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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).

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