*** DEBUG END ***

Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

19 January 2024

On a visit to the north-east, Malcolm Guite travels in the footsteps of St Godric

WHILE we were up in the north-east, Maggie and I took the Wear Valley Railway from Stanhope to Wolsingham (as distinct from our native Norfolk Walsingham), a lovely little market town that markets itself as the “Gateway to Weardale”. But it was when we came to explore the church that I realised that I was by no means the first pilgrim from Norfolk to visit there.

The church was founded in the early 12th century, although it was unfortunately torn down and completely rebuilt in the 19th century at the whim of a local rector (the DAC seems to have been less active in those days). But the first thing that they want to tell you, both in the town booklet and in person when you visit the church, is that they really began with the meeting of Saints Aelric and Godric: “The first recorded Christian place of worship (in Wolsingham) was the cell of Aelric at Holywell. In 1106 Godric joined him and together they established a small Christian community. Shortly after, a small wooden church was erected on the site of the present parish church.”

Reading these words, I felt a little thrill connection and communion; for Godric had already crossed my path more than once. He was a Norfolk man, born in Walpole the year before the Norman invasion. He progressed from being a pedlar to being a merchant, then a pilgrim, and, finally, a hermit. In his merchant days, he was a great sailor, captaining and part-owning a ship that took him as far afield as Rome and Jerusalem. Eventually, he visited Lindisfarne, and was inspired by the life and legacy of Cuthbert — whom he may also have seen in a vision — and he sought, like Cuthbert, the life of a hermit.

Part of that conversion led him, after a vision of Mary, to write some songs, which are the earliest songs in English for which we still have the music. I share with him the love of sailing, the wanderlust, the songwriting. I, too, had visited Rome and Jerusalem, and I, too, had found a deep inspiration in the life of Cuthbert and a strong sense of his presence on Holy Island; so, I already found in Godric a kindred spirit. And here he was again, a few steps ahead of me in Weardale!

It was a tougher journey for him. He walked deep into the wolf-haunted woods that clothed Weardale then (hence the name Wolsingham). The town booklet takes up the tale: “He set off on a journey through the forest until he found himself in the most dense part of all. Hearing wolves howl he decided to enter a dilapidated hut. . . He knocked on the door and was surprised to hear a kindly voice bid him enter . . . a very old man greeted him with the words ‘You are very welcome brother Godric . . .’ he was even more surprised to hear himself reply, ‘And may all be well with you Father Aelric.’”

This unexpected gift of knowledge, given to both of them, made them certain that the Holy Spirit had arranged their meeting — as, indeed, he had; for Aelric was dying, and needed a companion for his last days, and Godric was seeking a mature father in God who could teach him how to be a hermit.

Whether we call it serendipity, synchronicity, or “the admirable staff work of the omnipotent” (as Charles Williams said of his meeting with C. S. Lewis), something more than chance was at work. I felt the same sense of something intended, as I sat in that church, in the place the saints had met, and heard their story.

Quotations are from Wolsingham: Gateway to Weardale (0-953074-97-8).

Browse Church and Charity jobs on the Church Times jobsite

Letters to the editor

Letters for publication should be sent to letters@churchtimes.co.uk.

Letters should be exclusive to the Church Times, and include a full postal address. Your name and address will appear below your letter unless requested otherwise.

Forthcoming Events


Church Times Month

March 2024

For the whole of March, Church Times is offering completely FREE online access, so you can share stories without a paywall.

We are also asking our readers to spread the news of the Church Times among their friends, acquaintances, and fellow churchgoers (and non-churchgoers).

Find out more


Keeping faith in Journalism: a Church Times Webinar

11 March 2024 | 6pm GMT

An expert panel discusses trust between the media and the public

Online Tickets available


Church Times/RSCM:

Festival of Faith and Music

26 - 28 April 2024

See the full programme on the festival website. 

Early bird tickets available


Green Church Awards

Closing date: 30 June 2024

Read more details about the awards


The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times


You are able to read this for FREE as part of Church Times Promotional Month, where for the whole of March, we are offering unlimited web access to the newspaper.

From next month to explore the Church Times website fully, you will need to sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers will return to only being able to read four articles for free each month.