Thursday, May 29, 2008

Shropshire, 7.5.06: Beasts Kneaded and Boozy Bread Pudding

S. Abbey. Began the day by reading John Donne: “Man is a lump, where all beasts kneaded be,/Wisdom makes him an Ark where all agree.” And, “That love hath not attained the highest degree/Which is still diligent lest others see.”

All I wrote yesterday balderdash. Just not myself mentally or physically. No boring list of infirmities: all the ills flesh is heir to. They do add up as one ages, though, and have a cumulative succubus effect on vitality.

Yesterday in Shropshire. On the drive from Worcester, forest on either side of roads cut into deep hills of red limestone (?). Carpets of bluebells in the woods, just as authors say. And perhaps because it’s higher and cooler than Kent, daffodils in bloom at the same time, clumps of white and yellow alongside the bluebells. In Kent the daffodils were mostly spent.

Parked at St. Chad’s church, Shrewsbury. A doddering but very sharp elderly woman, slightly stooped and pale, beaky nose and squinty eyes, visited us as angelic presence there, offering us extras of the church poster (which had a price otherwise): “Do take more than one in case the one you have is marred.”

I made the mistake of asking her about the pamphlet re: hatchments (a word we met in Canterbury, that I’m still to fathom), and an intense search began, involving the rector, Rev. Mr. T. Who was stolid and supercilious, greeting both my questions and thanks in total silence. I believe she’s the bane of his existence. I devoutly hope so. She insisted I leave my name and address so they can mail me the pamphlets when they’re found.

A smiling twirling curtseying too girlish altar-guild lady with bunches of flowers. A very friendly parking guide with a slightly Welsh-sounding accent, bright blue rheumy eyes and a high complexion, who presided over the parking lot like an orchestra conductor.

Beautiful city, full of half-timbered houses, as was the town of Much Wenlock through which we drove. The hills and narrow streets reminded me of Kronberg im Taunus.

We were single-minded, though, about seeking the archives. Wonderfully helpful young woman at the tourist information center—sparkling brown eyes. Welsh eyes. I saw two tourist ladies, however, having some joke at my expense. They may have been Welsh and took me for English? (And why, at my age, do I even care and torture myself with whys? They aren’t worth it. One looked like a rather dull camel, all fuzzy lip and big stupid eyes. The other was like a stock figure from a British show about lower middle-class people. I directed a reproachful look at her and she pursed her lips and twisted her neck pertly to show me she was oblivious to reproach from the likes of me.)

In the archives, again that mix: incredible niceness from the receptionist, to a fellow researcher who told me of two other Watmer (Watmore, Watmough) researchers and gave me their addresses, to a Mr. Price who was also researching and talked to me as we worked.

But on the way out, as Steve bought an old Shropshire (repro) map at the receptionist booth and a woman waited in line behind him, I caught her eye, and realized we were Not To Be Taking Her Space. She glared in a way designed to reduce us to worm status. In the glare, she managed to communicate that Americans are so bothersome and crude, an intrusion in her green and pleasant land.
And on to Stottesden (after finding Mary a wonderful pottery hedgehog in a shop window where the owner said, “Oh, yes, Little Rock. I’ll be giving away my age, but when I hear of it, I think of ‘South Pacific’”—a comment that mystified both Steve and me).*

Stottesden: clear evidence of its medieval character in the old stone walls that must once have been drywall but now usually have some mortar. Very thin stone carefully fitted together.

Older farmhouses were a mix of that construction and later (17th-19th century?) brick. We took a picture of one such house just outside Stottesden, which had whimsical topiaries—a bird and a ?—in its front yard. It was called, appropriately, Yew Tree Farm.

Beginning to mizzle as we neared Stottesden, which is high and down many narrow hedged country lanes. Church dark inside, its age very evident. The baptismal font, said to be the most beautiful in Shropshire, was magnificent, what we could see if it—Celtic knots carved across it.

Monastic origins of the church evident in its choir. At the head of the south aisle a little chapel-like area I don’t think I’ve seen in any other church, with a seat so that someone in it would face south—i.e., with his/her back to the main aisle and altar, and looking crosswise at the congregation.

Visiting old churches makes me think about liturgical space—how and why it’s arranged as it is, and what theological (or practical) reasons account for the arrangement. You can often see the whole history of Catholicism to Reformation in a single church—altar to pulpit.

The graveyard had a forlorn feel, with benches rotting and one set of stones enclosed with a coping totally overgrown with ivy and weeds. What story lies there?

It’s one of those graveyards in which animals are now allowed to graze (a sign said this is part of a national ecological movement) and had dried clumps of manure in the high wet grass. It, and the church, on a high hillside. One feels the presence of Wales nearby.

Mr. Price had told me the pub, Fighting Cocks, is good, so we stopped there about 4 P.M. Meals were chalked on the board but not to be had. They included a vegetarian bread and butter pudding and for dessert pecan pie and boozy bread pudding.

Signs—old clippings—said the pub was voted best steak pie in Britain in 2000. An array of cocks on the mantel beside us, of every sort—porcelain, metal, and stuffed. A sign next to two said, “Philippine fighting cocks.”

Men talking in thick Shropshire accents that I couldn’t understand. Though rough-seeming, they also seemed not hostile. Country friendliness—a lovely smile on a young man’s face as we met his tractor in a laneway leaving the village.

+ + + + + + + + +

In Stottesden: as we arrive at what we think is the entrance of the church (oh, those glozening English signs that promise so much and deliver so little), a van drives up. Lady with groceries gets out.

She tells us that we’re at the old vicarage. She has a key to the church and will give it to us in case it’s locked.

As she does so (I’ve told her I’m trying to find Watmer roots), she says, “I hope you find what you’re looking for.”

What a perfect—gentle, inclusive—way to send a pilgrim forth. And the very line my grandmother spoke to me as she commissioned me to forth in the days before her death and my graduation from high school.

*Well, I've now (16.6.2008) managed to inform my ignorant self. The lady was obviously speaking of Nellie Forbush, the character in "South Pacific" who is from Little Rock. I just read an article about how she was booed on stage in New York, when she announced her place of origin, since this proclamation came on the heels of the Central High crisis in Little Rock. And that crisis, of course, occupied our attention far more than the Broadway play, accounting (in part) for my ignorance of the "South Pacific" reference.

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