The Par­son and the Publi­can One is the rec­tor of five ru­ral parishes in the beau­ti­ful Wye Val­ley, the other a re­tired innkeeper who once kept a 16th-cen­tury hostelry of con­sid­er­able re­pute. To­gether they en­joy jolly jaunts around the coun­try­side. This is

This England - - Forget Me Not - IAN CHARLESWORTH and RICHARD STOCK­TON

It is as eru­dite a con­ver­sa­tion as you could ever hope to over­hear in a cafe in Hay. For rea­sons that es­cape me now the OLV (Old Li­censed Vict­ualler) is spout­ing po­etry. Or rather he is rat­tling off half-re­mem­bered lines of po­ems once learnt at his mother’s knee or un­der duress and the threat of a can­ing.

Ac­tu­ally, un­der the waist­coat-wrapped chest beats, er­rat­i­cally at times, a re­mark­ably po­etic heart. Any num­ber of things en­coun­tered along the way will move him to rap­tures but above all a drop of the well-turned essence of sun­light fil­ter­ing through the leaves of an ap­ple tree on a sum­mer’s day that paints the pen­du­lous fruit a rosy hue served cool in a large glass will bring him to the very thresh­old of heaven.

To­day we are in search of a lit­tle bit of heaven on our own doorstep and the cur­rent con­ver­sa­tion takes place over cof­fee en route to St. Mar­garet’s. Our cheery bar­rista who knows of our ten­dency to wan­der asks wither we wend. “St. Mar­garet’s!” say we. “But where is that?” She asks again. “St. Mar­garet’s!” we re­ply, for the place and the church share the same name. This witty bad­i­nage could last an age but

we must away to the hills.

I re­mem­ber the first time I vis­ited St. Mar­garet’s. It was a sunny, Sun­day af­ter­noon in high sum­mer and I had been in­vited to preach at the Flower Fes­ti­val ser­vice.

“Turn right off the main road, up the hill and first left,” were the di­rec­tions breezily given over the tele­phone. Now whilst these were in every way ac­cu­rate di­rec­tions, sim­ple to fol­low and easy to re­mem­ber, they left out a few sim­ple facts: mileage. Be­tween the main road and the first turn on the left lay at least two good coun­try miles of leafy lane whilst hav­ing turned left the lane nar­rows and twists for sev­eral more miles from the sign that prom­ises St. Mar­garet’s be­fore it re­mem­bers to de­liver any­thing in the way of ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal build­ings.

As land will an­nounce its nearer prox­im­ity to the sea­farer by the in­creas­ing pres­ence of seabirds, so St. Mar­garet’s makes known its im­mi­nent ap­pear­ance, had we but wit and wis­dom enough to read the signs. As we brush away through the ver­dant verges so we have to slow down and make al­lowances for a sur­pris­ing num­ber of pedes­tri­ans: har­bin­gers of a re­treat we dis­cover.

I am some­what dis­com­bob­u­lated hav­ing tra­versed moor and moun­tain to reach this re­mote fast­ness to dis­cover the small car park full and peo­ple form­ing or­na­ments in a land­scape. They are clearly not dressed for a fu­neral which is usu­ally the only rea­son a coun­try church would be “do­ing” re­li­gion on a week­day. The OLV is dis­patched to as­cer­tain the mean­ing of this mys­tery and soon re­turns with the news that we are wel­come to have a look around. We have hap­pened upon a

Quiet Day. A goodly num­ber of peo­ple have turned up to draw in­spi­ra­tion, seek so­lace, find quiet and con­tem­plate in this won­der­fully spir­i­tual land­scape.

As we en­ter the porch we dis­cover the ever wel­com­ing in­cum­bent in sole pos­ses­sion and with a few mo­ments be­fore the throng re­assem­ble for a short ser­vice. He in­vites us to en­joy his demesne at our leisure.

St. Mar­garet’s is small and sim­ple and save for a few painted texts ex­hort­ing the faith­ful there is only one star of the show, as it were, and that is the won­der­ful sil­very oak screen that sep­a­rates nave and chan­cel.

This screen is ex­quis­ite and in a re­mark­able state of preser­va­tion. The loft is in­tact and we are in­vited to as­cend through the door in the chan­cel to view. Tempt­ing though this is, the OLV is quite hard of see­ing in dark se­questered spa­ces and I fear that sev­eral hun­dred years of stren­u­ous preser­va­tion may be un­done in the twin­kling of an eye should I set foot upon the higher plane, so we de­cline.

The un­der­croft of the rood loft is dec­o­rated with a lovely range of bosses, many of them de­pict­ing faces peeping out from var­i­ous types of fo­liage: Green Men aplenty here although they seem more imp­ish than the rather threat­en­ing Green Men found else­where. Ev­ery­where else is cov­ered, adorned or en­hanced by del­i­cate trac­ery. Fo­li­ate band­ing tops and tails each layer of this con­fec­tion. In be­tween are vines laden with grapes and oak leaves with acorns, stretch­ing in layer upon layer of fine carv­ing across the width of the church.

The riot of dec­o­ra­tion even ex­tends to the two pil­lars that frame the cen­tral arch at the outer edge of the loft. Here two niches mourn the loss of their saints with del­i­cate trac­eried canopies wor­thy of a bishop’s chantry chapel in minia­ture. The plinths that await the im­print of a sa­cred toe are crowned with more oaken pip­ing which then de­scends to the ground. It is a mir­a­cle of preser­va­tion. The only depre­da­tions that time has wrought seem to be the ab­sence of the rood it­self with its sup­port­ing cast of char­ac­ters, the two saints and no doubt a riot of early Tu­dor colour. The lat­ter is no real loss. In­ter­est­ing as it would be to see it in its orig­i­nal glory there is some­thing par­tic­u­larly ap­peal­ing about its gen­tle colour that suits its set­ting amidst the wild­flow­ers that fill the church­yard in such pro­fu­sion.

It is as we ad­mire these that our thoughts turn to the other ex­pert car­pen­try job that this church boasts. This is the bell tower. For some rea­son the wooden cham­ber that holds the bells atop the west­ern end of the roof is some 18 inches wider on the west­ern side than the sup­port­ing ma­sonry: some­thing of an over-hanger. We con­coct a num­ber of seem­ingly fan­tas­tic rea­sons as we am­ble gen­tly through the lanes in pur­suit of some sus­te­nance.

“Do you think,” says I to my Par­sonic Pal, “that’s a privy?” “Per­haps it still is,” he replies ab­sent-mind­edly for his at­ten­tion is taken with the menu list­ing the inn’s daily run­ners.

I look at our am­ple frames and then the di­men­sions of the lit­tle door.

“I sin­cerely hope not,” I mum­ble, “my plumb­ing isn’t what it was and what with the sound of run­ning wa­ter I would hate to cut a dash.”

He looks over his glasses at me, that with­er­ing look he usu­ally saves for Sun­days when the war­den has posted up the wrong hymn num­bers.

“Ser­vice!” shouts the chef again and the wait­ress who was about to take our or­der ex­cuses her­self with an apolo­getic look. She takes our or­der af­ter de­liv­er­ing dishes to an­other ta­ble. Good time and mo­tion thinks I.

“Now I’m a bit of an ex­pert on priv­ies,” I an­nounce to the old codger.

“Re­ally,” he replies, rather un­in­ter­ested I feel, and that glazed dis­tant look comes into his eyes.

“Yes,” says I, ig­nor­ing his ap­a­thy, “hav­ing read the chron­i­cles of one Lem Putt, a ‘spe­cial­ist’ in the art of mak­ing and erect­ing priv­ies, a tome of gen­tle wis­dom and phi­los­o­phy, whose great pride was the fam­ily four-holer, I con­sider my­self an ex­pert on the sub­ject. And that,” I add, point­ing a fin­ger down­stream and warm­ing to my sub­ject “is what Lem would have called an ‘over-hanger’. Busi­ness end over the wa­ter, no dou­ble U-bends or need to flush; just swept away by the tor­rent.”

Now this fine old inn (16th-cen­tury) bakes its own ex­ceed­ingly good bread, and fin­gers of a warm, brown loaf ac­com­pany small mounds of smoked salmon in horse­rad­ish cream, a pea and mint hu­mus and an ex­cel­lent home-made pork ril­lette.

“Ser­vice!” shouts the chef and out pops the pot-boy (like a bolt­ing rab­bit) from the kitchen, and clutch­ing con­tain­ers dis­ap­pears through a door at the back.

“I hope he wasn’t forcibly ejected,” says the Par­son show­ing his com­pas­sion­ate side, “chefs have big feet.”

I can well un­der­stand our jolly wait­ress not wish­ing to loi­ter at our ta­ble and en­gage in con­ver­sa­tion when she brings our main cour­ses as we are just dis­cussing the mer­its of the Chi­nese feed­ing their carp on pig ef­flu­ent.

Now even my old chum, great trencher­man that he is, ap­pears some­what fazed by the House Burger that is placed be­fore him. It is ver­ti­cally con­structed in lay­ers sim­i­lar to a multi-storey cot­tage loaf, each layer sup­port­ing some­thing siz­zling or crisp, cheesy or rel­ished, and the whole cre­ation is speared to­gether with a small as­sagai. He in­clines his head quizzi­cally rather like a Ja­panese tourist eye­ing up the di­men­sions of the Lon­don Shard for the first time.

De­spite the flex­i­bil­ity of the menu it can be like leav­ened lead and my ba­con and mush­room rarebit on gar­lic toast with a three-cheese spring onion sauce is rather soggy.

The Par­son leaves to see if there is any life in his flex­i­ble friend, and hav­ing paid the bill re­turns to an­nounce that the toi­lets are out­side. “You’re joss­ing me,” says I, eye­ing up the old stone privy. “No, not that one. There is a new block round the cor­ner.” Very swish it is too, with run­ning wa­ter, tiles and low-flush cis­terns. Vis­i­tors, campers and I are re­lieved in every sense, but I sus­pect that whilst Lem Putt might have been im­pressed by progress he would have pre­ferred the sin­gle-hole over-hanger.

The Wye Val­ley from Sy­monds Yat Rock. GRA­HAM GOUGH Pre­vi­ous page: An­other view from the same po­si­tion. ADAM SWAINE


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