Pilgrim Blues / R.I.P. Dugald

This is a difficult post to write, but here it is before life moves on.

Coming to an end of two months of forward motion. Each day, each stage of the journey had its momentum and its goals, including all the mundane but necessary tasks of daily living: how and where to wash, eat, where I was going to sleep and so on. The basic stuff of survival. Also the rich flow of people, conversations, places. The real  and wonderful sense of God’s closeness, provision and protection. It’s not that these things stop when you get home again, but a shift of gear is inevitable.

What I needed more than anything when I got back to London early last Saturday morning was rest. It had only been four days since I had climbed Ben Nevis, after all! But that initial pause for breath became a few days of torpor, and a bout of the blues. I had things in the diary: the anti bedroom tax sleep out at Islington Town Hall; Church on the Sunday; Folk in the Cellar at the Constitution in Camden on the Monday. People to call and catch up with. All of this went west and I mostly vegged out. I also rediscovered the simple ease of being in a “machine for living in”, as Corbusier called the home, where to make a cup of tea you need only put the kettle on.

In a previous post I referred briefly to my own experiences of poor mental health, and I continue occasionally to be vulnerable to the undertow of depression. I even found myself questioning if and how I would manage to re-engage with family and domestic life, and the world of work. Knowing that Françoise was due back from Brittany yesterday was a help.

In that same post I spoke of Betty and Dugald and their kind hospitality to me at their home in Wetherby, and of his struggle with clinical depression. Well it is with great sadness that I have to report that Dugald died on 8th August.

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So this post goes out with love and prayers to Betty and Dugald, their family and friends. And it also goes out in solidarity with all who experience or have experienced this most debilitating and frequently life threatening illness.

Stephen Fry has courageously opened up about his own struggles with mental ill-health. So it seems right to end with his lovely sign off from QI, “Be extremely kind to one other”

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Postcard from Iona: “Out off the west of the world”

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And God said: Let there be a place made of stone

out off the west of the world,

roughed nine months by gale

rattled in Atlantic swell.

A place that rouses each Easter

with soft blessings of flowers

and shocks of white shell sand;

a place found only sometimes

by those who have lost their way

Ken Steven wrote the poem, a friend of the Rev. Joyce Watson’s, with whom I’m staying on the island. They are partners in producing cards, with his words and her photos. Here is my lovely host outside BEANNACHD, which means “Blessing”.

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Joyce tells me that people sometimes pronounce it Be Knackered, which would be about right at this stage in my journey, especially after the West Highland Way and Ben Nevis!

Yes, my body is stiff and tired, and of course I have all kinds of emotions now this epic journey is coming to an end. There is so much to process and reflect on, but I just don’t have the capacity today. There is a very real sense of being right at the edge of the world here.

I have really enjoyed being with the Iona Community for worship in the Abbey. Sharon, their Warden, made me very welcome and invited me, and Joyce, to share the evening meal at the Macleod Centre.  Here we are after the communion service yesterday evening.

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I also had the great pleasure to meet Jeremy, of the Levellers. We got into conversation on the ferry and I discovered that he comes here every year for a time of quiet and reflection.  We chatted about the state of things, housing and homelessness, community, the travelling life, and all sorts of other stuff. We also share an appreciation of the single malt whiskeys, especially the smokey, peaty ones!

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I am missing Francoise and the younger Murrays, and look forward to being home. But the view from Joyce’s window is pretty good..

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..as was the Abbey and St Martin’s Cross with the moon rising, the night before last. Slightly blurred.. mysterious and atmospheric though..

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I’ve got to start preparing for the journey back to London today: the ferry from Iona, the bus across Mull, then the ferry from Mull to Oban.  Some call that a pilgrimage in itself.. Then the train from Oban to Glasgow and a bunk on the Caledonian sleeper train, getting into Euston about 6.30am.

It will be strange to be back in London after 2 months away, but I’m glad to have a good week left of my sabbatical to write some more, get re-connected with Francoise and the family, and friends in London.

My first Munro!

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Today I climbed Ben Nevis for the first time. As you can see above, the view from the top was basically the inside of a cloud! However the view from half way up was a little better

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So that is basically all the walking done. I should be able to write a longer post from Iona, and when I’m back in London later in the week I’ll upload some more photos and write something about walking the West Highland Way. Basically , it was all about the fellowship. Here is a photo of me and my trusty companions with whom I shared most of the journey, Phil and Nils. We are at the official end of the Way, Fort William.

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Toodle pip!

Glasgow connections

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More photos here

Well I had not consciously included Glasgow as one of my pilgrimage destinations, but in truth it is definitely a place with significance for me. For one thing it is the home town of my father, who I barely knew. And of course I’ve always known this but sort of avoided the fact, and the city. I almost certainly have family here that I’ve never met. Any “Who do you think you are” researchers reading this?

If you’ve been following my progress in this homeless pilgrimage you will recall that I planned to spend some time sleeping on the street at some point. So arriving in Glasgow on Tuesday I was considering this idea.  I even spent more than half an hour sitting in a doorway with my backpack, until I was verbally abused in my quiet reverie by a callow youth. “You’re taking the piss” is what he accused me of. Which as far as I’m aware I was not doing in the least. Merely minding my business and thinking about my options. There you have it: anti homeless prejudice without even bedding down.

It was not this alone that helped me decide, but it did add to my sense of unease about finding somewhere to kip in a city I barely know.

I spent an hour at Glasgow City Mission when it opened at 8.00pm, which was great. Lovely chats with some of the guests there, who were all friendly, helpful and courteous to a fault. Much better company than the aggressive youth of earlier in the evening! And I had a good chat also with Joe, their resettlement worker, I enquired casually about shelters, sort of saying that I could give a donation, and he spotted me for what I was right away: someone who was not strictly homeless, and with resources. And quite rightly he directed me to the tourist hostels, saying that unless I was homeless and with a Glasgow connection –  I did not launch into the family connection story at this point, of course – I was out of luck. Part of me exulted at this.  A good man, responding to a backpacker with courtesy and good advice. So at this point I realised I actually did need to find somewhere to sleep,.

Glasgow was not as crowded as Edinburgh, through which I had passed earlier in the day, and which was exploding with Fringe people and street performances.  But worryingly the first hostel at which I enquired was full, probably – they thought – with people who hadn’t found anywhere to stay in Edinburgh. Thankfully, and this is another example of God’s provision to me, there was room at the Youth Hostel.  Which is great by the way.

So yesterday I did the tourist thing, after a fashion. I’ve taken some photos to upload at some point.  I spent the morning at the Cathedral, which is magnificent. I was particularly moved at the tomb / shrine of Kentigern or St Mungo, which has been a pilgrimage destination for centuries, and is the reason that the Cathedral and the city are where they are. The motto on the city’s coat of arms: “Let Glasgow flourish by the preaching of thy word” is attributed to St Mungo. And of course St Mungo’s is a well-known name in the field of homelessness, having been started by a Glaswegian who was one of Anton Wallich Clifford’s colleagues in the early days of the Simon Community.

I also visited the Necropolis. which is extraordinary. A city for the dead, with accommodation better than for many of the living. A hymn of Victorian grandeur and affluence. The People’s Palace was also well worth a visit, particularly as it devoted significant space to the role of housing in the history of the city – from the prosperity and order of the 18th Century, through the famously overcrowded tenements in the Gorbals, through to a temporary exhibition on the Red Road Estate and its impending demolition.

And I’ve been thinking about Dad and my lost family connections with this place. And yes I have raised a glass of whiskey to him and my Scots roots. He emigrated to South Africa after he and my Mum divorced, and started another family. We met up a couple of times when he came over to this country before he died, but I have practically no childhood recollection of him.

I’ll spend another day here before starting on the West Highland Way, and on to Iona.

Notes from Holy Island

I’ve been on Holy Island since Tuesday. Walking St. Cuthbert’s Way was such a tough challenge, it has been wonderful to have a proper rest, especially in such a blessed place. See photos here

Up until Friday I was with a small group on retreat in Cambridge House, part of Marygate House. Even though we had never met before and were only together for a few days it became a real community – supportive, sharing and open hearted. Each of us felt this, and agreed that it was in part thanks to the “something special” on Holy Island. The atmosphere, history, the fact that it has been a place of prayer and pilgrimage for so many centuries. Even the fact that the island is cut off twice each day from the mainland by the tide seems to give life here it’s own peculiar and unique rhythm.

Here we are, the “Cambridge House 7”.

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L to R: me, Catherine, Ted, Maureen, Stavrini, Betty and Lea

Since Friday I’ve been crashing with my friends Jo and Hayley, who are themselves in the process of getting ready to move house. Jo has been warden of Marygate but is on his way to a new job on another island, the Isle of Wight. I’ve been really grateful to them both for the chance to stay a few more days.

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Reading back through this blog there is an enormous amount of detail I have had to leave out. I’ve  kept some written notes too, and hope to write more of a reflective journal of this time away at some point. The practical tasks of survival homeless away from home; the people I’ve met along the way, especially hitch hiking, as well as the solitude on some days; God’s provision and protection at each step of the way. Its a multi layered journey for sure, and I won’t return to London the same person who set out back at the beginning of July.

Attempting to describe what I’m actually doing is evolving too. The word pilgrimage still fits, of course, but another equally good description of this project would be a “prayer walk” around the country.  Walking and praying for each place I visit, the people I meet, everyone back home. Or even a “walking retreat” Walking, praying, hitch hiking, roughing it, and reflecting on 20 odd years in the field of homelessness. I’m certainly thanking God – and Housing Justice of course – each day for this wonderful opportunity.

Tomorrow I set out hitch hiking for Glasgow, where my plan is to spend some time amongst those who are homeless in the city. I’m not going to claim that I’m homeless myself, or invent a back story, but simply take a few days in a low key sort of way to observe life on the streets, and manage without accommodation.

And the final leg of the journey – walking to Iona – will follow straight after that. I have an offer of hospitality with Joyce, a friend of a friend who lives on the island, on the 21st and 22nd August. And my sleeper train back to London is booked for the 23rd August, arriving back into Euston early on the 24th. Not sure that I’m looking forward to that except that it is the same day that my wife Françoise and youngest son Theo arrive back in London from Brittany, following a visit to Françoise’s family there.

Hopefully there will be opportunity to write a couple more blog entries before arriving back in London.

More highs and lows: St Cuthbert’s Way

St Cuthbert’s Way was by far the toughest 63 miles so far. I finished it 3 days ago and still ache all over.

The hills are strenuous enough, but one especially challenging point was when I and all the contents of my pack got soaked through in Saturday night’s rain, camping by Morebattle. Basically, this is what happens to idiots who leave their packs on the ground in the rain, instead of putting them inside a waterproof sack!

Setting out on Sunday morning with a heavier than usual pack, it was also the highest and most arduous section of the trail.

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More photos, some where I’m not looking quite so bedraggled, are here

A place to rest and dry out was now a priority, so I prayed there might be a B&B with a vacancy in the next town, Yetholme. Arriving there late in the morning I found with immense gratitude a vacancy at The Farmhouse B&B at Kirk Yetholme. It did not surprise me that they were fully booked the previous and also following night! The room was ideal for my needs too – self catering, with a washing machine and a bathroom with a drying rack, for all my wet stuff.

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Dried out and rested, and fortified by an excellent cooked breakfast, the next day I walked to Wooler. Then on Tuesday I walked the last 18 miles to Holy island. In fact it was probably 20 as I managed to miss a way marker and took a very much not needed diversion between St Cuthbert’s Cave and Fenwick. So I reckon that by the time I reached Marygate House I’d walked more than 30 miles, cross country in 2 days.

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St Cuthbert undoubtedly did make the journey between Old Melrose Abbey and Holy Island, but I’d be very surprised if he walked via all the highest hills en route!