Springtime in the Land of the Pilgrim Fathers

Today I drove from the little village of Laneham, once a ferry crossing of the River Trent, along the ancient road through small villages towards the market town of Retford. Spring had arrived, the hedges were starting to blossom and the first splashes of the inevitable yellow seemed to have been painted across the fields.

My road requires careful driving, for it is a narrow lane today yet centuries ago would have been a principal route keeping above the marshy clay as it snaked towards the Trent ferry crossing. It passes through some idyllic English villages such as East Drayton, with its impressive country church and the traditional spreading yew tree in the cemetery. I’m aware that some claim these as ‘pagan’ symbols but I prefer to think it is more likely that Christians planted these centuries ago as a symbol of life everlasting for the yew never loses its greenery. East Drayton doesn’t feature much in our local Christian history, but it did give birth to Nicholas Hawksmoor, the architect of great London churches and parts of Westminster Abbey. In our area it is a constant source of amazement how great men who shaped the world came from tiny, obscure places.

Beyond East Drayton the land is more undulating and we enter a landscape of traditional patchwork fields that is ‘jigsaw puzzle’ England in more ways than one. One of my daughters always speaks of coming home to ‘The Shire’ and it would not be a surprise to see a hobbit. Most of these fields and hedges were actually created during the ‘enclosures’ of the 1700s. Between the fields are clustered small groups of houses that barely deserve the term ‘village’; I pass Upton and see signs for Askham and Headon. Names that mean little to the world, but these are little hamlets whose influence has been great in our Christian history.

Askham, just off my road to the left and nestling perfectly on its little hill, was the home of the Helwys family. Thomas Helwys, its greatest son, paid for the puritan separatists to go to the Netherlands in 1608 and a few years later he returned to England to start the Baptist Church which survives of course to this day. He published a book arguing for religious liberty, was arrested and died in Newgate 400 years ago. In an age of Calvinists, he argued for Grace.

If I glance the other way, my right, there is Headon – barely two dozen houses. Yet this was one of the bastions of puritanism with great preachers such as Robert Southworth and then, as the battle for the Church of England was lost, home to early Baptist and Quaker communities. Here in the quiet countryside was a stronghold of religious conviction, men and women who were not prepared to settle for Less.

Beyond Upton the road rises to cross the undulating ridge from which medieval men mined the alabaster and plaster that gave us beautiful monuments – found across Europe – and the buildings to put them in. The shape of the hedges still shows a circular pattern where a forgotten member of the gentry created a deer park around his manor at Headon. Then the road twists through a bet of ancient woodland – largely unchanged since the Normans – and dips down towards Gamston or Eaton. The road passes between Eaton and Gamston woods – ancient woodland that has been here for many centuries. Gamston was also the home of religious progressives, an early site for a rural Baptist chapel now sadly gone.

These fields around the market town of Retford are the landscape that the Pilgrim Fathers forsook when they went to the Netherlands and then America. It is a subtle, gentle landscape of trees, hedges, fields and brick farmhouses. It does not have any spectacular ‘tourist destinations’ but for those prepared to stop and look it tells of how Man has interacted with God’s creation for a thousand years. For those who want to look more deeply, it also tells of Men and Women who battled determinedly for a greater knowledge of God. Somehow, in these quiet villages and fields, the Holy Spirit stirred a yearning for More.
At Pilgrims & Prophets we have a passion for this landscape and its people – past and present. Get in touch if you’d like to experience it with us.

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