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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Monday, June 16, 2003
    Meanderings in the Bible Belt
    What's that chant by The Polyphonic Spree: "Hey now, it's the sun, and it makes me shine"? Well, I've been shining today, as the sun spread clear rays of light over the lush lands of Cheshire's Bible Belt and I took a journey back to my roots.

    Sat in the churchyard of Tarporley Methodist-Baptist Church as funeral bells tolled in the tower of the nearby Anglican Church. Ancient ritual. From my seat in that small, hidden garden I could read on nearby stones the names of two of the greatest women in my life. To my left, the grave of Harriet Ledward, a Scots presbyterian who married into Cheshire and combined the strictest moral code with a sharp and ready wit. To my right, the ashes of Jessie Davies (nee Ledward) lie with her parents and some of her fourteen brothers and sisters. My Nana. Now thirteen years in glory.

    Besides mourners leaving St Helen's, Tarporley was active with shoppers taking their leisure in antique-sellers, delicatessens, high-class ladies' clothing establishments. It's that kind of place. Prospered in the heyday of Cheshire's salt trade; still prospers today as a home to the well-heeled commuters of Merseyside, Greater Manchester and the Midlands. That's why I call it the Bible Belt. God is thanked in this land of ease. The town's 'service industry' is truly blessed. As it always has been.

    But the picture is deeper, of course. Because a 'service industry' requires servants. And the shop staff, like low-waged anywhere, no doubt eke out a living to feed their children in small council houses on a hidden edge of town.

    Nana was a servant-girl. Served her time at some of the big Cheshire houses - Peckforton Castle, Capesthorne Hall, working for a while as a frightened young woman at a big house in the heart of London, before finding herself in service in Liverpool, where she met my granddad, a delivery driver, and made home and family here.

    Her family's story illustrates the other side of the Bible Belt. The sun shines on the righteous and unrighteous alike, the wealthy and their servants. The long-lived and those who just pass by briefly. Shone on Jessie all through her 93 very blessed years. And on her brother Henry (d. March 1885, aged 4 months), sisters Elizabeth (d. May 1890, aged 14 months) and Alice (d. December 1890, aged 8 months), and brother George (d. June 1898, aged 13 days). Shone on Harriet's little daughter Edith Jean, killed by a truck in 1932, aged five.

    We enjoyed visiting
    Aunt Harriet as children to sample her potent sherry trifle. A fierce teetotaller, Harriet splashed the alcohol into the bowl lavishly, oblivious to the effect it would have on the trifle and its recipients. On those days out we often also visited nearby Beeston Castle, and so today I stood atop this sandstone peak, drop-jawed at what English Heritage justifiably call one of the best views from any castle in this country. Directly north, 22 miles distant, a clear view of Liverpool Cathedral. Sunwise across the Cheshire Plain, Jodrell Bank's glittering space telescope. The long blue rise of the Pennines thirty miles hence, The Wrekin to the south, and to the west another thirty miles - the lovely hills of Clwyd.

    Kings haven't inhabited this outcrop for hundreds of years. But everyone who stands on its crest on clear days like today can rightly feel like a monarch. I'm sure Jessie and her friends would have sat there in their youth, gazing at the view. Chatting away like young women do. Servant girls, with the world most literally at their feet.