A Very Different Bike and Hike

“Let us go to the house of the Lord.” – familiar words, sometimes carved over a church entrance. I chose this translation (NIV) deliberately: some others say, ‘into the house of the Lord’, and this year, in most cases, this would not be possible. 

So what normally happens on the second Saturday in September? Well, the day would start early, at  All Saints where there are notices and lists to display and making sure everything is in place for the folks who will be welcoming any visitors who have decided they simply must explore the delights of Watford. Cake is a must! Then I would shoulder my rucksack and set off, maybe with friends, maybe alone, to visit other churches. Sometimes the area chosen would be familiar, sometimes less so, sometimes rural, sometimes urban – always much of interest to enjoy. Having consulted the list and located the next church, there are usually three possible scenarios: i) The church is closed, no one is about, and there is no indication that this is the second Saturday in September and therefore ‘Bike ‘n’ Hike’; ii) The church is locked, but there is the familiar bright poster, and a list to sign, and maybe some provision for the weary traveller; & iii) – again the bright poster, and an open door and a welcoming face – someone happy to chat and show off their church and provide refreshments – someone to make my day! 

So here is a reflection on Bike ‘n’ Hike 2020:

All Saints – my church: a calm oasis as, early that Saturday morning, I pin up the Bike ‘n’ Hike posters. It’s not usually this quiet: there’s usually plenty of traffic on Horseshoe Lane – not like when All Saints was built in Victorian times, and it was a proper lane. – But the church is still well-loved, and we seek to reach out and serve the people of the parish, as did those benefactors who built it nearly 170yrs. ago.

The journey – not so easy to find the way because there are roadworks and diversions. I think of our journey as we seek God – there too there can be obstacles and diversions. The countryside has that tired, end of summer look – but there are still some bright flowers to cheer up the road-side verges: toadflax, knapweed, scabious, - - -, reminding us of people who still retain the brightness that God’s hope and promise brings, even into old-age.

St. Catherine’s, Sacombe. I could see the church long before I reached it, perched above the hamlet, as if it is keeping a protective eye. Walking up the lane, I passed a cyclist sporting the yellow Bike ‘n’ Hike stickers we usually distribute – so I knew it wasn’t just me – I was part of something, like one’s church family. The seat in the churchyard looked out into the valley with its fields, and clumps of trees and farms. I imagine it didn’t look much different hundreds of years ago when the church was founded. The sound of ploughing in the valley below added to that sense of continuity.

All Saints, Little Munden (village of Dane End). Another ancient hill-top church – but a larger and obviously active village. Again my chosen seat looked over the timeless farming scene, including a large, and clearly ancient, farmhouse. Then a surprise - walking round to the other side of the church, I found a ‘welcomer’ – a lady who does this every year, and was happy to still do it this year! We chatted for ages! (“It’s good to talk!” – how true that has been these past months.)

St. Nicholas, Great Munden. The church is not generally in use now. Again I sat on a seat after wandering around the graveyard. Again there is that sense of continuity; in village churches so often there are a number of graves grouped together and all bearing the same family name, suggesting generations of the family have lived in this place. From the church, I followed field paths to the hamlet of Nasty – I think I’d be hesitant about living somewhere with that name! However I had another lovely conversation with a local resident; and was reminded of Nathanael’s comment, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

St. Mary’s, Westmill. Somehow, one does not expect to see a Hertfordshire village on calendars, placemats, etc. alongside Bibury, Blanchland, Tintagel. - - , but Westmill is, and on this sunny Saturday the visitors were there in force. The church is next to the pub – but again is a haven of peace. Beyond the church, was a field of sheep: it made me think of the Bach piece, “Sheep may safely graze”! As already indicated, my focus this year tended to be on the churchyard and graves. This one was quite smart (? because the village is popular and prosperous, and the church has a ‘Friends’ organisation.) There were some War Graves and I thought how, similarly to the family groups already mentioned, these grave-stones also bind a group of people together because they are all the same, regardless of rank: from there it was not far to the thought that one day we will all be equal before God, not judged by the splendour of our grave!

St. Mary’s, Aspenden. As is not unusual, the church was on the very edge of the village, close to ‘the big house’ (- whose owner maybe had the church built, close by for his convenience! (Dare one wonder if he had other motivations too, such as ‘buying’ his way into Heaven?)) Now it is very close to Buntingford, as I discovered on my walk.

Holy Trinity, Throcking. I think this was the first church of the day (apart from my own) without a tower topped by a ‘Hertfordshire spike’. Instead there was an unusual brick tower: one wonders why – cost, availability of stone, a later addition, -? We have moved now to an area of wider open spaces, and mostly arable farms. I could hear the sound of a farmer working in the distance, and thought how weather-dependant he or she must be; they must grab their chance, as must we, looking for an encounter with God or a chance to share the Good News.

St. John the Baptist, Cottered. The road behind the church carried traffic heading back towards urban ‘civilisation’. – but the names on the grave-stones pointed back to a rural past when so many names reflected one’s trade: Fletcher, Baker, Butcher, - - .  

St Mary the Virgin, Walkern. A really ‘villagy’ feel with a ford, and ducks. My day was coming to an end, and I wondered if one can be tempted to linger too long in these peaceful spots, thinking it is only in places like these that one will ‘find’ God?

Walkern U.R.C. Here was a small boy (with Grandma?) doing his Bike ‘n’ Hike on his scooter. I guess he missed having a list to add his name to – something that would be a sign of the importance of what he was doing. Yes, it was a different Bike ‘n’ Hike, but I give thanks for the opportunity to enjoy God’s wonderful world, and pray His blessing on the people and their churches in this part of Hertfordshire.