Have Bag, Will Travel
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When I was a boy I used to like stories from the Bible and although a lot of the learning bits about going to school I found thoroughly uninteresting and a bit of a chore I did enjoy religious education and especially used to look forward to morning assembly when once a week the Minister from the Methodist Chapel nearby used to attend and tell a story or two in a children’s sermon.
Some of my school reports from this time revealed quite stunning results in religious education and at the same time as I was without fail picking up a disappointing sequence of Ds and Es for the important subjects like Arithmetic and English I was consistently being awarded As and Bs in religion. In 1963 I scored an unbeatable 100% in the end of year exams.
Strictly speaking we were a Church of England family but the Parish Church of St. John the Baptist in Hillmorton was in a sorry state of neglect and significant disrepair on account of the fact that the Vicar had little interest in his parish or his congregation because he preferred his drink. People use to say that you always knew when he was coming because the beer bottles used to rattle in the whicker basket that he had attached to the handlebars of his bike. More charitable folk said that it was communion wine. He didn’t hold many services in the Church, well, certainly not as many as he was supposed to, and there was definitely no Sunday school.
For this reason I was sent to the Methodist Chapel where the Reverend Keene and the Sunday school teacher Christine Herrington made us feel most welcome. I liked the Reverend Keene, he was down to earth and amusing and later he also came to secondary school to teach religious studies and take a weekly assembly there as well.
I remember that he smiled permanently and had a most pleasant disposition that was appropriate to a minister of the church. He had one leg shorter than the other and wore a corrective shoe. One morning in 1969 without any warning the Headmaster announced at morning assembly that following an operation he had died suddenly and I was really sad about that.
I don’t suppose so many children go to Sunday school any more but I used to really enjoy it. The origin of the Sunday school is attributed to the philanthropist and author Hannah More who opened the first one in 1789 in Cheddar in Somerset and for the next two hundred years parents right across the country must have been grateful to her for getting the kids out of the way on a Sunday morning and giving them some peace and quiet and a chance of a lie in.
In contrast to the Hillmorton County Junior School I seemed to be learning something at Chapel and what’s more I was being really successful. Every year we used to take an exam, well, more of a little test really, and if you passed there was a colourful certificate with a picture of Jesus and signed by absolutely everyone who was anyone in the Methodist Church hierarchy. I was awarded a first class pass three years running and even though the school headmaster had written me of as an educational no-hoper I wasn’t in the slightest bit concerned because I was becoming convinced that I was going to be a vicar.
I must have inherited this from my mother…
I had heard it said that people went into the clergy after getting a calling from God and I used to lie awake at night straining out listening for it. It never came. I also understood that it might alternatively come as a sign and I used to walk around looking for anything unusual but this never happened either.
One night, some time in 1966, I think God dialed a wrong number and got dad instead because overnight he suddenly got religion in a very big way and we all started going to St John the Baptist which by now had got a new vicar. His name was Peter Bennett and he was starting to deal with the problems left behind by the previous man who had retired somewhere into an alcoholic stupor.
At twelve years old I was too old for Sunday school and went to church now instead, I was confirmed in 1967 and joined first Pathfinders and then the Christian Youth Fellowship Association or CYFA for short which was (and still is) a national Christian youth club. The good thing about CYFA was that I got to go away to youth conferences and camps and there were lots of girls there too. The girl in the middle was called Elizabeth and was my first girlfriend!
I auditioned for the choir but was rejected on account of being tone deaf but to compensate for this disappointment the Vicar appointed me a server which meant that I got to wear a scarlet cassock, which I thought made me look like a Cardinal and had the important job of carrying the processional cross down the aisle at the beginning of evensong and putting the candles out at the end.
None of this could last of course and with no sign of the calling (there is no such thing as a sign unless you want there to be) and with dad’s religious fervour waning, my attention began to drift off in other directions such as pop music, girls and woodpecker cider and gradually I just stopped going to Church and to CYFA, left the bell ringing group and all of my scripture exam certificates were put away in an envelope in the family memory box and simply got forgotten.
In 2012 I visited the city of Padova in Northern Italy and dropped in to the Basilica of Saint Anthony (A Basilica is technically a double Cathedral because it has two naves) and inside there was a pile of postcards in different languages with an invitation to write to the Saint with a request. I assume this could be like writing to
Jim’ll Fix It Father Christmas or to ask for a cure for a gammy leg or something but I thought that I might use the opportunity to enquire why that elusive call never came?
Once again I didn’t get a response from the Big Man!
Malta is the most religious country in Europe…
…it has more religious public holidays than any other in Europe and 10th February is especially important because this is the The Feast of St Paul’s Shipwreck which was bad luck for Paul but good fortune for Malta because it brought Paul to the island in the year 60AD and he then went promptly about converting the island to Christianity.
Saint Paul is the Patron Saint of Malta.
In a survey in 2010 95% of the population of Malta said that they were practising Catholics. Nearby Italy (where the Pope lives) only registered 74%. The least religious countries are all in the north where over 80% of respondents in Estonia, Norway, Denmark and Sweden all said that religion isn’t important!
Interestingly this survey didn’t seem to include the Vatican State where there is a population of only about five hundred official citizens and three-quarters of these are clergy so I imagine the response would surely have been no less than 100%
There have been four Papal visits to Malta, the last in April 2010 to celebrate the 1,950th anniversary of the shipwreck of St Paul on the island. His ship ran aground in St Paul’s Bay (obviously) and I give you my word that I am honestly not making this up but in 1997 I too suffered the same fate. Taking a speed boat ride with Tony Oki Koki ‘Mr Crazy’ Banis the boat broke down and we were stranded on the very same rock in a storm for twenty minutes or so until thankfully rescued.
Last year I visited the town of Rabat to visit his grotto next to his church where he is supposed to have spent his time on Malta in hiding from the Roman soldiers who were searching for him – rather like Saddam Hussein, two thousand years later hiding from the American troops – also in a cave.
The Red Tower, or to give it its proper name St Agatha’s Tower, is a large imposing watchtower in Mellieħa, the sixth and most important of a coastal defence system of fortifications and small castles built by the Knights of St John during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
St. Agatha’s Tower turns out to be the last large bastioned tower to be built in Malta to provide early warning of attack and to alert the defence of the city of Valletta.
The city of Valletta was built by the Knights of St John who were granted the island in 1530, seven years after being expelled from Rhodes by the Ottoman Turks. Trouble with Turks however continued to follow the Knights and in 1565 the Ottomans laid siege to their new home on Malta with the intention of establishing a base from where they could conveniently advance into Europe.
The rest of Europe was so grateful for this stoic resistance that it began to provide funding for the Grand Master of the Order, Jean Parisot de Valette, to plan and construct a new fortified city that was to be called Valletta in his honour. Although it was designed principally as a fortress city with great battlements and armed bastions the architects also found time and paid attention to good design and within the walls they built a Baroque style city with churches, palaces and fine mansions, laid down gardens and designed grand plazas at the intersections of the grid pattern of the streets. It was certainly worth protecting.
Saint Agatha’s Tower was built between November 1647 and April 1649 and consists of a square castle with four corner towers. Cannon ports in the turrets gave interlocking fields of fire commanding the base of the walls and the gateway, with other large artillery ports in the faces of the main tower.
The tower is situated in a commanding position on the crest of Marfa Ridge at the north west end of Malta, overlooking the natural harbour and potential enemy landing site of Mellieħa Bay, with clear views over to Comino and Gozo, and also eastward to the line of watchtowers along the north shore of Malta that linked it with the Knights headquarters in Valletta. It was the primary stronghold in the west of Malta, and was manned by a garrison of thirty men, with ammunition and supplies to withstand a siege of forty days.
It continued to have a military purpose throughout the British period, and was manned during both World Wars. From the British period it continued its military function being used as a radar station by the Armed Forces of Malta.
Although the children would have preferred to stay at the hotel and spend all day in the swimming pool I thought it was important for them to get out a little and learn something about Malta. The girls weren’t too keen and Patsy (the clever one) feigned a stomach ache to get out of it, Molly (not so clever) didn’t think fast enough to find an excuse but William is rather fond of forts and castles so luckily he was enthusiastic about the visit. Molly was dragged along complaining.
It was just a short walk but it was all uphill so, in the heat, it did become rather a drag by the time we reached the steep flight of steps which took us to the entrance.
There are some good displays inside and some imaginative reconstructions but the best bit is the climb to the roof and the reward of sweeping views in all directions as far as Victoria on Gozo to the north and Valletta to the south and it was easy to understand why they chose this spot for the tower – no one was going to slip in unnoticed that’s for sure.
It didn’t take long to see all that there was to see and with the promise of an ice cream down at the beach after the stroll back there were a lot less complaints on the return walk.
The children celebrate the end of the walk and return to the swimming pool…