Monday, 30 August 2010

Not exactly sunshine mountain

Hats off to my old friend, Rob Wilks, (on the right), from Sheffield, who has just completed the ascent of Ben Nevis in aid of Epilepsy Action and the MND Association. It was, he reports, somewhat tiring; but he hopes to raise over £1500 for the two charities, both of which we have a personal interest in. You can see a photographic record of the climb and also contribute to the funds on You can see that views from the top proved a bit disappointing, but he reports that they were a pleasant band of 14, climbing cloud-capped mountain. Personally, I'm full of admiration for him as he has severe epilepsy himself. Thanks and congratulations, Rob, for proving once again that "disability" is in the eye of the beholder.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Back in the Grove

It's amazing the change around here since we left just over a week ago. It's largely explained by the six inches of water in the bucket outside. It seems there was a monsoon while we were away. A week ago the lawn had large brown patches on it - in fact it was pretty much a large brown patch. Jane asked our nice  neighbour opposite if she'd come and water the pots and tomatoes and beans - which she did. But now it looks as though spring has come. The 'lawn' is a verdant green, with a diminishing patch of recovering grass. Mayweed has started flowering on our kerb. The roses and antirrhinums are in bloom and in bud. Tomatoes are abundant; beans hanging over the conservatory. The ponds full. We'd expected Shropshire to be green - and it was, what with all that Welsh rain, as Jane calls it, drizzling over the border. But grey Grove? Well, it's not grey, nor even brown, but green.

It reminds me of Gerard Manley Hopkins, again:
"And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs -
Because the Holy Ghost o'er the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings." (God's Grandeur)

It's good to be home!

Talking of which - waiting for me were two presents: a book, A Piece of Blue Sky by Virginia Duhanes, with the subtitle 'Conversations with a Loving Father', which is beautiful; and a cd called City of Gold and subtitled 'Impressions of Heaven'.... And then on Saturday at lunchtime a van drew up at the door and a big box was delivered - containing a large bouquet of flowers from all our family saying thank you for the holiday! It's good to be in a family!

Saturday, 28 August 2010

On Wenlock Edge

On Wenlock Edge the wood's in trouble
His forest fleece the Wrekin heaves;
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
And thick on Severn snow the leaves.

'Twould blow like this through holt and hanger
When Uricon the city stood:
'Tis the old wind in the old anger,
But then it threshed another wood.

Then, 'twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

There, like the wind through woods in riot,
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then 'twas the Roman, now 'tis I.

The gale, it plies the saplings double,
It blows so hard, 'twill soon be gone:
To-day the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.

So mused the rather sad Professor Housman, best known for his poetry ('The Shropshire Lad' set to music by numerous composers), about the part of Shropshire where we've just been staying with the family. In fact the view (above) from the back of the house, including the conservatory where we sat, was looking over the Eaton Brook up to Wenlock Edge itself. And it's true that when the wind was up, the forest fleece would heave and the thinner trees bend, if not double, at least out of vertical. We were further south than Wroxeter (the Roman town that A E Housman calls Uricon and the fourth largest Roman settlement in Britain) but there was a reminder of the past in the name nearby of Roman Bank.

Although with three young grandchildren it might not have been physically quiet all the time, spiritually it was actually peaceful. We seemed to escape the unquiet that troubled first the Roman and then the poet. The weather wasn't the best, but it compelled less activity than sometimes - with the exception of the small swimming pool adjacent to where we were, which we enjoyed to the max.

Jane with Buttercup the cow
And some days it were grand. Like when we went to Acton Scott Farm Museum which was just 10 minutes away. Jane's years of practice with Mishka the Vicarage goat were obviously not wasted. Milking the rather static cow - no problem. Meanwhile Clumper the shire-type horse who starred on the recent BBC series, 'Escape in Time', was busy in the wheelchair-hostile farmyard, kibbling the corn (i.e. bruising it to make it more digestible).
Clumper of 'Escape in Time' fame

Tree by stream in Cardingmill Valley

And then there was Cardingmill Valley, in Church Stretton, going up the Long Mynd. I enjoyed that, ending up at two vantage points: one of a beautiful tree with its exposed root system, and the other further up reached courtesy of the sweated labour of my family where I could listen to and watch the stream carving its way off the hillside. I was happy as Larry!
Note the harebell l.h.bottom corner
We had gourmet feasts each day, thanks to six different chefs, with the notable exception of the seventh day - when it was my turn. Of course, I cheat, and, after careful research, find the Ludlow Assembly Rooms which I read is 'family friendly' and has particular recommendations for its steak and kidney pie and its all-day breakfast. In fact, I quote: "If you see 'home made steak and kidney pie' on their board, it's top class. Also the ham, eggs and chips is a MUST. It's in Mill Street - round the corner form the market - good reliable Mum, Dad and kids destination, if a bit unadventurous."

Ludlow Castle (Tourist Board)
Well, it said it was entirely independent... but I should have researched a bit more and I'd have found the local rag reporting that the cultural flagship of Ludlow had been hit by the government's cut-backs. That would explain why their café-bar was staffed entirely by two hard-pressed ladies and after 2 by just one, and why we discovered there was no steak and kidney, the lasagne was off, the chocolate milk-shakes were pink, the plaice was equal measures of breadcrumbs and fish.... I don't blame them. It must be depressing being cut back to the bone. Fortunately my family forgave me, and the children thoroughly enjoyed the castle - that was worth going to Ludlow in itself.

Church Stretton Church
(©Kev747@English lang Wikipedia)
Our nearest town was Church Stretton - and that provided us with a better experience. Along with the large Coop, the parish church contained a welcome surprise: a tastefully reordered interior, with banners down the nave and suspended bronze tongues of the Spirit above the meeting of the transepts, comfortable seats around the dais with the old pews at the back. It was well done. The service on Sunday morning WAS family friendly. And in fact people were altogether friendly. The couple behind us chatted to us afterwards. It turned out they once lived in the village where Jane and I had a historic lunch 15 years ago! I was touched when he offered to pray for me then and there. I thought, 'This feels like real church'.

Meanwhile back at Eaton Manor, Nicola showed us the chicken shed which they have converted into an archery practice range. It's enormous, 76 metres long. The Olympic Bronze medallist, Alison Williamson, lives quite near and they needed somewhere to practise - and this is it. So when you see United Kingdom archers in action at the Commonwealth and Olympic Games, the chances are they'll have honed their skills here.
Eaton Archery Centre
For a few days, we had four generations of family - with Jane's parents joining us. They are excellent company, and enjoyed spending time with our half of the clan. 
One incredible evening we were having our meal when Jane suddenly noticed the almost full moon rising over Wenlock Edge. It was dramatic. Unfortunately, the mown cornfield which was glowing on the hillside doesn't show up on the photo.
Moon over Wenlock Edge
I think you could say the week was a feast of good things - which, as you know, are sent from Heaven above. 

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Planning meetings

It seems a long time since I attended any sort of committee meeting, but this afternoon Jane and I joined the group that plans the meetings of the Oxfordshire MND Association, thinking about next year.... I should have known better, Jane says, and kept my mouth shut. However, a leopard's spots and all that. Anyway I've landed up with some pretty tall orders. For some reason the rest of the group - all women - didn't leap at my suggestion of trying to get a meeting at Williams F1 HQ round the corner from here, with its collection of racing cars and rather plush conference suite. Shame!

Instead, I've got to see if there's a possibility of a disabled-friendly boat trip down the Thames or, even worse, finding "someone to make us laugh". I admit it's not so difficult to make those of us with MND and emotional incontinence laugh (or cry), but for carers and families - not so easy. So any suggestions welcome - only you really need to know them in order to give some sort of link. All Jane's been asked to do is arrange a trip to our favourite Aston pottery... Keep your mouth shut next time, Michael!

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Back to normal?

I'm sorry to learn from Alex Schadenberg's blog that the summer fever of pro-euthanasia campaigners is raging unabated - - referring to a story in today's Daily Telegraph about the doctor who proudly boasts of assisting nine people to commit suicide, Michael Irwin's latest idea: helping elderly people who are simply tired of living top themselves. For some reason he reckons it's rational. I reckon it devalues life and community.

I'm sorry, because it reminds me that we live in a confused and messy world. And I had been enjoying the summer! Well, I still am. But it's easy to be off your guard. As the old saying goes, 'All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men (and women) to do nothing.'
Over the weekend we enjoyed a visit from our best (and only!) friends in Buxton, and we partied again! This time we were celebrating Sue's 50th a few days early. She used to teach with me in Oxford, and so four of her best friends from there joined us for lunch at The Fox in Denchworth, where the food was a cut above average and the host particularly accommodating (I just have to apologise to the two elderly diners by the door who were almost drowned out by our table's initial rowdiness!), and then back here for tea. It was a complete surprise for Sue - which explains the exuberance. Jess the dog always enjoys their family visiting because the children love playing with her - a welcome contrast from our rather staid normality. On Sunday, by the way, I preached for the second time since retiring.

I've now finished Timothy Keller's The Prodigal God and must say I recommend it. For one thing it's not long (132 pages all double-spaced!). For another I think he does what the subtitle says: "Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith". In the last chapter he defines salvation by four characteristics: experiential, material, individual and communal. There are some great quotes there, one of them from C S Lewis' The Four Loves which I read years ago. The context is the death of one his friends, Charles Williams, who along with fellow-writers Lewis and Tolkien comprised the Inklings. He's writing about friendship:
"In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles (Williams) is dead, I shall never again see Ronald's (Tolkien's) reaction to a specifically Charles joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him 'to myself' now that Charles is away, I  have less of Ronald.... In this Friendship exhibits a glorious 'nearness by resemblance' to heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each of us has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest. That, says an old author, is why the Seraphim in Isaiah's vision are crying 'Holy, Holy, Holy' to one another (Isaiah 6:3). The more we thus share the Heavenly Bread between us, the more we shall have."

Keller's comment on this ends, "Only if you are part of a community of believers seeking to resemble, serve, and love Jesus will you ever get to know him and grow into his likeness (p.127)". And perhaps it explains too why something like New Wine is more than the sum of its parts.

Going back to where I began, Lewis' comments demonstrate clearly why our death is not solely our business, as assisted suicide proponents maintain. Not only are others the poorer for our absence, but their experience of each other is impoverished. I suspect that may be a reality beyond the grasp of superficial self-styled rationalists.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Vintage year

I gather that last year was an incredibly good year for Bordeaux wines and people are paying ridiculous prices for them even before they've been bottled. I came across this in an article about investment in the This is Money website:
"Insiders are suggesting that the finest First Growth labels could be worth £1,000 a bottle by Christmas.
Robert Clark

"Joss Fowler of merchants Berry Bros & Rudd is one of those bowled over by quality of the 2009 vintage.
'Parker's got this vintage more or less spot on,' he says. 'The 2005 may have been stronger across the board, but some of these 2009 wines are off the planet. They actually had us weeping in Bordeaux – it was almost like tasting paradise.'"

I gather that Robert Parker (pictured) is the doyen of wine buffs, and that his opinion MATTERS. So if you've got £10,000 + to spare and if you can get hold of a case (which is highly unlikely), then you could buy one and then have the dilemma of what to do with it. Do you lay it up as an investment, and then sell it at an enormous profit a few years down the line, or do you pour it into a glass, swill it round and do all the poses - and enjoy it? Well, one things is certain: you won't taste it unless you crack open a bottle. 

However I have to disillusion Mr Fowler. However much you spend, it will fall far short of paradise! Not that I'm dissing wine. It can a considerable source of enjoyment in the right hands. 

Now when I walked into the big tent at the Bath & Wells Showground the Monday before last, I have to confess the volume of the music might have knocked me off my feet, only I was in a wheelchair. "Oh no," I thought, "I'm too old for this sort of thing." But then there was Lisa who seemed genuinely pleased to see us. (She's one of the people who make sure that disabled people are comfortably sorted among the thousands in Venue 1 of New Wine CSW.) The first lesson about paradise, dear wine connoisseur, is it's not what you consume but the company you're in that will eclipse everything else in Heaven. For readers who don't know New Wine is a network of churches across the UK and abroad, which has its focus in summer festivals. This is the fifth year Jane and I have been - and for me it was the best. I hear I'm not alone in that view. They say 1994 was an historic vintage, but I wouldn't know as I was sampling the joys of Windermere at the time. But this year New Wine was a bargain: six days of the best company and not much more than the cost of a tenth of a bottle of best Bordeaux primeur!

Why was it so good? Those of us who aren't wine buffs tend to dismiss their lingering aromas and delicate bouquets as esoteric mumbo-jumbo - as I suppose I did until I saw that scene in one of my favourite films, French Kiss, where Luc Teyssier shows Kate his boyhood wine-sampling collection. That partially dispelled my scepticism. 

And I suppose it may be similar vis-à-vis New Wine, but the difference is you don't have to be a connoisseur to be moved by it. It's not the number of people there (multitudes), not the style of worship (full on) or music (contemporary popular and usually loud), and it's not the weather (which unusually was pretty dry), and it's not the accommodation (mostly in tents and caravans). I've been reading Timothy Keller's The Prodigal God, which I bought while I was there, which is about the parable of the prodigal son but as he points out is more accurately about the two lost sons. I've nearly finished it, and have been struck by something he says:
"Though we need love that lasts, all our relationships are subject to the inevitable entropy of time, and they crumble in our hands. Even people who are true to us die and leave us, or we die and leave them.... but the home we have lost,... exists only in the presence of the heavenly father from which we have fled."

What's special about New Wine is that the majority of those there are serious about finding His presence. They may be younger brothers returning from a far country, or older brothers realising that for all their familiarity with the home estate they too are far from sharing the father's heart. In the parable, Jesus deliberately leaves us in suspense about whether the older brother eventually comes in to the feast. One can only imagine that should he do so, the father would be wildly happy - and 'the music and dancing' which had so irked the righteous brother would have reached another pitch of joy! I'm not proposing something unique to New Wine, as there are many places and occasions where the same is happening. It's just that I was there a couple of weeks ago, and experienced the Father's welcome and the love of His extraordinary family - and immensely enjoyed the noisy slightly messy party. I felt nourished in my mind (with some excellent Bible studies and seminars), in my emotions (with freeing worship) and my spirit (with some sensitive prayer). The Lord was there, as we Anglicans say. His Spirit was with us. And, sorry, that knocks any Bordeaux into a cocked hat!
Hannah Atkins performing at New Wine
One postscript to New Wine, I was delighted to find that the up and coming sing/songwriter, Hannah Atkins, was doing a late night gig (I believe that's the term). So we broke all our bed-time rules and stayed to listen to her. I gather her music is acoustic with an electronic twist. Whatever, she's a gifted musician, playing keyboard, guitar and violin (and some cunning gismo) as well as having a pure singing voice. I loved You make me fly which I'd not heard before. She's Manchester-based - which is how I've come across her. As well as being a great musician, she's a lovely person to boot. You'll not be surprised that I recommend her ( You can buy albums through iTunes, I think. I slightly regret I didn't queue up and get a signed one at the end. But she was driving back to Manchester that night. 

Friday, 13 August 2010

Failing lifts and shooting stars

Last night our famous lift gave a loud kerplunk as it reached the bedroom. Ominous! Anyway it went down all right. And took me safely down this morning - but half the floor was hanging off. Clearly it wouldn't have made the round trip again. Thank you, Lord, for Claire, my OT, who'd had the foresight to arrange a service contract when it was installed.... By lunchtime an engineer had been round, replaced a broken spring and serviced it. It's purring beautifully again. 

Also last night I gather if we could have seen them there was a spectacular display of up to 100 shooting stars an hour in the Perseid meteor shower. It reminded me of one of the best modern worship songs, which we sung a number of times at New Wine last week. It's Beautiful by Phil Wickham. The second verse is quite like a psalm: "I see Your power in the moonlit night
Where planets are in motion and galaxies are bright
We are amazed in the light of the stars
It’s all proclaiming who You are
You’re beautiful, You're beautiful."
I remember we used to watch them from the top of the field above Lake Windermere at the Pathfinder camp. There was so little light pollution there seemed far more stars in the sky, and the shooting stars would career suddenly across the darkness. Amazing.
from National Geographic
I think Phil Wickham is right in his song: he writes about seeing the beauty of God in creation, the vastness of the universe and Jesus' love in the crucifixion, and looks forward to meeting it head on 'where death is just a memory and tears are no more'. A friend of mine isn't quite sure whether he's a believer, but, he said to me today, 'someone (something?) made all this happen'. That's for sure. And it has to be more than a something, doesn't it? Of course it does. It has to be beautiful God Himself.