A place called England: tracing paths of the world’s becoming – a case study

My 1956 Viking Ian Steele at Coploe Hill
Before giving the address I played the children and the congregation a song written by Maggie Holland called "A Place Called England". Apart from (St) George and (King) Arthur the names that appear in the song are not famous people but ordinary people Maggie knew or knows.

This song won her a BBC award and she tells us that it was 'inspired by Christopher Hill's book "The World Turned Upside Down", Leon Rosselson's song of the same name, Naomi Mitchison's "Sea-Green Ribbons", William Cobbett's "Cottage Economy", Hamish Henderson's "Freedom Come-All-Ye", Jean Giono's "The Man Who Planted Trees" and "animated discussions with (rightly) proud and passionate Scots like Dick Gaughan".'

The song has become an important in some of the debates about how we might reclaim a positive sense of English identity. Here's a live version of the peerless June Tabor performing the song and the lyric is reproduced below. Get June's version HERE and Maggie's HERE:

I rode out on a bright May morning
Like a hero in a song
Looking for a place called England
Trying to find where I belong
Couldn't find the old flood meadow
Or the house that I once knew
No trace of the little river
Or the garden where I grew

I saw town and I saw country
Motorway and sink estate
Rich man in his rolling acres
Poor man still outside the gate
Retail park and burger kingdom
Prairie field and factory farm
Run by men who think that England's
Only a place to park their car

But as the train pulled from the station
Through the wastelands of despair
From the corner of my eye
A brightness filled the filthy air
Someone's grown a patch of sunflowers
Though the soil is sooty black
Marigolds and a few tomatoes
Right beside the railway track

Down behind the terraced houses
In between the concrete towers
Compost heaps and scarlet runners
Secret gardens full of flowers
Meeta grows the scent of roses
Right beneath the big jet's path
Bid a fortune for her garden
Eileen turns away and laughs

So rise up George and wake up Arthur
Time to rouse out from your sleep
Deck the horse in the sea-green ribbons
Drag the old sword from the deep
Hold the line for Dave and Daniel
As they tunnel through the clay
While the oak in all its glory
Soaks up sun for one more day

And come all you at home with freedom
Whatever the land that gave you birth
There's room for you both root and branch
As long as you love the English earth
Room for vole and room for orchid
Room for all to grow and thrive
Just less room for the fat landowner
On his arse in his four-wheel drive

England is not flag or Empire
It is not money it is not blood
It's limestone gorge and granite fell
It's Wealden clay and Severn mud
It's blackbird singing from the may-tree
Lark ascending through the scales
Robin watching from your spade
And English earth beneath your nails

So here's two cheers for a place called England
Badly used but not yet dead
A Mr. Harding sort of England 
Hanging in there by a thread
Here's two cheers for the crazy Diggers
Now their hour shall come around
We can plant the seed they saved us
Common wealth and common ground

In this address I want to try to show how the things I have talked about in the previous two weeks play out. In a nutshell what I said in those earlier addresses was about us developing an ability to read the world - i.e. better able to respond conversationally to what it seems to be saying to us and, secondly, to do this by understanding ourselves, not as a discrete disconnected things in a world of other discrete disconnected things, but as a sentient "line of becoming" which, itself, is but one of the sentient world's countless complex paths of becoming and ongoing renewal. The hope is to bring us to a " . . . a recognition of life's capacity continually to overtake the destinations that are thrown up in its course" and to see that, as the anthropologist Tim Ingold said:

"It is of the essence of life that it does not begin here or end there, or connect to a point of origin with a final destination, but rather that it keeps on going, finding a way through the myriad of things that form, persist and break up in its currents. Life, in short, is a movement of opening, not of closure" (Ingold p. 3-4).

(Tim Ingold's new book is called "Being Alive - Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description")

I begin this address (though it is not really a beginning for we are always-already in the world) with the forthcoming event to which I referred in the notices - namely the most unwelcome visit of the far-right English Defence League to protest against the building of a new mosque here in Cambridge. Although it is clear one must find a way to challenge such views it is never absolutely clear what is the most appropriate way to do this. However, what is absolutely clear, is that a process of discernment must take place within the wider community as a whole with all the affected voices being heard. Ensuring that something of this process does occur has taken up much of my week. However, by the time I got to Thursday afternoon I was wiped out, flagging and more than a little down. I've never found it easy to get myself, alone, out of such a mood and have learnt that to get out of such a slough of despond I need a conversation with the world. The quickest way to get that help is to go out into the world - consciously to take one's own line of becoming into the countless other lines of becoming that form the very meshwork of existence itself. I have a number of ways of weaving myself consciously back into this meshwork but on that day chose to ride my bicycle because I felt I really had to get beyond the city limits. But where to go? Again it is key to listen to the world - noticing how it is showing up for you. On Monday of last week, after conducting a funeral, I was invited back with the rest of the mourners to the home of the daughter of the deceased in the village of Duxford. I hadn't been to the village for a while and, as I drove there and back I was reminded of some of the lovely lanes nearby. Alas, I got back that Monday evening to the beginning of the shenanigans around the EDL and all too quickly forgot about those quiet roads. But now in my mind I saw their distinctive weave and felt their pull on my own line of becoming. The conversation had begun (though do remember that when I set out I did not know it would result in something that could become an address).

I got on my bicycle (the 1956 Viking Ian Steele - photo above) and made Duxford in good time and decided to spin on south to Ickleton. Here there is a site of a Roman villa and to the west, just over the river Cam in Great Chesterford, there was a large Roman fort and town.

Great Chesterford is one of the earliest Roman sites in Britain and may have been occupied during the initial campaign season of Aulus Plautius in A.D.43. It may even have been first used by the men of the legendary Ninth Spanish Legion. Here the landscape reminds us of what was for the people of this land a very frightening alien invading force. But, like all Roman sites, it quickly became something we now call a Romano-British town and so a major co-mingling was begun - the Romans here became British, the British became Roman. A mile east of the town was what the scholars call a Romano-Celtic temple - that is to say even the gods got to some serious co-mingling.

I couldn't but help but be reminded that the members of the EDL, just like you and me, are products of such a riotous national and religious co-mingling.

Musing on this word from the world I took off further south to cycle up Coploe Hill. Half-way up it is an old chalk-pit which has become a nature reserve and there I've enjoyed many flasks of tea. I decided to repeat the pleasure. If you look west from here you can see some rare 'strip lynchets' which are banks 'formed at the end of a field by soil which, loosened by the plough, gradually moves down slope through a combination of gravity and erosion.' These banks were, of course, made by those who were descended from all that commingling in the valley below - and here, for centuries these people tilled the good earth until, slowly but surely, they became again in their own minds one people. A process that had to be repeated yet again, of course, when the Normans came.

The strip lynchets (very hard to see in this photo) run
from the field on the far-left of the picture to the centre. 

The Anglo-Saxon arch
Fortified by tea and a banana and this second word from the world I set off once more intending to turn west off this road shortly after the top of the hill. However, I was so wrapped up in my thoughts about the commingling of peoples that I quite missed the turning and eventually found myself at an unexpected T-junction a mile or so beyond the turning I needed. Ooops. Going on would add too many miles to my ride so I had to turn around and retrace part of my route. On the way back I noticed a small signpost to Strethall church which lies at the end of a short single track road - perhaps a quarter of a mile long - that stops abruptly in a farmyard hard by the church. I had the time and the inclination to go and look and I'm glad I did. The small eleventh-century church (1050-1100) church - unlocked - is a real delight. On stepping inside one is immediately struck by the chancel arch which H. M. Taylor describes as "one of the finest examples of Anglo-Saxon workmanship in smaller parish churches" - and he is right. Often it's just the architecture that shows up when you look at such things but today I heard something else for the Anglo-Saxons were also much commingled and the cause of further commingling of lines of becoming. As most of you will know when the last of the Roman soldiers left Britain in AD 410 a mixture of folk arrived here from north Germany, Denmark and northern Holland - Saxons, Angles and Jutes and, just for good measure, some Franks and Frisians too.

From "Our Father" by Joan Gale Thomas
My habit upon entering a church - at least when I'm on my own - is to go straight to the altar rail, kneel and say the Lord's Prayer - itself, of course, a prayer that commingles us with far-away lands and the line of becoming that was Jesus of Nazareth and thence the complex weave that we call the Christian tradition. Anyway, I've always done this and I imagine I always will. As I say the prayer I know, really know, that generations of my forbears have done likewise and that this speech-act weaves me into this ongoing line of Christian becoming as well as with those of all who have found in this particular church a sense of deep meaning and worth. Saying the Lord's Prayer is for me an embodied thing far greater than simply the superficial meaning of the words. But, on this occasion, it spoke in a particularly special way because in 1970 when I was 5 years old my grandmother - who taught me the prayer - gave me a book which illustrated the text with what I thought were magical drawings. You have one before you now and you will see that it speaks of, and illustrates, children of all nations together going to worship. Consequently, in this place and at this time, the words of this ancient prayer spoke to me in a particularly compelling way as being about the deep comminglement in God of all peoples' lines of becoming - a third word from the world.

It was for me a very moving moment and was still very much with me as I mounted on my bicycle and cycled on to the turning I had missed earlier. At this point the road climbs to a 100 metres from which highish point you can see right across the fields to the big house called Ickleton Grange and thence to Chrishall beyond. And, right down the middle of it all, is the wonderful sight of an open road - a veritable path of the world's becoming - calling you down into this landscape. Everytime I have traced this road I have stopped here before enjoying the descent. And standing there, looking at the carefully tended summer fields, with the skylarks singing all around and with the world's words which throughout the ride had been speaking constantly to me about the commingling of peoples who went on to work this land together, suddenly into my head and onto my tongue sprang the verse from the song I played you earlier:
Looking north-west with Ickleton Grange on the right
England is not flag or Empire
It is not money it is not blood
It's limestone gorge and granite fell
It's Wealden clay and Severn mud
It's blackbird singing from the may-tree
Lark ascending through the scales
Robin watching from your spade
And English earth beneath your nails

The whole landscape was speaking to me in this way - it was saying to me that belonging to this landscape - this common wealth and common ground, this England, whatever the land that gave you birth - is conditional only on having a love of freedom and of the English earth, and for those who do so love, those who are prepared to get English dirt beneath their nails, for them there really is room both root and branch.

Here, atop this lovely Essex hill, despite my tiredness, there came swelling up the physical and spiritual energy necessary for the coming week's struggles. I set off into the valley and homeward bound still unsure, to be sure, about how exactly to proceed, but knowing deeply why I will never ever support any ideology - political or religious - that seeks to despoil this extraordinary place of welcome, inclusivity and commingling of people and ideas called England.