Pilgrimage is a journey taken to deepen one's faith. This one though, was to be very different to other Clogher Pilgrimages. We were to explore some of the 11th and 12th century cathedrals of the South West of England.
The South West of England emerged from various warring factions of Anglo-Saxon tribes into the small nation of Wessex under the rule of Edward the Confessor. This was then followed by domination by the Normans after the Battle of Hastings, which resulted in a long period of relative calm and peace when the building of many of these great Christian cathedrals, abbeys and churches began.
We arrived in Winchester on the first day of our tour en route to the South Coast. Winchester was the original capital of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom. King Arthur’s famous round table can be viewed in the Great Hall of the old castle. We had some time to explore the old town before meeting at the Cathedral where we were greeted very courteously by the Friends of the Cathedral. We had been given permission to use the Epiphany Chapel, one of the side chapels, for our service of Evening Prayer, led by our Bishop, the Rt. Revd John McDowell and Revd Canon Glenn West. The Cathedral, built in 1079 and consecrated in 1093, was added to over the succeeding centuries. The grave of Jane Austen, Britain’s favourite female novelist is in the Cathedral. The bodies of many early Danish Kings, including Canute are also interred there. Then we travelled on to Bournemouth to check in to the Hotel Wessex, aptly named for this part of the country.
To broaden our perception of the Christian faith, we were introduced to other aspects of Ministry. We visited Amport House, near Andover, the retreat house belonging to the armed forces, where the forces’ chaplains are trained before deployment. Set in beautifully landscaped grounds, deep in the Hampshire countryside, it is a haven of peace and quiet. We were met by the Naval Chaplain, William Simmons, who joined us for a small service in the chapel, before telling us about the work they do. They also reach out to other faiths and hold global conferences on peace and reconciliation. A Muslim conference was in progress while we were there. We were impressed by the compassion and concern of the chaplains for the members of the armed forces as they prepare to go to war or on dangerous assignments. We visited the Museum of Army Chaplaincy which tells the story of their work from earliest times to the present day. Army chaplains serve with the army wherever it may be. They are unarmed and provide spiritual, moral and pastoral support to all faiths. Whether during conflict, peace time or on peace keeping duties their purpose is “not to oil the wheels of war, but to support those caught up in it”. While we were looking at the records we saw two photographs of Bishop Alan Buchanan, a former Bishop of Clogher, in his role as an army padre during the Second World War.
Salisbury Cathedral was to be our next destination. Driving over the chalky sweeps of the Salisbury Plain, we could see the spire of the Cathedral rising between the hills long before we came to the city itself. After quite a long walk through the narrow streets, we went through an ancient archway into the Cathedral Close, a spacious area of grass and trees with the Cathedral standing, bathed in the afternoon sun. Once inside we sensed its peace and tranquillity. Great pillars soared to the arched roof above us. A recent addition, to the Cathedral is its font, striking in its simplicity. It is low and wide containing water, so still, that it could be mistaken for black glass. The best preserved copy of Magna Carta is held in the Chapter House. Seeing this ancient and very important manuscript was a highlight for many people. After looking around the Cathedral we came together for Evensong and were seated in the choir stalls, next to the choristers, from where we could appreciate the glorious music which complimented the wonderful surroundings.
We returned to Bournemouth and the following day, Saturday, we visited Romsey Agricultural Show which is held on the Broadlands Estate, home of the Mountbatten family. The show is several times larger than Balmoral show. We were impressed by the range of produce, animals, flowers and machinery on display. There was something for everyone.
On Sunday we attended a service of Holy Communion in St. Peter’s Church, the parish church of Bournemouth. After this we went our separate ways to explore Bournemouth’s attractions.
The next day, we visited the chaplaincy of the high security prison in Dorchester, which is a quiet market town in Dorset. We were met at the prison gates by the Revd. Paul Thompson, an Ulster man and friend of the Revd Canon David Skuce. There were rigorous security checks before our visit began. Then we went directly to the prison chapel where we were given a fascinating insight into the routine of a prison chaplain, by Paul, who heads a multi-faith team of chaplains which encompasses the faiths of all the prisoners. We were impressed by the practical, no nonsense but caring approach the chaplains have towards the prisoners. Many of these men suffer from mental health problems, drug or alcohol addictions and prison is the safest and best place for them to be as they have access to medical care and education. The chaplains help them to build something in their lives. They offer them hope, helping them to believe that life is worth living. The chaplaincy regards the prisoners as real people who need to find their faith and their path in life. We were also privileged to have a short address by the prison governor.
Early the following morning we left Bournemouth for the medieval city of Wells. It is the smallest city in England. There has been a settlement here since Roman times and it is named for the healing springs that bubble up in the area. The wells today can be found in the gardens of the Bishop’s Palace, next to the Cathedral. Perhaps the most majestic of the four cathedrals, Wells is set in a huge green from which one can view its glorious west front, decorated with more than 300 figures of prophets, patriarchs, saints and angels. We were welcomed by a warden who led the way along the nave and under the famous Scissors Arch, to the Lady Chapel which had been made available for our morning service. The service was led by Bishop John McDowell and Canon David Skuce.
In his address, the Bishop talked of pilgrimage and the history of the areas we had visited. He discussed the meaning and origins of pilgrimage, referring to John Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress and one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, relating these to suggest that all life is a journey where people are looking for God. Pilgrimage too, is a journey where one often finds that God’s wonder and glory accompany his people as they travel but, he warned, when we stop and start to concentrate on material things so God’s glory will diminish for us. The Bishop ended his address with this final exhortation, “God wants to take us from where we are to where He wants us to be”.
Leaving Wells we travelled north to Worcester to visit the last of the cathedrals on our itinerary. Worcester Cathedral is one of the oldest in the area. The foundations of the original building were laid in 680AD and then later, the second cathedral was started in 1068AD. Standing on the bank of the River Severn, surrounded by the old town, its cloisters now house the shop and refectory. Once again, we were met with great courtesy by the wardens and invited to sit in the choir stalls where we joined the choir for the Service of Evensong.
And so ended our tour with dinner and the preparations needed to head for the boat, a four hour drive to Holyhead, the next day.
A great big ‘Thank you’ to our spiritual leaders, for an enjoyable, interesting and enlightening tour.
Pilgrims on tour
Canon G West Bishop Canon D Skuce with William Simmons