(James writes a monthly column for The Gudgeon. Each month, the previous month’s article is archived.)
As I sit down in my garden preparing to write this month’s article for The Gudgeon, I can hear a Sunday morning church congregation. Their collective larynx rises in adoration and prayer, and I’m reminded that the human voice is the greatest of all musical instruments – apart from mine which sounds like a rusty hinge.
Listening to their hymns floating in the air causes me to ponder on the extent to which, in Bradford on Avon, religious life is all around us and for many, within.
At article-writing-school there was a sign that read: ‘Beware Writing About Religion’. The gnarled old hacks who tutored us would wag their nicotine-stained fingers and wheeze: “Find another subject unless you know what you’re talking about.” And they taught us to write about bridges and dogs and railway stations instead.
But it’s hard not to touch on the subject of religion when you live here. Especially for an inquisitive agnostic like me. Take bell-ringing. I stand in my garden watering my cucumber on a Monday morning and I hear the distant peal of church bells. Sally and I go for a late walk on a Wednesday night and we hear another distant peal. Why are bells ringing at all these random times?
Of course, I’m sure they’re not random. I just have no idea what’s going on (which, to be fair, is the natural state of an agnostic). I sometimes wonder if the bells are talking to each other and then I wonder if anyone is pulling their ropes. And then I lock all the doors.
But I do find the peal of bells comforting. Perhaps because I associate the word ‘peal’ with a positive, joyous mood – as in, ‘peals of laughter’. Interestingly, we have a friend coming to stay who has a phobia of bells – Kampanaphobia (that’s the fear, not his name). He’s going to have a great time especially when we show him around all the churches.
That will be quite a task. During my daily walks I’ve counted fourteen places of worship and I’m sure there must be more. They’re part of the fabric of the town. Part of its shape, its sound, its substance.
Some are more famous than others. The Anglo-Saxon church of St Laurence is the ecclesiastical town celebrity, appearing in both Simon Jenkins’s Great English Churches and Betjeman’s Best British Churches. St Laurence was a tough cookie. He was martyred on a gridiron with hot coals but allegedly called out, “I’m well done on this side. Turn me over.” He’s now the patron saint of chefs and comedians.
What also blows my mind is that this church contains a piece of fossilised tree thought to have been shaped 150 million years ago. That’s insane. Whenever I see that piece of ancient tree my brain stops working and I have to be taken outside and sat down.
My favourite place is the Chapel of St Mary Tory. Perhaps because it was once a hermitage and a pilgrim chapel on the route between Glastonbury and Malmesbury, it fosters in me a sense of quiet contemplation. I could sit there for hours, still and silent, and think of nothing and anything. Which, coincidentally, is how I write articles.
And that reminds me: I have a deadline to meet. I should stop pondering and start writing. The old hacks at article-writing-school were very firm on that. They had another sign that read: ‘Always Hit Your Deadline’. I suppose if I’ve ignored one diktat then the least I can do is follow the other. The question is, what shall I write about?