Barton-on-Humber parish church where Chad Varah’s father was vicar

Most Sundays, weather permitting, I like to explore the countryside and small towns around me, my small patch on the earth’s surface. Sea-loving friends find it strange when I tell them I would never live close to the seashore though I live on an island. Having a boat or booking a ferry is a chore. With 360 degrees of land around one, there are so many more exciting choices!

Inevitably there are caveats. A family I knew moved away from Beverley to the Yorkshire Wolds because they yearned for hills. However, a ten-minute walk away are the medieval pastures where developers now covering fields with houses are unable to build. It is protected land. In times past these meadows provided chalk for mortar from the small abandoned quarries now lined with hawthorn bushes. Such open landscapes punctuated by windmills are familiar from 17th-century Dutch landscape paintings.

Every Sunday we point the car in a different direction. Last Sunday it was southwards over the bridge that straddles the Humber estuary just where fresh water pushes the salt water back and river ecology begins. The town on the south bank, Barton-on-Humber, was once a prosperous port. Georgian and Victorian houses lined the main street. A new church had been built in the twelfth century below the Saxon St. Peter’s. As I was standing outside an early 19th-century Regency house, neatly whitewashed, to look over the old churchyard to St. Peter’s, I noticed a blue plaque, read it and closed my eyes to think back to another church and a chance encounter.

On a visit to London, we wandered into St. Stephen’s, Walbrook, then a centre of controversy. A benefactor had commissioned a new altar from Henry Moore, and there it was. Predictably, the resulting stone slab provoked controversy. I sat down to look at it and wonder. A tall figure appeared out of the shadows and stood, upright and silent, on the other side while people wandered into the stillness from the street rumble outside.  Thoughts rippled through me, somehow anchored by that figure still standing silently by the almost round stone altar.

Stone = sacrifice

Wood = the communion table

The round shape, a perfect form without beginning or end, a symbol of eternity…

Last Sunday, I stood, by chance, at the gate to the house where Chad Varah (named by his father, the vicar, after a local saint), the founder of the Samaritan movement, was born. The Samaritan was the one who, in the Gospel told by Saint Luke, did not neglect someone in need by passing by on the other side of the road.

Outside the Sainsbury branch in London where, earlier this week, I was on a shopping errand, a young man was sitting and holding out a paper cup. I dropped some coins in it and asked why he was there. Hesitantly, in a foreign accent, he said that he had to leave the hostel and was hungry. I couldn’t bend down far enough to hear where he came from. Others were pushing past me. Insistent voices crept into my mind: he’ll spend your money on drugs; he’s part of a begging gang; he’s someone who doesn’t want to work, can earn more begging, a parasite on hard-working members of society… and so on… I once hoped there would soon be no need for people to beg on the streets, but there he was. Does one, can one, do enough?

Vicarage, Barton-on-Humber, where Chad Varah was born, and Saxon church


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