Earlier this year my friend Philip Swan mentioned to me that the newly appointed Bishop of Lichfield, Michael Ipgrave who was then the Bishop of Woolwich, is a keen walker and suggested he might appreciate a copy of The Two Saints Way guidebook. I duly sent him a copy and quite soon I had a card from him thanking me for the guidebook and mentioning that he might be able to link his inauguration, which was due to take place in Lichfield Cathedral on September 24th, with The Two Saints Way.
This initial contact eventually led to the arrangement of a three day pilgrimage from Stoke Minster to Lichfield immediately prior to the inauguration. This was coordinating with a nine day ‘Season of Welcome’ designed to give opportunities for people to meet the new bishop. I agreed to organise and lead the pilgrimage and Bishop Michael asked me to choose a small core team to accompany him on the journey. The team that came together consisted of Ann Fisher who was High Sheriff of Staffordshire between 2014 and 2015, Rev Sally Smith, Team Vicar in Hanley and Ali Shadravani who is from Iran and has been involved with the Sanctus Project for refugees and asylum seekers – see http://www.sanctusstmarks.co.uk Sally’s husband Roy kindly agreed to drive the support vehicle.
Wednesday September 21st – Stoke to Stone
Our pilgrimage began at Stoke Minster. Before setting off, we gathered for morning prayer at the old eighth century Saxon preaching cross. Appropriately in this location, we had two mini preaches from Bishop Michael and Robert Mountford before we set on our way singing Bunyan’s “To Be a Pilgrim” – we had the BBC Midlands Today team filming the occasion which meant an early request to backtrack and repeat the start of our journey a second time!
We went over to the Trent & Mersey canal and started our journey south, pausing for Bishop Michael to do an interview for BBC. It was a busy media day with Bishop Michael doing further interviews for Radio Stoke and for the Stone Gazette.
We had a good stop for morning refreshments at St Mary’s Trentham before pressing on to the hilliest section of the pilgrimage on the ridge above the Trentham Estate with the busy M6 below to the west. We had a brief pause at the Duke of Sutherland monument which is a fine viewpoint before descending to Tittensor where we had an excellent lunch stop at St Luke’s.
The afternoon walk to Stone was over Tittensor Chase to Saxon’s Lowe, a possible burial place for King Wulphere, where I shared the legend of St Wulfad and St Rufin to the group and to some cows who came as the story began and left as soon as I finished! Our last stretch was back on the canal. There was a good crowd gathered to greet us at St Michael’s & St Wulfad’s for an occasion that
included the opening by Bishop Michael of a new interpretation panel highlighting the history of Stone especially in relation to pilgrimage. Amongst those attending were the Stone Mayor Jim Davies and Sue Thursfield, Manager of HSBC Stone which helped to fund the new panel. As soon as we had we completed the opening, the heavens opened and we were glad to move swiftly into the church for refreshments!
Here are some images from the first day:
Thursday September 22 – Stone to Stafford
Our second day began in the oldest part of Stone which is the crypt with its fine vaulted ceiling in the basement of the privately owned Priory House. I am grateful to the Gillow family for allowing us to start there and it was great to have Charles Gillow and his friends walking with us during the day. The Augustinian priory at Stone was built around 1140. After a short prayer tin the crypt we went up to the garden of the house where there are a few more fragments of the priory and where
we completed morning prayer.
It was a fine sunny day as we walked the canal once more to St Saviour’s Aston where we received a very warm welcome. We then visited the wonderful chapel at Aston Hall where Deacon Trevor told us the story of the bones of St Chad and how they were rediscovered in the chapel in 1839. It was then a further mile or so across the fields to the charming little village of Burston with its mill pond and the unassuming St Rufin’s Church where again we received a very warm welcome. It was mentioned that there were no records of any Bishop of Lichfield visiting this church before.
Our last canal stretch then followed as we walked on to Salt and then up to Hopton Heath where we paused to read the panel about the Civil War battle which took place there in 1643. Our next stop was at the village hall in Hopton where the Mid-Trent churches had put on a marvellous lunch for us.
In the afternoon, we walked over Beacon Hill with fine views over Stafford to Cannock Chase and over to the Wrekin. In Stafford we were able to call in at St John’s C of E School where an after school Messy Church was taking place. It was a delightful time there where we enjoyed the children singing and the children asked Bishop Michael some great questions. We then walked through the suburbs of Stafford and heard the bells of St Mary’s chiming for us before our arrival there. Our day concluded with our end of the day’s walk prayers around the Byzantine font followed by welcome refreshments.
Friday September 23 – Stafford to Lichfield
We began the last day of our pilgrimage with morning prayer in the splendour of St Chad’s Church before emerging into the natural splendour of another fine sunny day. It was pleasant to walk along the River Sow leaving the sounds of Stafford behind until we came to a bridge where the River Penk joins the Sow. Shortly afterwards, we had our morning stop at the home of Tony and Marie Living where it was warm enough for us to enjoy our refreshments in their wonderful garden. This was our only stop that was not a church, but Tony and Marie live on the site of the former St Thomas’s Priory. It is so good that they have been able to host pilgrims on The Two Saints Way in this place where pilgrims would have stayed in medieval times. Afterwards we were shown around some of the remaining priory ruins by the Liveings’ neighbour John Martin.
The second half of our morning involved skirting some sewage works – the wind was fortunately in the right direction! – and across fields, through Black Covert before negotiating a busy road across canal and railway bridges to Milford. From there we drove in two cars over to the southern side of Cannock Chase. This section would have been too much for us to include all in one day, but Bishop Michael has completed this section of The Two Saints Way on other days! Once again we had a wonderful welcome at Christ Church Gentleshaw and an excellent lunch too!
Duly refreshed we walked on over Gentleshaw Common and via Watery Lane and Chorley to St Bartholomew Farewell for our last stop. Here, as in every church we visited, Bishop Michael gave a blessing before we set off for the last two miles of the pilgrimage. This was along Cross in Hand Lane. Following pilgrimage custom, some of us had small hand crosses and we had a moving time of silent meditation as we approached Lichfield. After crossing the busy A51, we walked on into the city. We passed the cathedral and walked round Stowe Pool to St Chad’s Church where, after our final welcome and refreshments, many others joined us for the special Renewal of Baptismal Vows service which ended by St Chad’s Well with our being joyfully sprayed with water from the well!
Saturday September 24 – Bishop Michael’s Enthronement
It was a great joy for our pilgrim band to join Bishop Michael on this special day and to accompany him to the great west door of the cathedral. The service had already begun and then the dramatic moment arrived where Bishop Michael banged the door three times with his crozier and then the great doors swung open and we entered the cathedral. We all enjoyed the deeply moving service which followed and of course were delighted with the pilgrimage references in Bishop Michael’s inaugural sermon!
Some Personal Reflections
It was an enormous joy for me to walk through the diocese from Stoke to Lichfield. As we travelled along canals and rivers, through housing and industrial estates, across fields, and up and down hills, I was repeatedly struck by the way in which the stories of St Chad and those who have followed him through the centuries are threaded through the landscape of this part of Staffordshire. I carried with me a meqamia, an Ethiopian prayer stick, which I had been given on a visit to the ‘Jungle’ refugee camp outside Calais. It reminded me that many people are on the move in our world today: some’ like us, of their own free will, but others forcibly displaced, or escaping war or famine, or in search of a better life. As we walked on and I leaned on my meqamia, I knew in a quite tangible way the need in the journey of my life to lean on the supporting strength of the Holy Spirit.
Our pilgrimage with Bishop Michael leading up to his installation at Lichfield was a marvellous experience. What a joy to spend three days in glorious autumn weather, making our way through such varied and interesting landscape and sharing simple pleasures of walking, talking, eating, praying, laughing and quiet reflection with a wonderful group of people. It was great to spend time with old friends as well as deepening friendships with newer acquaintances and making completely new connections. Walking the Two Saints’ Way gave me a real sense of connection with the landscape, its history and its communities past and present. It was also an opportunity to reflect on and be grateful for so many blessings: the freedom to walk and to share our beliefs without fear of persecution; the beauty of our surroundings, especially at Creationtide; the warmth with which we were welcomed along the way and, of course, the wonderful celebration at the Cathedral at the start of Bishop Michael’s ministry in the Diocese. I returned home feeling uplifted, refreshed and with many memories to treasure. Thank you for including me and I look forward to sharing more journeys with you all in the future.
I am so thankful for how the whole pilgrimage went. My main desire was that it would give Bishop Michael ample opportunity to get to know the diocese in this most natural and Christ like of ways by walking and meeting people, so one of my main pleasures was just seeing him in conversation with people! “Bishop’s move” was a word I got early in the pilgrimage and I am glad to think that Bishop Michael is indeed a bishop on the move and full of purpose and I think that will be great for the whole diocese. I am also so grateful to all the good folk along the way who provided us with such excellent refreshments and always a warm welcome. It was very good to have such a wonderful core team and getting to know each of them better was special too. If I were to choose just one highlight amongst many it would have to be that morning coffee and cake in the Liveings garden – the warmth of the sun, the warmth of the company, the special pilgrimage place – perfect!
Walking the Two Saints Way with Bishop Michael, David, Sally, Ann and other pilgrims we meet along the way was an amazing experience for me. It really made me think about the great importance and value of the the right leadership in all areas of our lives. David was so familiar with the route we were walking, that he knew instantly if someone out at the front was leading us the wrong way. He also knew from his experience which parts of the path were too difficult, and so he took us by an alternative route to avoid getting into trouble. Bishop Michael has come to lead us in our diocese, and I’m sure that he is the right person to lead us at this time. However, we know that he will only be able to do that as he is led by Jesus, who walks all of our journeys with us. So I will continue to pray for Bishop Michael, that he will always hear the voice of Jesus, saying “This is the way, walk here alongside me”.
It was a great privilege to be invited to be a part of the core team walking with Bishop Michael, to his seat in Lichfield Cathedral. When I initially accepted the invitation, I was sure that I had several months to get fit and practice walks which were more than a just ‘potter around the park with the dogs’. However, time went by quickly, and so as the pilgrimage approached, I wondered how I would manage to complete it. However, I learned a very great lesson on this walk. And it was the great necessity of walking together, and sharing each others burdens. When I found the path difficult, and when my backpack felt heavy, it was the support and encouragement of my fellow pilgrims that kept me going. Ali carried my bag and supplied me with water, and David encouraged us and gave us lots to think about with his stories and reflections along the way. Bishop Michael has joined us as our Diocesan Bishop at a crucial time, as the need for mutual support for each other in our diocese, and with our ecumenical partners has never been more needed. I pray that Bishop Michael will know the anointing of the Holy Spirit as he leads us, and that he will be gifted in bringing together parishes and deaneries that are divided, as we seek to serve God together, supporting and helping each other, to be the people of God in the world.