For centuries the parish church has been the focal point for many activities within a village, and the Heartbeat village of Aidensfield is no exception. In Constable About the Parish, first published in 1996 and now available in a new edition, Nicholas Rhea turns his attention to the church and to the people who fill its pews; Catholics, Anglicans and those from other faiths unite to cause work for the village constable.
One Saturday morning in early summer there was a light knock on the door of my police house at Aidensfield. I opened it to find the village schoolmistress standing there. Fairly new to the area, she was clutching a briefcase which suggested her arrival was for an official purpose. In her early thirties, petite, blonde and very pretty in her white blouse and red mini-skirt, Josie Preston smiled and said, "Mr Rhea, I have been asked to organise the beating of the Aidensfield bounds and wondered if the police ought to be involved. I am hoping to get lots of people to perambulate around the parish boundaries, like they used to do in bygone times."
"It sounds interesting, something for my diary of events," I said. "But a police presence usually depends on what's going to happen, whether public places or public roads are going to be used and how many people turn up. Come in and tell me about your ideas."
I led her into my office, settled her on a chair and asked Mary to organize some coffee. Josie had joined the primary school as recently as last Easter and, after expressing a desire to contribute to village life, had very quickly been appointed clerk of the parish council; already, she was tackling her out-of-school duties with flair and gusto.
Sipping her coffee, she told me that one of her intentions was to revive some of the old village customs, and a renewal of beating the Aidensfield bounds was one of her intentions.
"This is what it entails." She produced a map from her briefcase and spread it across my desk, adding, "Members of the parish council and the villagers will walk around the parish boundaries, halting from time to time to confirm certain markers, such as the Priest Oak and the Shaft Stone. They will make sure that every point on the boundary is visited and noted. The old custom was to beat the outermost point of our boundary by bumping it with the oldest and youngest persons who were taking part in the perambulation. It seemed like a bit of fun - they were lifted up by the legs and arms, then their bottoms were bumped on the ground. Our furthest point is the site of the Six Standing Stones on Howe Rigg Moor, so we'll rest there and have a picnic. In other villages where the custom has continued, the bumping is done quite gently but it's a delightful way of making sure people do remember their parish boundaries."
"After that kind of performance, I'm sure they'll never forget!" I laughed.
And so PC Nick and Sergeant Blaketon find themselves perambulating the parish boundaries. Then the vicar upsets the villagers by charging everyone for repairs to the chancel - non-Christians and others besides. But Nick discovers there's an ancient law which says it is his duty to collect the money. The vicar's wife appears to be having an affair with a Borstal trainee, Claude Jeremiah Greengrass brews some ale to celebrate a society wedding at which the Chief Constable is a guest, a baby is abandoned outside the Catholic church and there are problems with a graveyard-mowing sheep who doesn't like to hear swear-words. Nick tries to prevent a family researcher from unearthing some unpalatable truths about an ancestor, there's a mysterious death during a sword dance and, when the vicar decides to hold a service for working animals, Greengrass claims that Alfred is a guard dog.