Gill and Ian’s wedding

A couple of weeks ago, Rich and I had the privilege of attending the wedding of my good friend Gillian Overend to Ian Jones. I met Gill as a fellow leader on Basecamp in 2009, which is a Christian summer camp whose aim is to encourage young christians in godliness and leadership skills. It takes place every year in a National Trust centre at High Wray in the Lake District just to the west of Lake Windermere, and there are around ten leaders and 16 young people aged 16-20. On alternate days we work for the National Trust on things like building footpaths through bogs, or chopping down and burning rhododendron trees . On the intermediate days we do activities like walking and kayaking. There are small Bible study groups and a big meeting every evening with a Bible talk. I went back to Basecamp in 2011 and 2013, in which years Gill acted as an excellent overall leader of the camp!

Gill looking useful

Gill looking useful at Basecamp in 2011 – path building at the Kirkstone Pass. Photo by unknown Basecamp member

Ian and Gill

Walking out of the church! Photo by Rich

Ian and Gill got married in the church where Gill’s father is vicar, although another vicar took the service so that Gill’s dad could focus on his father-of-the-bride job. The church is in Billinge, which is in historic Lancashire, but is now part of modern day Merseyside. Although we set off really early (for us), there had been a major accident on the M6 causing long delays, and we ended up trailing in behind the bride!

The service itself was really joyful, and Rich and I appreciated the sense of God’s presence within it. We were impressed by the address on Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, which was given by the comedian Ian Macdonald, as it was thoughtful and highlighted some of the priorities that are relevant to marriages in the 21st century.

Rich and Jen

Rich and Jen at the reception. Photo by John Southcombe

The day also provided a chance to catch up with some other old friends: Nicola Morris, much revered cook at Basecamp, John and Dawn Southcombe and Hilary Gardner who were all a lot of fun to be around and have inspirational stories of their own faith journeys.

Gill’s attention to detail meant that at the reception we were put on the same table as a family who live in Kenilworth, which is where I grew up. Tim is the churchwarden of St John’s Church in Kenilworth, and it was exciting to hear about the major building project they are currently undertaking. Tim and Fiona’s twin daughters Rhian and Sian were also there celebrating – one day after their own 21st birthdays! I also particularly enjoyed the beautiful piano music at the service and reception, which was played by two of Ian’s friends.

Our table at the reception

Our table at the reception: Ian, Rhian, Sian, Fiona, Hilary, Dawn, John, Nicola, Jen. Photo by Rich

We left before the dancing, much to Rich’s relief, and headed back down to Somerset. Lots of people had reassured us that, at that hour of the evening, the journey back would be much easier than our long journey up. Four-and-a-half hours later and several sets of roadworks later we weren’t so convinced about that, but as we finally got to bed at 1.30am, we agreed that it had been a most excellent day and we were so pleased to have been invited.

The majestic kingfisher

One of the lesser-known hides here – Canada Lake – is brilliant for kingfishers. Having decided to visit more of the reserves in the area, I’d gone to see what was there, and after a while noticed a couple of them zipping around the near side of the lake. A branch next to the hide had been deliberately placed as a perch for them, but they seemed to be using one closer to the water’s edge, and on the wrong side of the reeds from where I was sat; but then, just before I was about to leave, one landed on the branch. Watching and photographing it made me realise, yet again, what magnificent birds they are.

Kingfisher at the Canada Lake hide

Kingfisher from the Canada Lake hide

Kingfisher at the Canada Lake hide: I was lucky that the lighting was just right for the photos - as long as she looked in the right direction!

Kingfisher from the Canada Lake hide: I was lucky that the lighting was just right for the photos – as long as she looked in the right direction!

Kingfisher at the Canada Lake hide: magificent he may be, but you wouldn't want to be on the wrong end of that bill...

Kingfisher from the Canada Lake hide: magificent she may be, but you wouldn’t want to be on the wrong end of that bill…

And then she was off...

And then she was off…

Seeing a little bittern – really well!

Three years ago, little knowing I would end up living here, I travelled from Worcestershire to Ham Wall in order to see a little bittern. I stayed at a local campsite in order to be on site in the early morning. Earlier this summer, rumours began to circulate that a little bittern was being heard and seen again – so, living less than ten minutes from Ham Wall, I was eager for another sighting of this notoriously elusive bird.

Thus it was that, one evening in early July, I headed along the main track towards the eastern end of the reserve, keeping my ears open. Eventually I heard the muffled barking: huf… huf… huf…. With monotonous regularity, there were ten barks every 23 seconds. I waited for well over half an hour, every so often straining over the reeds to see whether I could at least glimpse it – but despite its audibility, it remained out of sight.

Then without warning it suddenly flew up from just below where I was stood, across in front of me – it can’t have been more than ten feet away at one point – before cruising into the middle of the reedbed on the opposite side of the path. I was able to take in the black wings with large white elliptical patches and the bright orangey-yellow bill as it passed by. I’d have been thoroughly content with that – but a few minutes later it returned, albeit a bit further away. Then, shortly after, it flew along the reedbed. Three sightings in about ten minutes – each one far better than the glimpses three years ago.

Little bittern - photo by local wildlife photographer James Packer.

Little bittern – photo by local wildlife photographer James Packer.

A few days later I was chatting with a neighbour who is also a birding enthusiast. I was bemoaning the fact that I’d missed the collared pratincole that had been seen at Ham Wall while Jen and I were in the Scillies. I then mentioned this little bittern sighting, which he thought was more notable: “Some people would kill you for that!” he said.

Wandering among the stones in Cornwall

After our week in the Scillies, Jen and I had a week with my mother in Cornwall near St Cleer. The week mostly revolved around stones and gardens!

Mum and Jen at the Lost Gardens of Heligan

Mum and Jen at the Lost Gardens of Heligan

We visited both the Lost Gardens of Heligan and the Eden Project. Both are very impressive, though in some ways the Lost Gardens were a bit more relaxing to go around, possible because there were fewer eco-political messages.

Our location on the edge of Bodmin Moor meant that we were very close to a number of impressive ancient monuments. One of these is the Hurlers, a collection of three Bronze Age stone circles (around 1500BC) which is, apparently, a unique arrangement. Within two miles was an even older monument, the neolithic Trevethy Quoit, dating from about 3000BC, which may have been as much a shrine as a tomb. These are fascinating and tantalising insights into the communities that lived in the area five millennia ago.

Two of stone circles at the Hurlers.

Two of stone circles at the Hurlers.

Trevethy Quoit, dating from about 3000BC

Trevethy Quoit, dating from about 3000BC

Jen and Rich at the Cheesewring, Bodmin Moor

Jen and Rich at the Cheesewring, Bodmin Moor

Yet more ancient – because it’s entirely natural – is the Cheesewring, a granite tor a mile or so beyond the Hurlers. Jen and I went there on what was meant to be a nice long walk. Instead, we ended up trying to cross a bog (Witheybrook Marsh), and in trying to avoid getting soaked we ended up getting deeper and deeper into it, until we retreated a short distance from where we entered. Jen said, “In a few days’ time you’ll find this funny”.

After we’d extricated ourselves we went up to Craddock Moor and looked for an un-named stone circle that was up there. We succeeded in finding it – and what was interesting was to see what a circle looks like that hasn’t been excavated (although some maintenance does appear to have been carried out).

Stone circle on Craddock Moor

Stone circle on Craddock Moor

We took Mum to Golitha Falls, a lovely wooded stream not far from where we were staying. When we came to a steep section, Mum decided to wait while we descended – but, ever alert, she was soon pointing out grey wagtails flying along the stream. The photo below is some distance from being my best, but it does capture a moment quite nicely!

Grey wagtail feeding a juvenile at Golitha Falls

Grey wagtail feeding a juvenile at Golitha Falls

Jen and I had more walking success going along a short section of the coast path from Looe on our final day. Although the weather was cloudy at the start it cleared up during the afternoon and provided us with some excellent views – and a very showy, if rather flighty, juvenile stonechat.

The coast path west of Looe

The coast path west of Looe

Two snaps and it was off - but this juvenile stonechat was very showy while it was there!

Two snaps and it was off – but this juvenile stonechat was very showy while it was there!

Searching for the desert in the Scillies

There's a good reason why humans are not allowed on Annet... two of the present residents swimming offshore

There’s a good reason why humans are not allowed on Annet… two of the present residents swimming offshore

The Scilly Isles has a large number of deserted islands and rocky outcrops, each of which have their own history… Nornour, in the Eastern isles, was only recently discovered to have housed an important Roman shrine on the way from Gaul to Ireland; Samson was populated until the middle of the nineteenth century; and islands such as Annet now house important seabird colonies.But there were a number of others, which lay close to St Martin’s, that particularly fascinated Jen and myself.

One of these, White Island, lay tantalisingly opposite our lunch spot on our final full day. Seals bobbed around in the sheltered channel, entertainingly curious. I was sure that the map showed that a bar across to the island would appear at low tide but while we were there the sea remained a barrier.

White Island from St. Martin's

White Island from St. Martin’s

We left after lunch, but the lure of exploring a deserted island proved too strong and I persuaded Jen that we should try to cross. By this time another young couple (sorry, a couple who were themselves young) arrived, peered at the sea, and then trod across carefully, trying not to slip from the rocks into any unseen gullies.

So we followed, removing boots and socks, and gingerly waded in… not, in my case, very elegantly… but having learned from the other two we picked our way across without getting too deep. Ten minutes later we looked back and saw that the shingle bar was almost clear of the water… had we waited we’d have crossed with little drama.

White Island at low tide

White Island at low tide: no longer an island

Yet there was still the excitement of being on an uninhabited island, knowing that if we stayed on more than about three hours, we’d be stranded until the next low tide. We were experiencing the allure of the desert… more than a millenium ago, this drew Christian hermits to these islands – and specifically to two that lay a short distance further west.

St Helen's - the home of St Elidius around the 7th century, as seen from White Island

The island at top left is St Helen’s, the home of St Elidius around the 7th century – as seen from White Island

Fifteen hundred years agothese two (St Helen’s and Teän) would have been tidal islands – much as White Island is now. The name St Helen’s is a corruption of St Elidius, the name of a 7th or 8th century hermit about whom little is known, except that he was reputed to be the son of a British king and a bishop. His cell is still visible on the island, as are the mediaeval buildings connected with the monastery on Tresco. In 1461 Pope Pius II granted an indulgence to “the faithful who go in great numbers to the Chapel of St Elidius” [ref] which, whatever the pre-Reformation tone, indicates the great significance of the site locally.

Neighbouring St Helen’s is Teän, a name more obviously derived from ‘Theona’, a female hermit from the same era, about whom even less is known than Elidius. Her influence also seems to have inspired a monastic community that survived for centuries. In the 1950s, an archaeological investigation discovered sixteen Christian graves. One belonged to an elderly lady, who may (because of the location of her grave under the altar of the mediaeval chapel on the island) have been Theona herself.

Teän and St. Helen's - homes to the hermits St Theona and St Elidius - with Round Island Lighthouse in the distance

Teän and St. Helen’s – homes to the hermits St Theona and St Elidius – with Round Island Lighthouse in the distance; viewed from St Martin’s

Like St Cuthbert on Lindisfarne (and later, even more remotely, on Inner Farne), these Celtic saints were heading for the British equivalent of the desert. They were following in the footsteps of Antony the Great towards the end of the fourth century, and the thousands who followed him, in subsequent centuries, into the Egyptian desert. Their purpose was to become holy by battling demons, and to intercede for others in spiritual warfare.

This view of what it is to live a holy life seems alien to us in the 21st century, used as we are to comfortable western lifestyles. But perhaps the island mystics had a better insight into Biblical spirituality than we do today: after all, John the Baptist spent his life in the desert eating locusts and wild honey (Matt 3), and Jesus went into the desert for 40 days and nights specifically to be tested by the devil (Matt 4).

I’m fascinated by St Elidius and St Theona – about whom so little is known except what has been found archaeologically, but who represent a deep strand of Celtic spirituality about which we ourselves have very little understanding.

Exploring the Scillies with Jen

Jen and I have just come back from a couple of weeks in the Scillies and Cornwall. Having been to the Scillies before, I was delighted to be able to introduce Jen to these beautiful islands; although having gone as a birdwatcher previously, many of the sights were new to me as well.

Bants Carn tomb, a Bornze Age entrance grave on St Mary's

Bants Carn tomb, a Bornze Age entrance grave on St Mary’s

For example, there’s a lot of archaeological interest on these islands, and among the most notable are the remains in the north-west of St Mary’s. The Bants Carn tomb (above) is a Bronze Age entrance grave – a style which is prominent in these islands but unusual elsewhere. A short distance below is the Halangy Down village, which dates to about the first and second centuries AD. This is quite extensive: the layout of the village is still prominent, with the remains of 11 stone houses being evident.

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Halangy Down village, dating from about the first two centuries AD. This photo shows part of the Courtyard House.

We stayed in Hugh Town on St Mary’s because of its central location and greater amenities. From there we travelled around the islands during the week: we landed on all of the main ones, but also toured around a few of the outer ones. Whenever we landed we headed out to the wilder areas… about which, more later.

On Shipman Head Down - the northern tip of Bryher - looking towards Men-a-vaur and Round Island lighthouse.

On Shipman Head Down – the northern tip of Bryher – looking towards Men-a-vaur and Round Island lighthouse.

From Bryher to Tresco: with the grimly-named Hangman Island in the middle. The guy waiting by the boat later ferried a load of shellfish across to Tresco.

From Bryher to Tresco, with the grimly-named Hangman Island in the middle. The guy waiting by the boat later ferried several box-loads of shellfish across to Tresco.

Puffins near Annet

Puffins near Annet

We did do some birdwatching… including a rather grim pelagic trip. From the website I’d been led to expect something which was dedicated to birdwatching: instead it was a fishing trip with a few birdwatchers on board. Enough said! In fairness though I did see a number of European storm-petrels which I’d been keen to see – and which only come to land to breed, and only then at night.

We had better success with a more conventional day-time trip to the uninhabited island of Annet, which is closed all year to help conserve the wildlife. We were lucky to see a good number of puffins, which were coming to the end of their breeding season, so are about to leave for the winter. Then as we left Annet and began a return to St Agnes we were attended briefly by a couple of porpoises!

We were very fortunate with the weather, which had been poor in previous weeks but was stable throughout much of our time there, improving towards the end. The best day was our final one, so at the last minute we decided on a tour of the Eastern Isles – which are currently uninhabited, except by seals and sea-birds. I took the photo below as we arrived in the harbour at St Martin’s, before returning to St Mary’s and the boat back to Penzance.

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The view as we arrived in the harbour at St Martin’s, having done a trip round the Eastern Isles (visible on the horizon)

Does post-Christendom enable us to get back to the Gospel?

In the aftermath of the Brexit win in the referendum, it’s natural for Brits to wonder what life will be like after the country leaves the European Union. But as a Christian, I suspect that the move away from Christendom, which has been happening for rather longer, is a much bigger shift – and it affects much of Europe as a whole (ourselves very much included).

I’ve been helped to think about this by a book on Post-Christendom (sub-titled ‘Church and mission in a strange new world’) by Stuart Murray. He’s written in a challenging and thought-provoking way, much of which I agree with – but there’s also much that I am not convinced by.

The core of Murray’s argument is that the church of the first few centuries was marginalised, poor, pacifist and subject to persecution. After the Roman Emperor Constantine came to power, the church became the dominant religious institution, wealthy, willing to go to war, and now prone to perecuting those of other religions – as well as Christian heretics.

This represents the Christendom shift. It is hard to argue against the basic reality of this change, and it is easy to see that the church may well have taken on certain attitudes that were more about religious power than about the gospel. However, Murray is a passionate writer, prone to writing polemically, and I am not convinced that all his arguments stand up to scrutiny.

One example is his treatment of Augustine’s theory of the ‘just war’. Augustine reasoned that a war could be just if certain conditions were met – the most famous of which is if going to war is a lesser evil than not doing so. The second world war to combat Hitler’s Nazi regime is often referred to in this context. Murray – himself a convnced pacifist – regards just war theory as an example of Christendom thinking that would not have been possible in the pacifist early church, and is therefore inherently suspect. Instead, this is a subject that should prompt some more nuanced thinking: some wars are, at the very least, more just than others – but protagonists may try to cloak their actions with the ‘just war’ label whatever the actual morality.

Nevertheless, Murray makes a rather pungent critique of the Reformation which highlights an issue that I had not recognised before: for all that the Reformers did change, they remained embeded within the Christendom mindset. They continued to embrace the opportunity for political power, as the Roman Catholic church had done previously. It has long puzzled me that the long and brutal Thirty Years’ War in Central Europe (from 1618 to 1648) was between Protestants and Catholics – how on earth did they think this was consistent with Jesus’ teaching in the gospels? What the Protestant reformers didn’t change was this Christendom mindset, in which power games seemed to play a key part. Presumably all sides thought they were fighting a ‘just war’…

The later part of the book is about mission in a post-Christendom world, and I tend to think that he brings to his discussion rather too much of his own personal gripes with some sections of the church. A much better, and far more practical, treatment is ‘Making new disciples’ by Mark Ireland and Mike Booker, which is a survey of different approaches to mission and how they are faring in a changing culture. Nevertheless, Murray’s book, despite his polemical tendency, is a most valuable treatment of an issue which seems to be below the radar of the wider culture.

Meanwhile…

Jen at the Open Gardens in Catcott

Jen at the Open Gardens in Catcott

Jen and I have been enjoying getting to know the Somerset area over the last few weeks. This weekend there were two particularly good events, though in very different ways – the Ashcott Beer Fest and the Catcott Open Gardens.

Until we arrived, we hadn’t realised how well organised the Beer Fest actually is – with a large variety of beers available to taste, and live entertainment in another marquee.

The Open Gardens event was also extremely well organised – with guests being driven round in classic cars provided by a Catcott resident! It might not surprise readers of this blog to know that one of my highlights of the day was an unplanned intruder…

Look who slithered into the Open Gardens... a grass snake in Catcott

Look who slithered into the Open Gardens… a grass snake in Catcott