I’ve finished two stories looking forward to spring this week.
And, let’s face it, we all need a hint of snowdrops or a glimpse of daffodils at this time of year when the days loom grey and the vitamin D levels are low.
The first is a piece for the English HeritageMembers’ Magazine and profiles a series of spring walks for some blow-away-the-cobwebs spring days out.
Suggestions range from a walk in the footsteps of the Roman legions around Housesteads Roman Fort, Northumberland, to soaking up the Arthurian legend on a walk around Tintagel.
The walk descriptions come with short route plans to discover the walks for yourself.
The second is a feature about the Two Saints Way [pictured above], an ancient pilgrimage trail between Chester and Lichfield cathedrals.
The long distance walking trail, recreating the ancient pilgrimage paths, takes its name from Werburgh and Chad, two Saxon saints who brought Christianity to the ancient kingdom of Mercia in the 7th century.
The saints were laid to rest at Chester and Lichfield respectively, establishing the ancient cathedral cities as alternative pilgrimage destinations to Rome or Jerusalem.
Both magazine articles are out in the weeks to come, so check out my Twitter feed for links.
And every freelancer worth his or her salt is chasing a Magna Carta angle.
Last week it was my turn, taking a trip to Lincoln for a walking-themed trip in the footsteps of a devout scholar.
It was, in the end, a mixture of walking and heritage with a few pints around Lincoln’s historic Cathedral Quarter thrown in for good measure.
The full story will be published in the June issue of Walk Magazine, the quarterly publication from the Ramblers.
But here’s a work-in-progress preview, picking up the trail in its early, rural stages before I headed west towards the city and an audience with a 4,000-word calfskin manuscript that changed the face if history as we know it:
I picked up the trail at the St Giles church in the Lincolnshire village of Langton by Wragby to learn more about the learned scholar Stephen Langton.
This Lincolnshire lad was born in the village in the 12th century and went on to become both Archbishop of Cantebury and one of the chief architects of Magna Carta, presenting the document to King John as a fait accompli for signing at Runnymeade, Surrey, in June 1215.
The newly opened Stephen Langton Trail, a 16.5-mile, three-stage walking route through rural villages, arable farmland and via ruined, medieval churches, attempts to trace key locations from his life.
St Giles Church marks a suitable trailhead with Langton looking down on ramblers benevolently from a stained-glass memorial window on the south aisle.
Walking with me on this section of the trail was Hugh Marrows [pictured above], the retired civil servant who has researched and plotted the cross-country walk over the past year.
“I’ve spent 30 years walking the footpaths of Lincolnshire but I’m still discovering new places,” he says as cross an area of limewoods, the sunset over Lincoln Cathedral on the sun-dappled horizon.
“Walking this trail has helped me understand Lincoln’s crucial role in this period of English history.”
Have you walked the Stephen Langton a Trail? Share your experience below.
* A lot of my stories these days are close to home and this is a good example of finding a story on my own doorstep.
As ever, follow me on Twitter, or subscribe to the RSS, for weekly updates from my travel-writing archive in the months to come.
The locals know him affectionately as ‘Cuddy’.
He was a teenage shepherd boy who saw a holy vision, went on to join a strict monastic order and was elevated to sainthood after his death in 687AD.
His body then spent almost 200 peripatetic years criss-crossing northern Britain in search of a resting place. Even today, his presence permeates every nook and cranny of the historic city where he was ultimately entombed.
We even still toast his longevity with pints of local ale bearing his name. His contemporary, The Venerable Bede, may be better known internationally for his work as a chronicler and scholar but without St Cuthbert, there would be no Durham.
“To modern eyes, Cuthbert seems a bit serious and worthy, while Bede is the all rounder who would bat for England in a cricket match,” smiles the Durham-based Blue Badge Guide Jan Williams.
“While modern Durham is an amalgamation of many stories, we can trace all of those stories back to Cuddy.”
Cuthbert’s body was eventually brought to medieval Dun Holme, modern-day Durham, in 995AD.
The cathedral is the third church on the site and replaced a Saxon stone church and was founded as a shrine to the saint on the well-protected natural peninsula formed by the River Wear. Prior to that, small settlements existed near the peninsula, but not on it, with a clutch of Roman encampments around the fringes.
The main settlement was little more than a clearing in a woodland glade. But pilgrims soon followed to worship at Cuthbert’s shrine and Durham’s place in history was henceforth assured.
Pilgrims still come to Durham to pay their respects to Cuddy but, these days, the city that grew up around him has become one of the key heritage sites in northeast England.
This year marks 25 years since Unesco first designated Durham Cathedral and Castle a World Heritage Site – it was among the first sites recognised in the UK. In 2008 the boundaries of the site were revised to include the historic buildings sandwiched between the two iconic buildings on Palace Green.
A brand-new World Heritage Visitor Centre officially opens its doors this month to act as a gateway to the expanded Durham World Heritage Site.
“Heritage is a huge asset but you have to do something useful with it,” says Seif El Rashidi, World Heritage Site Coordinator.
“We want to present a less fragmented vision of the site and act as a springboard for new projects, working with students from the university.”
Seif moved to Durham three years ago from the al-Darb al-Ahmar medieval heritage project in Cairo. “Before I arrived,” he smiles, “the only thing I knew about Durham was the view of the castle and cathedral from the train to Edinburgh.”
The visitor centre, converted from a former almshouse, features three key sections: a hands-on illustration of what makes a Unesco World Heritage Site; a film explaining Durham’s place on the prestigious Unseco list, along side the likes of the Taj Mahal and Robin Island; and a guide to the hidden-gem discoveries to be found around the site.
Across the manicured green is the Palace Green Library, which unveiled its refurbished Wolfson Gallery in January this year. With a permanent collection of books, documents and objects from the extensive university collection, it’s also home to temporary exhibitions.
Highlights of the collection include a sculpture of a Nubian servant girl from 1360BC, Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, prints of creatures and natural structures as seen through a microscope, from 1665, and Benedictine Gradual, a 11th-century cathedral service book from just after the Norman Conquest.
New galleries and visitor facilities will be added over the next year.
But before following the well-trodden pilgrim trail, heading uphill from the bustling Market Place to the tranquil Palace Green, it’s worth taking time to explore some of the lesser-known attractions of the former medieval hilltop town.
Just before Franwellgate Bridge, the first river crossing from 1120, Moatside Lane marks the original pilgrim’s route to the cathedral shrine.
The lane is one of Durham’s historic vennels, narrow-width passageways, which traditionally provided a short cut through the squalor of the cholera-riddled medieval centre. Today they’re packed with cosy little cafes and boutiques.
The Market Place, still home to the Victorian Indoor Market and the Town Hall, looks refreshed following the recent completion of the Heart of the City regeneration project to open up the public space for events.
This summer, BRASS: Durham International Festivals runs July 1-17 July while Streets Of, a summer festival of street art and performance will be held from August 27-29.
The Town Hall may be tucked away behind a nondescript façade, but it’s worth venturing inside for a glimpse of the Victorian Main Hall.
A stained-glass window of Edward III, astride a white stallion, against a backdrop of medieval Durham dominates the room. A series of plaques down the left-hand wall offers a roll call of the prestigious names to have been conferred the Honorary Freedom of the City.
Among them are Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who addressed the crowd from the Town Hall’s balcony in 1987, and the author Bill Bryson, currently outgoing Chancellor of Durham University, who has been a regular visitor since 2009.
Exploring the city outside the World Heritage site, reminders of Cuddy’s legacy are all around.
The Journey, a bronze-cast sculpture of followers bearing his coffin outside the tourist information centre, a statue of him lost in contemplation in the garden of the small but compelling Durham Heritage Centre.
Some of the public artworks lining the steep riverbanks, gazing up to the castle and cathedral looming majestically above, also celebrate his influence.
This view, the sweeping panorama from the Millhouse across the weir by Prebends Bridge, is the iconic view of Durham that has inspired writers and artists over the centuries.
JMW Turner, fascinated by the quality of the light in northern Britain, came to paint the view in watercolour, while Sir Walter Scott was suitably moved to pen the a few stanzas:
“Grey towers of Durham, yet well I love thy mixed and massive piles. Half church of God, half castle ‘gainst the Scots.”
The dramatic denouement to the Durham tour, however, is the steep walk up from Kingsgate Bridge to the World Heritage Site anchored between the cathedral and the castle.
The latter, in particular, is crucial to another important aspect of Durham’s history.
Work started on Durham’s motte-and-bailey castle in 1072 and the grand structure was to become home to the Prince Bishops. It was William the Conqueror who created the role of the quasi-monarchical bishop as a safe pair of hands to represent his regional affairs between London and Scotland.
Their power and influence was concentrated between the River Tyne to the north and the River Tees to the south. The subsequent appointees, often flamboyant characters with larger-than-life personal histories to match their status, enjoyed over 800 year of power and influence over their fiefdom.
The powers of the Prince Bishops were diminished by the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539 and the commonwealth period in the 1650s.
The last Prince Bishop, William van Mildert, donated the castle to the founding of the university in 1832, just before his death and the final absorption of powers back into the crown.
His legacy was to create the third oldest university in England after Oxford and Cambridge, an august institution that today supports over 12,000 students in a collegiate system and brings a huge sense of vitality to the small, rather quant, 40,000-strong city.
The castle visit is now based around an official tour, while the Cathedral remains both free to visit and the jewel in Durham’s heritage crown. Its complex engineering feats of Romanesque stone vaults, huge pillars and early Gothic pointed arches in the East End are enough to stun most visitors into a hushed, reverential silence.
In the crypt
Cuddy rests, finally, in peace in the feretory (the place of the bones is the literal translation), a plain slab marked Cuthbertus, the only epitaph.
Beade Venerabilis lies in the Galilee Chapel, having been moved to Durham in the 12th century from Jarrow, east of Newcastle.
Outside the cathedral, students dash to lectures, tour groups explore the historic buildings around Palace Green and children try hunt in the treasure box, one of the more hands-on attractions in the new Visitor Centre.
Durham may be a city rich in medieval heritage, but it’s not a cobweb-strewn museum. It feels alive.
“I admire the fact that Durham is not too precious about its heritage,” says Jan Williams.
“Despite its historic riches, it’s still a working town, not preserved in aspic.”
* Another story from the archive this week, an autumnal walking piece with a pilgrimage theme.
Follow me on Twitter or subscribe to the RSS for more story updates.
Werburgh looks down serenely from the east window of Chester Cathedral’s Refectory.
The room is a chaos of school groups, small children and international visitors, all tucking into Welsh rarebit and baked potatoes. But Chester’s Patron Saint, her hand grasping the staff of an abbess and a model of the monastery founded on this site in the other, is the epitome of saintly calm.
The elaborate stained-glass window, based on the writings of the monk Henry Bradshaw at the Abbey of St Werburgh in 1513, celebrates her saintly life and eternal connection to Chester.
Werburgh, known as St Werburga in Old English, may be less famous than St Cuthbert or St Aidan, but she remains a constant calming presence in Roman city of Chester.
This month her presence will be felt her even more keenly. The Cathedral will celebrate her feast day on February 3 with a special service, while the journey of Werburgh from a noble Staffordshire family to sainthood provides the narrative backdrop to the Two Saints Way, a newly opened long-distance walking trail through the rural heart of England.
Walk the trail in the winter months to have the sun behind you and catch the best views.
The trail divides into four sections over, typically, seven days and recreates the ancient pilgrimage route between Lichfield and Chester Cathedrals via Stafford and Stoke-on-Trent.
The trail’s name refers to St Werburgh and St Chad, two Saxon saints who brought Christianity to the ancient kingdom of Mercia (the modern-day Midlands) in the 7th century. The saints were laid to rest at Chester and Lichfield respectively, their relics fuelling the rise of medieval pilgrimage routes across the British Isles onto Rome or Jerusalem.
Some followers went on pilgrimage to seek spiritual healing as miracles were reported to have happened in the places where the saints were buried – Chester claims two, whereby parading her bones around the city walls saved the city from disaster.
Others were dispatched to atone for their sins. Indeed, church records from the village of Tarvin, just outside Chester, show some sinners were sent on the pilgrimage to Lichfield for the crime of fornification.
The heyday of pilgrimage declined with the Act of Supremacy in 1534, installing Henry VIII as head of the Church of England, but these trails are increasingly popular again today with latter-day pilgrims seeking spiritual connections on a long-distance hike.
“The pilgrimage has become a contemporary quest for ancient wisdom. It encapsulates what life is about, namely going on a journey,” says David Pott, who devised the Two Saints Way and is walking with me on the trail.
“In the contemporary context, it’s about asking questions and seeking answers. But modern pilgrims seek to do so in mind, body and soul.”
I set out to explore a section of the trail closely associated with Werburgh, making my base at the medieval pilgrimage town of Stone in rural Staffordshire.
The nine-mile day walk leads from just south of Stone to the Trentham Estate near Stoke-on-Trent. Pilgrims can also walk the 88-mile route as a complete linear trail from Lichfield to Chester, the path waymarked with the symbol of the goose, a reference to one of Werburgh’s miracles.
There are less written of Werburgh’s journey and fewer tangible sites linked to her than Chad. The main source of reference is a document written by the Flemish monk Goscelin in Canterbury in the late 10th century.
However, ecclesiastical records do record something of her life. Werburgh, the daughter of the Mercian King Wulphere, attracted many admirers but devoted herself to God. She defied her father’s command to marry and instead entered the Abbey of Ely, falling to her knees upon arrival to remove her regal garments and exchange them for the nun’s habit.
Werburgh went on to found convents in Northamptonshire, Staffordshire and Lincolnshire. She was buried at Hanbury, but her body was later moved to Chester.
On a bright but crisp winter morning, I join the trail at the village of Burston, some 30 miles north of Lichfield. My path hugs the Trent and Mersey Canal for the first couple of miles, skirting the village millpond and the old pilgrimage church of St Rufin.
I then follow a public footpath beside a gurgling brook towards Stone, crossing a Wildlife Trust site alive with birdlife and occasional sightings of otters.
The trail leads down the High Street in Stone, past iron railings recounting the story of Wulphere, to Stone Priory and the church of St Mary and St Wulfad [pictured above], the latter one of Werburgh two brothers martyred by their own father. The original Augustinian Priory on the site on the site dates from the 12th century while the present Gothic-style church was built in 1758.
Victorian stained glass windows on the north aisle depict Chad, Werburgh and her brothers. The seal of Stone Priory was found in a field in 2011 and returned to Stone later that same year. The 13th-century copper-cast seal depicts St Mary with, some suggest, St Wulfad, sat beside her.
During the next section, leaving Stone for the village of Tittensor, recorded in the Doomsday Book of 1086 as Titesovere, and then onto Trentham, the trail opens up to reveal more open farmland and woodland.
Tucked behind a wooded hill is Bury Bank, an ancient hill fort formerly known as Wulphercestre (Wulphere’s camp), probably the capital of the ancient kingdom of Mercia. This site is believed to be Werburgh’s birthplace, while Saxon’s Lowe, just beyond the fields along a path known as Nun’s Way, is an Iron Age burial place.
Wulphere is believed to have chosen this ancient site as his burial place before his death in 675AD.
I complete the day’s walking, traversing the 300-year-old woodland of the Trentham Estate, to finish with a moment of contemplation at St Mary’s Church, Trentham. The praying stone, lying before a Saxon cross in the churchyard, has been smoothed over during centuries by the knees of travellers gathered in prayer.
The next day in Chester, having skipped over a section through rural Cheshire, Nick Fry, Heritage, Visitors and Exhibition Manager at Chester Cathedral, is showing me around the cathedral’s signposts to the Werburgh story.
We start at the Quire, the place where the monks would pray, and identify the misericord, one of Chester Cathedral’s little known treasures. The carved seat for monks is engraved with scenes from Werburgh’s life. “It’s like a medieval cartoon strip dating from 1380,” smiles Nick.
The Cathedral has been a place of pilgrimage since 907AD when the first stone church was built in Chester to hold Werburgh’s relics. Her effigy still fills the cathedral today, the St Werburgh Pilgrimage Trail leading from the Refectory via the Quire to the Lady Chapel, home to the shrine of St Werburgh.
After a life of religious devotion, Werburgh died around 700 and her body was moved to Chester from Hanbury in 875 to protect it from waves of Viking raiders attacking England. The cult of Werburgh survived centuries of conquests and, in the 14th century, an elaborate shrine was built in her honour with 34 carved figures and a number of niches where pilgrims could kneel in prayer before the saint.
Henry VIII commanded the shrine be broken into fragments during the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century and it wasn’t until 1876 that A.W. Blomfield, charged with restoring Chester Cathedral, collected the fragments. The Lady Chapel is today a popular place for pilgrimage and prayer at the cathedral.
Nick says, as we stand before the shrine, contemplating a small carved effigy of Werburgh below where the casket of her relics would have been stored:
“Pilgrims still come here as they did in the Middle Ages. They still want that feeling of wholeness, both physical and spiritual.”
In medieval times, pilgrims believed in the healing power of the saints and the way their powers infused the stone of the shrine, hence they wanted to get as close to her, and pray to her, for as long as possible. There would have been scenes of jostling. These so-called squeezing spaces, where pilgrims would bask in her presence, are still visible around the base of the shrine.
“We still sometimes find little posies of flowers around the base,” says Nick as the presence of the ancient saint engulfs us. “Werburgh is a calming influence,” nods Nick.
“There’s something about being here that just brings a sense of quiet to us all.”