There’s a bus that leaves at the end of our street which goes to St John Henry Newman’s childhood home by the Thames at Ham. It’s a pleasant ride though the suburbs, and Ham, on arrival, is a lovely spot. It lies right by the river between Kingston and Richmond, near Richmond Park.
The more satisfying way to get there is to catch the train or bus to Richmond, and walk down along the river, past the Petersham Meadows where the cows will be grazing by now, and then across past the great Jacobean mansion of Ham House—already old in Newman’s day—and on to Ham Street. Grey Court House is on your left as you walk up the street, a fine Georgian house with high gates in front: you can see the blue plaque on its wall stating that the great Cardinal spent some years of his childhood there. It’s part of a school now, standing alongside the modern buildings of Grey Court Secondary School: it’s called Newman House and they use it for children with special needs and for art and craft work. A pleasant walk through the village and across the Common takes you to the New Inn, where I’ve often enjoyed a long talkative drink with fellow Newman pilgrims before catching the bus home.
But I can’t get there now. Everywhere, there are posters telling us all to stay at home: when I go out to buy groceries and a newspaper, full-page advertisements in the latter carry the same message. Buses still trundle along, but are mostly empty, and carry notices urging you not to board unless your journey is really necessary.
The summer programme of Catholic History Walks is on hold: the national lockdown happened just as I was about to publicize the May dates. Along with a thousand other Catholic events—not least, the solemn re-dedication of our country to Mary, formalizing a bond established in the reign of Richard II, and involving all our bishops and thousands of the faithful and their clergy—the only activity is online.
It’s bleak, but not entirely bleak. That solemn dedication was watched by thousands; so many that the website crashed and the whole event had to be screened again and again later in the day. Parishes across Britain stream online Masses and, if our parish in South London is anything to go by, numbers logging on are quite impressive.
This doesn’t have to be, nor should it be, a spiritually dead time. John Henry Newman dated his life’s spiritual journey from the summer of 1816 when he lay ill at school, and a schoolmaster lent him a book to read—a book that changed his life because it spoke to him of the reality of Jesus Christ as God and Saviour. Newman came, as he would later put it “under the influence of a definite Creed”—from seeing church attendance and the Scriptures as merely part of a pattern of life generally accepted as the norm, he followed prayerfully God’s plan and purposes for his own life day by day, with powerful consequences.
This life would be one of generous and energetic activity: studying at Oxford, taking up the appointment as Vicar of the University Church, accepting the challenge of Littlemore and transforming what had been a rural slum into a community with a thriving church and a school. And all of that was before he became a Catholic, which opened up new chapters: the Birmingham Oratory, the challenge of the Catholic University in Ireland, the foundation of The Oratory School, and more.
But in between, there were long quiet times. In the little collection of huts and cottages that made up his retreat at Littlemore, after his resignation as vicar of St Nicholas Church. Newman drew up with his companions a daily timetable of prayer and study. They kept to it after joining the Catholic Church and moving to Birmingham, to the recusant house at Old Oscott that was given to them and which Newman renamed Maryvale, all the time uncertain of what might be the next step but trusting in God the entire way.
It would be rather lovely to ponder all that while walking along by the river near Richmond. I watched the bus to Ham wistfully the other day as I walked home with my groceries. The bus was empty, as usual. I suppose I wouldn’t be arrested if I got on board. There are stories of police asking people the reasons for their journeys, even inspecting their shopping bags to see if they contain real essentials. But I might not be challenged—a lady of moderately advanced years, with a bag of vegetables, tinned goods, and some loo rolls. The problem is that, like everyone else, I’m trying to stick to the rules and get this wretched lockdown over.
We are told that our commitment to staying at home will hold the virus in check, ensure that our hospitals can cope, and help make everything safe for an eventual slow return to normality. Confidence in this is wearing a bit thin, but solid alternatives are not on offer at present. So the Ham bus moves emptily emptily on, towards the river and the meadows, and I return to the house and the computer.
Newman’s childhood summers at Ham would have been pleasant ones: wide lawns on which to play, the river sparkling nearby, the rhythm of family life. After that came boarding school, then Oxford and adult life. There was a terrible illness—during which he would have died, but for the dedicated care given by a manservant—and a ship becalmed. That was when he wrote “Lead, kindly light”, giving inspiration to many who have sung that hymn over the years.
Time to wait. Time to listen to God. Illness. Littlemore. Maryvale.
By my desk I have a fine picture of Newman, and a book of his prayers and meditations, a wedding gift from my husband. Tomorrow there’ll be Sunday Mass on-line, and some garden work to do, and another week begins. Lead, kindly light…