I appear to have the knack of attracting some extraordinary people whenever I’m out and about. Once, on a train to London from Manchester, I sat opposite a woman who was reading, not Elle or Cosmopolitan but Leprosy Review. With two cans of Stella inside of me, and nothing like a book or newspaper to occupy my time, (that’s why I bought the lager) I found myself in fits of laughter – as a lone traveller, it never looks good – as I considered asking her if I could borrow her copy. It was the whole idea of being that desperate for something to do on the train journey that I was prepared to resort to reading a magazine about leprosy.
The woman noticed my shoulders shaking uncontrollably and, looking distastefully at the two crushed cans of Stella on the table in front of me, she asked me what I found so funny. With great difficulty, I told her and she let me read her magazine. It turned out that she was a doctor, but no ordinary GP. She was – and probably still is – the foremost authority on leprosy in the United Kingdom.
This week, I was in Northampton, of all places, on business, and I decided to walk back to the station rather than order a taxi from the office block I had been sitting in for the past hour. The walk was uninspiring and, as it was lunchtime, I thought I would find a tearoom or restaurant for a bite to eat.
Near the station there is a pub called The Black Lion, which, as a blackboard outside announced, was under new management. Having been editor of Pub Food magazine for six years, I can sniff out ‘pub grub’ from 100 yards and this was the sort of place, I figured, with a menu based around frozen chips and bar snacks and where ham, egg and chips was considered a delicacy. I played safe and ordered a ham sandwich.
I ended up in the pub because of Bruce’s Coffee Shop next door, which I hadn’t associated with the boozer. They were, I discovered, one and the same, which, in itself, was slightly odd: a coffee shop, a kind of independent version of Starbuck’s or Caffe Nero, inside a pub.
I stopped for a cappuccino and then walked through to the pub where I stayed for a beer because I liked the licensee. He was a decent sort of chap, ex-services, had been in the first Gulf War and was now the pub’s licensee. My sandwich was fine and I considered ordering another, but the crisps and salad accompanying my order sufficed and I survived on three pints of St Austell Tribute, one of three real ales available, the others being Spitfire and London Pride.
A man walked in and ordered a pint of Guinness. I had been chatting to the licensee about this and that and it transpired that his girlfriend worked in the local hospital, which I assumed was something like ‘Northampton General’. The man with the Guinness made a deliberate noise of disgruntlement at hearing this, and it turned out that he had spent six months there being treated for serious brain damage. He had been thrown off a nearby railway bridge by a group of Asian men in what the licensee described as a racist attack. Had a passer-by not spotted the man, he would have died.
The pub had recently been re-opened and the licensee told me that it dated back hundreds of years and had close associations with the impressive St Peter’s church next door.
The three pints of Tribute inspired me to take a closer look at the church. Prior to leaving my rather comfortable position at the bar, where I had been quietly writing an article about the Wye Valley Brewery on my laptop, I had noticed a man talking to the licensee. When I reached the church, there he was again taking photographs.
“I’ve got over 600 photographs of churches on my computer,” he told me, proudly, as we stood together in the churchyard while he continued to snap away. He produced his business card and, to my surprise, he was a paranormal investigator doing a bit of footwork for a psychic and medium called Susan Mock.
That surname bothered me. Mock. Mock not, but he said she was good and told me about a forthcoming meeting somewhere in Northampton. I loitered around the church for a while, admiring its inner beauty before boarding a train back to London.