For our fifteenth wedding anniversary we were itching for a big city scratch with a difference. Despite my heathen leanings, I do like an impressive church, and few are more impressive than London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, Christopher Wren’s tour de force topped with its heavenly dome. The earlier Gothic pile was torched along with much of the old medieval city in the Great Fire of 1666. It’s reckoned the blaze started in a bakery in the appropriately named Pudding Lane, bringing a whole new meaning to the hallowed phrase ‘give us our daily bread’.
Meandering around the flashy Baroque splendour brought back happy memories of my first pilgrimage – back in my spotty teens when I accompanied my grandmother, who was over from Ireland.
According to the annals, there’s been a church on the same spot since 604 AD, and possibly as far back as the late Roman period, as suggested by a plaque listing the pre-Norman bishops with their glorious tongue-twister names.
In stark contrast to the lavish decor above, the crypt is simply appointed and stuffed with the tombs of kill and cure notables from days long past, from Florence Nightingale and Alexander Fleming – who discovered penicillin quite by chance – to the victors of Trafalgar and Waterloo, Nelson and Wellington. Napoleon must be spinning in his monumental Parisian grave. Wren is there too, of course.
After piety came avarice, with indulgent afternoon tea and bubbles in The Swan at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre followed by mother’s ruin at Halfway to Heaven, the homo watering hole near Nelson’s massive column, where Liam and I first met. They knew we were coming judging by the ultimate gay megamix playing on the jukebox – Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, Marc Almond, The Communards, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Dead or Alive, Gloria Gaynor and Hazel Dean – with Liza Minnelli’s ‘Love Pains’ bringing up the rear. Liam’s shoulders shimmied to the beat. Perfect.
Every month without fail, Chet Contact drops on the mat. Produced by the Chet Valley Churches, the community magazine is packed with handy information about local community groups and services for believers and non-believers alike. There’s a lot going on round these parts. From bells to balls, bats to bowls, cakes to quizzes, pumping iron to eyeing up the birds, from stage to the silver screen, arts and crafts, knitting to nattering, foraging to growing your own, and much more besides – all country life is here.
I like the regular history piece in the mag. I knew Loddon has old roots – the earliest written reference to the village was around 1042 – but I was surprised to read that there’s been a pharmacy in Loddon on the same site for over 180 years. It’s now a branch of Boots. Long gone are all those jars full of potions laced with opium and mercury from the apothecary’s handbook of old wives’ tales. Maybe that’s why, back then, life expectancy was only about 57.
I’ve never been religious. Despite singing hymns and reciting the Lord’s Prayer in school assemblies back in my kiddie years, the whole God thing pretty much washed over me without leaving a mark. Sure, I liked the Jesus fables – still do. I even once played one of the three wise men in the school nativity. And who wouldn’t agree with the whole ‘peace and goodwill’ Christmas message?
I think my lack of faith has much to do with my upbringing. My parents were little troubled by the vicar. The only trips to church were for weddings, funerals and christenings, which was more to do with social convention than piety. I have four siblings. The first two were baptised in swaddling clothes but my eldest sister had to wait four whole years before she got her dip in the font, accompanying me in a kinda two-for-one offer. And my youngest sister is still a heathen. I guess as time went by, my folks just got a bit bored with the charade.
It seems quite a few of my fellow citizens agree with my strictly secular world-view. According to latest census data for England and Wales published by the Office for National Statistics, the proportion of people describing themselves as Christian has dropped below 50 per cent for the first time since the Dark Ages.
So as a confirmed atheist, imagine my surprise when this popped up in my in-basket.
I opened the email when these two sinners were boozing in a Soho gay bar. Oh, the irony. I really don’t care what people believe in – gods, prophets, angels or the tooth fairy – it’s ok with me. If someone wants to think the world is flat and the moon is made of cheese, that’s fine too. But whoever bought my personal data should get a refund.
Season’s greetings and wishing you all goodwill. God knows we could do with some peace on earth right now.
In Bury St Edmunds, obviously – or is he? The cute Suffolk market town might be the final resting place of St Edmund, ninth-century Christian king of East Anglia. Allegedly, he was cut down by a wild bunch of pillaging Danes doing what the Danes did back then.
Eventually those pillaging Danes saw the error of their wicked heathen ways, dropped to their knees, converted to the ‘One True Faith’ and hung up their horny helmets.
For his sins, Eddie the Martyr was canonised and an abbey founded in his honour by that great Dane, King Canute – he of holding-back-the-tide fame. Edmund even became England’s patron saint for a few hundred years until he was rudely upstaged and replaced by George in or around the fourteenth century. And Georgie boy wasn’t even English. But then, who can compete with a dragon slayer?
In Medieval times, a gravy train of pilgrims rolled in from all over Europe to visit Eddie’s shrine. It was a good little earner and the Abbey of St Edmund became one of the richest, largest and most powerful Benedictine monasteries in all of England. Then in 1539 that old letch Henry the Eighth popped along and ‘dissolved’ the abbey (i.e. pillaged like those Danes of old) and that was the end of that.
A sunny day took us across county lines for a gander around the old holy pile. Apart from two impressive medieval gatehouses, little remains of the abbey itself, though next door is Bury St Edmunds Cathedral called – wait for it – St Edmundsbury. The Abbey’s pretty grounds are lovingly tendered by the local council and a dedicated army of volunteers; many of them could well be the descendants of those pillaging Danes who cut down the saintly king. ’Tis their penance.
All is forgiven. Nowadays, we really like the Danes.
Among the roses and the ruins, there’s a World War Two memorial to the US Airforce (or the US Army Airforce as it was known back then). The USAF was, and still is, big round these parts as East Anglia is famously flat and just a short bombing raid to the continent.
But … the current whereabouts of Edmund’s sainted bones is anyone’s guess.
We have old friends in Torquay, a palm tree-lined seaside resort in Devon. We hadn’t seen them in ages because of the pandemic, so a catch-up was well overdue. All roads lead to London, and we didn’t fancy the hassle of crossing the sprawling metropolis only to come out the other side, so we flew from Norwich International airstrip to Exeter International airstrip on a little jet – like Z-listers without the paps.
Old Exeter – Roman Isca Dumnoniorum, Saxon Execeaster – has been around a while, though at first glance you’d never know it. The Luftwaffe did a great job flattening the city in the Second World War, so you have to look closely to find ancient treasures.
Mercifully, the magnificent cathedral, founded in 1050, was spared the hellfire that destroyed pretty much everything else – a little odd considering it sticks out like a bullseye at the heart of the city. Although I’m not religious in the slightest, I do so love a gander round a holy pile.
Most of what the visitor sees is thirteenth century, and what impresses first is the awe-inspiring ceiling that soars towards the heavens. At 96 metres, it’s the longest continuous medieval stone vault in the world. It surely convinced the hovel-dwelling, unwashed illiterati of old that it was made with divine intervention – and so helped keep them on their knees.
And then there are all the elaborate tombs – mostly containing the old bones of long-dead bishops.
After Exeter, we spent the next couple of days hitting the sherry and chewing the cud with our old muckers at their palatial digs in Torquay. And fantastic it was too. Our hosts are a little camera shy so, instead, here’s an elegant bust of Agatha Christie, the queen of the whodunnit and the best-selling fiction writer of all time, who was born in the town.