Reflections on one of Connoisseurs’ First Pilgrimages, circa 1988
“This is where I feel my Christian roots are,” said Bob, the Episcopalian priest who was the group leader of our tour. “I really feel at home here with the early English church, its liturgy, its monasteries, and its saints.”
We were standing in the ruins of a medieval priory on the holy island of Lindisfarne off England’s northeast coast. For part of each day Lindisfarne really is an island, ...
for the road to it is covered by the sea. But, on our journey from Edinburgh, we had been lucky with the tide and able to drive across the causeway to one of the holiest sites in Britain.
Thirteen hundred and fifty-four years before, King Oswald of Northumbria had asked the monastery at Iona for one of their monks as a missionary to his people of Northumbria. They had sent him Aiden, and Oswald had given him Lindsfarne on which to establish a monastery. From there Aiden and his monks, often accompanied by the Kind as interpreter—for Aiden was an Irishman—traveled the kingdom on foot, preaching the gospel and caring for the poor and sick.
The ruins where Bob and I were standing were of the monastery built on the same site five hundred years later, and it was still possible to see where the monks of that time had prayed, slept, eaten their frugal dinners, and warmed themselves at the great fireplace. All trace of Aiden’s building had disappeared long ago during repeated raids by the Viking from across the sea. But, as we stood there in the sunshine, looking across the wide stretches of flat golden sands—the tide just beginning to creep across them—to the Lammermuir hills where St. Cuthbert, Lindisfarne’s most famous bishop, grew up as a shepherd boy, it was easy to imagine those early Christian days, the simple devotion of the monks and their hard life as they labored to bring the love of Christ to a heathen people.
Our group were all Episcopalians on an Anglican Heritage Tour. They had come to England on a pilgrimage to discover their spiritual roots in the Church of England. But, like all pilgrimages, though there were many religious moments they will long remember, there was also a tremendous lot of sheer holiday enjoyment.
I had met them at the airport, and we had driven straight to Canterbury. As an English Anglican I wanted to share with them some of the riches that belong to all Anglicans everywhere. The taproot of our Christian faith goes back to Jerusalem an the Holy Land, but the Anglican tradition of the Episcopalian Church was shared by English Christians and carried across the Atlantic in the eighteenth century.
For those of our group who had not been to Europe before, Canterbury was their first experience of a great mediaeval cathedral. And what and experience! Late on tehri first evening we had a special privilege. Esther de Waal, wife of the Dean of Canterbury and a spiritual author in her own right, took us on a candlelit tour of the cathedral. From the ancient cloisters we entered the dark vastnesses of that glorious building, lit only by lights from outside shining dimly through the stained glass windows, and by the candles that we carried. She led us, as she talked about the meaning of pilgrimage, to the steps of the choir, to the crypt, to the place where Thomas Becket was martyred on that winter’s evening in 1170. The group were tired after their long journey but, as one of the said, that only seemed to make them more receptive to her words.
Canterbury was where St. Augustine, as a missionary from Rome and first Archbishop of Canterbury, established his church in 597. We say the ruins of the monastery he founded as he brought the English church under the Roman jurisdiction. So it was appropriate that we went from Canterbury to lovely Hever Castle where Henry VIII met Anne Boleyn and thus started the chain of events, which led to the break with Rome, and to the Anglican Church as we know it today.
Hever is a real castle, set in a moat, and beautifully restored by William Waldorf Astor, one of England’s most famous American immigrants. The castle is full of treasures; not least among them is a set of baby clothes exquisitely stitched in 1555 by Queen Elizabeth I when she was still a princess. She made them for her sister, Queen Mary, who had recently married Prince Phillip of Spain, and believed herself to be pregnant. The pregnancy was a delusion, and those tiny unused garments are a poignant witness to one of the most dramatic periods of English history.
We visited Winchester, where we were given tea by a local parish in their church hall before we went to hear one of the finest choirs in England sing Evensong in the cathedral. We saw the twelfth-century Hospital of St. Cross. We went to Stonehenge, and to Wilton House with its magnificent collection of paintings, the home of the Earls of Pembroke for seventeen generations.
Glastonbury is another ancient holy site. St. Dunstan was educated and was abbot there. In the lovely ruins of the monastery are the grave of the legendary King Arthur and his Queen Guinevere. Close by is the holy thorn, a tree whose ancestor is believed to have sprung from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea when he visited Britain after the Crucifixion.
After a quick look at Wells cathedral, we went to Bath, England’s most beautiful city. It is famous for its Roman baths and eighteenth-century streets and crescents—not to mention its attractive shops. From there we drove through the picturesque Cotswold villages, full of flowers and stone cottages, to stay for a night in Stratford-upon-Avon with a chance to see where Shakespeare was born.
Coventry Cathedral, built after German bombs had destroyed its mediaeval predecessor, was a moving contrast to the ancient churches we had seen. From there, we drove north to the Lake District. We have a great variety of landscape in our small island, and the group was surprised and delighted by the beauty of the hills (the are mountains to us!) and the peaceful lakes. Our comfortable hotel overlooked Lake Windermere, which we crossed by steamboat to visit Wordsworth’s cottage at Grasmere. That evening we joined a hundred local church people for a quiet evening and informal communion service at Rydall Hall, a seventeenth-century stately home now used as the diocesan conference centre.
The English shops had been a great attraction everywhere, despite the recent fall in the value of the dollar. On our journey across the south of Scotland to Edinburgh, everybody was keen to stop at a woolen mill full of lambs wool and cashmere jerseys, tweed jackets, and tartan kilts and skirts. On the Scottish border we had called—just for fun—at Gretna Green, once famous for runaway marriages from England. With lots of hilarity, Bob and his wife were “married” over the blacksmith’s anvil. “It’s going to be a bit difficult to explain to the children when we get home,” commented the “bride” as we all posed for the wedding photograph.
Two days in Edinburgh gave time to explore the magnificent castle and to indulge in more shopping. Then we drove to Lindisfarne, to the Norman splendor of Durham cathedral and the tombs of St. Cuthbert and of the Venerable Bede, the seventh-century historian of the English Church. It was a full day, which finished in the walled city of York.
The windows of our hotel looked across the river to the Minster, perhaps the greatest cathedral in northern Europe. We visited the new Viking exhibition where one travels in time through the reconstructed Viking village of a thousand years ago. Even the sounds and smells are recreated. Then there were opportunities to visit more of this fascinating city, and to go to Evensong and to the early morning Communion in the cathedral before leaving to drive south to London.
On the way we spent an afternoon in the glorious city of Cambridge among the ancient colleges of the University. The students were still on vacation, so we could not hear the famous King’s College choir. Instead, we watched the antic of inexperienced visitors trying to maneuver the flat-bottomed punts on the river, with many a splash and not a few duckings.
It is impossible to see much of London in two days, but out excellent coach driver took us on a tour of all the most famous buildings, including Buckingham Palace, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, and a visit out of London to Windsor Castle. That night we went to the theatre.
We spent a morning in the tower of London. We saw the fabulous Crown Jewels, and we saw the place where Anne Boleyn was executed by a swordsman specially summoned from France. (“I have such a little neck.”) We looked at the Traitors’ Gate with its memories of that wet Palm Sunday in 1554 when Anne Boleyn’s daughter, the Princess Elizabeth, was brought down the river to the Tower on the orders of her sister, Queen Mary. It was the one time that Elizabeth’s courage was seen to falter. Few people taken to the Tower ever came out again. Her mother had not. As she stepped out of the boat, she trembled, and sank down on the wet steps. But only for a minute. Then she pulled herself together and proudly walked to face her unknown fate. She was to become England’s greatest Queen. And to her—under God—we owe the qualities of tolerance and comprehensiveness that we know in the Anglican Church today.
I hope this Anglican Heritage Tour will be the first of many. They are a very special sort of holiday; recreation in all its senses. I loved showing these treasures of our heritage to my new American friends, and they went home having had a wonderful holiday and also with a deeper understanding of the Christian faith as they had inherited it.
Margaret Duggan is a longtime guide and dear friend of Connoisseurs Tours. She has graciously shared her rich knowledge of English culture and history with travelers for decades.