24 May 2022
I lodge with Steve near Burford. It isn’t really lodging - more like the perfect storm of late-evening, chatter-fuelled-church-crawling from one village to the next in Steve’s ancient Ford Pickup which has over 300 000 miles on the clock.
“What’s that tapping?” I say, as we hurtle through the lanes. “It’s outside, I’ve fashioned a new aerial for the van.” He winds down the window and reaches out to relocate the coat-hanger wire. “Never mind that,” he says, “We’re off out churchin'. We’ve got some real gems to see tonight - apotropaics up to our armpits.”
It’s a rollercoaster ride in off-road tyres, through the grouse-strewn, pheasant-clotted back lanes of the Cotswolds. Villages pass by that have never seen a tourist. Their names slip off the tongue like a Betjeman poem:
Toddington, Oddington, Stanway,
Sherborne, Westwell and Windrush.
We pass pubs with nooks that only harbour locals, hunkered down in Barbours, Pointers by their laps, pints and chasers on their tables.
The roads curve and rise. Cow-parsley curtsies in the down-draught. Sometimes the lanes are hedged, other times they’re dry-stone topped with cocks-comb copings. We dip into tracks that rarely see the light of day, vaulted by an entanglement of trees. Every now and then they’re punctured by a grandiose gateway or a lodge house to an estate. Beyond the tree line, follies and spires twist and angle into view and are gone as quickly as they arrive.
Later in the day the sun cajoles us, blinds us, stops us in our tracks and then hides behind a copse. A single track road leads to a crooked church - walls leaning, porch dotted with mass dials. The truck sidles up an embankment and screeches to a halt in a cloud of dust.
Doors slammed shut, Steve, like a snake charmer, takes me through the Georgian-hooped-gateway, past the peeking beakheads to the treasures that await inside the ancient church of St. Peter’s in the village of Windrush in Gloucestershire.
We walk into the darkened nave and instantly I’m taken by a sheep’s head carved into a mould stop over an arch. I stand and look at the detailing. I take my iPhone out and take a quick snap.
It’s quiet, apart from the rustle of leaves and the coo of a collared dove. Steve is inspecting the chancel arch for graffiti. I finish photographing the sheep’s head and stand and watch Steve, then look back to the carving.
About 40,000 years, 8 minutes and 20 seconds before this moment, several atoms at the core of the sun, about 150,000 kilometres from here, are subject to an act of nuclear fusion. The resulting light, which has taken around 40,000 years to sift through the suns layers, glints across the universe in about 8 minutes and finds itself heading towards a small island in the northern hemisphere. 15 seconds later it’s over the great county of Gloucestershire and 3 seconds after that it takes a precarious path over the Windrush village roof-tops and then percolates through an intricate tapestry of leaves, the handmade glass of the west window, and the dusty motes of an ancient nave. About 1 second before it hits the sheep’s head, I put my iPhone away and take one last look at the carving.
Then it hits.
Instantly the animal is alive - its head is a blintering mass of moving light which spills out onto the column behind, begetting the head with a sparkling, animated body.
About 600 years ago, when the light I see now was part way through the sun’s corona, a medieval mind might put such animation down to God’s work: a message from beyond. Here and now, in this present moment, with my scientific mind I’m forced to acknowledge the how and why of what is happening, but something deep inside curtails my Darwinian bent, and for several minutes, immerses me in the magic of the moment.
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