On not messing with the baptism formula (or mode of administration).

I recently brought to the attention of some former students a recent article in The Tablet reporting that the Roman Catholic Church’s Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith has advised that where the formula of administering baptism (‘N., I baptise you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit) was changed by the minister, this might nullify the validity of baptism in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church.

For some Christians, this might seem like a case of serious case of fussing over irrelevant details. In the case of the protestant churches, most, if not all have maintained these same words which have been used in the Western Church since patristic times. However, this isn’t the only set of baptismal words with a venerable history: Eastern orthodox liturgy, which has an equally ancient pedigree to that of the Western tradition has used the formula, ‘N. you are baptised in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit’. The gist is the same, but the agency is rendered in the passive voice.

The Tablet article goes into the theological justification for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith’s concern and insistence on this matter, and I won’t cover that here. However, when I shared the matter with my former students, I used the heading, “And this is why I’ve nagged generations of Trinity students never to mess with the baptism formula.”

The reaction was varied, but there were a number of comments where it was apparent that the perspective was shaped by seeing baptism as a matter largely for the person being baptised – reflecting their new-found faith and the relationship they have established with the local church through which they had come to faith. My reflections which follow come in two parts: the New Testament and the contemporary Anglican Church.

Baptism in the New Testament is emphatically not just a matter for the candidate. When a person is baptised, it is an expression of their new-found relationship to Jesus Christ. Baptism forms the symbolic and sacramental bond between Jesus, who was baptised himself at the start of his saving ministry, and our future life having turned to him in faith. His baptism and our baptism unite us together. In Romans 6:4 and Colossians 3:11,12 St Paul is at pains to emphasise how baptism forms this bond which demonstrates, in our lifetime and on our bodies, a union with Jesus. He uses the words “in him”, “with him” which emphasises this baptismal bond.

The bond which baptism proclaims is not merely a personal, “me and Jesus” bond as if nothing else matters. To be “in Christ” means to be in his Body, the Church. So baptism isn’t just a personal event in our salvation journey, but also something which unites us with others Jesus-followers in the Church. His journey has become our journey, but we join with all others in that journey.

One key New Testament feature of the Church, Christ’s Body, is its oneness. One obvious reference is the prayer of Jesus in John 17, where Jesus’ prayer for the Oneness of those who have been given him by the Father is founded on the oneness of God. This is no mere desideratum: the Church can only truly be the Church when it is one, and that oneness should be visible ‘that the world may believe’ (John 17:21) Without visible oneness, the relationship between any group of Christians, and Jesus and his Father, is called into doubt. For this reason, for any Christian to do something which imperils that visible oneness is a grave sin against Christ and against his Body.

When St Paul speaks, in Ephesians 4, of there being ‘one Lord, one Faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all…’, he has expressing in his own way the importance of the unity of the Church in relation to the unity of God. The themes of divine unity, expressed through the Church’s unity, the gospel’s unity and, for St Paul, the unity of baptism. (We could further note St Paul’s concern about baptism in the case of the very factious church in Corinth, in 1 Cor 1:10-17, where he seems to be alarmed that the factions seem to be forming around who had baptised whom.) In summary, baptism is an expression of our individual unity in Christ, and therefore our corporate unity in the one God. There aren’t ‘baptisms’ but, rather, ‘one baptism’.

The Christian who baptises another person is acting as the minister of the one Church, spoken about in these passages. They are administering the One Baptism of Ephesians 4:4-6, which is – in turn – proclaiming the oneness of the one God, revealed as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In that act, the person being baptised is being united visibly with Christ, with the One Church of which scripture speaks and incorporated symbolically and sacramentally into the life of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If there is one Lord, one faith and one baptism, therefore the newly baptised Christian has just joined the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, of which the Nicene Creed speaks.

The pastoral implication of this, along with the importance of reverencing and conforming to Jesus’ prayer for the oneness of his Church, is that we should explain and honour the fact that we are baptising people into more than just their personal experience and more than just our little local church. We are acting as ministers of Christ’s Church (his Body) rather than just our own local fellowship. And this is where we need to exercise some ecumenical care. We are not at simple liberty to ‘do it our way’ – according to whim or mood of the moment. We have no idea what the future will hold for the new believer’s future. They may very well change church. They may change denomination. But from the point of view of what’s just happened to them, they won’t change faith. As good pastors, it is important that the way we administer baptism will be as widely acceptable to as many Christians and churches as it is possible to be.

As I’ve mentioned above, there are two very ancient baptismal traditions around today. Most protestant churches have emerged, historically, from the Western Christian tradition. This is why almost all Protestant churches have traditionally used the same formula of admission as their Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. The root of baptism precedes the reformation divisions – it’s one of the few things that still unites us. And unity, even in the midst of many divisions, is good, scriptural and in accordance with Jesus’ prayer in John 17. So a protestant Christian administering baptism would have to have a very good reason to change the tradition which otherwise unites catholics and protestants down the centuries.

If a Christian’s earlier baptism is not acceptable to another church they wish to join, this creates a theological and a pastoral problem. Theologically, it is saying that the baptism they received was not Christ’s baptism – the baptism spoken of in Romans 6:4, Colossians 3:11,12 and Ephesians 4:4-6. Essentially, it wasn’t baptism. But because of that, the Church they belonged to wasn’t part of the one Body of Christ either. Instead, their ‘real’ Christian experience and membership of Christ’s Body begins following the baptism that church is asking them to receive. This can happen in a number of circumstances — some of which are avoidable, some not: it can happen in the case of the person joining the Roman Catholic Church, where it is deemed by the baptising minister that any earlier ‘baptism’ was not valid. It can also happen when joining a Baptist church which will only recognise the baptism of those who are capable of ‘believing’ (ie. older children and adults). It can even happen when a church assumes that faith is a matter of certain psychological or emotional crises, which conform to a set of norms – usually set by the denomination or local church.

As a result of this, the one baptism – by which a person is marked as united to Christ and his Body the Church – is repeated all over again. I once knew a person who had been ‘baptised’ seven times! What a travesty of the unifying, once-and-for-all event that we learn about from the New Testament! Essentially, she bore in her embodied experience the very disunity that St Paul was so alarmed about among the Corinthians.

It is unrealistic to expect all the different strands of Christianity to agree on the theology and administration of baptism overnight. Although we would do well to look at the important discussions that have taken place ecumenically on the matter between different Church groups. (For example, the WCC document Baptism, Eucharist, Ministry.)

And what about Anglicans (who were my initial conversation partners)? The Declaration of Assent, which all ministers in the Church of England make, has this to say:

The Church of England is part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, worshipping the one true God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It professes the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds, which faith the Church is called upon to proclaim afresh in each generation.

The minister being licensed then makes the following promise:

I, A B, do so affirm, and accordingly declare my belief in the faith which is revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the catholic creeds and to which the historic formularies of the Church of England bear witness; and in public prayer and administration of the sacraments, I will use only the forms of service which are authorized or allowed by Canon.

This means that Anglican clergy are not at liberty to ‘do what is right in their own eyes’, and in the present case, we can see the pastoral and theological sense of this. We should do all we can to preserve as many of those tentative threads of visible unity that are left to us, not only in obedience to the will of Christ (John 17) but for the pastoral well being of those whom we baptise. This is why I have nagged generations of my students with the following words, ‘Never mess with the baptism formula!’

Ghost Ship

It’s not often that I read a theological book of over 200 pages in just over a day. So Ghost Ship: institutional racism in the Church of England, by Azariah France-Williams (London: SCM Press, 2020) must have something very special about it to belong to that select handful of tomes. Like many people, this summer for me has been the summer of COVID-19 and the summer of Black Lives Matter. The death of George Floyd, and the sickening video of his murder, made something inside of me snap. I’ve always hated racism, but now I felt I was morally bound to do something about it. But – for me as a white, privileged man – what can I do?

This question has been the start of a new journey for me, and I need guides. I am lucky to have friends – people of colour – who love me enough to help me as I stutter and stumble to learn what it means to answer that question. This summer is about education. The education of me.

Like most white people in Britain, I am appallingly ignorant of Black History. It should have been in my education as a child – but wasn’t – and to omit it from the school national curriculum now is inexcusable. So I’m playing catch-up from an education point of view. But this book is only tangentially about that history that can easily now be accessed from a good range of books and resources. This one’s about the Church of England — something that I know rather a lot about, or thought I did.

Azariah’s book took my white take on something I thought I knew, and messed with my head. He is a poet, a teller of stories and an adept theologian. He is exceptionally good at using metaphors, characters, stories and symbols to make the familiar look strange-yet-familiar. The portrait of Church of England he paints is still the Church of England that I know, but through a different set of eyes – and – as far as institutional racism is concerned – guilty as charged. The mask removed. The reason there could be a question is that, from the white experience point of view, ‘we’ wouldn’t know institutional racism if it slapped us across the face. We are white. We are never slapped like this – it’s out of our experiential vocabulary.

Yet I do know enough to recognise that the way that Azariah calls out the means by which power works in the Church of England is correctly and accurately described by the book. The power, privilege and class structures are all there and undeniable. However, for most white clergy, ordination can bring a way of skipping into circles of power and privilege that – in other circumstances – would be closed to us. It’s a quick trip up the establishment ladder for the white middle-classes. But to get there, requires signing-up to the system. As white, middle class clergy, all we need to do is either to erase our local accents, or make a play on them. Then it’s a case of playing our cards right, and we have access. It’s a different story with race.

Through his storytelling and wry characterisation, Azariah helped me to feel what it is like to be in a different Church of England, ethnically-speaking. I realised how racism messes with all our heads, but particularly if we are of black or brown skin. So strong and powerful were the stories and descriptions, that I found myself anticipating things which he then went on to say – like a psychological slow motion car-crash. This is theological testimony at its most powerful, so compelling are the book’s descriptions and arguments.

But beyond testimony and description, there is critique. The critique of how institutional racism is ‘mediated’ by interaction with power is one of the strongest aspects of the book – and the author knows he will be ruffling feathers. In the process, various books and interactions are cheerfully eviscerated. Azariah has given up trying to be a good boy and is now saying it like it has been. Justin Welby’s opening section of Reimagining Britain is dismantled in a way which is genuinely funny. But the author’s experience at the hands of a large London-based charismatic evangelical church, while told with similar humour, is genuinely disturbing. The current regime of the Church of England will have to look carefully at its credibility if theologians such as France-Williams are allowed to tell their experience like it is. White members of the Church of England, especially young adults, will need to do a rain check on what ship we’re in the process of boarding if the death of George Floyd made something in us snap. The current configuration of power politics in the Church of England comes across as particularly in need of interrogation and calling to account, for swapping a declining place in the English Establishment for a ‘vision’ built on models of commercial power instead (when both are, directly or indirectly, beneficiaries of power build upon the slave trade).

Of course, there is history too. The tail of woe whereby the General Synod has consistently attempted to dull the critique of its own institutional racism, or resisted changing it, is told in sorry detail. The missed opportunities are seen, not merely as failures of an ideal, but a failure of mission and vision. Indeed, Azariah convincingly gives an account of two visions: of gospel and of empire. In this 30-year history, the CofE leans towards empire, with its attendant slave-boats, every time.

This is a book filled with stories, sorrow, experience, metaphors and poetry. And, as it did for me, it will ‘mess with the head’ of any white reader who seeks to become more involved in the struggle against racism. To be partners, white would-be partners have to educate ourselves, reform our ways, turn our hearts and have our thinking changed. The book amply demonstrates that racism is more than the antics of head-shaved, tattooed morons, or ‘I’m not racist but…’ ignorance. It is a poison which is wrecking our society and our church. Black voices, such as Azariah’s, are near exhaustion from ‘crying in the wilderness’. Like all sin, racism also enslaves the perpetrators (institutions and people). As I came to the end of this book, it felt as though I could hear the sound of one loosening padlock from the chain of my own mental slavery.

Learning about worship by not doing it

With the loosening of COVID-19 regulations in the UK, Wendy and I have been able to go back to church for the first time in over four months. I have not ‘stayed away from church’ this long since my period of skepticism in my early teens. For about forty-five years, I have attended church most weeks and have received the Holy Communion, if not weekly, then very frequently. I have missed it badly these past months: a big gap in who I am.

Clergy have worked hard, and creatively, to provide online services which have helped their congregations stay in touch with the Word of God and with the sacrament of Holy Communion, usually through ‘spiritual communion’ but in some cases by experimenting with so-called ‘virtual communion’. I have written on the subject here – in summary, I am skeptical and concerned about the distinctions it blurs.

But now I can take communion again, which is wonderful. I don’t take the priest’s role in the services, because of the uncertainties over Wendy and I needing to maintain some element of shielding still. But we have been attending the Communion service, and that is by far the main thing.

Worshipping, after such long time, has caused me to experience and reflect again on the nature of what it means ‘to worship’.

Worship is more than about words. The Church of England bases its worship on its service books: the Book of Common Prayer and Common Worship. It has expended a lot of controversy and time over getting the words ‘right’. Of course, this is important — I believe the words I utter to God shape my understanding of God. They affect my belief and to some extent my relationship with God. But the words are only part of what happens when I join in worship. Indeed, some of the most important moments in worship occur in silence – when I’m not either listening to, or saying words.

Worship is more than about music. This is particularly the case at the moment in the UK, when singing is not permitted for fear of spread of infection. The music used in the liturgy at my church at the moment is beautiful: we have an outstanding director of music who makes the organ sing and we have a choir who are able to sing a motet in an adjoining space, and it echoes around the church itself ethereally. But we cannot sing as a congregation. But somehow, the lack of music, though anomalous for Christian worship, does not – in the end – matter. Music is wonderful when we can offer it to God — music is one of the most wonderful expressions of what it means to be human, but we can worship without it.

Worship is more than about thinking. Thinking is important in worship. Listening attentively to the Bible readings and hearing a good sermon gives us ‘food for thought’ which goes beyond the service, into the coming week. We keep coming back to it in our reflections and our prayers. It enriches our spiritual development and it deepens our understanding of this mystery we call ‘life’. It challenges our wills. But it is only a small part of the experience of what it means to worship the Lord. Worship is valid, even when there is no sermon — although a sermon should enhance our worship. I missed the sermons when I was away from worship, but I was able to read and ponder, nevertheless.

Worship is more than about aesthetics. The worship at All Saints is beautiful: the music, the words, the architecture, the ceremonial. All of these affect me greatly. They touch my heart. They enrich me as a human being. But, again, that is not of the essence. In the current circumstances, certain changes have to be made – cameras have to be moved around, switched on and off. Facemasks make people look strange and distant. The choir are limited in how, and how much they can sing. Alternating pews are taped up with yellow striped tape. Nothing is perfect: the reality of Covid always bites, limits and compromises. Our limitations are very much on display.

Worship is more than about personalities. It’s wonderful to meet friends I have missed, share expressions of affection, love and having missed one another. Friendship in God (or, as Christians call it, fellowship) is important. Being part of a community of faith means we are open to one another in a special way – where our vulnerabilities are acknowledged, sins admitted, love and forgiveness shown, hope shared, help given. But when we come before God, this is reconfigured – it finds its true rationale and direction. Still less is worship about the personalities of those who are more prominent (‘up front’). This isn’t about Fr A the priest, or a famous organist, or a well-known worship band leader, or a renowned preacher. In the presence of God, who else happens to be there is almost irrelevant.

Worship is more than emotions. We are emotional creatures and therefore if we are ’emotion-less’ then our engagement is called into question. Worship evokes emotional, as well as other responses. But there is an enormous variation in different people’s emotional vocabulary. Some are effusive and sentimental. Others are quite the reverse, but whose emotions are often more powerful for being sublimated. If worship ‘leaves us cold’, emotionally, then clearly something is wrong. But we would be wrong to associate hairs standing up at the back of our necks as the same as worship. Many things can do this for us: opera, film, literature.

Psalm 122 says:

I was glad when they said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
Our feet are standing
within your gates, O Jerusalem.
Jerusalem—built as a city
that is bound firmly together.
To it the tribes go up,
the tribes of the Lord,
as was decreed for Israel,
to give thanks to the name of the Lord.

This image of the Israelites coming together from the whole land, converging on the place of worship gives something of the importance of gathering. It was the gathering and the embodiment which I had missed. The most fundamental thing, for me, about worship is the commitment of my whole self – body, mind and spirit. The other part is the coming together, with other people – the redeemed bodies, minds, spirits – that make up the People of God. Notwithstanding the wonderful, creative ways we have taken to engage with one another during the lockdown, and for me, during shielding, it has been this gathering, this ‘going up to the house of the Lord’ that I have missed so badly. The pure physicality of taking my place in the liturgy of worship, finding my place, being alongside others, joining in, being one part of a whole – this is what has been missing and what, I believe, is the essence of worship. This ‘finding of our place’ before God and doing what is most rational in that place (worshipping God) is what is the essence. This is what St Paul means, I think, in his words in Romans 12:1:

“present your bodies as a living sacrifice to God, which is your spiritual (Greek: logike) worship.”

It’s not the words. It’s not the music. It’s not the thinking. It’s not the aesthetics. It’s not the personalities. It’s not the emotions.

It’s about taking this body of mine at a particular time and to a particular place, and “finding its place” by joining alongside others before the face of Almighty God – as God’s people, together in his presence, that I’ve missed. And this is the essence of corporate worship; of what we call ‘liturgy’ – the action and duty of the people of God.

Maybe it’s something about the way we interact

When I was young, it was the Cold War. If we were going to be annihilated, it would be by the press of a button by an anonymous authority figure in Moscow, or London, or Washington or Beijing. It was a structured kind of terror. We watched the media, controlled by governments and big business, and were told, on a day-by-day basis, what our chances of survival were. We grew up with it. We were used to it. We knew our voice counted for nothing – it would be decided by powers way beyond our individual control.

Then the Berlin Wall came down, and for a lovely decade, it seemed like the world had become a safer place (unless you lived in the Balkans or Sierra Leone). The internet was born. People could suddently communicate around the world, without the need for governmental power and infrastructure. Universal peace became a near certainty.

Today, we know a different kind of world. Everyone can communicate with everyone. Online, people tear strips off others whom they have never, physically, met, using powerful, terrible threats and insults. Unlike the world of the 1980s, people can now engage in their own, transcontinental conflict.

This is the situation which can be exploited by anyone who wishes to use global (and anonymous) interconnectivity to escalate and promote conflict. We see it in the astonishingly successful internet campaigns of Muslim extremists. Young people do not know much about the long-term cost of conflict, and are therefore easily swayed to join in any fight for “justice” that appeals to their desire for integrity. For religious people, this can manifest itself in a zeal which can be exploited by cynical elders to recruit the energies of young into the cause of their own bids for power. The easy equation: integrity = commitment = absolutism is not just the preserve of Islam: it’s the case for any religion or cause which feeds on an appeal to some transcendent power, be it divine or nationalistic.

I am now in my 50s. I have been a Christian since birth and, since my teens, have been committed to the Christian faith. I know (and remember) the power of the youthful desire for integrity and purity of cause. I remember my desire for God which could eclipse lesser caution, instilled from my elders. The young are easy targets for any form of extremism: religious, nationalist or whatever. When we are young, we want some sense of purity, of integrity, or absolute direction.

I have known the appeal of the purity of the absolute; I have known the desire to be wholly committed, irrespective of the cost. But as you age, other things come into play. Bringing up children makes you realise a unifying identity as a human being. You start to empathise with other parents, irrespective of differences of culture, or creed, or philosophy. As your own children become adults, you watch other parents and children as they struggle to bring forth a new generation: you empathise, you recognise, you remember your own experiences, and … with time … you realise a unity within all human experience.

The internet has brought the possibility of the dissemination of hate, under the guise of purity. It allows those who wish to, to exploit youthful desire under the guise of religion, nationality or “justice”. Young people are looking for something to give their lives to, to commit to, to place their energies behind. It’s a romantic vision and it’s enormously powerful. But this youthful energy can be the undoing of the human race, when it is not united with a sense of our own frailty, fallibility and sheer value. When a Palestinian child is killed by the sophisticated weaponry of the Israeli army, it’s easy for a young Palestinian to convert this enormity into a reaction which delights in the taking of other, equal and young human Israeli life. But an older perspective realises that both actions are defeats, on the wider, human scale.

The immediacy of the internet allows quick reactions and judgements to be made, public stances to be paraded and easy alliances forged. It’s the best breeding ground for heating up any kind of conflict. The internet, rather than fostering an age of peace and growing tolerance, as we had hoped in the 1990s, is being exploited by its users as an incubator for the worst forms of human intolerance, revenge, posturing and recruitment towards violence that has been seen since the crusades. The internet demonstrates, in clear terms, the nature of the human condition. “All of life is there …”

As I grow older, I become all too aware of the weaknesses, as well as the strengths of committing oneself to a particular faith. But I remain in this faith. The reason I do this, is that it has taught me to recognise – to not to be in denial – about my own frailties. The longer I have been a Christian, the more I have had to reckon with my own weaknesses, my own propensity for failure and my tendency or potential to hurt others. I certainly do not feel (if I ever felt) a superiority of my own faith position over that of others (be they of another faith or of no faith). All I feel is a sense of human solidarity with all people who are around on this planet at the moment, and a strong sense of unworthiness that I should share in the privilege and wonder of living the gift that is life. So it is from this, somewhat humbled postion, that I believe, with all my heart, in the need for human beings to reckon, humbly, with their own limitations, and to reckon, kindly and sympathetically, with the limitations of their enemies. In short, this means loving both our friends and our enemies. This love, when we discover it, is nothing short of a revelation and transforms us as human beings. We become more compassionate. We cry easily. We love wildly. We run the risk of peace, even if it makes us look like fools.

This, in Christian terms, is called “the Kingdom of God”, which is an idea which lies at the heart of the Christian vision. It’s a place where people learn to forgive the failings of others, as they discover their own failings to have been forgiven. Where love is greater than anything else. Where God is not “owned” by any faith, but is allowed to be God as God truly is. Where people are set free from the tyranny of “being right” into being loved and being loving instead.

At a time when the news seems to be so negative, I want to affirm that I believe in this vision of the universe, and – in love – I want to celebrate it with others, irrespective of their faith, their belief or their politics.

I hope that this vision comes to pass. Because, although the old superpowers are now a history lesson, the power to destruction that they represented is still there, and much sought-after. I pray that this love, this forgiveness, this generosity would break out across our globally-connected humanity, if only for our own survival. For the alternative is as bad, if not more tragic, than the horror that faced us in the 1980s.

Getting out more: in retrospect

So the Crosscountry train in which I’m sitting is flying along the tracks, carrying me home. There’s time to gather random thoughts together. Every long distance trip teaches its own lessons, so what were mine?

The first is that I was underestimating my level of fitness: the easy first day was probably wise, but, distance-wise, days 2 and 3 were a bit too short. I was arriving shortly after 2pm, so unless serious hills are involved, I should be aiming at 55 miles plus per day from day 2.

The second is that I need to revise my prediction of road conditions along the following lines: if a B-road is straight, and there isn’t something bigger in parallel, then traffic will be fast, if not heavy.

Thirdly, in retrospect, I think it should have avoided the Rochdale Canal route out of Manchester, gone around the eastern hillside edges of the city instead, then joined the canal at Littleborough. Sustrans really should think about declassifying the Manchester city stretches of the route, which are substandard – although there are some wonderful mill buildings between Manchester and Rochdale, especially at Failsworth. Still, I’m fit enough to make more use of small hill roads than I did, and as a result I probably missed more countryside in days 4 and 5 than I needed.

Fourthly, I’m really glad I forked out for those Schwalbe tyres – there were no punctures, and hardly any mechanical problems at all (just the aforementioned spoke-tightening and an adjustment of the front deraillier limiting screws to stop the chain rubbing at bottom gear).

Fifthly, my 27-year-old tourer remains as good as I can imagine for this kind of trip. The renewed power-train with its wide gearing ratios proved absolutely adequate for the variety of terrain and the load carrying. I’m very lucky to have it. If I were doing a longer, international tour with camping gear, I’d need something different, but what I have suits my choices just fine.

Lastly, I certainly need to get out like this more often. I last toured in 2010, which is too long ago. At my age, I need more, not less of this kind of physical challenge. I also love this kind of solitude: notwithstanding the blogging and social media in the evenings, I’ve been on my own with only my thoughts and tunes going round in my head for most of the past six days. It’s a good way of being me to myself, and I actually quite like my own company – which is reassuring…

… But enough for now.

Getting out more: Final Day

I hadn’t advance-planned today’s route because I wanted to know how yesterday’s had gone before determining gradients vs busyness of roads. I decided to avoid taking the most direct route, which would have run right through Bradford and Leeds via some horribly busy roads. The only alternative was over some high ground.

Leaving at 8.30am I dropped back down for a short run of the Rochdale canal until I reached Hebden Bridge. Here I had a proper breakfast and coffee. Last night’s hostel, Mankinholes, is fairly basic by today’s standards, so I had to self-cater. Again, this has weight implications, so I kept it simple with a Chicken Korma ready meal and some apple pies. Tea was made with communal tea bags and no milk.

Given its isolated location, I was expecting the hostel to have very basic internet too (eg. Wifi translated to morse code, transmitted down to the next valley, then the text transcribed by a quill pen onto scrap paper, tied around the neck of a ferret, sent down a long pipe, ferret captured, translated back to TCP/IP then routed onto the main internet). In fact it had no internet, but the village was right next to a TV tower which had 3G repeaters on it, so my phone internet worked brilliantly.

Hebden Bridge is a tad ‘boheeemian’, due to the numbers of hippies who settled here in the 1960s and 1970s. The locals are pretty up-market these days too. The only hippies I saw were living in houseboats on the canal a mile upstream. After coffee in the town, I couldn’t put it off anymore. It was time to climb the Pennines. The A6033 out of the town climbs steadily onto Oxenhope Moor. It’s a quiet road and most drivers were being extra careful because of the mist. The temperature had significantly dropped overnight and the weather had a winter feel to it. I arrived in Oxenhope, then Haworth, pleasantly relieved that the climb was quite bearable. The run on to Keighley was also quite straightforward.

Ever since I’d joined the Rochdale canal I had been passing a good number of old mill buildings. These are a major part of the architectural heritage of the North. The ones in Manchester, in particular, have a penchant for emulating elements of Italian architecture. The power houses of these mills, where the main steam engines were located, are particularly ornate. Yet sadly, many of the amazing buildings are semi-derelict, having been run for various purposes since they were abandoned by the textiles industry. This is as much true for Yorkshire mills as Lancashire mills. At Keighley, I saw my last large mill buildings of the journey.

Another feature of this area is the number of old Methodist churches. During the Commonwealth, following the Civil War, the Church of England was effectively abolished for the best part of twelve years, when diversity of religion was tolerated and even encouraged. With the return of Charles II and the re-establishment of the Church of England, established religion had very limited hold on some of the isolated Pennines communities. As a result, a century later, John Wesley found the Northern Pennines particularly fertile ground for his evangelical preaching. The result is that, for West Yorkshire and North East Lancashire, Methodism was the majority religion until its very steep decline that has occurred since the 1960s. I passed more closed and converted Wesleyan chapels than open ones on my bike.

Another feature I kept noticing was the number of open or closed co-operative stores. This part of the country is the heart of the co-operative movement. Despite the recent problems with the co-op bank, the movement and its principles bear further study. Sharing capital for the greater good is strongly linked to the social conscience of the 19th century Methodist evangelicals.

The route from Keighley to Otley over Bingley Moor looked easier on the map, but in actual fact it was much tougher going. The gradients were acute at times, which may explain why this area is chosen for the Yorkshire stretch of the Tour de France this coming summer. As I struggled with the gradient, the wind and mist were joined by a steady drizzle.

Once I reached Otley, I knew that I had cleared the Pennines and looked forward to an easier route across the Vale of York. With this in mind, and also to compensate for the drizzle turning into steady rain, I did one of my calculations at the Half Moon in Pool in Warfedale that I could allow a pint with lunch. Eventually, with the weather no better, this turned into two pints, in what turned out to be a very enjoyable lunch break.

In fact, there were still quite a few undulations between Pool and Weatherby, which was quite hard going. After Weatherby, what looked like a quiet B1224 runs a fairly level and straight route to York. In fact, this road proved to be the “Weatherby to York race track”, but mercifully there were few lorries.

York is the end of my journey. I pulled in front of the Minster at 4.45pm which gave me time to pray a thank you prayer for my safety and for all the strangers I met on the journey, as I knelt before the sacrament in the quiet Zouche Chapel. Tomorrow I board a fast train back to Bristol.

Distance 57.73 miles.
Total trip distance 268 miles.

Soundtrack: Kate Bush, Wuthering Heights

Getting out more: Day 4

Today started with the mist slowly being burnt off the hills of the White Peak by a surprisingly powerful sun for 8.30am. Starting back on the track bed of the Tissington Trail was a nice way of easing myself into the journey, as I wanted to conserve my strength and the railway gradients are wonderful. I get a bit pensive a few miles up the track at Parsley Hay as it was here that my maternal grandfather, a steam locomotive driver, was killed by slipping from the footplate. It was all before I was born, but it’s a serious place, nevertheless. The trail peters out a bit further on, as the
Dowlow Quarry still has track laid through to Buxton and so the rail bed becomes railway.

To conserve time, I decided to go onto the A515 which I could see was fairly quiet, rather than remaining on NCN68. For cycle touring, I have a complex relationship with the Sustrans Ntional Cycle Network. It’s a wonderful asset, making Britain a more cycle-friendly place, but on a tour it has its pros and cons. The pros are obvious: the routes are either car-free completely, or very quiet small roads. The cons are more diverse — first, the NCN route from A to B isn’t normally the most direct one; after all, this isn’t what they’re trying to do. But in some cases it favours traffic free to the point where it goes all over the houses (witness Route 4’s stretch from Compton Greenfield to the Severn Bridge). This is also the case for gradient in hilly areas, where the NCN may take the route over high ground, rather than round it. Again, this can be bad news with a heavily loaded bike. Lastly, NCN make no guarantees about the quality of the surface, and in many cases this can be akin to a mountain bike track and bad news for a road bike. I once remember being ‘committed’ to traversing a stretch of NCN in Carmarthenshire which went over about four miles of sharp rubble. (More on this issue later).

The A515 was fine at that time and I was in Buxton for coffee at 10am. I had then deliberately planned the route to take me down (well, up and down) memory lane, to ‘do’ Long Hill which runs from Buxton to Whaley Bridge, which has a wonderful 5 mile descent with wonderful views of the Goyt Valley. Of course, first of all you have to do the pull up to the summit, but Buxton’s altitude is significantly higher than Whaley, so I was really “cashing-in” yesterday’s rather tiring haul from The Trent to the southern Peak District. The run was exhilarating and is the kind of reason why I love cycle touring. Just before leaving the moorland, I heard the cry of a Lapwing in the distance. The snag with Long Hill is after that the most direct route I needed to take was the A6. I’ve cycled along that stretch many times, so I sacrificed tranquillity for a level route and a reasonably direct one. By 12.30pm, I was cycling the streets of South Manchester, where I once lived.

I was able to briefly meet up with my daughter (another cyclist) outside her university building, then lunch at the wonderful Eighth Day Cooperative – one of the best veggie cafés in Britain.

My route now led north and the traffic-volume verses topography dilemma raised itself again. The Pennines are scored by narrow valleys, down which run – typically – a trunk road with lorries, a railway line and a canal. In some parts there are no quiet lanes traversing the range in a north-south direction, and my route lay north-east of Manchester. The solution to the traffic problem is to take NCN66, which runs along the towpath of the Rochdale Canal between Manchester and Halifax. While it’s legal to cycle on any canal towpath in the UK, I would normally avoid doing this because the towpath surface usually requires a mountain bike because of litter, bumps and big cobbles at locks. But I reasoned that if the Rochdale’s towpath was the NCN66, there would be some enhancement to the surface. After all, normal towpaths don’t usually have NCN designation.

Well, if there was any enhancement, it was on a tight budget! It’s really a track, with all the usual detritus of canal towpaths. Just as well I had fitted those Schwalbe Marathon Pluses – no punctures, but I hate putting my 700c road wheels through that kind of punishment. And my route along the canal was about 20 miles, from Manchester City Centre, through Rochdale to the edge of Todmorden, just inside West Yorkshire. Poor wheels.

Canals are their own testimony to local history and social culture. The stretch from the centre of Manchester passed through a desolate inner-city ring, where everything was either derelict or demolished, but with little sign of reconstruction. The canal at this stretch seems to act as the North East Manchester fly tipping centre. It also seems poorly dredged too. I only saw three boats in that stretch. Then there come the more countrified bits, where local residents exploit their gardens which back onto the canal with home-made decking terraces enabling a waterside leisure experience. There were lots of geese, which hissed at me as I passed. Narrow clearance under bridges meant that I had to take care balancing, especially over cobbles, to avoid going over the canal side. The quality of the track surface was at its worst in North Manchester, at one point being just an unsurfaced footpath through meadow. From Rochdale onwards, it was more consistent and better. By 5pm I was at the canal’s summit north of Littleborough. By 5.30pm, I left the towpath and ascended a steep hill to the little, isolated village where my youth hostel lay.

In this part of Yorkshire, they go in for worrying place names, like Heckmondwike, Mytholmroyd and, in my case, Mankinholes. You’ll be glad to know that, since I arrived, I haven’t seen any blokes around wearing ill-advised underwear.

Getting out more: Day 3

Today is a bit of a “nothing to report” day, partly, I suspect because I did today’s run with John last July – so there were few surprises. The route ran from South Leicestershire (just north of the A5 for you motorists out there) through Ashby de la Zouch (great name, plus castle) through Repton in South Derbyshire. Repton advertises itself as the ancient capital of Mercia, but its main claim to fame is its large, rather top-notch public school, which now dominates the northern part of this small town. One of its headmasters, Geoffrey Fisher, went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury (1945-1961). It also gives its name to Hubert Parry’s hymn tune, which is commonly used to accompany the words of ‘Dear Lord and Father of Mankind’, the later verses of a poem by the Quaker, John Greenleaf Whittier. The story of how this came about was the subject of a delightful BBC Radio 4 documentary broadcast last year. The hymn tune was given the name of the school, because the idea of putting the two together was that of George Gilbert Stocks, who was director of music at the school in the 1920s. Parry had died of the Spanish ‘Flu in 1918. Repton and Jerusalem remain Parry’s most famous works.

At some point, when you’re cycling north through England, you have to reckon with the River Trent. I crossed it just north of Repton. There followed a gradual climb up from the Trent valley into the southern peaks, which I found surprisingly tiring. I also had my first mechanical snag, which entailed stopping to tighten a few loose spokes on my old front wheel. It now doesn’t make any irritating clunking noises and I also fancy it’s a bit more efficient – maybe just me. A brief stop in Ashbourne, then I was off on the final leg of the journey, via the Tissington Trail (the old Buxton to Ashbourne LNWR railway line) then a brief detour to Hartington youth hostel where I am staying the night. Miles travelled today: 54. Total so far: 146. Tomorrow is going to be a big ride…

The Route

The Soundtrack

Getting out more: Day 2

Finding a cycle route north from the northern tip of the Cotswolds to the southern part of Leicestershire is rather tricky, as there is a band between Coventry and Birmingham which is very built-up. What roads there are tend to be trunk roads, which all cyclists should avoid like the plague if they value their lives. The most obvious routes north for cyclists tend to avoid the East and West Midlands entirely, and either go up through Shropshire (which I normally do) or go east of Rugby and Leicester. However, my route demands that I go right through the middle. I started by going east of Stratford to pick up the Fosse at Wellesbourne.

The Fosse at this point takes the form of the B4455. Most motorists regard B roads as “small” roads, but from the cyclist’s point of view, they’re a mixed bag. This one turned out to be dicey, because although traffic isn’t heavy, most that there is is enjoying the Romans’ propensity to make straight roads, so tends to be going fairly fast for a rather narrow road. Although the Fosse is straight, it has to negotiate any hill in its path, so visibility over humps is as bad as if there were bends in it. But many motorists seem to disregard this, oblivious to the possibility that, having cleared a small summit, they could suddenly find themselves bearing down on a cyclist on a laden bike with a 50MPH speed difference between the two road users. On more than one occasion I was passed at about 40MPH by a vehicle weighing several tons, with a clearance of less than a foot. Car, lorry and van drivers regard this as a successful clearance, but what they’re not aware of is that the non-fatality of the encounter was due, in part, to evasive action by the cyclist, who has had to instinctively adjust his or her balance to avoid being sucked into the passing vehicle’s slipstream, which in the case of a long vehicle is considerable. This sort of experience is bad for one’s psychology, which explains the permanently aggressive nature of some cyclists towards anyone behind the wheel of a motorised vehicle. Basically, too many encounters like this have just messed up their brains. For this reason, I was glad to get off the Fosse and make my way by lanes through the delightfully-named Offchurch, north of Leamington’s suburbs, through the rather drab Kenilworth (terrible town architecture, but with an amazing castle) to my special set of rare country lanes which would take me between Birmingham and Coventry without a street lamp in sight.

Unfortunately for the residents of the tiny villages on this charming network of lanes, being in the one part of the Midlands which has escaped urbanisation means that they are now part of a precious band which makes up the only route left, not only for solitary cyclists, but also HS2 – the planned fast train route from London to the North-West. As I passed through villages such as Burton Green, I kept seeing protest signs by each driveway. The reason is that the railway’s route is set to carve the charming little village in two. Although its environmental impact will not be as severe as a trunk road or motorway, the community will never have the same sense of unity or tranquillity again, which is very sad.

The landscape gets more undulating the further north you cycle, so by the time I reached the border with Leicestershire, I had become used to a more strenuous mode of cycling, with gentle hill-climbs and the rewards of descents following. I arrived earlier than planned (2.30pm) at the home of my hosts, John and Marion Plant. They are due to return from holiday tonight, so it was arranged that the key would be located for me in the dog-kennel. Now John is particularly adept at taking the mick out out of your intrepid author, so I was wondering whether I would find, instead of the key, a note saying “Welcome to your home for the night. ps. we aren’t back for a fortnight.” However, John was good to his word and the availability of wifi for the first time in the journey means I will hazard posting a few photos.

Again, an easy ride today. Tomorrow is also fairly light, but the the hard stuff bites on Thursday, together with some northern hills.

Theme tune

Map of the ride

Getting out more: Day 1

First, some basic thoughts about my approach to such bike rides. Some of these remarks are more for the benefit of non-cycletourers, but they also touch on matters of debate amongst cyclists. On a long distance bike ride, weight is everything. This includes the weight of the rider, plus that of the bike and, lastly, the weight of the luggage and accessories. It’s only the last factor which can be adjusted easily. But, unless one has a “support vehicle” driving the same route – which I don’t count as cycle touring – even with just the bare minimum of additional clothing, washing stuff etc. one is forced to carry the equivalent weight of a small suitcase in the panniers. This is because you also need more tools than needed for a day-ride plus a decent bike lock plus one or two spares (I take inner tubes and spokes). The end result is that you are going to be carrying this lot for several hundred miles, and that includes up every hill you climb.

The extra weight means you have to make some decisions about speed and effort, especially when going up hills. My thought on this is that if I was worried about speed, I wouldn’t be going on a tour in the first place: I’d be on a lightweight sleek bike, doing circular trips around Bristol. So I keep the speed down, keep the gearing low and avoid muscle and joint strain at all costs. This is about distance, not time. Nevertheless, having booked accommodation ahead in advance, I have to keep the speed up enough to reach my destination by a reasonable time, so pacing through the day is an important factor. After about 5 hours’ cycling, muscles inevitably begin to tire and lose their power, so if the latter part of a day’s journey is hilly, that has to be borne in mind in how the day’s cycling is paced. There have been times when I have got off the bike and been barely able to stand up because my muscles are exhausted. I try to avoid that where possible.

Sleep, after a full day’s cycling comes easily. Food is important. When I was a youngster, I’d carry glucose tablets with me. I would never do that now, as they simply cause a spike in insulin which makes energy transfer very short term – useful if you’re racing, but not if you’re touring. I used to end up wondering why I kept bouncing from one attack of sugar starvation to the next. Ugh. Slow burning carbohydrates are the best. Bananas are a good thing to have, as they metabolise reasonably quickly, but have a good bit of starch in them for fuelling the long haul. Fluid intake is important too. With a constant breeze and a warm body, you are unaware of how high your rate of perspiration is on this kind of cycling. So I drink before I get thirsty, not when I am, otherwise a late afternoon headache will be my reward.

As for today’s route, it was a 46 mile run from Gloucester to Stratford upon Avon. I had considered cycling from the doorstep, but this would have added 20 miles to it, and I wanted a gentle start. The route craftily dodged any climbs onto the Cotswold escarpment, so having left Gloucester station at around 10am, I was at my lunch break in Broadway by 12.15pm with about 30 miles on the clock – over half-way. The hostelry in question was the Broadway Hotel in the high street, which served a truly excellent haddock, peas and chips.

Anyone who has done any serious cycling knows that beer has a strange effect on the legs, one’s principal source of propulsion. After moderate imbibation, the legs feel absolutely fine until any significant call for power is made on them; at which point, they prove very stubborn and ineffective. So if there is any after-lunch hill-climbing to be done or a significant need for pace on the afternoon stretch, beer drinking at lunchtime on a bike trip is out of the question. In my case, I had no hills ahead of me and only about 14 miles of pedalling still needing to be done, so a calculated risk was taken to have what proved to be an excellent pint of Wickwar Coopers with my lunch.

The landscape of the run was classic Heart of England stuff, with Cotswold stone and thatch predominating as far as Broadway, then a move to whitewashed timber-framed building (hey nonnie, nonnie, no…) The oilseed rape fields have come into bloom, and over lunch I encountered an enterprising wasp who I think probably managed to over-winter courtesy of some thatch and regular food served by the pub. Birdsong involved a lot of buzzards, blackbirds and chiff-chaffs. I nearly ran over an Easter bunny who darted in front of my front wheel but then amazingly managed to brake abruptly, reverse course and dart back into the hedge – all in about half a second.

I arrived at Stratford at 2.20pm, which was heaving with bank holiday day-trippers. The hostel is about 3 miles on the other side. Architecturally, it reminds me of a theological college – a large, white-painted Victorian house, with an annex which is now a rather nice bar/restaurant. So evening meal is provided for. Unfortunately, I was greeted by a sign saying the wifi was down, and the 3G signal turns out to be almost nonexistent. So when I’ll get a chance to post this, at the moment I’m not sure. But what I do know is that I’m going to get in a late afternoon doze…

Theme Tune

The Route