Last week, Jane and I finally went to see the church of St John the Evangelist, Shobdon, which is considered one of the treasures of Herefordshire.
Last week, Jane and I finally went to see the church of St John the Evangelist, Shobdon, which is considered one of the treasures of Herefordshire. It has taken us nearly three years to get round to it, which doesn't say much for our inquisitiveness, but that's how it is when you live near such places. Visits to fabulous Rococo churches get postponed in favour of visits to Sainsbury's.
For the same reason, we have had more family outings in London since moving to the Welsh Marches than ever we did when we lived in Crouch End. On New Year's Eve last month we went ice-skating at Somerset House, which is something we would never have done from Crouch End. My mother and stepfather treated us, not that skating is something I regard as much of a treat.
I can throw, kick, run and even ski in a reasonably coordinated manner, but when I set foot on an ice-rink I lose control of my limbs. It's very odd. I have gloomy memories of going on a sixth-form outing to the Silver Blades ice rink in Liverpool, and yielding vital ground to a boy I considered a rival for the affections of a girl in the lower-sixth called Carol. When I saw him take to the ice like Robin Cousins, as I took to the ice like a Robin Reliant, I knew my chance was gone.
Still, Jane and the children loved the Somerset House experience, and I survived it with my dignity relatively intact. We went from there to lunch at Joe Allen's in Covent Garden, and then on to a really good show called Old King Cole, and it occurred to me that the kids might begin to wonder why we ever left London in the first place. After all, the nearest ice-rink to our house in Crouch End was at Alexandra Palace, a 10-minute walk. Our nearest ice-rink now is in Telford, some 50 miles away. Which suits me just fine, obviously, but seems a shame for everyone else.
Anyway, I've meandered a long way from Shobdon Church, which was indeed well worth the visit. From the outside it looks fairly unremarkable, but when you walk through the door the effect is like stepping into a giant wedding cake, iced in white and pale blue.
Apparently it's the only Rococo ecclesiastical building in Britain, and received the following endorsement from Simon Jenkins in his 2002 book, England's Thousand Best Churches: "Nothing quite prepares the visitor for Shobdon ... a complete masterpiece."
Geoffrey Grigson was similarly effusive in a 1953 issue of Country Life. "Push in the door ... how immediately delicious is the interior of Shobdon ... an elder cousin in miniature of Brighton Pavilion."
We didn't have much time to stand and gaze, alas, because we had to collect the kids from school; another example of how everyday responsibilities butt in when you visit tourist attractions close to home. On the way out, however, I did take a few moments to flick through the comments book.
I'm a sucker for comments books, but had never seen one in a church before. Hotel comments books are my favourites, and forever etched on my mind is a sentence I found in the beautifully bound comments book at a grand country house hotel in Berkshire: "Wonderful rumpy-rumpy in the Canadian hot tub!!!" Which frankly put us right off using the Canadian hot tub, not so much because another couple had recently had sex in there, but that a couple who called sex rumpy-pumpy had recently had sex in there.
Not surprisingly, there was nothing like that in the Shobdon Church comments book. But it still made absorbing reading, not least on account of the efforts people make to come up with a different adjective from the one before. Thus, the misspelt "etherial" followed "delightful", "amazing", "wonderful" and "enchanting".
I don't know why I find these things absorbing, I just do. And moving, too. There were several entries written in wobbly handwriting by men who had been pilots based at nearby RAF Shobdon during the Second World War, and were returning to the area for the first time in 60 years. I can understand why they might have wanted a quiet word with the Almighty.
* When people from the city come to visit us, they quite often bring us some nice delicacy from a posh shop such as Fortnum & Mason, the likes of which we don't have round here. What we do have round here, however, are quite a few of the suppliers from whom Fortnum & Mason get their delicacies in the first place. But it would be churlish to point this out to our friends.
In any case, I myself find it hard, when I happen to be near Fortnum's, or the food halls of Harrod's or Selfridge's, not to pop in and buy something in posh packaging, even knowing that it will almost certainly sit in our pantry for months on end.
All of which brings me to an exercise that our nine-year-old son Joseph had to do for his homework the other night. Asked to find foodstuffs of varying weights, he went to the pantry and, inexplicably ignoring banal things like bags of sugar, wrote down duck pâté with armagnac - 200g; rillons confits au Vouvray - 450g; and figues moelleuses from Gascony - 500g. We had visions of raucous laughter in the staff room the following day.
By Brian Viner
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