I couldn’t sleep last night so at 7:15 I turned the radio on. The Bishop of Bath & Wells is moving out of the Palace he lives in, into a house outside the city. Good thing or not. Discuss. It’s Sunday morning Radio 4.
The story rang a bell with me, because I’ve had dealings with the bishop before. Long long ago when if not the world then certainly I was young, and thought I was leaner (turns out I wasn’t, given the jacket I tried on in a shop this week was a bit loose despite being the same size I wore when I was 26) and had a Harley-Davidson, the last of a reasonably long line of Yamaha, Honda, Triumph, Norton, Triton, BMW and then the Sportster motorcycles (pronounced Arlo Guthrie stylee, to rhyme with pickles, as we young people say), I was romantic. In fact, I was incurably romantic and still am.
It’s something women say they want until they get it. Then they seem to find that what they really, really meant was planning a wedding reception at a Best Western, two bottles of Cava per head and a fortnight in Ibiza rather than anything I had in mind, so far as I can tell.
My idea for a wedding venue started when I was about fourteen, the first time I went to Orchardleigh. I don’t know why I went. It was just something we did a couple of times a year. It was an old family estate and no, of course it wasn’t my family’s. Ours was called Sycamore Grove, which isn’t really the same thing at all.
Orchrdleigh had a not very attractive early Victorian house, loads of rolling fields, a plaque saying how the house used to be one side of the lake until years and years ago the owners had grown sufficiently rich and more than sufficiently bored with their old house to tear it down and start again the other side of the lake. But where did they live while they did that? No-one could tell me. Thinking about it now they probably built the new house first, but I didn’t think like that then. Still don’t, all the time.
It had an oak tree with a heart carved into the bark of the trunk and a date and two sets of initials. I can’t remember the letters, but the date was 1805. It was almost always sunny when we went to Orchardleigh, except, perhaps predictably, the time I was attacked by a swan. No, it didn’t break my arm. But also no, there was no warning I could see or hear and I didn’t know what had happened, it happened so fast. I don’t think I’m really cut-out for fighting swans, even now. Luckily I’ve planned things so it’s not something I have to do in my life.
We had an old book in the car in those days, an Arthur Mee The Kings England, written in the 1930s, listing the towns and villages of England with a few lines about each. About Orchardleigh there was something about an old war horse living out his days in a field a long way from Flanders. I don’t know now whether it was true or not, given how many horses the Army killed rather than feed them once the war was over. I thought it was true then.
There was a grave by the lake, one of the last owners, with a recent headstone.
And sleep at last
Among the fields of home.
I’m tired as I write this, really tired after just three hours of sleep last night, propped up in bed and about to turn in, but even reading the inscription that’s stuck in my head I feel the same way I always felt when I saw it that time ago, and it’s nearly half my life away that I last went to the lake at Orchardleigh. Moved, respectful, a little something in my eye, just a speck I think, probably. And envious, envious that someone, somewhere, tried to make sure that the person under the headstone was at peace, however fatuously, in a way I’ve never been able to imagine anyone ever doing for me.
As if that wasn’t enough for one place it had a Bath stone Georgian boathouse on the lake, an island and a tiny church on it. Orchardleigh has loads of high trumps and it plays to flush them all out on the table right from the start. Back when I was fourteen I decided I’d get married in that church, if I ever did. And because that’s what I was going to do I didn’t take any girlfriends to Orchardleigh ever, until I met someone I thought I’d like to marry.
We rode down there on the Harley one early summer morning and parked the bike by the gatehouse, then walked up the drive and found the tree, eventually, still there fifteen years after I first saw it. The boathouse was still there and the lake and the plaque and the grave and the house. And of course, the island and the little church. It all sort-of looked like it was working.
We rode back to London at the end of that week and I started trying to find out what you do to get married somewhere you don’t live. I knew Orchardleigh was in the diocese of the Bishop of Bath & Wells and I’d heard about bans and people having to live where the bans are read or something, although I had a feeling that might just be in Hardy or Thackeray. Phone the Bishop’s office, I thought. They’ll know.
The first issue was that Directory Enquiries had just changed from being a nationalised utility staffed by stiff and imperious crisply-spoken authority figures to the Del Boy gertcha customer service model that everything in England has become, where it’s all the pretence of saying ‘sir’ and no service of any kind. The other difference, obviously, is you pay a lot more for the new, rubbish model. Unbelievably and utterly rubbishly, Directory Enquiries pretended (after they’d taken my money of course) that there was no number for the Bishop of Bath & Wells.
I pointed out that the bishopric was 800 years old and although they probably hadn’t had a phone for all of that time, I was pretty sure they had one now. Despite that, Del Boy’s Directories couldn’t give me the number
They had a number for Bishop of Bath though. I took that.
Ring out, wild bells
I was quite impressed when the bishop answered the phone himself on the third ring. More impressed, if a bit disconcerted, to find they’d picked a local man to do the job, judging by the sheepy noises he made bleating ‘Bishop of Bath.’ You have to have heard it to know how that sounds. I could do it now but it wouldn’t help you, reading this. Sorry.
I told the bishop what the problem was, that I wanted to get married at Orchardleigh, that it was in his diocese (‘if you say so’) and the bans and residency qualifications and how long and what was it all going to cost and could it be done at all. And stuff.
Don’t know, the bishop said. He could see the problem and he’d like to help, but he got three calls like this a week.
I thought that even for a busy bishop this wasn’t actually the most helpful thing I’d ever heard.
Me: How come?
BoB: ‘Cuz Bishop of Bath has been a motorcycle shop since 1926.
Tis a sign and/or a portent, I think. I only proposed to one other person. None of the three people I ever talked to about getting married ever took me up on it. I don’t think it’s going to happen now. Looking at this, I don’t think it’s supposed to.