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south-east Mercia

At its furthest east, England can seem a clean slate, each wave of the past brutally washing away its predecessor in a great flatland flood. Further north and west, England darkens and thickens as Danelaw and Celtia, upland and Commonwealth are added to its mighty pastbroth. In between there is this, a little-toured no-man’s land of blank-but-beguiling towns and forgotten country, bucolic, posessed of a subtle allure. For what these overlooked counties of south-eastern Mercia — Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire and thereabouts — lack in drama they make up for in depth-in-time, as if history has left each layer hanging and mingling, suspended in a bucolic medium of past-ness.

Here is Brixworth, mighty mouldering eighth-century barn, built by people skilled at recycling Roman tile but totally useless at putting together arches (or is the ineptness deliberate, an act?), holding within it the godly silence of the dawn. Something still here, something present, in this large high village on the rolling plain, a presence which becomes a quiet, patient insistence in the Lady chapel, with its late C13 double tomb, as the elderly scholarly vicar and his one-or-two-flock depart from Morning Prayer.

Here is Earl’s Barton, suave ungainly witness to a later, more sophisticated Anglo-Saxon, its grey timberpatterns of stone and rough balusters a crossbreed of carpenter’s lathe and Lalibela.

Here is Longthorpe, dense, inspiring painted testimony to a world in which even the local squire lived surrounded by profound, witty, spirited secco walls of bright colour.

Here is Fotheringhay, half-cathedral built and lost, at once Royal and testimony to a deeply human devotion to the spirits of our own pasts, a lost passion for the health of our ancestors’ souls, cracked and mad and bare with its remade tombs and rough photocopied displays, sad and white and great upon the riverside green hill.

Here is Barnack, jammed and busy with mason’s knock-offs: in one corner a pervy triune God penetrates the Virgin with a spiky shaft of light; book, tree and city on the hill witness the incarnative assault among the desert dust-motes; in another the Saxon Christ gazes at us, folded and imperious; in another arcades wittily change centuries, leaving the Saxon tower alone, another rumbunctious brutalist curving and moulding.

It seems godless this place, too busy with itself, too concerned with 1000 years of mason’s knock-offs, until I grip a corbel in the silence, and the world seems to quietly turn around us, and I sense the stone enclosing the air within, and hear the air turning the world without, and for a moment everything is falling in ancient holy stasis.

To the Hills and Holes, an orchid-filled limestone grassland dense enough to get lost in, a wilderness made by the ripping of cathedrals from the ground: everywhere is built from here, and what’s left is made landscape, a grassland-in-miniature.

To Stamford, where the C8, C9 and C10 are still detectable in a suprisingly urban world, a place whose scale and ambition was fixed in the C13 and which has been rebuilt but not replaced in the intervening centuries, a magical gathering of layered and eloquent stone, always rich enough to build and rebuild, never so rich as to demolish and start again.

To Geddington, where Eleanor’s funerary cross is, two days after the Event, draped with emblems of Kate and Wills; this most achingly (tri)angular and elegant of monuments seeming to whisper of princesses, loves and deaths past and present, of impossible romances and royal myths.

To Hardingstone, where the wood by the roundabout next to the ribbon development and the ‘A’ road is graced by another such cross, this one  square and Perp prophetic, with its early ogees and panels and lowered arches, a plucked tarmac cobweb from the face of time.

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