Comfortable Cheshire & the Sandbach Crosses

What is lovelier than a June afternoon in England? This week I was in north Cheshire, tootling around with the windows down and Elgar blaring. Wildflowers ran amok on the verges; the birds were singing as though their very lives depended on it. The villages were uniformly pretty, some of the houses beautifully thatched, or had wisteria growing up walls and porches. So sleepy were some of the settlements through which I drove, that folk would pause their gardening or car-polishing, to look up and see who it was that passed by. I nodded a greeting, which was always cheerfully reciprocated. Weeping willows and Japanese maples kept watch over pretty, well-tended gardens with manicured lawns and colourful beds all ariot. Ancient meres and wooded glades are plentiful and each village has its attractive little church. Local organisations such as the bell-ringers, the amateur dramatics group and the soroptimists advertised their meetings on parish council noticeboards.

The towns are attractive, too. There is something rather upmarket about them, as young men in shorts stepped out of Range Rovers to go and watch the Euros in pubs called the Red Lion and the Crown. Middle-aged women clutching bags emerged from shops and salons, determined to look as good as their years will allow. Much as I despair of this nation at times, visiting Cheshire reminded me that for many, life is good, and our country a pleasant place to live. For the wealthy, there are plenty of ways to spend money and obtain comforts. For the poor, the state supplements income and provides services such as education and healthcare which the have-nots in many nations do without. Living in Britain is pretty good.

Yet living in Britain is not the only thing we do. We die here, too. In one village, a defibrillator was housed in a former red telephone box, hiding that sore reminder of mortality within the picture-postcard tranquillity. Much of north Cheshire is essentially a large open-air retirement home, populated by elderly millionaires or wealthy professionals at the top of their game. Yet each one of those residents is drawing closer to their final breath, each keeping a nervous eye on that phone box. In Sandbach’s town square, excited men were tunelessly singing God save the Queen ahead of England’s thrashing Germany at football. Yet upon them gazed an image of Christ, serene and expressionless. Two huge Saxon monuments stand in the centre. Though damaged and worn, they show Jesus Christ, His crucifixion and suffering, as well as the angelic annunciation of His birth. They must be ten feet high, and have stood in that location since at least Elizabethan times. Yet the football was more interesting. Oh, sure, the locals have seen them before. They will hardly spend their late afternoons goggling at them like some tourist come for the first time. Yet how many respond in a similar way to Jesus Christ Himself? Not some carving, but the real One, the creator, sustainer and judge of the universe? Why is cutting grass, training clematis, having one’s hair set and watching millionaires kick balls, all more pressing matters than the eternal Son of God and His offer of sins forgiven?

Middle-class, provincial life is a sham, with its sweet pleasures and charming respectability. You work hard all your life and finally move to Honeysuckle Cottage, where you spend your days tending the beds and practising your part for the village’s annual Gilbert and Sullivan. Yet Christ gazes down on these charming folk, not admiring their pleasures, but despising their sin. Did He not die on the cross that it might be remitted in full? Why, then, are they not queuing up to call upon Him, that they might accept His offer? Because the football, the upcoming fete and next year’s dahlias are more important. That’s why.

And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades; for if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. Matthew 11:23