Wednesday, 15 February 2017

A welcome diversion

I awoke just as my phone alarm went off, in good time to get Rhiannon to waking up and get ready for school. As she ate her breakfast toast, she was revising for a French test. I'm delighted that she has the opportunity to learn Spanish in school as well as French. Indeed, it may now be easier for her to learn French from scratch, as she's had several years of absorbing Spanish vocabulary passively and using simple phrases to order things in shops and restaurants on situ, on their visits to Sta Pola. Her friend Mollie turned up at ten to eight, as she does every school day for them to walk the mile across town to Kenilworth Comprehensive, now in the throes of turning into an Academy. Let's hope it continues to offer courses in more than one European language through to exam level for those who are motivated to take the opportunity.

After the girls left at eight, I said morning prayer, and meditated for rather a long time, meaning that I fell asleep while doing so. I hadn't arranged to do anything else today, and was expecting to drive back in the evening, but Kath mentioned they'd be back from their gig just a couple of hours after Rhiannon came home from school, and that they'd be comfortable with her being home alone for a short while. So, by eleven o'clock, I'd packed, locked the house and was on my way back to Cardiff, but without a deadline to meet. On the first leg of the journey, I debated with myself about whether to visit Evesham, en route, or Tewkesbury, not far off route. It's over forty years since I last visited Tewkesbury, and thirty since visiting Evesham. Both have fine churches worth a visit, but Tewkesbury is the one I have a sense of connection with.

St John's City Parish Church, my final incumbency, was a Chapel of Ease serving Cardiff Castle, in the Parish of St Mary the Virgin built on the banks of the river Taff as a Priory Church of Tewkesbury Abbey around 1180, a time when the Abbey itself was flourishing, and its present building was starting to take shape. Sadly during my eight years at St John's we never managed a parish visit to Tewkesbury, perhaps because it was deemed to be just a tad too far an outing for a mainly elderly congregation, a hour and a half away. A pity really, as we would have lacked for nothing. 

The town is lovely and full of interesting historic buildings, including a very early Baptist chapel and cemetery near the river Severn. The Abbey has developed a splendid visitor centre in the grounds and a church shop inside. It's the title church of the Suffragan Bishop of Gloucester, itself a post reformation see of the Established Church, and thus a place of significance in the life of Gloucester Diocese. These days, the Abbey is the keystone of an area of rural Parishes as well as the town, served by a team of clergy, some of whom are designated as Pioneer Ministers, free to take new initiatives in relation to rural and urban ministry, after decades in which the life of the whole region has changed radically.

I stopped there for just over an hour, spending most of my time in the Abbey, which was preparing to welcome mourners for a funeral, having held a Burial of Ashes service before I arrived. The place is in good repair after major fund raising campaigns in recent decades, culminating in the recent overhaul of interior lighting, which now showcases the wonderful vaulted roof atop thick Norman circular pillars. My memory of that previous visit was awakened by the sight of several huge cast iron heating stoves in the north and south aisles, relics of efforts made a hundred and fifty years ago to heat the building, still far from successful. What's different about them now is that they've been converted from coke to gas, so the smell of combustion no longer lingers in the building. What a funny thing to remember. 

All the medieval side chapels have been restored to use, and several of them feature an altar reredos in the form of a painted triptych. I don't know if any of them are ancient and acquired from elsewhere, but what I did notice was that at least one of them is a modern rendering in an ancient style - and why not? Byzantine icons are still being 'written' today in the same forms and with the same techniques as they were a thousand years ago. Beauty is timeless in its ability to inspire awe and wonder. So, if any type of art in any era is beautiful enough to inspire awe and wonder, it can be said to be successful.

Thus far my journey had been in overcast but dry weather. As I left the Abbey, it started to rain, and rained all the way home. But never mind, I have photos to remind me of just how splendid Tewkesbury Abbey is. You can find them here.

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