THE ground, on a winter morning in Cannock Chase Forest, Staffordshire, is ice-rink slippery beneath my walking boots. The frost has sugar-coated the trail ahead, and I am soon chastising myself for my lack of extra layers.
I have followed the stony and fern-fringed path from the trailhead along the western flank of an Iron Age hill fort. But, despite the fine views that the path is offering me across the Weaver Hills, considered the most southerly peak of the Pennines, my spirits are flagging.
But then, as I crest Holly Hill Road, beyond Beaudesert Park — the former stately home on the southern edge of Cannock Chase — something happens. It is my moment of light: the first view of the “Ladies of the Vale” (the three spires of the medieval cathedral in Lichfield). As for generations of weary pilgrims before me, the journey suddenly has a tangible sense of destination.
“I think of the modern pilgrimage as a journey to the ancient future,” my walking guide, David Pott, says. “Pilgrimage today is a way to get fit in mind, body, and spirit.”
I am walking a section of the Two Saints Way, a revived pilgrimage route through the rural heart of England, developed by Mr Pott and officially opened in 2012. The route takes its name from two Saxon saints, St Werburgh and St Chad, who brought Christianity to the ancient kingdom of Mercia in the seventh century. The saints were laid to rest at Chester and Lichfield respectively, establishing the ancient cathedral cities as alternative pilgrimage destinations to Rome or Jerusalem.
St Werburgh was the daughter of the Mercian King Wulfhere. After persuading her father to allow her to enter a convent, she went on later to supervise all the convents in Mercia, and to establish new ones in Northamptonshire, Staffordshire, and possibly Lincolnshire. Although she was originally buried in Staffordshire, Viking incursions led to the translation of her body to its final resting-place in Chester Cathedral.
In Lichfield, pilgrims began arriving at St Chad’s shrine soon after his death in 672. By the 13th century, it was so besieged by pilgrims that normal church services were regularly disrupted.
Most pilgrims take seven to ten days to cover the 92 miles between the cathedrals on the whole trail. Today, we are making heavy work of the six-and-a-half-mile walk from Castle Ring hill fort to St Chad’s, Lichfield, via woodland, heathland, and country lanes. This final section of the trail offers plenty of time for reflection for latter-day pilgrims to exercise their minds as well as their bodies.
Having glimpsed our destination, I stride on more purposefully. The trail’s colourful new waymarkings guide us. I pass St Bartholomew’s, and emerge through a frosted holly bush into Cross in Hand Lane, in Lichfield. This charming country lane, carved between sandstone banks and peppered with listed buildings, marks the point where medieval pilgrims reportedly used to take out their wooden, hand-held crosses to meditate on the final approach to Lichfield cathedral.
On a winter morning, it is a blissfully bucolic scene: winter flowers in the hedgerows, a small brook gurgling at our feet, and wood pigeons fluttering overhead. Mr Pott reaches into his pocket and offers a short meditation: “Where the saints have trod before us,” he reads, “I bring myself to you.”
St Chad became the first bishop in Lichfield, and our journey reaches its dramatic denouement at Lichfield Cathedral, built within 30 years of his death. Because of the veneration of St Chad, whose reputation was for godliness and humility, this site is likely to have been the first pilgrimage cathedral in Britain, pre-dating even Canterbury (which was not a pilgrimage destination until the 12th century).
Today, the imposing 13th-century façade of the Gothic edifice towers majestically beyond the sweep of Cathedral Drive. A volunteer greeter at the cathedral, Pat Evans, is on hand for a quick tour, including St Chad’s Gospels, an ancient manuscript from about 730 which predates the Book of Kells, and to give a few thoughts on the perennial appeal of the saint in whose footsteps I have just been walking. “Chad was known for his humility. He liked to walk everywhere, and talk with people,” she said. “He certainly had the common touch.”
When St Chad arrived in Lichfield, in 669, he founded his church, and baptised new believers in the well near by. The church, St Chad’s, is still there today, behind Lichfield Cathedral. The saint was allegedly buried in this area, and St Chad’s Well — where he reportedly spent hours in prayer, and whose water was believed to have miraculous qualities — is now housed under a simple timber structure with a laburnum-covered roof.
As I take off my boots to bathe my blistered feet in the cooling water, just as pilgrims have done for centuries, I look into the well to reflect not just on the walk itself, but on what I have gained along this trail. Certainly, I feel a connection to the travails of ancient pilgrims, but also a sense of peace from having been so close to nature, and from that rare luxury of being lost in one’s own thoughts that pilgrim journeys offer.
“The idea of life as a journey is deep within our psyche,” Mr Pott says. He takes out his notebook, and reads aloud by way of a final offering in memory of St Chad. For me, the passage, taken from Psalm 23, encapsulates the journey of both the body and the mind on this trail: “He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul. He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”
For more information about the trail’s sections, accommodation, maps, route changes, etc., visit the Two Saints Way website (www.twosaintsway.org.uk), where you can also buy the Two Saints Way guidebook, £12.99 , also available from the Northumbria Community (http://www.northumbriacommunity.org/product/the-two-saints-way-guide/). For more information about the area, visit Enjoy Staffordshire (www.enjoystaffordshire.com).
The Bishop of Lichfield, Dr Michael Ipgrave, walked parts of the Two Saints Way in the days before his inauguration as Bishop, in September last year
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.