Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Day Four - Wednesday 31st August - Dewsbury to Wakefield

Today is a rest day. Although I’ve been at home I’ve had reports from my fellow pilgrims who are in Dewsbury and Wakefield – and somewhere in between the two.
Although most people will do this section of the route by bus, in fact a small group did decide to walk it. Jayne sent me an email: “It was easy to navigate straight down the canal, with beautiful scenery and historical industrial bits. We picked up coal for our New Year celebrations and told Helena about the English custom.” Jayne’s Mum is undergoing chemotherapy, and she continued: “I carried holy water that Revd Kevin had blessed for me for my Mum, which was very apt and deeply moving.”
Before I left yesterday evening I asked everyone to summarise their experience so far and send me their thoughts today. Typically and rather wonderfully, I got a mixed bag of responses – which somehow aptly reflects us as a group. Or, as Revd Owen put it, “What an odd bunch we all are!”
Photo Courtesy of Dewsbury Minster
Tina’s comment summed up how quickly we’ve become a bonded group: “When I had to go home and swap cars, it was almost like stepping into a different world – a parallel universe – like looking through a looking glass.” Having been home a couple of times myself, I can relate to that. When we return to our ‘normal’ lives, for a little while they seem strange.
Helena, who’s travelled from Sweden to walk the Paulinus Way, said she felt something similar after walking back to the Minster from the shopping centre. She continued: “I wouldn't say this is the easiest way to see at new country, but is definitely to most fascinating. Tack for er granslosa gastfrihet!” And I agree wholeheartedly with her, whatever she said!
In people’s comments, it was clear that the hospitality we’ve received so far has really struck us pilgrims. I know it’s been pre-arranged, that it’s hardly as though we’ve knocked on strangers’ doors. But all the same, people have made a huge effort to welcome and accommodate us, and to show us around their churches and minsters. Alison and Jayne both had one word for it – “Amazing!”
For others, to sleep right in among the church and all its history has been an incredible experience. Barbara said it was the stay at Halifax Minster: “It’s a tardis-like building – wonderful. The windows are superb, particularly the round Marigold window.”
For Tina, the night at Dewsbury Minster was particularly special: “I felt really cocooned by this truly welcoming sanctuary. On opening the door this morning it was a shock for a moment to realise that there was a world outside.”

Day Three - Tuesday 30th August - Halifax to Dewsbury

It’s always good to be able to tell it warts and all – and there was really no need to pretend that I’d slept well. After all, most of the other pilgrims had been quite candid about how much the bells had disturbed their sleep on the first night. For me, the problem wasn’t bells – it was nylon. All night I slipped and slithered around on the camping mattress, sleeping bag, liner – and that pillow, which turned out to be utterly pointless. By 6am I gave up and went in search of a cup of tea.
My sleepless state had left me feeling quite disillusioned with the whole pilgrimage thing. So it was lovely to go upstairs and see the morning light shining through the stained glass, and hear the murmur of people starting to surface, chat and laugh, and the welcome sound of a kettle boiling. As I walked down the aisle, Revd Jeanette emerged from her pew-bed: “Sleep well?” she asked. “No!” I replied, but by now I was smiling.
Breakfast was cereal or bread and jam, and then I went back to my desk. I’m one of those people who gets completely stuck in my work and so, when Revd Owen came to tell me it was time for 9am prayers, I reluctantly left off and went to join the rest in the choir stalls. Prayers are held at the Minster every morning, and Hilary invited us to take part in the daily rhythm of the church, which I thought was lovely. Today is the day the church commemorates John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress. So it was fitting that we sang To Be a Pilgrim again (as we had on Sunday). It was also good to see another familiar face - Revd Marion Russell is one of the Minster chaplains, and she joined us for the service and read a lesson.
Once out on the walk, we seemed a very small group. I realised that many people had joined us over the bank holiday weekend, but were now back at work. Stuart had warned us that much of the day's walking would be on roads, but said that we'd be following the route Paulinus is known to have trodden.
Once again the miles flew by as I got to know the other pilgrims. Barbara told me that she was not a churchgoer, but had been drawn to the pilgrimage as a result of walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela about six years ago. She talked about the amazing experience of being considered almost holy by the Spanish people she met along the way. She was astonished when people crossed themselves because she was a pilgrim – doing something holy - an image which sent shivers down my spine.
Barbara did the pilgrimage with a friend who, as it turned out, was struggling with marriage problems. By the end, however, she was out of her rut and had a completely fresh perspective on her relationship.
As I walked and talked, the theme which emerged was change and how to respond to it. It’s so easy to become stuck in a familiar position, and pilgrimage is, in essence, a fundamental challenge to change – whether that means accepting a situation beyond our control or embracing something new. After all, on day one we’d been walking, getting to know one another and enjoying the views, when Frank’s sudden collapse had cast everything in an entirely new light and demanded a change of perspective and planning. And that morning, when Revd Owen had told me to leave the work I was so engrossed in, I’d been very resistant to change. But oh, I was so glad that torn myself away from my laptop to spend half an hour in prayer.

Walking into Dewsbury we passed a nasty scene of a young Asian lad screaming and swearing at a woman, who hurled back racist insults. I turned to Helena: “Welcome to Dewsbury!” I said. She smiled wanly.
But the next minute everything changed and our spirits were lifted. As we approached the Minster, we could see four people waving flags. And yes – they were waving for us! Then a shout went up – “It’s Frank!” And sure enough there he was, fully upright and smiling broadly, waving a silver flag and welcoming us to the Minster!
Our flag-waving welcome committee
I think that, as we crossed the busy road - pushing buttons and patiently waiting for lights to change - our hearts were racing ahead of us.
Once we got there the welcome from the Minster was just as spirit-lifting, with hugs from people we'd never met before - and, of course, hugs all round for Frank.
Tina and Frank
Revd Kevin Partington welcomed us: "The warmest of welcomes to the mother church of West Yorkshire. This is where Paulinus kicked it all off - the cradle of Christianity in this part of the world." He invited everyone to make themselves at home, and said that bowls would be organised for foot washing. How thoughtful!
Wednesday is a rest day, so I caught the train home after a cup of tea, leaving the other pilgrims on a guided tour of the Minster. But I have to say I was very torn between going and staying in such a warm atmosphere. 
The other pilgrims will be compiling the next day's blog between them, and letting me know their reflections and how it's been so far for them. But for me, today was all about the challenge of change.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Day Two - Monday 29th August - Mytholmroyd to Halifax

After a troubled first day, the morning of day two brought bright sunshine and – thank God – better news about Frank. Apparently he was up and about in the ward and back to his usual self. Those who knew him clearly held him in great affection, and I arrived in Mytholmroyd to find that the mood had lifted greatly.
Revd Martin and Victoria MacDonald had hosted the pilgrims who’d stayed the night in St Michael’s Church, and had clearly made them feel very much at home, as well as providing an excellent breakfast. There was much hilarity about Brian and John’s self-inflating bed, and the fact that they’d set it up between two ornate altar candlesticks, so that their makeshift bedroom looked every inch a boudoir! The only complaint was about the bells. Apparently they’d rung loudly all night every quarter of an hour, right above the pilgrims’ heads.
Martin said a prayer from St Michael’s for us, before we set off along the canal towpath. The day’s walking was much easier, the weather was good, and the miles flew by. So we were astonished when we reached Sowerby Bridge before midday.
Stuart, Tina & Revd Jeanette
We sat outside a pub while the staff brought out plates of sandwiches and the chunkiest chips you’ve ever seen. It was alarming to see Revd Jeanette piling chips into her cheese panini but, as she pointed out, she’d be walking it off in the afternoon.
The afternoon’s walk was also along the canal towpath. Although I know the Rochdale Canal pretty well, it never gets boring – and there was plenty of good chat, interrupted occasionally by yells of ‘bike’, which meant that everyone flattened themselves against the side to allow a cyclist or two to whizz by.
I’d noticed Janet singing with the St Mary’s Singers at Sunday’s service. She has the most beautiful voice and, sure enough, she told me she’d performed for eight years with the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. She said she started to go to St Mary’s when she and her husband, Stuart (another pilgrim) moved to Todmorden: “I immediately felt right at home there, and I’ve been going ever since.”
Helena had come all the way from Sweden. She lives in Skara and her husband is a priest in nearby Husaby, and she works as a church archivist. They have two children aged 16 and 20. She told me she’d joined the pilgrimage because she had a week’s holiday and likes meeting people and walking. Then she looked at me: “And to think about what God wants for me,” she added.
Jayne must be by far the fittest among us – an endurance athlete who’s run marathons and had been considering taking part in an ultra-endurance event next May. Those plans have been put to one side because her mother is currently undergoing chemotherapy. Jayne told me she was flying downhill in a fell race recently, distracted by thinking about the situation, when she tripped and fell face first. It struck me as an example of how we can be wrongfooted and unbalanced by anything unexpected, disturbing, or distracting – and end up damaging ourselves. In Jayne’s case, mercifully, she suffered only scrapes and bruises, but it did sound like a dramatic fall.
Trevor, Alison & Jayne at Salterhebble Lock
From time to time Jeanette received text messages about Frank, who was discharged from hospital in the mid afternoon. The news was received with relieved smiles all round. We walked the scenic route into Halifax, and the weather was kind right up until the point when we were approaching the Minster – and even then it only drizzled a bit. My friend Revd Hilary Barber met us at the Minster and offered us a mug of tea. He is so warm and welcoming, it’s always a pleasure to see him. After tea he gave us a tour of the Minster, and showed off some of its best features. I must confess to being a bit of a Philistine. Generally, a church tour leaves me unmoved. But there was something about walking around the Minster with a group of footsore pilgrims still in their muddy boots, and something about Revd Barber’s enthusiasm and informal style, that made it really engaging – a real treat. For me, the highlight was the mouse carved into a chair leg, to show that it had been carved by the craftsman Mousey Thompson.
Over the course of the evening everyone set up camp. Some people bunked down on the floor in the wooden pews, while others used pew cushions to make up beds on the chapel floors. Soon we heard the whirring noise of Brian and John’s bed inflating, as they recreated their boudoir in the Minster.
We ended up ordering a delivery of Halifax’s finest Chinese food. From somewhere someone produced some wine and plastic glasses, and we dug around in the Minster’s kitchenette to find forks and plates, and sat down in the cafĂ©-style area at the back of the church to tuck in. After the meal Revd Owen burped fruitily and talked about his favourite episodes of Father Ted. I really believe that every church should be used this fully, at least once in a while.
I went downstairs to the vestry, where I’d set up my office and camp. As I was writing my blog I could hear gales of loud and raucous laughter upstairs. Everyone was tired, so we didn’t exactly burn the midnight oil, but staying in the Minster that night felt every bit as thrilling as any childhood sleepover ever did.

Day One - Sunday 28th August - Todmorden to Mytholmroyd

We started off in a downpour, and with a bit of confusion about which direction to take. But once we got going we started walking as a group and, as you do, we got to talking.
I was surprised to learn how many people didn’t know many other people on the pilgrimage. One was ‘Hev the Rev’, a Methodist Minister who moved to Todmorden from Durham about a year ago. Despite looking every inch the part in her hi-tech walking gear, Heather told me she usually only ever walks from her front door to the Land Rover. And she did seem to be struggling a bit up the first hill, but was clearly determined. She told me she doesn’t know that many people and, like me, found the prospect of the pilgrimage a bit daunting. But, as she said: “You’ve got to face your fears.”
The oldest of our group was Frank, at 84. Obviously a colourful character, the seasoned walker soldiered up the steep hill without any apparent problem. I took a great picture of him stopping for a short breather, before he smiled at me and set off again with a sprightly gait.
Paulinus, Gabriella, Martha & Florence
Believe it or not, there was a real-life Paulinus walking with us. He and his family had travelled from Wrexham to take part for the day. He was just about to tell me how his name was in fact connected to St Paulinus, when there was a cry up ahead. It turned out that Frank had collapsed. It quickly became clear that he needed assistance, so the first-aider rushed to his side, and Revd Owen dialled 999. The rest of us, clearly shocked, went to wait a short distance away, while Tina and Stuart sprang into action to deal with the situation.
A chill wind was blowing up there on the hill, just below the Bridestones, and it seemed an eternity before the rescue team arrived. Eventually it was decided that those of us who weren’t able to help Frank in any way should carry on just a bit further, and call it a day after that.
There was still an underlying sense of collective anxiety about Frank. We knew that the search and rescue team had arrived, that he was being taken care of, and that Pat was going to accompany him to hospital. But for all that it was a subdued group who walked down the hill to catch the bus to Mytholmroyd. I imagine the air above Cornholme was thick with our prayers.
That night, instead of staying with the group and bedding down on the church floor of St Michael’s Church, I confess I opted out and went home. My only contact with Frank had been that he’d flashed me that lovely smile. But even though I didn’t know him at all, I still felt exhausted by the anxiety I’d felt for him. Was it self-indulgence? Did it go against the spirit of pilgrimage to opt out the minute anything went wrong? Maybe, but the route took us virtually past my front door - just when I felt most in need of home comforts.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

To Be a Pilgrim

I found this morning’s Communion service at St Mary’s Church very moving and, in truth, I felt a little wobbly at times. Funnily enough, it was during the most rousing, upbeat hymn that I felt almost choked and had to regain my composure. I think it’s because, although they are a very welcoming bunch, I was starting to realise just how daunting it is to join a group of strangers for anything – especially something unknown. I wasn’t in my usual place of worship, singing and praying alongside the people I’ve come to know well. But, as I was to discover, I was by no means the only one feeling that way. And after all isn’t that what pilgrimage is all about – a journey into the unknown?

When I wasn’t feeling wobbly I found the whole experience very motivating. There’s something amazing about singing ‘To Be a Pilgrim’ when that’s just what you’re about to be. And sharing the peace was lovely – especially the warm hug from Tina.

Revd Owen Page led the service alongside the Right Reverend Thomas Butler, Honorary Assistant Bishop of Wakefield. In his powerful sermon, Bishop Tom brought to life the vivid image of Paulinus banging in his crosses to claim for Christ the places he visited: ‘Bang bang – Todmorden belongs to Christ. Bang bang – Dewsbury belongs to Christ.’ The crosses, said Bishop Tom, were a promise that Jesus would be known in the kingdom.

He quoted a poem – The Sparrow – by another local hero – Ted Hughes. One line goes: ‘Though he looks like shirking, he works at it like working’. Bishop Tom likened it to pilgrimage – which might look like a walking holiday, but is in fact no such thing. He rounded off with the rousing words: ‘Go to it, pioneering pilgrims on the Paulinus Way… and go to it, brothers and sisters at St Mary’s… Walk together in faith.’

And suddenly I had a sense that that’s what it’s all about. When we were tucking into a spread of sandwiches and cakes afterwards, I got chatting to a couple of the parishioners who, for one reason or another, were unable to walk the pilgrimage. Talking to them I realised that, although they wouldn’t be with us on the geographical journey, they would be with us in spirit. Though I didn’t know them well, they had ceased to be strangers. And so, despite the fact that the heavens chose the moment we walked out of the church to open and drench us, I had a sense that we were all taking our first steps with a spring in our step.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Torch One – Batteries Nil

All week I’ve been doing my usual form of packing, which involves tossing anything I think I’ll want to take onto a chair in my office. The problem with this particular method, is that it gives me the illusion of having packed without actually having packed a single thing. The result is a chair piled high with clothes, books, toiletries – and, in this case, blister kits and any amount of chargers and electronic equipment. It all needs sorting out – and by now I should have learnt that it’s no five-minute job.
I re-read the information sheet that Tina has sent out to all the pilgrims – and I’m very glad of it. She suggests that a torch might be useful in a dark church hall – good point! The horror of tripping over a sleeping body and waking everyone on a 2am loo trip doesn’t bear thinking about.
So I make yet another trip to the cellar to have a good rummage around in the camping box. I’m distracted by something I come across in a stuff bag. The nylon sets my teeth on edge as I pull it out. It turns out to be a camping pillow. Now how on earth did we acquire that? Like many people, we have a habit of accumulating things without any idea how. Ordinarily I’d scoff the idea of a camping pillow (when a de-lumped pile of clothes will do the job), but we’re not carrying our bags, and it might be nice to have it. So I stuff it into my rucksack. Now, on with the hunt for the torch. Aha – found it! I check that it works and find that I have, in some hyper-organised moment, remembered to take out the batteries before putting it away. So now the hunt's on for the batteries…

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Before We Go

There's a real buzz in the air as the big day – or I should say big weekend – approaches. Tina Clayton, who with her husband Stuart is driving the Paulinus Project – has been up at 7am, working up to 15 hours a day – to bring it all together. As I saw at our recent meeting, there’s a huge amount of goodwill and support from the people of Todmorden – and it all needs co-ordinating. Someone has just come up with an idea for a play. Tina and Stuart would love to make it happen – but it’s so last minute.

Everything kicks off at 11am on Saturday 27th August, when the Mayor of Todmorden will officially open the three-day festival, which will have a medieval theme. There will be exhibitions, competitions and more – art, music, flowers, food, street entertainment and a free community feast – following in the Medieval tradition of hospitality. In addition, the Paulinus Way route maps and book will be launched over the weekend.

Ironically, we pilgrims will miss a lot of the festivities, because we’ll be setting off at Sunday lunchtime. There will be up to a hundred of us, some of whom will be walking for the weekend, and some who, like me, will be going the whole distance – 65 miles from Todmorden to York – over a week. Pilgrims ranging in age from 20-something to late 70s will be taking part, some travelling from as far afield as Sweden and New Zealand.

To be honest, I find the prospect of walking with so many people I don’t know quite daunting. But Revd Jeanette, one of the assistant curates at St Mary's Church, told me she’s really looking forward to that aspect of it: "We will learn and grow together as a group of pilgrims. I pray that we all may help each other along the road," she said.

Jeanette also reminded me that it won't be physically easy. Not only will we be walking up to 12 miles a day, but up to 45 of us will be spending the nights in very basic church accommodation: "It will teach us how to trust and live life more simply, as we sleep on church floors and do away with creature comforts. It will give us an awareness of the lengths Paulinus went to, to spread the Gospel, and a healthy regard for his zeal and stamina."

Another pilgrim I spoke to, Pat Dale, said she’s always loved walking – so much so that she started a St Mary’s walking club three years ago. Pat is about to embark on a pastoral ministry, which will begin on Sunday September 4th, the day after the pilgrimage ends. It means she’ll have to get a train back on the Saturday and miss the Sunday morning service at York Minster, but that doesn’t dampen her enthusiasm: “About eight months ago I knew God wanted me to do the ministry, and this is a wonderful opportunity to walk as Jesus used to walk, to preach and heal.” 

As well as a spiritual journey, for Pat it’s a journey towards fitness and health. She suffers from weight-related sleep apnoea, and she’s already lost a stone and a half, and aims to lose another stone before the start of the walk.

Tina told me why she’ll be going: “I want, just for the moment, to be in the footsteps of this man I’ve spent so long with, and get a sense of his commitment and faith. When people ask me why I’ve dedicated three years of my life to this, I tell them that, despite all the uncertainties, things have always had an amazing way of working out.”

This morning I received a copy of the Bishop of Oxford's new book through the post – Pocket Prayers for Pilgrims. There’s something very satisfying about a pocket-sized book. I’ll be taking it along on the pilgrimage, and asking pilgrims to read the songs, reflections and prayers, and tell me what resonates with them on their journeys – through life, and through Yorkshire.

The back cover says: "To go on pilgrimage is to set out on a journey that may take us to unexpected places."

For me that sums it up. For all our reservations, we’re looking forward to discovering some unexpected places on our pilgrimage.

Something Amazing Happened

By Kathy Cook
Thanks to Trevor @ bare arts

At our meeting yesterday evening I heard the amazing story of a small but unexpected incident which took place a couple of weeks ago. Kathy Cook, the artist and co-owner of bare arts brewery in Todmorden, was working on her painting which is to be the logo of the St Paulinus Ale, which has been brewed by bare arts. The painting features a shell, the traditional symbol of pilgrims, along with the sparrow from Paulinus’s Parable.
As Kathy was painting, a sparrow flew in through the window, and perched above her. She managed to catch it and set it free.
If you haven’t already, you need to read The Parable of the Sparrow, by Paulinus, to realise what an extraordinary story it is.