With restrictions easing, but overnights stays still off limits until April 12, I made a day trip to the National Memorial Arboretum (NMA), the year-round centre for remembrance in Staffordshire.
As an outdoor attraction, the Arboretum has managed to remain open throughout lockdowns and, with the Rule of Six back in force from yesterday, it’s a good place for socially distanced small gathering.
Many of the memorials, such as the Shot at Dawn memorial [pictured above], are thought-provoking and rich with symbolism.
More importantly, it offers a tranquil place for reflection set in nature to digest the events of the past year that have changed our lives beyond measure.
That could be why the Arboretum has been mooted as a potential site for a new national, government-led memorial to recognise all those who have served their community during Covid-19 pandemic, including NHS keyworkers.
The Arboretum celebrates its 20th anniversary on May 16 and I have a feature coming soon in the i newspaper.
It’s like Chris Ansell, the Arboretum’s Head of Participation and Learning, told me this week:
“We have a responsibility to those who have given their lives for their country but also a responsibility to ourselves to take time and reflect in order to look forward with hope.”
His hometown of Shrewsbury marks his birthday on February 12 each year by hosting an international festival of natural sciences. And his 1859 book, On the Origin of Species, forms the basis of our understanding of evolution.
But the naturalist Charles Darwin [pictured above] embarked upon his lifelong quest for knowledge as a small boy in the Shropshire market town and often drew on experiences from his great-outdoors childhood in his later writing.
I’ve come to Shrewsbury, with its half-timbered buildings and historic English Bridge, to join a walking tour in the footsteps of the town’s most famous son.
Down House, Darwin’s Kent home since 1842 may be better known, but the lesser-visited childhood haunts reveal a more human side to the man behind the black-and-white photographs of the stern Victorian scientist.
“Darwin’s ideas were revolutionary on a global scale,” says DarwIN Shrewsbury Festival Organiser, Jon King, “but Shrewsbury is where they were formed.”
The tour starts at the Arts and Crafts-era Morris Hall, the public meeting space with the granite Bellstone in the courtyard a symbol of the unique geology of Shropshire.
Darwin was born in 1809 at Mount House, on the fringe of the town’s Quarry Park, and was loved exploring these geological features in the fields behind his house as a boy.
We move onto St Chad’s Church, where Darwin was baptised, and stroll past the town’s historic Market Hall to the Unitarian Church he attended with his mother, Susannah, whose father was Josiah Wedgwood of the pottery empire fame.
Charles had been born into a well-to-do family, his father, Robert, a respected local doctor, and boarded at Shrewsbury School from 1818, the former school building now converted into the town’s library, while the modern-day school has relocated across town to the banks of the River Severn.
The small square in front of the original school building is today home to a statue of Darwin but, as my tour guide Jon points out, he sits with his back to the school entrance, having not enjoyed the drab rote-learning of his schooldays.
Indeed, his teachers at the time branded him “an average student”.
Darwin later attended university in Edinburgh and went on to Cambridge, but he rebelled against his father’s wishes for him to train as a doctor or a clergyman.
He preferred to indulge his passion for natural history by studying earthworms and barnacles amongst others on a series of study tours.
It was only when he was offered a place on an expedition ship, The Beagle, in 1831, the chance came for him to prove himself.
Standing outside the Lion Hotel today, we can still imagine the young Charles rushing to take the next stagecoach to plead for his place on the expedition at The Admiralty in London.
The unpaid role as the resident naturalist on the five-year voyage would change the course of history when the ship sailed from Plymouth on December 27 with Captain Robert FitzRoy at the helm.
We finish the walk under Darwin’s Gate, a public art installation with three seemingly free-standing columns symbolising the three key influences of his formative years, namely the local geology, his religious views and his early study of scientific classification.
“Darwin attracted more criticism than any other scientist, but he simply saw life with more clarity than most of us,” says Jon. “He was an early pioneer of the stewardship of nature, not control — ideas that still resonate today.”
Darwin died in 1882, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, but remained a Shropshire lad at heart. Indeed, the poetic closing words from On the Origin of Species, could have been written about his Shrewsbury upbringing:
“From so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
One name keeps coming up in County Durham: Cuthbert.
“St Cuthbert is woven into the landscape of the Northeast. There were times when the pilgrims couldn’t get to his shrine as it was so crowded.”
Charlie Allen, Canon Chancellor of Durham Cathedral, is expainling Cuddy’s perennial appeal as we meet in the Cathedral cloisters, the sound of the choir practicing for evensong beyond the ancient walls.
“Today, pilgrims come for different reasons but the idea of making a pilgrimage remains a transition point in life. It’s a time to reassess.”
Durham is the visitor hub for six new, long-distance walking trails, collectively the Northern Saints project, which maps the spiritual heritage of Northeast England as the Christian crossroads of the British Isles.
The trails, following ancient pilgrimage routes, were first waymarked to coincide with the Association of English Cathedrals naming 2020 as the Year of Pilgrimage.
I’m walking The Way of Life, following in the footsteps of St Cuthbert north towards Durham via Bishop Auckland.
His body was carried by his devoted followers [pictured above as a statue in Durham] to a place of refuge following Viking raids on Northumberland in the 9th century.
One of the shorter of the six trails, the 29-mile hike divides conveniently into two or three sections for a weekend of autumnal walking and local history.
There are places to stay and eat along the route with more infrastructure to be added.
The route is well waymarked with circular symbols of a purple Celtic cross, although it’s worth downloading a route plan from the website for some sections.
Further waymarking is due to be completed by Easter 2021.