Lichfield to Stretton, Burton On Trent
Returning to Lichfield was already a pleasure but made doubly so by the kind invite from the cathedral Cannon Chancellor, Pat Hawkins. She kindly offered me some accommodation on the Friday before we were due to set out and so I found myself in comfort next door to Lichfields amazing cathedral. One of the gifts of truly talented people is to make their guests feel at ease and so I enjoyed the views of an inspirational lady as I munched through a much appreciated dinner. Pat has a great love of Celtic spirituality and is interested in New Monasticism. Rather than attempt to steal her ideas I’ll leave her to add to this blog when her busy schedule allows. Pat then rose early to offer Bramwell and I a blessing before we set off, pictured above. Given the number of folk who have veered quietly away when they find out we start around 06:30 each morning, I believe her kindness at this time to be exceptional!
Bramwell is a former member of the army, as am I. I served for a short six years in the R.A.M.C and he in the Princes of Wales regiment. We hadn’t planned this but it turned out that the National Memorial Arboretum was just off our route and their head of operations, Peter Orgill, had kindly said we could visit. Thus having been blessed we set out with the arboretum as our first objective.
Almost immediately upon leaving the cathedral we came across a lady running. She stopped and told us she felt blessed by seeing us, that we should be proud of our witness and then proceeded to thank us. She started to cry and so continued her run, leaving two army veterans trying to pretend they were not, as we also continued. We then got into a bizarre conversation with a man regarding gas lights and Lent, by the time we separated I am not too sure who was the more confused but it was amusing to say the lest. We received the odd piece of abuse as we walked but as we neared the Arboretum these reduced, mostly offensive shouts from passing cars.
On arrival we were immediately met by staff who clearly knew we were arriving. As I started talking to the lady regarding the memorial grove for the RAMC I unexpectedly found myself welling up. I had to excuse myself, pull myself together although I had the distinct impression I am not the only former soldier to cry in their foyer and sadly, nor will I be the last. Everyone we met was well informed and professional. Having searched for the Malmesbury donated Royal British legion chair in the chapel we found ourselves walking first to the infantry memorial for Bramwell and then onto to the medical services area. It was humbling being able to walk the cross across this space and it holds a similar spiritual feeling to that described around Lichfield. As we walked to leave I realised that the main memorial is built upon a bronze age burial mound. Like Lindisfarne this area has had a spiritual connection that far predates Christianity yet we know the two are intrinsically linked.
We set off towards Burton and being ex soldiers then proceeded to mess up our navigation and we added around five miles to our expected distance. I will always remember finishing an exercise in the Brecon Beacons and as we came to the finish seeing the lorries, with all their associated hope for rest, dryness and warmth. Just as we neared they pulled away and we had to summon up our reserves and prepare to start again. Bramwell and I had travelled 90 minutes and some four miles when a check of our route showed we had further to travel than we had ninety minutes before. It took quite an effort to keep going but we did and eventually, exhausted, we entered Burton. As we passed a pub in a rough area three guys were outside drinking. To me I was expecting to be physically assaulted. One was shouting various unrepeatable curses in our direction, whilst threatening to glass us, another shouted more abuse and then proceeded to drop his trousers to show his bare backside. Neither of us were capable of mounting any defence and for a moment I mentally accepted I was about to be hospitalised. The third man looked me straight in the eyes and I just shouted, ‘ we are walking it 200 miles’. He looked surprised, then questioning. ‘200 miles, we are walking it for Lent from Malmesbury in Wiltshire to York Minster.’
‘Cool’ he replied and then the others quietened. In that split moment I saw God at work, I don’t know over what time period but a change occurred in that man and that change saved us and I believe will eventually save him!
To offer the reciprocal experience a man suddenly came out of the park and stopped us. He had seen us earlier, wanted to know what we were doing, to confirm we were undertaking a pilgrimage and to wish us well. He was so enthusiastic we felt blessed although having now walked close to 25 miles I’m not sure our faces adequately showed how we felt. Bramwell seemed to me to have magic feet. I was struggling to walk and so our pace slowed. I kept seeing his loping easy gait and apologising for slowing us down. We came to Burtons football ground, close to when they were about to spill out but I was physically unable to go any faster. I believe our speed at this point had dropped to around a mile or so an hour, I was really dragging. Finally we saw St Mary’s church, Stretton and met the bubbly and irrepressible Kas Fearne and her husband Mark. We had expected to be there for 15:00 and it was now well past 17:00 but they sat us down, supplied water, offers of sandwiches, it felt like heaven had just opened its gates. Natasha, Bramwell’s wife, had been up with him from Wales in the early hours and was now preparing to drive them back. I hate to admit this but as Bramwell got up to go to the car I noted he was hobbling and it filled my shallow heart with some very unchristian joy! Maybe those feet of his weren’t that much better! Mark took me to the hotel and as I entered the foyer the lady behind reception became a humorous angel. ‘You look like you’ve had a car accident’, she said! ‘No way you will make the stairs, I’ll put you in a downstairs room.’ She then proceeded to show great care, guided me to where I could find food and arranged a taxi for 06:00 so I could pick up the cross. I think it would have come as a shock but I could have kissed her.
I eventually made the bar for a pint and the couples pictured had seen us walking. What followed was a hugely interesting conversation regarding faith and spiritually with folk who are not church goers. One of the things I am noting is there is as much faith on and around our streets, if not more, than there is within the buildings on a Sunday. The folk were wonderfully friendly, buying me a pint and without knowing it, donating exactly the right amount for the taxi to pick up the cross in the morning. I went to bed that night, sore but feeling blessed.