Walking the Parish – Parochial Pathways

I’m trying to reclaim the word “parochial”. In the dictionary it has two meanings:

  • Relating to a Church parish
  • Having a limited or narrow outlook or scope.

The most common meaning, narrow, is primarily applied in a derogatory way. If you are called parochial it’s not likely to be a complement. Being broad in outlook is regarded as a good thing and it probably is, but there’s a dark side. We flit from tourist destination to viewing area collecting selfies like rewards badges. People are measured by how many countries they’ve visited, or how many famous landmarks they’ve visited and yet we have a certain admiration for people who have found a place in which they are happy just to be. We chase an illusionary peer-pressure defined outcome while looking, enviously, behind us at people who have chosen a different path – a more parochial one.

We live in an age desperate to discover the next big thing. No one wants to miss out on the latest craze. This is, sadly, even true for walking people, there’s a kudos in being able to climb the biggest hills or travel the longest walks. I have to admit to having fallen for this comparison myself. I have, after all, been trying to tick off the Wainwright hills for a while now, this is primarily a person target, but there are times when the dark side raises within me. We treat the parochial with contempt as small, narrow and inferior.

Most of England is split up into more than 15,600 Ecclesiastical Parishes a designation that dates back to the sixth century, signifying an area looked after by a priest. Parishes are not defined by size they are normally bound by natural features and represent a community contained within vale, valley or the immediate vicinity of village and town. Many parish churches still follow an ancient ritual of walking the boundary of the parish at least once a year, it’s known as beating the bounds. This can be quite challenging in areas where the border stretches over over mountain, moorland, lake or shoreline. The purpose of this activity was and still is, multifaceted at one level it is about defining the boundary, but there are also spiritual elements to it as the priest and the parochial leadership pray for the community within the boundaries. Rather than looking at the riches in adjacent parishes beating the bounds created a deeper sense of community for those within the perimeter. It’s an inward looking celebration, a parochial event.

It’s this sense of looking and seeing where I am that I am trying to reclaim, having parochial perception. By keeping my looking narrow I am finding that I am seeing more than I did before. There’s a richness in the parish that wasn’t visible when I was looking to other fancies of other parishes.

While walking one of the parochial paths recently I first noticed the drilling of a woodpecker. Walking that same path on another day I saw the woodpecker fly past me towards a particular set of trees. A few days later and I watched a black-and-white bird hopping up the side of one of the boughs of those trees. A few days later and there were two woodpeckers spending most of their time around a particular branch. I’ve seen these woodpeckers on this same branch a few time now, in one particular place where I suspect there is a nest, but it’s away from my view so I can’t confirm that. The woodpecker is a fabulous bird to watch, full of character, they are completely at home in their parish in the woods. I’ve probably walked past these same woodpeckers on several occasions before, but it’s only by having parochial eyes that I saw them.

It’s not just woodpeckers, as I think parochially there’s so much more that I see.

There are the parochial land features of nab, lane, farm, field, hedgerow, wood, house, bridge, well, brook, aqueduct, and fold.

There are the parochial names of Clarkson’s, Dingle, Haighton, Fulwood, Fernyhalgh, Ladywell, Tunbrook, Redscar, and Boilton.

There’s the parochial fauna of deer, fox, rabbit, hare, buzzard, barn owl, lapwing, woodpecker, bullfinch, goldfinch, sparrow, squirrel, kestrel, and frog.

There’s the parochial flora of blackthorn, hawthorn, bramble, crab apple, oak, ash, bluebell, wild garlic, marestail, primrose, cowslip, yew, maple, and foxglove.

There’s the parochial colours of moss, mint, lime, butter, grass, clover, violet and verdant whites.

There’s the parochial light as it illuminates the different features throughout the seasons.

During this time of lockdown there is little choice but to walk the parish, but I’m determined that this time of thinking parochially will be one of revelation. By focussing in on what is local I’m seeing more each and every day, there’s an enlightenment in being narrow.

Header Image: This is one of the local lanes on a recent evening perambulation.

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