[Today’s post is by John H. Parker, co-author of the newly released book, Abide With Me, published by New Leaf Press. This account is from the travels of John and his co-author/photographer, Paul Seawright.]

One of the phenomena associated with going to world-famous places or the sites of world-famous elements like the great hymns is that when you get there, the place seems so, well, unfamous.

Broadhembury, England

Broadhembury, England

Broadhembury is quaint and charming, but so are a lot of English villages. What make this one famous is its association with Augustus Toplady, composer of “Rock of Ages.”

Broadhembury Church

Broadhembury Church

Somehow you expect the place associated with a hymn you’ve sung all your life to be, well, spectacular somehow. Not so this little church. Augustus may have composed his hymn in the cleft of a rock in nearby Cheddar Gorge. Or it may have been born out of his feud with John Wesley.

Whatever, the whole fame thing is comfortably mollified by a sign on the front of the church :

Welcome to St. Andrews Church, Broadhembury.

Please close the door on entering and leaving.

Birds fly in the Church and cannot get out.

Thank You.

Have a safte journey home.

Most famous people and their homes are pretty ordinary after all.

Broadhembury residence

Broadhembury residence

Advertisements

[Today’s post is by John H. Parker, co-author of the newly released book, Abide With Me, published by New Leaf Press. This account is from the travels of John and his co-author/photographer, Paul Seawright.]

Winchester College is one of my favorite hymn site destinations because it offers a tourist-free look at a school emerging from time. Notice please that this is Winchester College, not Winchester Cathedral from the song title or adjacent Winchester University, stately as it is.

The college was founded by wealthy William Wykham in 1382 for poor boys. It’s still running just fine, probably better than ever after a few centuries of establishing wealthy and famous alumni. Each year for hundreds of years the school has produced its group of carefully cultured and trained young men.

Inevitably some of these have become quite famous. One is Thomas Ken, author of “Holy, Holy, Holy,” who was director of the chorus in the middle seventeenth century during the Puritan Interregnum. A highlight of my visit is holding a small seal given Thomas that once belonged to acclaimed minister and poet John Donne.

Winchester College

Winchester College

One of the neatest experiences of visiting Winchester, though, is walking around the dining room. The paneled walls and tables, the portraits, the grey-clad hostesses—all make it look like we’re at Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. Head master Dumbledore or Professor Snape could stroll in any minute.

Things don’t change much at Winchester College. They’re not supposed to, and they sure don’t need to.

[Today’s post is by John H. Parker, co-author of the newly released book, Abide With Me, published by New Leaf Press. This account is from the travels of John and his co-author/photographer, Paul Seawright.]

Most of the classic hymns were written by men, usually Anglican or Dissenter preachers. Of the relatively few women, some leaned toward the independent side.

Frances Havergal, composer of “I Gave My Life for Thee” and “Take My Life and Let it Be,” was consistently devout, and she just as consistently dismissed anything that would interfere with her Bible study, evangelism, and hymn writing. An attractive woman from a well-to-do family, she received several offers of marriage, but she declined them all in order to keep herself undistracted from her church work. Evidently she excluded domestic distractions, as well. An anonymous booklet about her found in the public library of her home town of Stourport, possibly written by her sister, reads “She probably never did a household chore in her life, and took no apparent interest in anything that was going on in the world apart from saving souls for Christ.”

Sarah Flower Adams, writer of “Nearer, My God, to Thee” was the daughter of a liberal newspaper editor, a romantic poet, a beautiful woman, an actress, and a very independent lady. She was involved in political and social issues and belonged to William Johnson Fox’s Unitarian South Place Chapel in Finsbury Circus, London. She was married to William Bridges Adams, but their agreement was that she would not do housework.

How this mindset of these two ladies affected the content of their hymns might be worthy of study.

[Today’s post is by John H. Parker, co-author of the newly released book, Abide With Me, published by New Leaf Press. This account is from the travels of John and his co-author/photographer, Paul Seawright.]

I like hiking and rocks as much as the next man, so Cheddar Gorge near Broadhembury, County Devon, England is appealing. Look closely and you can see mountain goats with hooves clinging precariously to the sides of near-cliffs. Helmeted rock climbers clamber over ledges, and the whole area looks like the American West’s version of wilderness.

In the midst of all this natural beauty is the most famous rock of all, the one that supposedly Augustus Toplady took shelter in sometime around 1776 when a storm caught him and his horse. The story goes that he found shelter in a slanting cleft in this 100-foot mass of stone during a rain storm. He there related the stone to the reference to Christ as the Rock (1 Corinthians 10:4) and the cleft to Jesus’ wound from which issued blood and water (John 19:34)) Hence he conceived the idea of his hymn, “Rock of Ages.” Supposedly he found a playing card there on which to jot down his original idea.

The story is questionable, but possible. More likely August conceived “Rock of Ages” as a vehicle for advancing his belief in grace that opposed his antagonist John Wesley. Nonetheless, we enjoy the scene and the ambience. Jill stands by the cleft to give perspective as I take some pictures. Meanwhile Paul is taking the photos that really count. I reflect that preachers and hymn writers of the era were both hardy and original.

[Today’s post is by John H.Parker, co-author of the newly released book, Abide With Me, published by New Leaf Press. This account is from the travels of John and his co-author/photographer, Paul Seawright.]

The afternoon in 2006 when we reached Lower Brixham on the coast of Devon, the sea was quiet and calm. We drove to Berry Head, now a hotel. Built as a hospital but never used as one, it was where Henry Lyte lived for 23 years as the rector of the town’s All-Saints Church.

By the time we checked in the afternoon was getting late, so Jill and Paul and I went out to watch the sunset and take some pictures. Berry Head is on Torbay (p. 20 in the book) and is a gorgeous setting as you face west.

Brixham is pretty far south, and—contrary to what people would expect—palm trees grown here. Next to one tree is a bench facing west, and today there was a solitary man sitting there watching the sun drop over the shore across the bay. He had his legs crossed, and one arm was draped over the back of the bench.

Paul went behind the bench to shoot a picture while we watched. As nearly as I could tell, the man never knew about that shot. Now his picture (page 20 again) is in 10,000 books distributed from America to Australia. I wonder if he’s ever seen it and now knows that his image has become one of the favored pictures in the primary photographic book on British hymns?

[Today’s post is by John H.Parker, co-author of the newly released book, Abide With Me, published by New Leaf Press. This account is from the travels of John and his co-author/photographer, Paul Seawright.]

Even hymn sites have their ghost stories. The supposed specter resident at Lew Trenchard, home of Sabine Baring-Gould, is Margaret. She was a family member a couple of centuries back known for her acerbic nature and generally bad attitude. No danger, just grumpy.

Story goes a couple and their little girl were staying at the now hotel when the child wandered into the hall and saw an old lady. “Who are you!?” the woman said. When the child asked back, “Who are you?” Margaret disappeared.

There’s a story, too, about a servant feeling someone was watching her as she crossed the courtyard. When she turned around, an old woman was watching her from a window, but vanished.

And the top tale is that someone opened Margaret’s crypt in Sabine’s church one day: Margaret is said to have raised herself up and said “Go away!”

Like all ghost stories—apocryphal (not the only hymn site story that is), but intriguing.

[Today’s post is by John H.Parker, co-author of the newly released book, Abide With Me, published by New Leaf Press. This account is from the travels of John and his co-author/photographer, Paul Seawright.]

Poor William [Cowper]. His life reminds you of the stories you hear today of kids suffering from ADD, depression or one of the other psychologically debilitating illnesses we just didn’t hear all that much about even 25 years ago. A brief account of his miserable life is in Abide with Me.

Right here, though, I’ll comment about the sad-sweet sense I get when I go to the little garden hut where he wrote. It’s at the back of the home of the widow Mary Unwin in Olney, where Cowper came to live in 1764. He’d just been released from an asylum where he had been sent after attempts at suicide. (He first prepared to go with poison or by stabbing himself with a pen knife but couldn’t muster up the nerve to follow through; then he tried hanging himself with a garter, but it broke.) So he came here to Olney to continue receiving the charity of the Unwin family.

The house is now the Cowper-Newton Museum. It backs up on the vicarage where Newton lived. In the rear there’s a very nice flower garden, and in the center (see the book) is this odd little hut with one room and three large windows above benches.

I’m sure William treasured his friendship with the great preacher, but being something of a recluse myself, I can relate to his sitting for hours in this shelter, even a shelter from the garden, I guess. He could look out on the orchard toward Newton’s house, or on the flowers that I assume grew there then, and, especially, on the sky. Like Poe, another depressed and brilliant soul, William sought release and the sky must have been a draw for him.

We know William principally for two songs, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” and “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood.” He wrote the first one in 1774, ten years after moving to Olney, to this garden, and to this little hut. I couldn’t prove that he wrote it sitting on one of the three benches, but it surely is easy to picture him there. Burdened by failure in love, in health, and in career, he must have longed for a “mysterious way” that would deliver him, release that could come from a source “Deep in unfathomable mines.”

I don’t know how much relief William got from sitting out here. Things didn’t get much better in his life. But enclosure in the little hut probably gave him some kind of psychological shelter. He knew a lot about how “the bud may have a bitter taste;” I’m sure he looked forward to the time with “sweet will be the flow’r.”