A little country turn
My co-editor and husband is not fond of these detours, and I can already hear him groaning when he reads this opening line, but I hope you'll like this detour, for it was a bit like falling down a rabbit hole and discovering a quiet and alternate English universe.
It was a lovely afternoon yesterday, bright, with softness in the air. I was driving the old estate car (Americans call this a station wagon) and using Miss TomTom to guide me to a plant nursery on the far side of Winchester. Brick homes and big trees went sedately by and then I was, abruptly, out in the country with fields on either side, ploughed earth shining in the soft February light. "Turn right," insisted Miss TomTom in her semi-strident tones, and I dutifully complied. I had been here before, I knew this road, but when Miss TomTom announced that I had arrived and I could see no turn-off, much less one I recognised, I kept on driving.
"Turn around when possible", shouted Miss TomTom, but there was no turning. My route had become a quintessential English country road with high hedges on both sides. There were slight carve-outs in the hedges, but no obvious place to turn a long car round. And then, on a road barely wide enough for one car, a big silver Mercedes came insolently toward me. I stopped. The Mercedes advanced. Its driver had apparently seen the carve-out in the hedge behind me, and manners dictated that I retreat, take shelter in the hedge and let him pass.
I did, manoeuvring the car with what I thought was some aplomb, and he flashed by in his black shades, not deigning to lift his hand, though the English wave of thanks is customary and oft-seen. I had just begun to move forward out of the hedge when I saw an elderly lady driving toward me. I stopped, flashed my lights, another helpful English signal, letting her know I'd wait for her. At that moment the old lady threw her arms in the air in horror and I realised that the Mercedes, now behind me, had met a new oncomer and was attempting to back into my hedge.
It was all sorted out shortly, the old lady drove forward and I drove toward my rabbit hole. A few minutes later the hedges vanished, and I reached a quiet little island of green in a quiet English village, where, as Yeats so beautifully put it, peace comes dropping slow. I pulled to the side and gazed.
On my left stood old trees along a brick wall, with their feet and the whole bank covered in snowdrops. Beyond stood an old, brick entrance, open and softly shining in the afternoon light, with big trees lining the gravel drive to an unseen house and snow drops shining at their feet. Across from me stood an ancient, flint church. I gazed at the sign outside the church, with the name of the woman rector painted on it, and suddenly I was absolutely sure what I would find inside.
"Turn around when possible," insisted Miss TomTom. Instead I cut the engine and walked toward the church. It was one thousand years old and cold as spring water inside. I said a prayer and turned to look at the bulletins at the back of the church. And there it was, just as I was sure it would be, there in the stillness.
Led by her rector the church had become a place for an ancient Christian practice. The practice was key to a number of the men and women who created justice and freedom. It is described in our book, Share the Inheritance, which you see on the right side of this page. It is described in detail in The Cloud of Unknowing, the 14th century classic by an unknown English author.
Contemplative prayer was being practiced here, and judging by their bulletin, this small parish was busy helping the ill, the old, the unemployed and the lost. I imagined that the insight, love and courage nurtured by this prayer was linked to their work.
I left a small contribution and went outside and drove back down the hedge-lined road toward the nursery. Miss TomTom missed the turning, but I saw it. I could see everything more clearly then.