage is just a crow in the beanfield: for all he caws, the land isn’t his. To scare away that kind of mutant patriotism, we must understand and affirm what is beneficial in national and communitarian sentiment. Grievous though it feels, Europe as we have known it, and probably the United Kingdom, will likely disintegrate before finding a new integrity. We now have to reconceive what ‘good fences’ look like: installing in our walls broad gates for our neighbours, who are still – as they always were – welcome.

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Gleba

May dawns should be treasured, according to Ronald Blythe. Determined not to fritter mine this year, I spent several in the glebe field adjoining this parish. By wet nettles and mole-earth, scouting for cows and seeing if the Eden Brook was deep enough to swim. On one early run, during a cloudburst, it was – so I launched into a careening ride down the brown rapids, slamming into the scrub, then dashing back for another go. Centerparcs with brambles, this was perfect, primal and, squelching like a sponge into the kitchen afterwards, a little hard to explain.

From the Anglo-Saxon gleba, meaning ‘soil’, glebe fields are one of the most striking relics of the ancient landscape: green islands now impossibly old, with their roots in the early medieval field economy. Glebe was intended for subsistence of the parson, who was expected to cultivate it himself. Eventually incorporated into the jumble of rights or ‘rectory’ that supported the local priest, glebe earthed the English parish in an inseparable bond between soul and soil.

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These lands, like the green belt they often border, have again become totemic: potent symbols of local entrenchment against additional housing. Here, where the North Downs act as a kind of defensive earthwork against urban advance, this is acutely felt, and finds Anglicans involved still in the negotiation of territory. There is a sad fragility to these fields now: every few years, fresh fears of sell-off galvanise another local campaign. But how to protect ancient land as if we were at the dawn, not the dusk of something?

Before breakfast in May, as the M25’s rising noise vies with the chorusing birds, this plot, at least, keeps its promise. Pocked and blotched with cattle, greener than Eden: a rural surprise behind the suburban trampolines.

 

 

 

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