Sunday, 28 March 2010


What follows is a transcript, so I hope you'll be patient with it. You'll be pleased to hear that I don't intend to make a habit of recording my own sermons.
Thanks for your company. Until next time, God bless: 'The path you walk, Christ walks it. May the land in which you are be without sorrow. May the Trinity protect you wherever you stay, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.'


St Mary's, Lindisfarne
Friday 26th February 2010.

My very wise friend Will has many memorable sayings, one of which is, ‘I’ve heard a few people who can preach without notes, I’ve heard a lot more who can’t.’ So I will be very brief.

Although this has been a marvellous adventure, a wonderful journey, there have been times when it has been painful.

My right foot does not like getting shoved back into a boot in the morning. I’ve got a very tender heel, and as you’ve already been seeing, for the first hour or two of each day I would be limping quite a lot. And there were a couple of times, on two of the longer legs, the leg to Balmaha and going to Bishopbriggs, where towards the end, in the last hour, it would be like it was bruised inside, and it would be incredibly tender – and you know the little chippings you get on tarmac roads, even just treading on one of those would send the pain shooting up through my heel –that only happened the twice, thankfully.

And there have been times when it has been emotionally or spiritually painful. There were times when I was walking on my own, although very very ably supported, when it did just feel lonely, it felt like a long time – you imagine being just in my company for seven hours, you would feel spiritually tired: there were times when it felt lonely. And again, there were times, particularly in the first few bits, and perhaps when I was physically pained as well, when I thought, ‘Three hundred miles is a long way to go, and there is a long road ahead of me, and I don’t know if I can do this – this seems like a very long journey to be on.’

In those times when I was struggling, not too many of them I’m glad to say, I would touch the stone in my pocket, my little stone from St Columba’s Bay, where this whole pilgrimage started in so many different ways. I touched that stone and reminded myself that I am on a pilgrimage – I’m going from Iona, I’m going to Lindisfarne, this is a journey with a purpose, and a journey made in the love of God.

Of course, we are all pilgrims. The main body of a church is called the nave, which is derived from the Latin word for ship or boat... and that idea that the main body of a church is a ship is there to remind us that we are a people of movement, a people on a journey – that we are all pilgrims in this world, pilgrims in life.

Our journeys have moments where they are physically painful, and our journeys have moments where they are spiritually or emotionally painful to us.

I have no conclusion, but just something to offer you for a few moments quiet: just to think, what’s the stone in your pocket? What’s the thing that you can turn to that reminds you that you are on a journey from the love of God, to the love of God, and always within the love of God? When you are struggling on your pilgrimage, what is the stone in your pocket?

Let’s take a moment to think in our hearts what that is, and to give thanks to God for that.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Muppet Music.

My question... if you had soundtrack for pilgrimage, what songs/music would you include for specific moments along the journey?
Kiki.

Dear Kiki,

Susie says this is a cop out, but I don’t think so. On my first night in Scotland, Dad and I popped down to The Craignure Inn for a pint, and when we walked in there were four musicians, two customers and one barman, which strikes me as a pretty good arrangement. Among the musicians was a young woman who played the fiddle, and she played beautifully – so she could provide the soundtrack with just whatever she wanted. Actually, one of the pieces she played she said was called ‘The Glasgow Waltz (or Reel?)’, but I can’t find that anywhere – has anybody else heard of it?

Thanks for all your reflections over the past couple of months, and for your wonderful choices of poetry.

Love,

Stuart.

If Muppets were to star in the movie of this pilgrimage, which one would play you? the Archdeacon? Susie? your Dad?
I would want Elmo to play me.

Luke

Dear Luke,

This is a very difficult question for somebody who hasn’t seen The Muppets for a very long time, so you’ll have to forgive me if my answers are a bit second rate. Susie would be played by Big Bird (easy one that), Dad would be played by Waldorf and Statler (hope he forgives me), The Archdeacon would be played by Animal (short and hairy), and I’d have to be Kermit, running around in a state of constant stress due to my entirely misguided sense of my own importance in the whole scheme of things.

Love,

Stuart.

Au revoir Brooklyn.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Bad Beards, Bad Backs, and a Little Bit of Lou Reed.


The ease with which we can miss the good things on our doorstep was brought home to me again today as I walked my way from Bishop’s Stortford to Saffron Walden. I lived in a little village right between those two towns for about thirteen years, and then came back home again and again throughout my twenties. For all those years living on top of them, today I walked along all sorts of paths and saw all sorts of marvellous views that I’d never known before. So much on my doorstep that I’d never really appreciated; that’s probably because I spent most of my teenage years skulking in my bedroom listening to Lou Reed and surfing wave after wave of teenage angst, and then for several years after that I was in the pub.

So, another piece in my planned parish walk from Edmonton to Saffron Walden is in place. I reckon it will be forty miles altogether (possibly forty-five), and I’ve been thinking, if we could get twenty-five walkers to walk it in a day for charity, then we could call it ‘The Thousand Mile Day’ – something like that, what do you think?

Tonight I’m taking Mum out for a slightly belated Mother’s Day meal – she’s only little, so it doesn’t cost much to take her out, food-wise.

The netbook battery is about to fail on me, so I’d better be quick. Two questions I have. Although my beard remains a sorry looking thing I think I’m going to keep it for a little longer, but I don’t know how you go about maintaining this sort of face hair – any suggestions? Also, even though I’ve been back at my desk for less than a week, my back is beginning to play up already; I’ve been looking at all these fancy desk-chairs you can get, but are they actually any good? Most of them are quite pricey and I don’t want to spend a load of money on something that isn’t going to solve the problem.

Cheers.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Musical Statues.

This afternoon I visited the National Gallery. Once upon a time it was somewhere I would visit at least two or three times a year, but I can't tell you the last time I went. Seeing some of my favourite paintings was a bit like seeing friends you haven't seen for a long time; faces you recognise with a smile. I don't remember it being as busy as it was today, and I don't know whether it was the time of day I visited, or whether I've changed. My firm belief, on the basis of today's visit and my trip to the British Museum on Tuesday, is that all the secondary schools on the Continent are empty just now.
The highlight of the day was seeing Susie play netball. It's not a sport I'd ever watched until this evening, and it was a memorable event. It was a bit like a sporting version of musical statues, with everybody running around frantically in short bursts, and then standing very still in a range of agreed poses, like mime artists expressing things like, 'I'm going to try to score', 'I'm going to try to get in your way', 'If you get in the way I'm going to leap out from the edge and I'm going to score', 'Cripes it's a cold night in Kennington'... but all very still and quiet, much more still and quiet than the National Gallery. And then something happens and they all start running around again.
Tomorrow I'm going to take a walk from Bishop's Stortford to Saffron Walden. It's all part of my planning for some sort of parish pilgrimage form Edmonton to Saffron Walden next year; it will be around forty miles altogether, so it may not be a hugely over-subscribed parish event. I'll be glad to be back in my boots.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Absolutely Nothing To Say.


Absolutely nothing to say today.
Finished writing up the walk. Wrote a second Holy Week homily. Went for a deep fried lunch. Tidied up my study. Went through pictures from the pilgrimage. Wrote some letters. Went through the pictures just the one more time. And now I'm going to a friend's house to see the Spurs game.
Absolutely nothing to say today.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

A Passionate Affair.

Today I began my campaign to re-kindle my once passionate affair with London. I've woken up to the fact that I'm not going to look up from my desk and see snow-capped mountains on the horizon; the horizon is back to being yards away rather than miles; and I'm not going to throw open the bedroom curtains one morning and see the River Tweed flowing past - not unless the effects of climate change turn out to be even worse than the worst of predictions.
The countryside I've been loving being in is full of people who live there and never see what's in front of them, and I've become one of those Londoners who lives in a city full of things to see and do and rarely gets to see or do any of them, apart from visits to Lord's and White Hart Lane (the really important things).
This afternoon I visited the British Museum for a couple of hours and jolly interesting it was too. In that time I made it all the way from 4th century BC Egypt right the way through to Medieval Europe, but by then I was too cultured out to deal with 19th century pottery so I decided to call it a day. It did also cross my mind that if I didn't head home fairly sharpish, then whatever good had been achieved with a tour of one of London's cultural highlights would be thoroughly trampled by the realities of a London rush hour on the tube.
It was a good start. On Thursday afternoon I might have a bash at the National Gallery, which is somewhere I always used to love visiting.
The blog plans for this final week are for me to rabbit on as usual for the next couple of days. If anybody has any burning questions they want to ask about my Sabbatical (assuming there is still anybody out there) and they post them before midnight Thursday, I'll have a go at answering them on Friday and/or Saturday. We'll wind things up on Sunday with a transcript of the homily I preached at St Mary's, Lindisfarne at the end of the pilgrimage.
I did get one of my Holy Week sermons written this morning, so all in all Tuesday has been a much better day than Monday, but isn't that often the way?

Monday, 22 March 2010

A Time of Growth.

Today I was going to make a start on the four sets of sermons I've got to have ready for Holy Week, finish the last two sections of my write up of the pilgrimage, type up my notes on 'Warlords and Holy Men' and 'The Coming of Christianity to Anglo-Saxon England', do the shopping for our supper, and have a really good clear out of my cupboards and bookshelves (one of the conclusions I've reached about my life is that I do just have far too much stuff - the jumble sale I've got planned could sort out the parish's finances for a couple of years to come).
I did manage to get the shopping done for supper. And I did type up some of my notes.
A lot of time was lost just looking at photos from the past eight weeks, watching webcams of Islay, and listening to Runrig. I'm missing Scotland.
I meant to get some gardening done too.
Tomorrow.
On Sunday I met a member of the All Saints' congregation who remarked that I looked like I'd put on some weight. 'How unkind,' I thought. It turns out that she might have had a point. On my way to the supermarket this afternoon the waist button popped off my trousers; I had to keep fiddling with my fly all the way to Asda and back to make sure that in the absence of that crucial button I wasn't coming further undone: it was a good time not to be wearing a dog collar.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Hat Fans.


It was all I could do to avoid choking half-digested mouthfuls of breakfast cereal all over the kitchen table. If I’d realized that I’d switched the radio on in the middle of Thought for the Day I would have acted sooner, but by the time the penny had dropped the damage had already been done. A man called Oliver was using the Feast of St Patrick as an excuse to trot out all the tired old hippy nonsense about ‘Celtic Christianity’; it was hogwash, balderdash and piffle and I can only give thanks that he refrained from depicting the Celtic Saints as enthusiastic advocates of free love and marijuana for all.

It is not my intention that anything that follows should be taken to imply that my life has been anything but desolate and dark since Susie returned to London at the weekend... however one of the real pleasures of the past few days has been to go on some cracking walks whose distance and duration is not constrained by You Know Whose conviction that no day is complete without a distillery tour.

On Monday I trained with the SAS. In truth, that last sentence is a trifle misleading. Towards the east of Islay there are some good big hills, and I've been yearning to get up amongst them from the moment I arrived here. So on Monday I went for a nineteen mile walk to Ardbeg which took me up towards Beinn Bheigier (which at a little under 1500ft is the highest peak on the island), down through Gleann Leòra and then round to Loch Uigeadail which supplies the water used at the distillery at my destination. The very nice bus driver who picked me up at Ardbeg (all the bus drivers on Islay are nice) told me that the SAS used to train up among the hills I’d been walking through, and that’s good enough for me. They could well have been up there as I slipped and slopped my way through the marshes, and of course I’d have been none the wiser - that’s why they’re the SAS.

Yesterday I walked out to the Mull of Oa, at the south-west tip of Islay. Right at the beginning of our stay here Susie and I thought we saw a golden eagle, and so when I’m walking along I spend a lot of time looking up to the skies, hoping for another glimpse of their majesty. Perhaps our journeys of faith are the same. At some point in our life we saw something which filled us with awe, and although much of the time the heavens might appear empty, the memory of that vision we once had keeps us walking forwards and looking upwards. And there will be more glimpses.

Today’s picture is intended as a special treat for all those of you whose sole interest in this blog has been with my unfortunate choices of headwear. However, before you start posting any comments, be warned that my newest and loveliest hat was a gift from The Long Suffering One, and she will be watching what you say, ever so closely.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Where Susie Leads, I Must Follow.


Susie has become somewhat obsessed with distilleries. As she was only going to be here for a week I thought it would be fair to allow her to set our itinerary day by day. This is the sort of thing I had to put up with at our daily strategy meeting over breakfast:

“I was thinking we could get the five past ten bus to Ballygrant, and then there’s a nice walk we could do past some lochs out to Port Askaig.”

“That sounds ideal, love.”

“It’s not a long walk, just three miles I think, but there’s a hotel at Port Askaig so we could have lunch there.”

“Right. I’ll go and put some stuff in the rucksack.”

“Before you do that, can you just check the distillery timetable to see what time they do tours at Caol Ila, it’s just a half mile from the port, so we could pop up there after lunch.”

“Em, it says here that they only do one tour a day during the winter, and that’s in the morning.”

“Oh. Perhaps we should go to Port Charlotte today then. Where’s the nearest distillery to there?”

Thursday was a great day. We went to the RSPB Reserve at Loch Gruinart in the morning for a guided bird-watching walk. There were two proper bird-watchers, the proper RSPB guide, and us two. From one end of the hide there were whispered conversations along the lines of: “Is that a Greenshank?”

“Where?”

“You see the Lapwings on that near bank, just look beyond them towards the Godwit and the Teal – is it a Greenshank?”

From our end of the hide, the conversations were rather more like this:

“What’s that brown thing?”

“Is it a duck?”

“That’s it, you’re right, it’s a duck.”

Thankfully our companions were marvellously patient guides to these two ‘interested idiots’.

After lunch in Port Charlotte we made our way to the Bruichladdich Distillery. It was a very interesting visit. Distillery tours involve a walk around a lot of ancient machinery with each distillery vying to have the oldest mills and stills. The tour concludes in the visitor centre where you get a nip of whisky which is as wee as something can be and still legally be referred to as a ‘nip’, and you try to avoid getting so caught up in the excitement of the occasion that you buy a t-shirt and cap you’ll never wear and a bottle of hideously expensive whisky that you’ve not actually tried and may well discover that you don’t much like when you get it home.

That’s not how the tour at Bruichladdich goes. Susie and I were the only punters on the last tour of the day, which was great because it meant we could ask the guide, David, all the really stupid questions that we’d been too embarrassed to ask on other tours in front of hard-core grizzled whisky buffs. Then we went to the visitor centre. David had established that I like peaty whiskies and Susie doesn’t, so we were both given a healthy dram (most definitely a dram and not a nip) to match our preferences. We were nosing away at the glasses, and examining the colour, and sipping the whisky by the microgram (as you do when you know you've got a long wait before you're going to be offered anything else), when a second sample appeared. It is with a decidedly modest sense of regret that I have to confess that the glasses started lining up and my complexion grew distinctly ruddy. With each new whisky, David explained what sort of barrel it had been casked in, and how old it was, and what the peat content was, and we tasted a gloriously heady array of Hebridean spirits. Unfortunately our recollections of exactly which whiskies we tasted and which ones we liked best became slightly fuddled; I may have to pop back next week to see if I can re-discover which ones we would most like to have in the Vicarage drinks cabinet.

If you're that way inclined, Bruichladdich whiskies come very highly recommended by the Pilgrim and the Long Suffering One (except for their quadruple distilled concoction which is just plain wrong).

Monday, 8 March 2010

My Hebridean Ointment.


Within minutes of arriving at the roadside cafe that doubles as Islay airport, I’d fallen in love with the island. The cafe is dominated by a series of glass cabinets displaying the intoxicating wares of the local distilleries, but you must ignore these. Instead turn your attention to the two large aerial pictures of the island tucked away next to the ‘Arrivals’ door. These black and white photographs are quite fascinating in themselves, but it was the notice next to them that seduced me: it explains that the pictures were taken by the Luftwaffe during the Second World War, and then goes on to proclaim that nobody really knows why the German military kept them because Islay was not a place of any great importance. As someone with a tendency to self-deprecation, this trumpeting of the island's lack of significance in terms of global affairs told me at once that I was going to enjoy my time here. And I am doing.

The only fly in my Hebridean ointment is Susie, who seems determined to psychologically destabilize me. Her campaign commenced on the afternoon of our arrival when she declared that she was going to go for a jog. In the nine years that we’ve been together, I don’t think I’ve ever known her to go running, unless to answer one of those calls of nature which must be answered. I was baffled.

On Sunday we went for our first long walk. We hadn’t stepped more than a couple of hundred yards from home when she announced that she’d like to visit a distillery. This made me very nervous. Was she trying to catch me out in some way? Had she spotted a dress that she wanted me to buy her? In Islay? I was bewildered.

What’s up, I don’t know, but something is and that’s for sure.

As anticipated we’ve been spotting a lot of birdlife on our walks. Yesterday Susie spotted an Egyptian Vulture and I saw a Bonellis’ Eagle. Either our RSPB Book of Birds is defectively illustrated, or our talent for spotting birds considerably surpasses our talent for identifying them.

Anyway, the weather remains perfect. I’m getting a couple of hours writing done each morning. Susie is engrossed in ‘Jane Eyre’.

Fact of the Day: Most of the inhabitants of Islay are geese.

PS Today's photo is the view from our kitchen window. Sorry, but it's true. x

Friday, 5 March 2010

Blockbusted

If you, like me, thought that writing an internationally acclaimed bestseller was a pretty straightforward business (and let's be honest, when you see some of the toot that flies off the shelves it's not an entirely unreasonable assumption) then I'd have to advise you to think again. I've been hard at it since about Tuesday and frankly I think I've entirely exhausted my creative resources. Yesterday I got so frustrated that I gave up around mid-afternoon, started reading a book about Vikings, and then got fed up with that and watched the entire first series of The Thick of It instead.
This afternoon I'm off to Scotland to go walking - a change is as good as a rest.
I'll be seeking to relight my fire on Islay, the island they call the 'Queen of the Hebrides'.
Here are some interesting things you might not know about Islay (ripped from wikipedia, of course):
1 Islay is the fifth largest Scottish island.
2 Islay is full of nature.
3 I'm looking forward to seeing sea eagles, golden eagles, puffins, hen harriers and oystercatchers.
4 I'm also looking forward to seeing seals and sea otters, but hoping I don't see any adders or wildcats because some kinds of nature I don't respond well to.
5 Scotland's first wave power station is based on Islay. It is pioneering.
6 Glenn Campbell grew up on Islay - but not the Glenn Campbell you and I were thinking of.
7 There are, so I'm told, eight distilleries on the island; that's roughly one distillery for every 375 inhabitants.
8 Apparently one of the distilleries produces a whisky by the name of Laphroaig.
More tomorrow, probably.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

In Strange Lands.

Given that there were probably more people in the train carriage I travelled back to London in than I had seen on most days of the pilgrimage, arriving at King's Cross itself was always likely to be something of a shock to the system. London seemed overwhelming and I did not feel happy.
Trying to find the links between the Celtic Saints I've been seeking to walk behind and the urban context I'm called to serve in, I've been thinking increasingly about the experience of exile, of being removed from that which is known and understood.
It was visiting St Aidan's, Bamburgh on Saturday morning which started me thinking about exile. It was there that St Aidan is supposed to have died, able to see his island home of Lindisfarne but cut off from it. Separate.
The experience of exile runs through the stories of the Saints I've been studying. St Columba was exiled from Ireland for his part in the Battle of Cúl Dreimhe. St Aidan undertook a life of exile in Northumbria for the sake of the Gospel. St Cuthbert sought out the exile of the solitary life in his hermitage.
Cities are full of exiles. They are the places where those who are fleeing persecution or fierce poverty seek to make new beginnings. For those who seek the exile of the solitary life, cities perhaps offer greater opportunities to live apart from your neighbour than many smaller communities do. The speed and frequency with which urban communities change and change again, can make those who stay put feel like exiles from their own pasts as the world around them is perpetually transformed. Although I've lived in London for most of the past twenty years, it was a village I grew up in, and for all the great joys of round the clock shopping and late night pizza delivery, there are still times when I could happily trade those in for a night sky with more stars and fewer sirens.
A story of exile and return is central to the Biblical narrative, it was something the Celtic Saints sought out, and it is an experience shared by many people in urban communities, communities like Edmonton. There is a thread to be followed, but I'm not sure where it goes.