Petrolhead to sodden pilgrim

If I imagined that my pilgrimage from Glastonbury to Iona and Findhorn would be easy, I definitely hadn’t factored in Mother Nature and some of the wettest English weather in recorded history.

Early on I had to abandon scenic hiking trails, deep and slippery mud forcing me to divert to dangerously busy public roads instead.

GeoffPilgrimage159As major storms and flash flooding grabbed the news headlines, this sodden pilgrim’s quest was reduced to seeking the simple pleasures of being warm and dry, cathedrals taking on added significance as welcoming havens in which to escape the relentless rain, at least briefly.

Often I wished that smaller churches were also open to the public, and increasingly I questioned whether the cathedrals were magnificent monuments to excess, necessitating urgent appeals for donations. The colossal cathedrals at Wells and Bristol each cost more than £3,000 a day to keep open and functioning!

As challenging as the walk is turning out to be, I’m delighting in synchronicity and confirmation of my belief that there are no coincidences.

When I stop at a remote pub to top up my water bottle, I’m told of a friendly farmer with a campsite nearby where I’m allowed to roll out my sleeping bag in a huge open-sided barn that enables me to enjoy the ferocity of the elements and still remain snug and dry.


James. Lorraine and Michael

Emerging from some remote farm tracks the next day I hear voices and pause to ask directions. This is the start of a delightful interlude with James and Lorraine Houlden and their farmer son Michael. I help clumsily with the shearing of two rams, share supper and gratefully accept a place to sleep the night.

They introduce me to a South African neighbour and when I see the De Beers logo on his jacket, I ask him if he knew my brother-in-law, who was the diamond mining company’s chief auditor. Absolutely, he replies.

I ponder the idea that everyone we meet brings us a gift and in turn hope that I can be a gift to them. James tells me he once cherished a desire to walk the legendary Camino de Santiago in Spain and I regale him with my own experiences, also providing website links to the recent film The Way, starring Martin Sheen and his real-life son Emilio Estevez. I recommend Camino guidebooks by former Findhorn resident John Brierley and wonder if this information might be my gift to the Houlden family.

The next time I stop to ask directions I find myself in animated conversation with Mary-Clare Buckle who turns out to be the sister of my Findhorn gardener friend David Buckle. Coincidence?


A path near the top of the Malvern Hills

The walk is also bringing back vivid flashes from my previous life as a car-crazy petrolhead.

I remember borrowing the personal sports car of Peter Morgan, then president of the eccentric and charismatic Morgan Motor Company. Featuring pre-war styling, the car was vastly entertaining despite wayward handling characteristics caused by the alarming flexing of its hand-crafted wooden chassis.

More recently I explored English country lanes like these at the wheel of a contemporary Bentley Continental, delighting in the awesome power of a 12-cylinder engine that could propel this exquisite metal and glass sculpture to more than 190mph (300 km/h). As addictive as the performance was, I commented on how inappropriate it was in today’s world and was hugely amused when a Bentley spokesman told me that the company encouraged its staff to cycle to work as a planet-friendly gesture.

Now I was trying not to curse motorists driving at half of my preferred pace then.

Entering the town of Ledbury, against the backdrop of the beautiful Malvern Hills, was another trip down memory lane. It was at nearby Eastnor Castle that I became certified as a Land Rover 4×4 instructor. The training was a highpoint in my motoring career and the only disappointment was that a clash of dates meant that I had to forgo a drive in the McLaren F1 that was the world’s fastest and most exclusive sports car.


Eli and Jenny

Staying with my friend Jenny Lovett, her son Guy, daughter Eli and her partner Morris, triggered more memories. Two decades earlier I’d driven a car into the Malvern Hills for a cover-shoot for the magazine I edited. A headline boasted: Opel Astra Revealed! Once again I’d scooped my rivals with first driving impressions of a significant new model but it now seems such a trivial and underwhelming event in the greater scheme of things. Friendships are much more precious!

This time, powered only by my feet, I hike to the Worcestershire Beacon that is the highest point in the Malvern Hills. I delight in panoramic views bathed in the first sunshine in days, also photographing an 1897 monument to Queen Victoria that commemorated her 60th year on the throne. GeoffPilgrimage162Will Queen Elizabeth, who is celebrating the same milestone this year, eventually eclipse her as the longest reigning female monarch ever?

Switching my smart phone on again after the walk, I hear the familiar message beep. My sheep-shearing host of a few days earlier, James Houlden, has written to say: “I am grateful that Destiny decided that you should walk into our courtyard last Thursday afternoon. I felt inspired by your testimony and having read your blogs feel very in tune with your beliefs and values. You have certainly rekindled in me the desire to undertake a pilgrimage to Santiago.”


Geoff Dalglish

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