Thanks

The walk4andy has of course been a labour of love but I could never have achieved it on my own.  This is my opportunity to thank all those who have supported me (I just have to hope it doesn’t sound too much like an Oscars acceptance speech!) and it goes without saying that I wouldn’t have got very far at all if it hadn’t been for the man who built the Wall in the first place …

Publius Aelius Hadrianus

Thanks to all those who have joined me on my walk: Julie, Ian, Nathan, Erica, Scott, Tamara (and Charlie the greyhound!), Tony, Sue, James, Benjy, Hilary, David, Jonathan, Benjamin, Wendy and Val

 

Thanks to those who have helped with lifts and being around during the week: Allison, Will and Dan, Yvonne, Chris, Catherine and Anna, Mags, Matthew, Daniel and Lucy, and especially Barry (and Zac!)

Thanks to those who have given us hospitality, especially Michael and the folk at Carlisle Cathedral, and Benjamin and Stephanie, Elizabeth and Matilda.

Thanks to those I’ve met along the way – Michael, Dany, Clare and countless others whose names I never found out.

Thanks to Andy at the ATC who lent me his camel pack so I didn’t have to stop to drink.

Thanks to my Diabetes team at Leicester General who gave me my continuous glucose monitoring kit making it so much easier to avoid the hypos.

Thanks to Geraldine’s chiropodist who provided a kit for my feet which amazingly I haven’t had to use at all!

Thanks to those who have been praying for me, especially everyone back at St Denys who have been walking and praying in solidarity.  I have felt held in a way like never before.

Thanks to those who have been reading my blog and sending comments and words of encouragement.  It has meant a great deal to me.

Thanks to those who have supported by sponsoring me.  That is the most important part of this whole journey and I am gobsmacked to have raised nearly three times my target of £1000.  Thank you thank you.

And thanks to my family for putting up with me, not only through this week but through all the planning and practice walks, for agreeing to holiday in Carlisle and Derbyshire last year so that I could do some walking.  Thank you for your endless patience and your support this week.  To Erica and Hilary for your companionship on so much of the walk, and to Wendy for encouraging me and humbly getting on with the most boring job of bag-carrying, fetching and dropping off.  I know you had lots of tea and cake in pretty places to make up for it, but it did mean you had to get up when we did!

 

And finally, thanks to Andy, without whom I would not be the person I am today and would never have found the inspiration and determination to do something like this.  I laughed out loud when I read a comment from someone who knew Andy very well saying ‘I can’t help thinking Andy would want to know why you’re walking that far when you could drive!’  So true!  But I hope that this will go some distance to helping others with his condition to get more support and maybe help those who are working to find a cure for VHL.  Huge thanks to VHL UK/Ireland for all the work you do for families like ours.

 

 

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’.

 

 

My mum

‘You knit me together in my mother’s womb’ – words from the psalm set for evening prayer yesterday, which I was able to say in the beautiful church in Corbridge after finishing day 8 of my walk4andy in the company of my eldest daughter and my mum.

My mum came up to join me last weekend and has been able to do part of the walk with me.  She is a great support and has even raised sponsorship herself.  But yesterday was the first opportunity I had had to really talk to her and ask her all sorts of things about what it was like when Andy and Dad were both diagnosed with VHL.  I was around Hilary’s age at the time and don’t really remember much at all.

As we walked side by side, Mum told me stuff today I had never known, about the time when Andy, aged 11, was in hospital next to Dad, both of them having cryotherapy treatment on retinal tumours.  And the time she went to Manchester with Andy about ten years ago to a VHL support meeting for those with VHL and their carers.  At that stage he was still reasonably able, and meeting others at later stages of the illness came as a huge shock to them both.

I knew my mum was brave but hearing her talk about those times filled me with a whole new appreciation for her courage and determination in the face of nearly losing both her husband and her son.  Now as a parent myself, I can’t imagine the pain of seeing your child suffer like Andy did.  He probably wouldn’t have realised at 11 what VHL meant, but Mum would have had a much better understanding of how it might progress which must have been terrifying.

She has been witness to more operations and emergency procedures than she can count, she has visited hospitals all over the country and sat in on numerous consultations bearing bad news.  But she also speaks so highly of the nurses on the wards who cared for Andy, how they became like family to her and remembered her each time Andy was admitted.

On her 60th birthday!

Mum has held close all of that heartache for such a long time.  More than ten years ago she nursed my stepfather through an agonising few months as he died of cancer at just 54.  And then shortly after Andy died in 2013, she also lost her mum, my grandmother, who she had been caring for.

How anyone can go through so much and still want to open their heart to the risks that come with love, I cannot guess, but it was an absolute privilege to be able to marry her to her new husband Barry last January.  This has been a painful journey for me but it is as nothing compared to the journey my mum has been on.

Mum and her boys in 1999 at my wedding

Andy, Dad, my stepfather and grandmother are all now on that farther shore, safe in the arms of the God who created them and loved them.  As Mum left last night before she travels home to Leicester this morning, we hugged one another tight, struggling to hold back the tears, like a pair of shipwrecked sailors clinging to a piece of driftwood as they are tossed and thrown by the waves around them.  But maybe, just maybe, we can see a bit of land coming into view now, something to look forward to and give us hope and peace.

God bless you, Mum!

 

 

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.

 

Being present to the journey

I was reminded by a wise acquaintance this morning of the importance of being present to the journey.  This was in response to my explanation as to why I was taking so long over walking Hadrian’s Wall.  It has been a recurring question.  On my first day I was told the story of one man who had run the entire Wall in just 16 hours.  Why on earth should I take nine days to do the same?

My answer to the question includes the fact that for me what matters is that I complete the journey not how long it takes.  As a society, and sadly sometimes as a church, we seem obsessed with speed, doing things faster and faster.  We want instant results or else we think what we’re doing isn’t working.  But just as when I drive along the motorway, the hedgerows become a blur, so we can easily miss seeing all sorts of things when we travel too fast.

Today I was accompanied by Hilary, my youngest daughter, who is just 9 years old.  Hilary was concerned that I not be on my own so committed to walking with me for the whole of Day 7.  I confess this came as a surprise since she is not the world’s greatest walker and usually tires quite quickly and would much rather be sat in front of a TV or an iPad!

However, Hilary also has a very important gift, one of the many things I cherish about her but rarely get the opportunity to enjoy.  Hilary is never in a hurry!  On a school day when trying to get out of the house on time, it can be and frequently is infuriating, but on a day like today it was an absolute delight.

We stopped to wonder at the lapwing flying overhead, at the cute newborn lambs in the fields, and at the mating damselflies in the hedgerow.  We stopped to listen to the chaffinches singing and see the swallows swooping.  Hilary insisted on taking photos of the tiniest flowers and the vast panoramic landscapes.  I think we spent a good twenty minutes stalking a butterfly which kept moving further down the path every time Hilary got a little too close with my phone camera.

Large red damselfly

 

Speedwell

 

 

Newborn staying close to mum

 

All of this meant the journey took longer than it might have done and we ended the day at the Robin Hood Inn, not quite as far as I’d planned but I really don’t mind.  We had a wonderful day as Hilary taught me to notice things again, not to be afraid to stop and wonder.  This is what I think it means to be present to the journey, to savour this moment, this experience.  It’s what our Walks with Wonder back at St Denys are all about, and I am as much in need of being reminded of that as anyone else.

To quote Danny Pink from a previous serious of Doctor Who: ‘I don’t want to see more things, I want to see more clearly the things I have in front of me.’

The Celtic Christians were much more aware than we are today I think of the significance of the ‘now’.  In the final lines of that Celtic prayer I’ve been learning:

You are the light, the truth, the way

You are my Saviour this very day

Burdens laid down

Is it wrong that I’m enjoying this?

Heavenfield

Ok, this has been the hardest post to write so far and so should come with a health warning!  The walk4andy was meant to be about Andy, about celebrating his life and doing something positive in his memory.  And yes, I am spending a lot of time thinking about him and talking about him, but if this was meant to be a hardship endured out of love for him or for some other wonderfully holy, altruistic motive, then I hate to disappoint but that’s not how it really is.

 

I have loved the walking and the fresh air, I have loved the stunning scenery and the time to think, I have loved the company and the conversation, the sense of achievement at the end of each day.  But this isn’t how it’s supposed to be, is it?

It’s not the first time I’ve felt a lot of guilt on account of Andy…

It started when I was just a few years old and managed to cut off the end of his finger in the chain of his bike.  Oops!

Then there was the time I hit him in the eye with the cricket ball, chased him round the house with a pair of scissors and there was the ‘sleeping bag’ tobogganing down the stairs incident which left him with a bleeding head wound!

But as we got older, and Andy was diagnosed with VHL, I too was taken for regular testing, put through CT and MRI scans, blood tests, eye tests and so on to make sure it was caught early should I too develop VHL.  I was well aware that Andy was ill but not really how that might impact me, but it felt like a shared experience to some extent at least.

Around the time I went to university I was offered the option of a blood test.  The faulty gene had been identified and I could have the DNA test to see if I was likely to develop VHL in the future or at risk of passing it on to my children, not something that was high on my agenda at the age of 18.

The test came back clear some time during my first year in Cambridge and I still have the letter telling me the news in a very brief and official kind of way.  I’m quite surprised I kept it, as it didn’t really mean a lot to me then.  I just carried on with all the fun of being a student!

It has only been later in life, as I’ve gone on to get married and have children, to work and make friends, to meet others whose lives have been affected by complicated illness or family tragedy.  Over the years, the guilt began to take root – why Andy?  why not me?  Apparently, it was 50/50 either way.

There was a part of me that was relieved when I was diagnosed with diabetes at 28.  Finally, my life wasn’t the perfect world I thought it must seem to Andy, and I had my own inherited illness.  I’m so ashamed that I felt that way but it’s the truth.

Of course, when Andy died, it was worse.  Much as I missed him, the pain at losing him was mixed again with what I guess could now be called ‘survivor’s guilt’.  It could so easily have been me that had had VHL, that had died at 38, leaving Andy to mourn my passing.  What would he have done?  How would he have marked the ending of his brother’s life?

Guilt is something Christians can be particularly bad at handling, which is something of a surprise when you think that our whole belief system is built on God’s grace removing our guilt and sin, setting us free through Jesus’ death on the cross from those burdens we like to carry around with us.  The Bible says that ‘as far as the east is from the west, so far ha he set our sins from us.’

As I walk from the west coast to the east, I am learning to see that it is not my fault that I was the lucky one, but that I can choose what to do with the life that I have been given now, the post-40 life that Andy will never see.  The culmination of 3 and a half years working through all those emotions is the walk4andy.

This is why it matters so much to me.  Yes, it is an opportunity to do something positive in his memory but, perhaps selfishly, it is also about freeing myself from that burden of guilt and finding my own path to forgiveness and freedom so that I can do what I know in my heart Andy would have wanted which is for me to squeeze every drop of hope and joy and love from the years of life that God has granted me in his unfathomable wisdom.

Words from John Bunyan’s Pilgrim:

Must here the Burden fall from off my back?

Must here the strings that bound it to me crack?

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.