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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

A Summer's Day in Devon

I write this from Devon, the little village of Holne tucked into a southern fold of Dartmoor. We are staying in the half-timbered Church House Inn where we began our honeymoon 40 years ago this week. So this is a nostalgic visit to a place that is securely lodged in our shared marital memory. 

It would be nice to think that we are sleeping in the same room as then. We may well be: we can't remember. In fact, we don't recall very much of the early part of our honeymoon, so exhausted were we by the exacting rigours of getting married. But we do remember the warm welcome, not least on the part of the two golden retrievers who are memorialised on a fading photo of the newly-weds standing in the porch. We have called retrievers Holne-Dogs ever since.

What we learned back then was that the Church House Inn was the favourite place of Archbishop Michael Ramsey and his wife Joan. Here they spent their summers. As a newly ordained deacon in Oxford, I used to go with my contemporaries to post ordination training sessions with Michael Ramsey, by then retired just outside Oxford. When he discovered that we had honeymooned in Holne, this was all he wanted to talk about. Forget theology or ethics on which like the rest of the cohort of young clergy I was keen to hear the great man's thinking. For him, Holne was a corner of paradise and given the slightest encouragement he would rhapsodise about it. Once, when we saw each other walking along Cornmarket on opposite sides of the busy road, he beckoned to me to cross. We met in the middle, and there he said: 'talk to me about my beloved Holne' while the traffic swerved past on either side. 

When we went into the church next door to the inn this afternoon, an elderly couple were also paying a nostalgic return visit. They used to live in the village and had moved away in the early 1970s. When my wife mentioned the Ramseys, she told us how Joan often used to come and keep her company in her kitchen. The villagers seemed proud that an archbishop and his wife loved coming there. 

The church, ordinary enough on the outside, hides a great treasure inside: its marvellous 15th century woodwork. There is a magnificent rood screen and a pulpit with a spectacular array of painted panels depicting saints and bishops. Some bear the marks of later history, like Gregory the Great whose face has been angrily scratched out, presumably by a reformer or a puritan. A conservator was working on these gorgeous furnishings and spoke about them in ways that showed how much of a labour of love this was. The church is also proud of the fact that the Victorian writer Charles Kingsley was born in the vicarage and was baptised at the font.

Holne is a peaceful place that you reach by driving cautiously along narrow meandering Devon lanes that cut right into the surface of this hill country. From time to time a distant view of the moor breaks through the steep banks and tall hedgerows . Hydrangeas and honeysuckle flower colourfully in front of sweet little cottages. Cats bask in the balm of a warm July evening. We have seen a handsome golden retriever in the village, just like the ones who befriended us 40 years ago. 

A driver stops to ask us the way to Hexworthy. We haven't the faintest idea. It somehow feels apt to lose your way in this honeysuckled lotus-land of Holne.

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