Many years ago when I was a club runner, finishing a Sunday cross-country run I used to love doing, I met our local vicar. I said ‘Afternoon’, he was not in the most soulful of spirits and muttered about being in church of a Sunday rather than out running.
I stopped and turned, I was moving at a pace dictated by a couple of hours running through thick, wet clay. A plod collecting sod? I politely said ‘Vicar, I have come closer to my Maker running than you came saying prayers from your knees’. Then I ran, plodded, my last half-mile home. The vicar and I never talked but he did say to my Mother, a religious lady who sadly passed away a relatively young age, about his encounter with her son and how he had made a valid point as to how we each find our spirituality.
All these years later, I am still running, slower, and have taken back to cycling to find peace, enjoy the countryside and stay fit having learned lessons of genetics from the lives, now completed, of my Mother and Father. As the summer revealed some fantastic harvest weather, I cycled through villages of North Buckinghamshire, south Northamptonshire and mid-Bedfordshire. Passing perhaps twenty places of worship; Church of England with a couple of Methodist places reflecting the industrial heritage of some villages among the wider agricultural undertakings of the region, I saw only one, only one, with a congregation. The doors were shut, I did not stop to see whether unlocked, and the parking not occupied. I read a piece later from The Economist – http://www.economist.com/news/britain/21704836-britain-unusually-irreligious-and-becoming-more-so-calls-national-debate – we are changing in how we practice religion. But are we looking at what we believe? Are simply against organised religion taking up our spare time we find ever more our time? Certainly, the majority of more, much more, time for ourselves than we ever had before. We are more able to say we do not want organisation of this free time imposed on us.
Are we becoming ever more individualistic? Losing the sense of community given by rigours of organised work places and organised (Sunday) religion? Perhaps not, fore Sunday family cycling is there as I see a couple of families out with dad or elder son cutting the wind for mum to get home and finish the Sunday roast. Or maybe not as those family occasions are also challenged to change, adapt and adopt to how we live as individuals, families and communities now.
As I rode out beyond Olney, a town noted in Marx’s Das Kapital because of the conditions under which lace workers were forced to earn a living, and the home of William Cowper – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Cowper and John Newton https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Newton, the creators of Amazing Grace – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AtteRD5bBNQ , then I came in to contact with groups of cyclists, or friends or family cycling together. The sun was out, the weather close to perfect for cycling. Some were cycling at pace to talk, enjoy conversation whilst doing something to keep fit and possibly savour the countryside. Others were organised, same kit and powering along the lanes heading from Buckinghamshire – @DailyBUCKS – into Bedfordshire doing a communal ride to train for club racing. A gentleman came past me in all his kit on an expensive bike, I could not stay with him and he made doubly sure of this looking back and exerting himself further to see whether his puce face could turn to the red shade of his shirt. Was he finding himself in his powerful exertions? Or simply taking further his weekly work and wanting to be ‘better’ than others he sees along the way?
I caught him some miles later in a gorgeous village called Harrold – http://www.harrold.info – as he headed toward his mid-morning coffee and cake at the Country Park; a regular stop off or target for Sunday cyclists. His nice kit was stretching a bit over a bulging belly and I wondered as to his mental workings fitting this – All the superficial kit but is there depth in what he is doing? Believing? Yes, making the effort, but Amina Sana in Corpore Sano, ASICS1?
So we return to the places of worship, do we need a place to worship? Places to reflect? Know we are doing right by others and so fulfilling the mainstay of the great majority of religions in terms of living a good, and full, life benefiting ourselves spiritually and ensuring others are good?
Certainly, cycling has become something of the new golf, middle-aged men riding nice machines, dressed in the regalia of cycling. Feeling they are doing something more for their physical health than walking the golf course playing a sport with the inherent risks of competition in an asymmetric sport – back problems abound with all those who play golf as the competitive edge cuts in and the desire to press the drive just a bit further exerts forces on the hips and back; especially for those untutored.
Cycling? A great sport, or even way of being, as you journey through the countryside; but as with going to a place of worship, is it about inner fitness and fortitude? Or, perhaps, a desire to one-up other middle age men out on their expensive machines, in Sky Sports regalia, charging down country lanes?
As I continued extending beyond the Ouse Valley with its lovely churches providing spires to guide as I look up on leaving Harrold to see Odell, then Felmersham church spires knowing these are beautiful buildings in beautiful countryside I just love cycling through. I push, I look down and watch my legs pumping as I have a blast and feel my heart pound and my thoughts multiply if not clarify as the endorphins kick in. My senses are heightened; my nose assailed by the smell of wheat chaff and threshed straw as combine harvesters continue to work. I hear the sound of a powerful engine dipping and returning, a tractor working with a baler. Yes, when tuned, then the sensory perceptions and, just maybe, my thinking deepened.
I journey on, clipping in to Northamptonshire before heading across the A6, a piece of geography set from Roman times at the least, before heading through strange villages in mid Bedfordshire, mid-Beds as it is euphemistically known. It is now I truly see how life is changing because of the way we work. Villages themselves are dying in some instances. In one village, two farmyards are defunct, left to stay since planning permission for change of use will come and we may well see dormitory settlements in what is a commercial farming area on prairie scale. The small farms are not viable and nor are the small villages. Amazingly, the churchyard was the only kempt open area in the village. A dying village where respect for the dead lived on.
I turn to head toward home. My own village within decent walking distance of Newport Pagnell, famous for its service station on the M1 as we started to become slaves to the automobile, and fast becoming a dormitory for those working in Milton Keynes or London. On this leg back toward Bedford, the villages start to change again as viability of settlements changes; commuting time to Bedford’s fast line into the heart of London? The churches and other places of worship remained shut until I reached Oakley where a congregation, predominantly women, were just leaving. All the men on board cycles finding themselves through those thin saddles as women pay penance on pews? Back in the Ouse Valley, back with spires which will need maintenance in the future no matter the quality of previous generations of craftsmen who built these great sights for some of us who still look up and take the beauty and inspiration we see and feel around us to make our inner being recharge, refresh and revitalised.
I am not a religious person in the traditional senses of specifying a denomination within a particular faith. When my Mother-in-Law asked if I was a Catholic I said no. She reminded me her daughter was and why did I not honour the faith. I explained about sharing a cold damp vestibule with a Belgium priest drinking whisky at 10 o’clock in the morning high up in the hills of northern Rwanda. This was 1994 and he told me through slurred speech about not defending his congregation when the Interahamwe came to kill the Tutsis among his congregation. They had taken ‘sanctuary’ in his brick built church above the clouds north of Ruhengeri thinking respect for the faith would save them. It did not. They were massacred. I have worked in other places, been with many others who have different paths to be close to their maker. My wife’s Mother accepted this and said she respected the way I met my obligations towards others. Perhaps, now, as I cycle and look up at the churches and the beauty of the countryside then I am offered another opportunity to be aware, to be Hanif – https://www.britannica.com/topic/hanif, and know my inner self without any specific religious belief offered by fellow men (deliberate use of man).
But it does require us as mankind, humans, to nurture the landscape; the flora and fauna, creatures we share these green and pleasant lands with. So we can have an inner solitude allowing us to be better people with all other people as we do our Monday commutes pressured by time, money, and all those other men who had Lycra on yesterday. Listen to your breath, feel your heart, but let it beat faster and harder thinking of the wonders around you and the joys of challenging inside yourself.
1 ASICS – A healthy soul in a healthy body; the basis of how the company arrived at their name for their sportswear products