Pastoral Pedals, Pints and People, John Dennis (1990)

A Bishop surveys his East Anglian see by bike

Cappella Publications, 0946443076 64pp paperback £4.95

During August 1989 the then Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich set off on a thirteen-day cycle ride around his diocese – an area that closely mirrors the area of Suffolk. This book records that journey, taking in over 100 of the 500 Churches in his bailiwick. Along the way, a sizeable portion of his flock rode alongside him, he was greeted by cheering crowds in many of the places of worship he visited and he enjoyed the hospitality of a fair number of the vicars, deans and parochial councillors who called him boss.

Back then, the county was bisected by the A45 – since remade as a virtual motorway and rechristened the A14; was home to three giant US airbases and, I suspect, had significantly quieter roads than today.

Bishop John – incidentally the father of the comic and actor Hugh Dennis – did not really set out to take a snapshot of what he encountered. This is more a diary whose priority is tipping a hat to those he met along the way – particularly those who provided sustenance and shelter. As a result we lean a good deal about ‘pot luck’ suppers, opportunities to prey in the company of old friends and the cycling prowess of his rosta of road companions.

There are some interesting nuggets along the way. I didn’t know that the habit of Suffolk churches being situated several hundred yards from the villages that they serve is a result of the great plague. Villages that once surrounded their places of worship were abandoned, in favour of new ones some distance away as the disease laid waste the the population.

He also relates the fascinating story of Battisford Tye, whose straight road is the result of lanterns aligned in the dark, to ensure that a right of way was retained at the time of enclosures. Its unswerving trajectory much later fooled German WW2 bombers who emptied their deadly cargo on to the remote road, rather than the airfield a couple of miles away.

If His Worshipfulness has any point to make it is the difficulties that its extraordinary estate causes the established Church. Beautiful and historically important as its flint Churches are, their upkeep is as much Christian activity as their members can manage. Considered this way, the Church of England, at least in Suffolk, could be viewed as an elaborate sleight-of-hand to persuade the pious that admittance to Heaven is dependent upon raising sufficient funds to keep the rainwater from fatally penetrating their medieval premises.

At times Dennis’ faith does threaten to choke his testimony. I don’t doubt that the Bishop paused to ‘thank God that we still bring to Him the cares and needs of the world’ at least as often as some of us take swig from our bidons, but I wonder whether mentioning the fact impresses either saints or sinners.

The greatest lesson of his book might well be the interest that the public and particularly the media appear to have devoted to the pedalling priest. By the time he climbed off his bike, Bishop Dennis was clearly a great deal better known than when he began. As publicity stunts go, it is hard to think of one that would be cheaper, greener or more pleasant.

TD Apr 13

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