Heaven in ordinary

84 miles, about 240,000 steps (thanks Fitbit!), nine days, sixteen walking companions (plus a dog), through marsh  and valley, along road and river, over hill and stile, in city and country, town and village … to end at the appropriately named Wallsend around 2pm this afternoon!

It is finished.

My feet were particularly sore after a lot of pavement pounding today along very ordinary streets and paths through Newcastle.  That’s not to say there weren’t some glory moments, such as the Swedish deli we came across, the views of the Tyne, the fisherman who caught a crab as we passed and the Quayside where we timed it just right to see the Millennium Bridge in action!  But after all I’ve seen over the past nine days, the end of the walk4andy felt very … well, ordinary.  The pathways and pavements could easily have been in Leicester and looked very similar to the ones I walked just two weeks ago to get to Mountsorrel in fact.

There was something very ordinary about walking that last section with just my family too, with Wendy my wife, and my two daughters Erica and Hilary.  All of us found it a bit wearing and hard-going on the feet and there were the usual family arguments as we began to rub each other up the wrong way.  All very ordinary.

We arrived at Segedunum to see where the Wall ended and the fort has been partly excavated and we wandered round the excellent exhibition there.  Again it all felt like a very ordinary family day out.  And yet it was anything but.  I had just walked 84 miles across the country from one coast to the other, in memory of Andy and raising awareness (I hope) and money (about £2500 I think now) for VHL.

My pilgrimage had come to an end in a rather unspectacular way with a pot of tea and a plate of scrambled eggs on toast!

Then after waving goodbye to Wendy and Erica at Newcastle station, Hilary and I went to evening prayer at St Nicholas’ Cathedral, again the routine ordinary prayers said day in day out by Anglicans all over the place.

But in its very ordinariness I think there was something quite extraordinary going on.  I have said how much I don’t want this journey to end, and the challenge with these sorts of experiences is always how to carry them back into ‘ordinary life’.  Here today I found the ordinary right here in the extraordinary journey and when I let go of my anxiety for some amazing bolt-of-lightning revelation of what this has all been about, I saw the beauty in the ordinariness and felt the peace that came from it.

Towards the end of Andy’s life, it was the very ordinary things that made him happy – the bacon sandwich, a visit from a friend, the trip out to do a bit of shopping, the Earl Grey tea and proper coffee.

It is not for nothing that George Herbert, another of my favourite poets, described prayer as ‘heaven in ordinary’.  This whole walk4andy has been one long prayer, a prayer for my family and for all those struggling with VHL, a prayer for myself and my struggles with grief, a prayer for the church and the churches I have had contact with en route, a prayer for God’s kingdom to come – in me, in us and in our broken world. #thykingdomcome

May that prayer continue to grow and bear fruit as I return home, the kind of prayer George Herbert also called ‘The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage’ and yes, ‘heaven in ordinary’.

 

 

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Last night nerves

I can’t quite believe that I have just one more day to walk.  After months and months of planning, the walk4andy is finally coming to an end.  It will all be over tomorrow bar the collecting of sponsorship monies for VHL UK/Ireland.

Or will it?  Because I don’t want it to be over.  I know that I have come a long way but I don’t think I’ll want to stop walking after this.  Right at the start I had people asking me what I might do next and I surprised myself by answering with a few ideas I had already been mulling over.  Someone said I’d catch the bug!

One of the most interesting things about doing a long walk like this is the changing scenery you get to enjoy.  I have moved from marshes to hills, from towns to wilderness, from lowlands to city streets.

Today, the penultimate day, it has been particularly noticeable, starting out at the Robin Hood Inn and walking by vast fields of rape seed just on the cusp of flowering.  And then today’s journey ended by walking through the outskirts of Newcastle, past the sub station and industrial estate (including the sweet-smelling Warburtons factory) and into a large residential area.

This journey has been peppered with transitions, and then there was my big transition into my fifth decade just before I started.  Times of transition are both an opportunity and an occasion for grief.  2013 was a massive time of transition for me.  The external change was sudden but the internal one has been much more like the gradual move from fields to factories, from hills to houses.

It is a commonplace to say that every ending has a new beginning but it is so because it is true.  For a new chapter to begin, the old one must come to an end, even if it does so with a bit of a cliffhanger.

I am more than a little nervous about how this chapter will end and what the next one will look like.  As I said at the beginning, I want it to be different, I’m just not sure how.  But I know there are new things I have learnt on this walk4andy that I hope will be sown like seeds in the soil of whatever God has in store for me on my return to Leicester.

I’m reminded of a well-known hymn …

Through all the changing scenes of life,
In trouble and in joy,
The praises of my God shall still
My heart and tongue employ.

 

Tune the song of our hearts

‘Tune the song of our hearts to the music of creation’ – words from a prayer set for psalm 98 this morning.

Bluebells seen today

 

Following yesterday’s drenching, it was a huge relief to have a dry day of walking today.  The only rain came after we had finished while enjoying a cream tea at the George Hotel in Chollerford.

My walking companions today included the youngest Benjy at only 7 as well as both my daughters and two very musical friends, both of whom I have sung with in the past.

 

Singing has been one of the most important parts of my life and, although we resisted the temptation to launch into song (I had succeeded in embarrassing Erica the previous day when I had tried to lift our spirits with ‘Everywhere we go-o …’!),  it was fun to talk music and reminisce about choirs we’ve been part of.

I could see what made Julie Andrews sing when looking around at the hills today.  The scale of the beauty of the landscape up here is breathtaking and so wonderful to see it without the mist of yesterday.

In fact, we could see so far today that my friend whose parish we were walking through was able to point out the offshore wind farm out in the North Sea.  I was taken aback by the sight of the end goal, the east coast, having left the west coast on Thursday.  I was suddenly aware of how far I’ve come and the prospect of finishing began to filter through into my conscious thoughts, stirring up a real mixture of emotions.

Singing is physically, emotionally and spiritually good for us, and the choirs I have been part of (not least 8ctave where I do most of my singing now) have helped me deal with all sorts of life’s challenges.  One of my biggest gripes is what I consider to be the regrettable decline in singing and music generally.  We seem as a society to place little value on the creative arts which I think are an intrinsic part of what makes us human.

Anyway, I haven’t done a lot of singing this past week but I have been accompanied by a lot of singing.  Birds have dogged me (if that’s not too bizarre a thing to say) from the noisy oystercatchers and other wading birds on the Solway Firth to the chirping sparrows in the hedgerows, the swallows and martins darting around the barns and farm buildings to the skylarks’ seemingly endless song over the meadows.  And then this evening, as we drove back after dinner from my friend’s house in Haydon Bridge, the sun gilding the crags we had walked across yesterday in such foul weather, suddenly by the roadside appeared a pair of curlews.  It was too quick a moment to take a good photo but their silhouette was unmistakeable.  What a treat! (Btw Radio 3 now broadcast birdsong on a Sunday morning if you can’t get out to hear it live!)

I love the fact that in C.S.Lewis’ ‘Magician’s Nephew’ Aslan sings Narnia into being, echoing that idea of the music of creation.  Music can evoke all kinds of emotions and can take us on a journey through them to leave us in a different place from where we started, but it also invites us to participate whether with our ears or our own voices.

As I begin to reflect on what has been happening in me as I have been walking, I wonder whether it is something of a tuning of my heart back to the song I was created to sing.

Sworn Brothers

I am a big fan of the Game of Thrones.  For those who are not GoT fans, the stories by George R.R. Martin include ‘The Wall’, a huge edifice protecting southerners from the dangerous monsters north of the Wall. (I’d just like to point out that I am on the south side of the Wall in this picture!)

The Wall is manned by the Night’s Watch, a band of sworn brothers from here there and everywhere, of every race and class.

The reason I tell you this is because the Wall in GoT was inspired by Hadrian’s Wall.  I have been reading a bit about the people who guarded it, the auxiliary units made up of a mixture of people from across the empire and more locally.  The old gods and the new are worshipped together.  Few would choose to go to this Godforsaken outpost of the empire, the back of beyond, about as far as you could get from civilization in Rome.

Of course, many now choose to visit this beautiful part of the country.  Today I was delighted to be joined on my Wall by family members from Leicester and London, some of whom are facing their own battles right now and so it was really special that they gave up time to come and walk.   I was also joined by a friend from north of the border, a brother in faith, who I haven’t seen for ages and so it was very special to catch up, put the world to rights and to pray together.

But the big surprise was at Birdoswald where I saw again the party from Argentina I had met on day one at the Cathedral.  Not only was it a joy to reconnect but also humbling to have Danny pray for me out on the Wall.

The sworn brothers of the Night’s Watch abandon their old lives to ‘take the black’.  They form a new family based on the vows they have made and their common purpose to protect the Wall and guard against evil.  They’ve got one another’s back.  Our police and armed forces do a not dissimilar job, much of which goes unseen, and for which we should be grateful.

I had a wonderful company of ‘sworn brothers’ on the Wall today, people who have got my back just as Andy did when I was growing up, people who will love and protect me, who will pray for me and walk with me, and for whom I am grateful.

At the end of the day outside Greenhead Church, Nathan and I said evening prayer together in the warm late afternoon sun.  I was reminded of the words of the evening service of compline which includes the prayer:

As the night watch looks for the morning

So do we look for you, O Christ.

Ubi vallum?

Day Two was set to be a hot one so we decided to leave Burgh earlier than the bus would have got us there and to take a taxi instead.  I say ‘we’ as today I was delighted to have the company of Julie and Ian Paton from St Denys who came all the way up from Leicester to walk with me.  Ian and I first spoke about doing the #walk4andy some years back on a church sponsored walk closer to home and so it was very special to have them join me.

We had lots of fun and the time passed quickly on this relatively short part of the walk.  However, I think they were a bit disappointed not to see much of the Wall!  I know how they feel.  It has been puzzling me that here I am at the end of Day Two and I have yet to see anything resembling what I thought Hadrian’s Wall (Vallum Aelium for Latin fans!) was all about.

Roman stone in St Michael’s Church

In fact, we have seen a fair bit of the Wall but not perhaps in the form we were expecting.  St Michael’s Church in Burgh and St Mary’s Beaumont were both built with stone pilfered from the Wall.  I was so relieved to find St Michael’s open this morning so I could see inside this beautiful little church and the terrific display they have of its history.

 

St Mary’s Beaumont
Drumburgh ‘Castle’

Many of the old houses and farm walls probably also make use of stones taken from the Wall when it fell into disuse.  We just wouldn’t necessarily have known they were there.  They might just look like any other stone wall.

 

This set me thinking again.  The Bible calls us ‘living stones’.  Our purpose in life is to be part of something bigger, to be built into something amazing – a home for God’s Spirit – and every stone has a part to play.  Look at Danny Dyer’s discovery that his ancestors included King Edward III, and therefore also his grandfather Edward I who died in Burgh by Sands and was laid in St Michael’s Church before being carried back to London to be buried.

Those ordinary stones I’ve ignored today, while walking past engrossed in conversation, could well have been part of Hadrian’s Wall in their past and played a significant part in our national history.  How many ‘dotty old ladies’ or ‘confused old men’ do we as a society  dismiss as unimportant without stopping to find out their past?  For that matter, how many younger people do we dismiss as drunk when they are in fact suffering from VHL or other similar conditions?

I am looking forward to seeing the Wall ‘intactum’ but it’s perhaps good to begin with a reminder not to overlook the possibility that sometimes the most significant stones might not be in the most obvious of places.

St Kentigern Cahpel in St Michael’s Church

And today’s part of the Celtic prayer:

 

You are the light that shines in dark

You are the heart’s eternal spark

 

 

All by myself …

I have discovered it’s possible to feel lonely even when you are not alone and to be alone and not to feel lonely at all.

This morning – #walk4andy day one – I was up with the larks to get to the Ascension Day service at Carlisle Cathedral.  As I went bleary-eyed for communion, I offered up to God the day ahead and all the planning that has gone into this #walk4andy.

Afterwards there was a delicious breakfast and some good company from as far away as Argentina!  I also got invited back to evensong when Michael, the brilliant Canon Missioner, kindly prayed for those suffering with VHL, remembering Andy in the Cathedral intercessions, and even gave me tea and a few beers!  It’s always good to be reminded that we are not alone, and the Church extends well beyond our parish and across the world (NB. I drafted this before I heard the news from the Philippines but that makes it even more poignant – when one part suffers, the whole body suffers with it…)

I then took the bus out to Bowness on Solway to find the beautiful Pavilion where I could stamp my passport to prove I’d been. En route I made more friends on the bus and a visitor from Norway kindly took my picture.

Thereafter I was pretty much on my own.  The route to Burgh by Sands was pretty quiet.  I didn’t feel lonely though. I had my thoughts and the messages from so many friends and loved ones wishing me all the best.  I even had a text from one of my churchwardens with a picture of the smiling faces of my  wonderful  congregation back at St Denys this morning!

But it was hot and sunny (Andy wouldn’t have complained!) and there wasn’t a lot of shade as I walked alone by the marshes.   The cap and sun cream did their job but I felt very exposed to the elements.

It set me thinking about how exposed and vulnerable I have felt since losing Dad and Andy.  I adore the women in my life – Wendy and my two girls, my mum and stepmother – but Dad and Andy can never be replaced and without them this little brother and youngest son does, if I’m honest, feel lonely at times, even though I know I am far from being alone.

This friendly fellow didn’t want to leave me alone!

I came across a beautiful prayer which I am going to use as I walk and try to learn by heart two lines at a time.  It comes from the Celtic tradition and it begins like this:

You are the peace of all things calm

You are the place to hide from harm

As I searched for shelter from the heat of the sun along the still, deserted marshes of the Solway, these words came alive and I found peace with my ‘alone-ness’.

#headstogether

Last night I had the privilege of talking about mental health with a fantastic group of young people from my local air cadet squadron.

As their padre I wanted to encourage the cadets to think about St George and his dragon alongside the courage needed to fight our own dragons whatever form they may take.  I have a number of friends and colleagues who have inspired me over the past few years with the courage they have shown in talking openly about their own battles with the dragons of mental illness.

We looked at how we can improve our mental health and that of those around us, be honest about it when we are unwell and how we can support friends who are struggling.  This video got a powerful response. https://youtu.be/SE5Ip60_HJk.

There has been a lot of publicity recently around the Princes’ #headstogether campaign, tackling the stigma often attached to mental health (not least in churches I have to say where it can be especially hard to admit that things are not ok).

I was able to talk with the cadets about signs to look for and possible triggers for a deterioration in mental health, including exam pressure, bullying, moving to a new place and of course losing someone we love.

I know when Andy died in 2013, just three months after my dad, I fell to pieces.  I was angry with a God who would let this happen to those I loved when I selfishly thought that I had given up so much for him.  I didn’t want to go out or see people in the parish because I felt they would expect me to be able to deal with it.  I had to take time off work and was offered a course of counselling which helped me begin to put the pieces back together again.  I was especially thankful for very supportive and sympathetic bosses (my bishops!).

What we concluded last night was that the people around us make a huge difference to how we deal with our mental health, whether they are supportive, take us seriously and will listen sympathetically, or whether they feel awkward and make jokes about it to defuse their own discomfort.

I’m with the Princes (and the Duchess) on this.  We really need to put our #headstogether to find more ways to improve the mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health of everyone in our communities.

As for me, I’m hoping that walking Hadrian’s Wall will have a positive impact in all four areas!