Postcard from Walkern

Mike Cervantez startles into silence in the English countryside

By / May 2015

From the town of Stevenage we travel northeast through hay field after hay field until we arrive in Walkern, population 1207. Walkern’s High Street boasts two pubs, the White Lion and the Yew Tree, the latter one mentioned in the British Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy’s “John Barleycorn,” a poem that capitalizes on the strange poetry of pub names. “Britain’s soul, as the crow flies,” Duffy writes, “so flew he. I saw him in the Holly Bush, the Yew Tree…”

On past the pub, at the corner of Church End Street stands, or rather leans, a morose, clapboard shed, the roof blanketed in moss. A sign marks it as the home of Jane Wenham, the last British woman sentenced to death for witchcraft, in 1712. We keep walking, crossing a bridge over the River Beane (the names of water courses really are boring compared to pubs), bypassing a family of ducks, until we see, in a small clearing of trees on the other side, the church of St. Mary the Virgin.

Three hundred and fifty years ago, during the tumultuous days of Oliver Cromwell, my wife’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great something-or-other served as the parish rector here. The short, wooden gate in the low wall swings open and we stride up the stone path to the door. It’s locked. There is no one in sight. But our guide says he knows someone with a key, so while he returns to the High Street, we circuit the structure.

With parapets atop one section, a steeply pitched rust-colored roof on the other, and pointed archways scattered about, the church is equal parts castle and abbey. Our guide returns, key in hand. He unlocks the door and we step into silence. In “Church Going,” the British poet Philip Larkin, who was born in Coventry, about an hour northwest of Walkern, writes that for all his doubts about the purpose of church buildings, it gives him intense pleasure “to stand in silence here.”

We stand in silence. We stand in a kind of startled incandescence, too. What with the structure’s heavy gray exterior, we are surprised by the brightness, even lightness, of the nave. White-washed walls offset dark pews and the ceiling timbers high above. The light from narrow stained-glass windows does what window light can do: hold dust aloft, keep shadows at bay, suspend something that may or may not be disbelief.


Mike Cervantez is a contributing writer to EthnoTraveler.