Just an ordinary Saturday in the Polden Wheel… (ahem)

It’s good when great things happen in the parish and the vicar has little to do with them!

This morning started off with the Big Breakfast in Ashcott. It may not be a surprise to some of my readers that an event advertising ‘breakfast’ was going to be a big draw for me! It had been advertised as a charity fundraiser in the village so it was a real pleasure to walk into the hall and find it was effectively being run by the church’s core group! Freda Prime and Margaret Trim’s team cooked over 90 breakfasts between about 9 and 11 – about double what they were expecting!

The Big Breakfast in the Ashcott Village Hall

The Big Breakfast in the Ashcott Village Hall

About a month ago, Nigel Steady told me he’d booked the Christian singer/songwriter Paul Field, and asked whether it would be ok to use Shapwick Church? I was hardly going to say ‘no’ but was a bit worried about his organising a concert in one month flat. I needn’t have worried: this evening’s event was outstanding.

Paul Field in concert at Shapwick church

Paul Field in concert at Shapwick church

Paul Field has been campaigning on slavery and human trafficking issues, such as through the Stolen Lives project.

Over a career spanning forty years, Paul has worked with secular artists like Gloria Gaynor, Katie Melua and Rick Wakeman, as well as Christian singers like Cliff Richard, Natalie Grant and Rebecca St James. More recently he’s been involved with social issues like modern-day slavery and human trafficking. His concert included some powerful and challenging videos and songs that brought out the reality of slavery in the world today. For example, there are currently believed to be 21 million people enslaved worldwide, 13,000 of whom are in the UK [eg Free the Slaves stats]. This has led to his doing work for the Stolen Lives project, which featured in this concert.

This all contributed to a high-quality and very thought-provoking evening. For me personally it all contributed to a great weekend – not least in realising the gifts and talents of those in the parish!

Cuthbert and the otters

There’s a story about the Celtic hermit-monk, St Cuthbert, and a pair of otters, which is very endearing – but whose truth, until recently, I doubted. It’s told by Bede, his biographer and near-contemporary.

An icon of Cuthbert praying - with otters in attendance

An icon of Cuthbert praying – with otters in attendance (from Aidan Hart Sacred Icons)

Cuthbert lived as a monk on Lindisfarne in the 7th century, and soon acquired a reputation of great holiness. While visiting another monastic community he was known to slip outside in the middle of the night and return in the morning. A fellow monk wanted to find out what he did, so one night he followed him from a distance. He discovered that Cuthbert waded into the sea up to his neck. When morning came he returned, knelt on the beach, and prayed. While he did so, “two otters bounded out of the water, stretched themselves out before him, warmed his feet with their breath, and tried to dry him with their fur. They finished, received his blessing, and slipped back to their watery home”.

It’s hardly surprising that Cuthbert had a reputation for closeness to nature! But when I frist read the story my thoughts were, “I wish this were true, but really, it’s too far-fetched; it must be pious legend.”

I thought the same about another story of Cuthbert – his association with crows – but that changed because of evidence from an unexpected source.

Cuthbert had sought greater solitude in later life and ended up on Inner Farne, a small, bleak island in the North Sea off the Northumbrian coast. Some ravens that shared the island decided that straw on the visitors’ house would make great nesting material. Cuthbert rebuked them – but they ignored him. So Cuthbert resorted to more drastic words: “In the name of Jesus Christ, depart forthwith!”. At this, the ravens departed.

Bede records what happened next: “Three days later, one of a pair of them returned, and finding Cuthbert digging, stood before him, with feathers outspread and head bowed low to its feet in a sign of grief. Using whatever signs it could to express contrition it very humbly asked pardon. When Cuthbert realised what it meant, he gave permission for them all to return. Back they came with a fitting gift – a lump of pig’s lard. Cuthbert would often show this to his visitors, inviting them to grease their shoes with it”.

Again a lovely story – but again one that my sceptical mind doubted severely.

Until I read a couple of articles on the BBC News website about crows bringing gifts. The one that really struck me was about a crow called Sheryl (geddit?!): “Sheryl brings me gifts. My first was presented to me with her wings splayed open and head bowed. I was very ceremoniously handed a yellow foam dart from a toy gun! She refused to take the dart back as she does when we play games. I felt truly honoured.”

What really struck me about the story is not just the fact that it brought the gift, but the gesture while doing so which evoked Bede’s description of Cuthbert’s raven. I suddenly realised that story had a ring of truth to it: he was accurately describing the bird’s behaviour. Whether the ravens were “repentant” in the way that Bede described is a little less clear- but perhaps the event itself is described accurately.

I wonder whether the same might be said of Cuthbert and the otters? Perhaps they did indeed play around his feet as described – but perhaps with less intention to warm him with their breath and dry him with their fur as the monk described? I’m realising that I may have underestimated the veracity of Bede’s ‘Life of Cuthbert’, which the story of the ravens unexpectedly reveals.

An otter sighting

I may have otters on the brain at the moment. I went for a birding trip last week to the new hide at Catcott Lows which overlooks a small, reed-lined lake. There was hardly a bird in sight, apart from a little egret on the far side and three little grebes in the middle. Then I became aware that there was a form in the water to my left – “What have we here?” I thought, as I saw the unmistakable shape of an otter swimming through. It cruised along, diving gracefully, emerging to swim further on and dive again. I watched it doing this for about five minutes before it disappeared. It was a stunning sighting!

The stories about Cuthbert are from “The Age of Bede”, Penguin (2004), p54 and p71

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…

The bell tolled (eventually)

If I look relieved, it's because this time the bell rope held...

If I look relieved, it’s because the second bell rope held…

We were in the middle of my being installed as vicar of the Polden Wheel, when we came to the ceremonial bell-ringing. The Archdeacon said, “Give it a good pull so that those in Ashcott can hear it”.

So I did – and the entire bell-rope came away in my hands.

Suffice it to say that this seems to have been most people’s highlight of the service… Probably a good thing I’m not really into slightly odd rituals…

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my first few weeks as vicar of the Polden Wheel (and I’m not just saying that because I’ve just had a tasty bacon butty at Cafe Burtle this morning). Jen and I have both been genuinely impressed about the warmth of the welcome in this area – and I feel privileged to have been appointed as the vicar here.

First service at Burtle - with Helen, Josie, Jen and Alison.

First service at Burtle – with Helen, Josie, Jen and Alison. Photo: Rosemary Tucker

Jen’s still working in London two days a week (and a third from home): it’s a journey that takes us cross-country from Shapwick to Castle Cary. We travel up over Berhill and there’s a short stretch which, on a sunny day, has stunning views over to Glastonbury Tor.

Not a bd view to have on a commute... Glastonbury Tor from Berhill on the way to Castle Cary

Not a bad view to have on a commute… Glastonbury Tor from Berhill on the way to Castle Cary

The vicarage garden has plenty of potential for growing fruit and vegetables. There is one small, but growing problem… the vicarage bunny…

We'll get along fine if he understands that he can have as many buttercups as he likes, but the strawberry plants are mine...

We’ll get along fine if he understands that he can have as many buttercups as he likes, but the strawberry plants are mine…

He’s very cute, and so far we’re getting along fine… I’m just a bit worried that he’ll begin to discover why his forepaws are so well-suited to shifting soil…

I’ve also had quite a lot of bird-related conversations… The news seems to have spread that the vicar is a bit of a birdwatcher… So I’ll finish this post with a showy juvenile whitethroat that appeared while I was wandering along Shapwick Heath earlier this week.

Juvenile whitethroat at Shapwick Heath

Juvenile whitethroat at Shapwick Heath

Leaving west Worcestershire

Almost four years ago, I arrived as a curate (and as a single bloke!) in west Worcestershire. On Sunday evening, Jen & I had our final leaving event, and on Tuesday the removals men arrived and we departed for Somerset.

There are many things that I’ll miss about Worcestershire, and it’s difficult to pick out particular events… but I’ll have especially good memories of the cafe churches, the discipleship group and the youth group. Working with David Sherwin (‘the rabbi’) has been a real pleasure – not least because of his irrepressible good humour and generosity of spirit. I also greatly valued our friendly neighbours in Wichenford. (It’s also difficult picking out representative photos from the past couple of weeks – partly because I took none at the final one!)

Barbecue at Rich & Marianne Cole's house for the Discipleship Group & family members. L-R: Francis & Sarah; Callum; Charlotte & Geoff; Marianne; Jen; Rich

Barbecue at Rich & Marianne Cole’s house for the Discipleship Group & family members. L-R: Francis & Sarah; Callum; Charlotte & Geoff; Marianne; Jen; Rich

Supper at Jenny Sawtell's. L-R: Chris; Rich; Jenny; Jen; Adrian & Joyce; Dot; Tony; Marianne.

Supper at Jenny Sawtell’s. L-R: Chris; Rich; Jenny; Jen; Adrian & Joyce; Dot; Tony; Marianne.

We arrived in Somerset on Tuesday evening and have been unpacking boxes since then! This nearby roadsign seems symbolic, as it has five of the villages in the Polden Wheel parish being represented (the missing one is Ashcott, which is further east, and Cossington is part of another group).

The way to go... roadsign near Catcott.

The way to go… roadsign near Catcott.

Becoming a vicar in Somerset

I’m delighted to announce that I’ve been appointed as the next vicar of the Polden Wheel benefice in Somerset. Jen and I went there for a visit and interview just over a week ago, and we were excited by what we saw there and by the potential for future growth.

The benefice is made up of six churches, which lie just to the north of the A39 between Bridgwater and Street. In being a group of rural churches, it’s quite similar to the Martley group here in west Worcestershire.

The start date is likely to be towards the end of May.


Shapwick Church. Image © Simon Ellis

As it happens I’ve visited the area several times over the years, because of the existence of a couple of outstanding bird reserves, Shapwick Heath NNR and Ham Wall RSPB. Here’s a view that I took last May.


A view from Ham Wall towards Glastonbury Tor.