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
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.