In Fox's Footsteps

Alec Davison, who contributed this review to the UK SoF magazine, is writer-in-residence with the Leaveners community arts project, which he helped to found.

Many are the stories in the world's great faiths of those who are impelled out on a fantastic voyage to seek fame and fortune and who after years of travail and amazing adventures arrive back home to discover the crock of gold under the floorboards of their own house.

David Boulton may well be feeling in his retirement to Dent in Cumbria that he is one such man. For after a working life of prestigious achievement as both twentieth century historian and head of news, current affairs, arts and religious programmes at Granada Television, he has discovered that Hobsons Farm where he has settled has a story to reveal that is sparking personal provocation and nourishment. He has found that the farmhouse was home to a pioneer Quaker family, as were many others in the immediate community, and that he is living on the site of a hot-bed of religious and political dissent. It is speaking powerfully to his condition.

Unravelling the histories of these pioneers has generated a splendid series of Dales Historical Monographs of which the engaging and challenging In Fox's Footsteps is the most recent. It proves to be a literary triptych—part travel journal, part history, part theological treatise—a rare gallimaufry of the pastoral-historical-religious which for me was not without a fourth dimension, the thriller. Would David, the questing iconoclast of all fundamentalist belief since his youth, a life-long stranger in his own land, dare to dig deep enough under the foundations of his own personal house? Is this a pilgrimage or a progress for him? He is certainly an entertaining archeologist and his findings are enlightening and entertaining; the book is an excellent read. But is the mystery convincingly solved?

I don't feel it is. We must urge David to go on unearthing hidden ramparts and defences, for our sakes and for his. The contemporary gadfly and agent provocateur of the Society of Friends, which he has never joined but which holds a strange fascination for him, has much revisionist thinking to share that illuminates our understanding of its founder, George Fox. But there is a light that Fox knew from his direct experience that still eludes David. The suspense is piquant for those of us spectating the hunt. There are three journeys claimed for this beguiling book but the intriguing sub-text is always the fourth—the personal. In Fox's Footsteps, however, is not a journey alone. He is joined by his wife, Anthea, whose own diary of the wildlife, flora and terrain of their travels is delightfully integrated with David's historical and religious reflections. In May and June 1994 they retraced together the footsteps of George Fox who nearly 350 years earlier in 1652 made a journey between Pendle Hill, Lancashire and Swarthmoor Hall in Cumbria that was to have historic consequences. Fox was then 28 years old and his 1652 travels came as the climax of ten years on the road meeting with religious and political radicals alive with previously unthinkable ideas that would hopefully bring a new heaven on earth—the commonwealth utopia. A nation in bloody civil war fermented as he travelled. The king had been executed and society was in the crucible ready to be remade. Between imprisonments for blasphemy, Fox preached as he travelled that people should "turn-again" to the universal light of Christ within them.

Throughout the dales he journeyed to known areas of sympathy where those who had fought in the war to bring about God's kingdom in the land would help prepare a ready public ripe to be convinced. He was especially anxious to contact those who were called "seekers" and already believing as he did. Years later when he was 49 years old and imprisoned in Worcester gaol, he dictated some recollections of those tumultuous years for what became the first part of his Journal—one of the earliest spiritual autobiographies in the English language.

That story is unfolded again over the Boultons' 15 day journey as they follow its partial account in the Journal and supplement it with other contemporary documents unearthed by their own researches. The Journal was written over 20 years after events and in a radically changed political climate, following the restoration of the monarchy and the betrayal of the deeper hopes for the Commonwealth. Religious toleration had yet to come and there was still widespread imprisonment of the "Friends of Truth" as early Quakers called themselves, so there is much left unsaid in the text. This all provides grist to the mill for later scholars to work at, and David enjoys bringing these findings as fresh air to the myths that grow up around all religious pioneers. Readers who are completely new to this period of history can rest assured that it is told with impeccable clarity and accessibility; those in the know will find refreshment. To those needing to fashion their faith anew it is especially lively stuff that is profoundly relevant to our contemporary quest. For this was the time of turning from medieval supernatural thinking to the modernist rational mode. Experimental science and experimental (experiential) spirituality at last take off in this period. But how the medievalism lingers still in religion while long banished from science!

A further leavening to the text is the framework of the contemporary story. It is told in a jaunty doxy-over-the-dale style with good humour as the narrators join students in the Malham Tarn Centre to smuggle out coffee, or placate an irate farmer wanting to prevent the local paper taking photographs, or record a BBC interview under an umbrella in a Lakeland downpour. Characters from today mingle amicably with the characters of the past that are unearthed from long undusted manuscripts. There is "laughter from the green woodpeckers" and warblers, goldfinches, blackcocks diminishing sandpipers and many other birds (all happy symbols of spiritual states) which wheel overhead as they did in Fox's time. There is much else that pictures the change and the continuity in the Dales and South Lakeland—"the jewels in Britain's landscape crown". We are led over fords and hills and fells, footbridges, tracks and drove roads much as Fox was. But while he often slept under a hedge overnight, our storytellers gain bed and breakfast from a bevy of friendly hosts. 230 pages of clear and readable text are enlivened with sketch illustrations by John Cooke, some excellent maps by Martin Ellison and some eight pages of handsome colour photographs.

The threads are succinctly drawn together in a final chapter that boldly strides the centuries from the l650s to ask what relevance the journey has for us today. This is the kind of reflection for pilgrimage late nights. Newton, Descartes, Spinoza, Paine, Blake, Feuerbach, Wittgen-stein, George Eliot, Bonhoeffer, Harvey Cox, through to Robinson, Cupitt and Freeman are all evoked. They bloom in a meadow-like tapestry, no neat garden this, alongside Winstanley's "action is the life of all" and Fox's "Be valiant...Be patterns". David himself calls on "conscience and experience, nurtured by reason and imagination". Unlike Fox he makes little of the inward Light and therein lies the challenge to him and to the reader. For the Light, as Fox understood it, was deeper than mere conscience or reason or imagination; it embraces these but is much more. To stand in that Light in all our frail mortality, as the great prophets and artists have dared to do, is to find a resonance with an inner awakening power that banishes fear and opens us to the processes of personal change. It is, I believe, in a phrase David would want to question and deconstruct, no metaphor but a taste of ultimate reality.