2011-04-08 A week in Northampton, UK

A most English experience

As I walked into the centre of Northampton this evening (5 April), seeking some light sustenance for my supper, the bells of All Saints church were in full voice: the change-ringing team were at practice, and what I think were the eight bells of the peal were engaged in one of those extraordinarily complex series of traditional changes which must require the concentration of an angel; whether it was a Treble Bob or a Queens, or something else, I have no idea; it was not a Peal because (I learn from a blogging expert) that involves 5,000 changes and takes three hours. But what a fine, unique and uplifting sound it is, echoing down the centuries: the sound of local and national celebration and euphoria and (regrettably) the summons to prayer. Campanology, indeed (apparently a term hated by initiates).

Iíve been walking back and forth across the town centre from my hotel to the hospital and back to see my brother, several times a day. Northampton is a surprisingly lovely town, with a largely preserved legacy of architectural elegance, and many really distinguished public and private buildings. All Saints, a replacement for the mother church razed in the great fire of Northampton in 1675, is no exception ń a stunning and unusual exterior, and a robust, elegant and classical interior. (Northampton, which was a Parliamentarian stronghold, was seduced into some gratitude to Charles II, who donated 1,000 tons of timber from the royal forests for the rebuilding. His statue, erected in 1712, stands over the west entrance.)

There are very few tall buildings anywhere, and the town centre consists almost entirely of low-rise buildings with origins (I suspect) from the late eighteenth century onwards. There are few ghastly post-war facades and the central, pedestrianised street is almost all nasty modern stuff, but even they do little to damage the overall impression of the quiet accretion of centuries of thoughtful building.

Military funeral

On my way back from the hospital yesterday (I am walking the mile or so each way and developing some muscle in my legs), I arrived in front of All Saints just as a union jack-draped coffin was being lifted from a hearse by six soldiers, before processing slowly into the church. The cortege was led by priests in ceremonial wardrobe, followed by a single Scottish piper, the coffin, more soldiers and then civilians. They walked between a guard of honour with reverse arms and bowed heads. The sun shone and the church clock struck midday.

It was the funeral of a local man, 20 years old, a private in the Parachute Regiment, who had died after a late-night assault in Northampton town some weeks ago, just before he was about the return for service in Afghanistan. Such solemn occasions are usually wonderfully staged and choreographed by the combination of church and military, and this was no exception. A real tragedy: a young man prepared to die fighting for what he believed in, dying as the result of a squalid incident on the streets of his home town.

Visiting my brother

Iíve been going to see my brother in the mornings and sometimes in the evenings. Staying in a hotel in town as I am, I can give the family some relief from early mornings and late nights.

He is still (8 April) very sick indeed, but very slightly stronger than earlier in the week when I first arrived post-haste from Thailand and he was in intensive care. If he manages to keep going (and that is far from certain) it will be a long, hard haul for him and his wife.

Iíve now had some quiet times with him and a little conversation, and I think Iíve done as much as I can for him and me just now. I shall be back in the middle of next month (a long-planned visit) and hope to see him stronger then. Most flights back to Thailnd this week were full, but I managed to get what I was told was the last seat on Sundayís flight. Iíll be catching the 06.15 National Express coach from Northampton to Heathrow on Sunday, then arriving home on Monday morning.

Itís been a rather peculiar week and, beyond hospital visiting, I havenít been able to focus on much except the daily papers, some desultory shopping (more books and Bhs underwear), along with a snatch of BBC news and David Attenborough. Iíve had far too many delicious croissants, sandwiches and iced apple doughnuts. Opposite my hotel thereís a little Thai restaurant where Iíve eaten several times; thatís provided some remedial balance to an excess of waist-expanding carbohydrates (which I do so love).

Iím going to try and use some of these empty hours to catch up with photos for the website. Iím very behind with them and am sorry to be so slack.