"He found himself, as he had hoped, afar and forlorn, he had strayed into outland and occult territory."
Arthur Machen "The Hill of Dreams"
After a couple of hours or so in Oundle we headed home, at my suggestion, via King's Cliffe, deep in what was once Rockingham Forest, and a village I hadn't seen for years. It didn't quite dawn on me at the time but we were returning to the valley of the Willow Brook. Rockingham Forest is vast area occupying most of the northern tip of Northamptonshire, a great wedge of upland between the Welland and the Nene. Even though it is now mostly under the plough it is still a remote and sparsely populated area. Looking on the map it is quite clear how the villages in the forest, with the exception of Laxton, are strung out along this little valley. Woodnewton, Apethorpe, King's Cliffe they are all very attractive and I made a mental note to return to each for there was something worth returning to in each one. A little trail of architectural riches. Priority, though, had to be given to Apethorpe, a small estate village of golden stone which contains a mighty Jacobean House: Apethorpe Hall.
Anyway, somehow, we took the wrong turning in King's Cliffe and we continued up the valley of the Willow Brook. This is very likely my fault a) I was more interested in the architecture and looking for traces of William Law the 18th Anglican mystic (Anglicanism's only mystic?) and lived in a sort of exile in King's Cliffe, and b) I was navigating using the very small road map in the back of my 1970s edition of the Shell County Guide to Northamptonshire. It was not as though we were truly lost. I knew we would hit the A43 eventually. So we drove on as the countryside became slightly less ordered, woollier, and then suddenly glimpses of a lake, and then unexpectedly the valley widened out. This was Blatherwycke. It was all very intriguing. An estate village strung out in a great wide circle around the head of the lake and on the far side a walled garden on a low hill. There was no sign of a grand house. That, I later found out, had been demolished in 1948. Blatherwycke is in fact one of four country estates along the Willow Brook; the last two being Deene and the evocative, ruinous Kirby hall. We halted at sign declaring the church open to visitors, went through the gate and found ourselves on a wide grey drive, garden on our left and a newly planted line of evergreen oaks on our right. Beyond them a newly harvested field of wheat climbing up to the horizon and a blue sky. It was all very remote, and although there was the sound of traffic on the A43 there was a profound silence. I felt I was somewhere very ancient, somewhere quite atmospheric. It was the same at the church - which is 'redundant', and managed by the Churches Conservation Trust. It sat sort of nestled between the walled garden and an immense stable block, small and overlooked. Nothing grand about it at all. I thought of the lost demesne in 'Le Grande Meaulnes' by Alain-Fournier. In fact there is little to say about its architecture, The only things really of note were the small cluster of memorials to the Staffords and the O'Briens and the memorial (the work of Nicholas Stone) erected by Sir Christopher Hatton to the poet Thomas Randolph:
Here sleepe thirteene together in one tombe
And all these greate, yet quarrel not for roome,
The Muses and ye Graces teares did not meete,
And grav'd these letters on ye churlish sheete;
Who having wept, their fountains drye,
Through the conduit of the eye,
For their friend who her doth lye,
Crept into his grave nad dyed,
And soe the Riddle is untyed,
For which this church, roud theat the Fates bequeath
Unto her ever-honour'd trust,
Soe much and that soe precious dust,
Hath crown'd her Temples with an Ivye wreath;
Which should have Laurell been,
But yt the grieved Plant to see him dead
Tooke pet and withered.
That said I found Blatherwycke to be the most spiritually nourishing church I visited that day; a place where the two Tolkienian worlds of the seen and unseen were in touching distance. The lack of clutter was a great help. It was hard not to contrast it with the appalling clutter we found in Oundle parish church earlier. Perhaps it's just an Anglican thing, but I suspect the clutter is there because it shields us from either a nothing or a something (I plump for the latter) that is just too dangerous, too difficult to actually engage with. And that's why, I suppose, Law is Anglicanism's only mystic.
Outside I read aloud from Juliet Smith's Shell County Guide to Northamptonshire. It turns out we were not the only ones to feel the atmosphere, only she likened the whole place to the setting of a M R James ghost story.