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!

Half way Ups and Downs

On this journey each day has been a story, richly packed with thoughts, reflections and prayer, all in addition to but parallel with the ordinary daily tasks of life. It is not that in “normal” life this doesn’t happen, but much remains of necessity an inner thought process, whereas here I have space to allow more of this inner life to come to consciousness.

What brought me into this field of homelessness work? My own early life and formative experiences are at least a part of the reason. My parents’ divorce when I was a child: my mother’s mental health problems and suicide; and my own experiences of depression and breakdown in my 20’s, including a possibly drug related near death experience at 21  – and yes, since you ask, I was a dope smoking, hippy vagabond in those days! These were always going to put me on a different life trajectory to many of my contemporaries. I don’t talk about these things all that much, but on this pilgrimage it doesn’t make sense not to open up with the people I meet along the way, and with you, dear reader. And in talking about stuff like this I find that most people have been touched by tragedy, and that depression and mental / emotional distress is incredibly common, and that everyone has had their own share of suffering.

One guy who gave me a lift lost his 2 sons in a car accident, when they were just 19 and 21. This tragedy almost sent him over the edge, but he made it through and I found his company very good and agreeable. I hope we will keep in touch, actually, as we had a great conversation about his idea for bringing derelict farm buildings and abandoned hamlets back into use. What doesn’t kill you doesn’t just make you stronger, it also makes you more interesting, and often more open to the needs of others.

And so to today. After walking the Pembroke coast path to St David’s – see photos here – I decided to take up the kind invitation to visit my pilgrim friends Betty and Dugald in Wetherby, especially as the hitching winds were so fair. The guy I mention in the previous paragraph gave me a lift from Conwy in Norh Wales to Chester, a bed for the night, and then a lift to Leeds yesterday morning. What an answer to prayer! I write this from their place. Here we are with a good cup of tea yesterday afternoon.

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I discovered in our conversation that Dugald has been having some struggles with severe depression too, which I didn’t even know. It was good to compare notes and just be in solidarity with each other. And I hope that some of the things I shared encouraged him. I have really enjoyed their hospitality, and the much needed rest that 24 hours of home comforts bring.

Now on to the third leg of my journey, hitching from here to Melrose in the Scottish Borders to walk St Cuthbert’s Way to Holy Island. I hope to arrive by next Tuesday 30th July, and probably won’t be able to update the blog before then.

Betty and Dugald have done the Camino to Santiago de Compostella several times, and have a marvellous library of books on pilgrimage. I found an anthology of writings called Sacred Places, Pilgrim Paths: an Anthology of Pilgrimage by Martin Robinson which is very good. This includes extracts from The Heart of Prayer by Brother Ramon (see previous post), and this is a short quote:

“We all go on pilgrimage. It is part of our human yearning to associate places with people we love, with experiences which are precious, with events which are holy, and such places may be imbued with sanctity renewing our dedication, stimulating our devotion and imparting a sense of healing, holiness and peace.”

Following the terrible news about the train crash in Northern Spain, on the eve of the national Holy Day, the Feast of Saint James / Saint Iago, our prayers are with all those who have been killed or injured, and all the families affected by the tragedy.

Hitching and Staying in Holy Places

First words for a few days –  from the public library in Pembroke. Save our libraries!

Had I been more far sighted (and well budgetted) I would have bought a small laptop or netbook before setting off. This morning I met a couple who were walking and camping with a solar charger and tablet, and obviously this is the way to go. But in fact even if I had my own laptop I was so tired last night I would have had difficulty stringing even a few words together.

Yesterday morning I set off from Tenby along the Pembroke Coast Path. I didn’t know how far I would get. I managed 7 miles, to Freshwater East. This doesn’t seem far, but in the 30 degree heat with the weight of my pack and the ups and downs of the path, it’s not bad. And it is so very beautiful. The water is so clear.

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My other main mode of transport, the hitch hiking, has not gone so well as earlier in the week. My itinerary since leaving Chippenham on Tuesday morning was to hitch to Yeovil to meet Brother Vaughan, to spend 2 days with him. That part went OK.

We stayed with friends of his near Hillfields Friary on Tuesday night and then on Wednesday visited Hillfields for mid day prayers and Mass, and lunch, and then went to stay at Glasshampton Monastery / Friary near Worcester. My accommodation at Glasshampton was in a private chapel built by the hermit contemplative Brother Ramon, now deceased. He lived a life of prayer and meditation, much of it as a virtual recluse, in a small shed he built at the bottom of the kitchen garden. The chapel has absorbed something of Brother Ramon’s life of prayer and quiet devotion, and I found it a holy place. Here is a picture of the altar, with on the left the famous Russian icon of the Virgin and Christ child, the Saint Damiano Cross in the centre, and on the right an icon of St. Francis.

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It was great to spend 2 days with Bro Vaughan, and to join with him in the Franciscan daily office, and also to meet the Brothers at Hillfields and Glasshampton. I took more photos but won’t upload all of them here.

He kindly dropped me at Hay on Wye at about mid day on Thursday. From there I hitched most of the way to Tenby but got stuck at a Service Station on the M4 outside Swansea, so had to get a bus into Swansea and catch a train for the final miles. It was dark by the time I arrived at Tenby so I decided to just sleep on the beech. There were quite a few people around, and a couple of parties around camp fires, and a nearby cafe / restaurant was still serving, so I found what I hoped was a quiet spot and unfurled the sleeping bag and slept under the stars. It was only about 50 yards from this little beach cafe where I stopped yesterday morning.

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I also slept in the dunes last night at Freshwater East.

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Apart from hearing some people having a loon about after the pub both of these 2 nights have been relatively undisturbed. I guess this is something akin to life on the street, as I do feel quite vulnerable just bedding down in my sleeping bag. But I also feel that it is a privilege to bed down under the stars, and feel that these places too are holy.

From Pembroke this afternoon I shall carry on along the coast path toward St David’s. More from me anon!

Postcard from Chippenham

Everyone reckons I’m bringing the hot weather with me. Whether or not it’s down to me today’s another bakingly hot day, and this morning I hitch hiked from Oxford to Chippenham. And I have to say for my first try at hitch hiking in …. years it went extremely well. I set off from Oxford at around 9.00, and got a lift in about 3 minutes. The guy who pulled over for me was James, the son-in-law of an Anglican Vicar who, it turned out, has a new role in the Oxford Diocese to help support pilgrimage – yes! – and he spotted and recognised the pilgrim scallop shell on my backpack. He also runs a restaurant in the Cowley Road that I remember passing, called Atomic Pizza, which was always packed. He was on his way to Bristol for a meeting with his new restaurant manager there.

So after another lift from the M4,where I also waited all of about 5 minutes,  I got to Chippenham in plenty of time for the drop in session at Doorway which I had hoped to be able to visit whilst on these travels. It was great to finally meet Lisa and her team, having been in touch with her on Twitter for almost the last 2 years.

Here she is with Kev, her Support Service manager, at their office.

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And here is one of Lisa and me outside the office, taken by Kev.

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I’ve spent the day with Lisa, chatting and comparing notes on homelessness services, and have really enjoyed our conversation. At the drop in – where I should have taken some photos but forgot – I also had some really good chats with the volunteers and some of the guys using the Doorway services.

Homelessness services pick up on the failings of society, and especially on the shortcomings of statutory support toward the vulnerable. And Lisa is such a good example of someone who works and campaigns on behalf of the people who other people don’t care that much about – the awkward ones, the challenging ones, the misfits, those who don’t have much in the way of family or friendship networks backing them up.

As always there is so much more to say, but it’s nearly dinner time, and I’m going to have to leave it there. I can’t keep my hosts waiting! I am though keeping notes and will hopefully be able to expand and expound further on some of this stuff, before the trail goes too cold.