Interview: Nancy Eckersley mother, priest, and walker, ‘in that order’

27 June 2014

'I think we have walked about two-thirds of the way around the world'

The walking has always been with John, my husband. Our first long-distance walk was in 1973, shortly after we married. It was the Cleveland Way - 108 miles.

In 1991, we went on holiday with our daughters to walk the Dales Way - 80 miles - while our sons were at Scout camp. On this walk, we met Tony Rablen, who was in the process of writing The Tidewater Way. This holiday was pivotal in our walking story. Soon after, John began to devise his own long-distance walks and write walking books, mostly based in Yorkshire. I offered to take photos and draw the cartoons. All profits from the books were for Christian Aid .

We went walking on my day off, testing out the routes. This kept us fit and ready for our holiday challenges. It also gave us time to catch up with what each of us had been doing during busy weeks.

We spent most of our holidays from then onwards walking both the long-distance paths and the coast of England and Wales. The coastline walking was especially compelling. We tried not to miss any of it, crossing rivers by bridges or ferries, and including docks and industrial areas as well as inspiring coasts and pretty villages. I found it fascinating to see how all the areas of the country joined up, how the landscape and accents change. I love being able to look back to where we had been, and remember what it looked like.

I retired from full-time stipendiary ministry in January 2011. Because of difficulties with the housing market, we weren't able to move our furniture into our retirement home, so we stored it with long-suffering relatives, and set out from Land's End on April Fool's Day, literally as "people of no fixed abode". This felt very freeing - scary, but freeing. It marked a real transition period for us both. It also seemed very appropriate to walk for our chosen Christian Aid project in Sierra Leone, identifying with people who had no choice but to walk each day for their water.

We took our time - five months - to get to John o' Groats; walked a lot further than we needed to - 1280 miles; met some wonderful and supportive people; and raised £15,000 - which was match-funded by the EEC with an additional £45,000. Then we walked from Carlisle to Bridlington, and this year from Dover to Carlisle, for the Christian Aid project Women's Empowerment in Afghanistan. It seems particularly appropriate for me during the 20th anniversary of the ordination of women to the Anglican priesthood here.

Probably we have now walked between 15,000 and 18,000 miles during our time together. I think that is about two-thirds of the way around the world [24,900 miles].

On these last three of our long-distance walks, we have worn Christian Aid tabards advertising our walk. Sometimes we have balloons tied to the rucksacks, though these tend to get popped on prickly bushes. Our distinctive attire seems to make it easy for people to approach us and ask what we're doing. We have leaflets with us to give out, so they can donate if they want to, or leave a comment on our website.

People stop us, and quite a number say: "I'm really envious." I tell them: "Do it! You can do it in bits, you can do it in your holidays." You do need to be organised. You need to know the transport links - but you can do that online before you set off. It sometimes takes longer to organise it than to walk it.

We did walk continuously when we were younger, but decided that it was too much; so we devised another way. We book a self-catering place for a week about halfway along our route, driving to the start of our day's walk, and taking the bus or train back to the starting-point. Our grandson asked us how we make sure that we haven't missed out a centimetre of the way; so we make sure we touch something at the end of the walk, and begin from that point at the start of the next. It means you don't have to carry everything, and I can take my laptop to keep up to date with the blog.

One of the most moving occasions happened on our Land's End to John o' Groats walk. A group of people drinking lager and smoking pot in a shelter in Bideford called us over. Initially nervous, we explained what we were doing. They said they wanted to be a part of helping people even poorer than they were themselves. They turned out their pockets and gave us all they had. All they wanted from us was their picture on the website. It was a lesson in not pigeonholing people.

The hardest thing about the walk came in Edinburgh. I hurt an ankle coming down Arthur's Seat. I did not know what I had done, but after resting it for a couple of days and strapping up my ankle up, we carried on . . . slowly. Yes, it was painful. A year later, when it was still troubling me, I found out that I had broken a bone. But the ankle still got me to John o' Groats.

During the walks I wrote a weekly blog, added photos, and said hello to the people we met, so that they could feel involved in what we were doing. I also sent a weekly email to people I know, which could be a bit more personal. So we felt that the number of people walking with us in spirit grew as the walk progressed.

The "Tales" was John's contribution. He identified people with a good story to tell about their lives, interviewed them, and then wrote out their tales, which were put on the website. John managed to get over 70 tales right through the country, including such gems as "The lock-picker's tale" and "The gold-panner's tale".

My first, very brief experience of God came when I was seven years old, after my granddad had died. It was an awareness that I was not alone, and that the one with me loved me. I did not at all connect this with the Church. Later, before marrying John, he let me know that he was a Christian, and wanted a Christian wife. In my thoughts, that just meant churchgoing; so I started with church. When I was in my mid-twenties, I seriously started to question if there was a God, so I gave God 12 months to become real. I didn't want to spend any more time pretending. During that time, I was lent the biography of Amy Carmichael of Dohnavur, and experienced again that same incredibly overwhelming love, and the knowledge of "not being alone" that I had first tasted at seven years old.

Ten years after that, contemplating my life-path once the children were all at school, that same loving presence suggested in my head that I could be a deaconess. This was 1984. I doubted that I could at first, but I told our vicar, who said: "I will come to your ordination." It was as though the deed was done already, and the hands laid on. I was priested in 1994.

I've become more aware of verses in the Bible that talk about walking with God, or God preparing a path, and so on. As we walk, the scenery changes, but changes gradually. You get accustomed to the scenery, although there can be sudden surprises when you come round a bend and suddenly see something different. You walk in different weather conditions: rain, wind, as well as ideal conditions. And if you set out on a planned journey, you have to get on with it and do it - just as you do in life. We do try to look ahead - we watch the forecast, and we start as early as we can if we need to try to beat the weather, or walk later: we're not stupid. We rest in the hottest time of day in summer.

During the Land's End to John o' Groats walk, it began to dawn on me that there was a kind of peripatetic ministry for me, somewhere. Then I was asked to help out at Filey parish during its vacancy, to lead a pilgrimage retreat, and help Bridlington Priory celebrate its 900th anniversary. Now I am helping out at a church in Scarborough during their vacancy. All this sounds a lot, but the joy of still being a priest and not having all the business meetings, is very real. (Maybe you shouldn't publish this, or all priests will want to retire.)

Yes, I do pray, but I don't mostly pray "for" things. I try to align myself with the overwhelming love that is God, and try to listen - and if I experience God speaking, then try to follow God's prompting. I also try to get a sense of the natural world, how events happen, how people meet and react with one another, and how everything fits together in our world.

I grew up as the eldest of three children, with a younger brother and a younger sister. My mother is still going strong, and lives just 20 minutes up the coast from where we live. John and I have four grown-up children, and eight grandchildren. I am greatly enjoying being a Nan. It has a similar sort of fulfilment as being a retired priest.

My favourite sound is the sea, and so my favourite place to travel is to walk by the sea - anywhere.

I'd like to complete the coast-walking, by walking Aberdeen and Angus, and the north Scottish coast; and there may yet be another long-distance walk in us. We're planning to do the Channel Island walk this autumn. You've got to go a long way to beat the Cleveland Way, and the South Downs Way is very nice.

If I were to be locked in a church for a few hours, I'd choose John as a companion - either with a map to plan another walk, or with a game of Scrabble.

The Revd Nancy Eckersley was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.
www.johneckersley.wordpress.com/books

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