All I can say is whew, what a day…or two days really!
As with any good story I should not start at the end, but at the beginning and the beginning for sixteen of us began Friday as we made our way to the airport. Of course Rev. Lauren and I had made a great plan of how we would do all that needed to get done and be on the road to Philadelphia by 2:00pm so that we could be one of the first to arrive and greet other pilgrims. Needless to say our plans did not work out that way and though we made it to the airport with plenty of time, alas we were not the first. That title goes to the nine parishioners who hired a car service.
Rev. Lauren and I settled into the waiting area and it was not long until all sixteen of us were there and ready to begin our adventure. I could sense the excitement and energy of the pilgrims. What had been over a year in planning had finally come to fruition and all of us were feeling it! Our group consists of twenty-six pilgrims total but ten of them, including Fr. David, had gone ahead of us and would meet us at the Manchester Airport. Fortunately it was an uneventful flight. As the lights went out in the cabin to allow us to catch whatever sleep we could our first day on the pilgrimage came to an end.
Day 2 began at 39,000 ft. as the cabin lights came back on and people reluctantly opened their windows to let the sun bathe the cabin in bright sunlight. It wasn’t long before we landed in foggy rainy Manchester weather and were on our way to meet up with the bus and the rest of our group. As I came out of customs to my surprise the other ten pilgrims were waiting for us. I was anticipating someone getting lost or arriving at the wrong time, but everyone was there! I love it when a plan comes together.
So all twenty-six pilgrims boarded the bus and we headed north from Manchester to Lancaster. Initially I was a little surprised because, other than driving on the opposite side of the road, the scenery looked exactly like central Pennsylvania. There were green rolling hills filled with farm animals and scattered houses. Having never traveled to England I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when it came to landscapes. I assumed it would be very different from home, but as we road the major highway north to Lancaster you would think we were driving through Lancaster county.
After an hour’s drive we arrived in Lancaster and made our way to the heart of the city where Lancaster Priory is located. Upon arriving at the Priory, which is officially known as the Priory Church of St. Mary, we were warmly greeted by our host Fr. Christopher Newlands whose official title is the Vicar of Lancaster because he has several churches in Lancaster that are under his care. Fr. Chris welcomed us and we began with a tour of Lancaster Castle, which for those of you from our Lancaster, as we have been calling it, might recognize the front facade because our county prison was modeled after the castle. The castle itself was one version of several different castles built upon the hill since the arrival of the Romans in the 1st Century.
From the castle we boarded the coach and headed to two villages of Lancaster that are situated on the shore. We first stopped in Morecambe (pronounced More-kum) were we partook of another British classic…fish and chips. I regret that I did not take a picture of it but it was a huge piece of fried cod with potato wedges and mashed peas. All in all it was delicious and extremely filling. With full bellies we walked along the promenade and took in the windy sea air.
Once we had taken in enough of the sea we moved on to the next village, Heysham (pronounced Hee-shum). This was a particularly interesting village as it is home to two pre-Norman Christian churches; Saint Peter’s Church and St. Patrick’s Chapel. The coach dropped us off just outside of the historical center of the village and we made our way to the coast, walking through narrow cobblestone streets. As we approached the shore we came upon St. Peter’s Church, a 7th or 8th century church that was Saxon in origin. The church was tiny but you could feel the deep history of the place. What was most interesting was what we found in the churchyard. Along with the usual gravestones spanning many centuries there are crusader graves and a medieval sandstone coffin that is believed to be a Viking grave based on the runes found on the coffin. Inside the church there is a fully recovered “hogback” which is the sandstone cover that would have been found on top of the coffins. This site reminded us that Christianity has been present in Britain since the 1st Century and this area of England in particular has been under the control of different cultural tribes from the island and also mainland Europe.
Only a few meters away from St. Peter’s Church is a large exposed promontory upon which rests the remains of St. Patrick’s Chapel. There are a lot of stories that surround this chapel, especially as it relates to St. Patrick. Now whether he was from this area before he was kidnapped and taken to Ireland or stopped here on the way back from Ireland, no one can tell us for certain. But as I learned from our last pilgrimage sometimes you have to let go of facts and embrace tradition. This chapel is significant because of the remains that are still present and date back to the 8th or 9th centuries, and the sandstone tombs carved into the ground.
After taking in these wonderful sites that have been assigned a Grade 1 listing, meaning they are “buildings of exceptional interest,” we boarded the coach and made our way back to the Priory where we met our hosts for the next two nights. I don’t know about the other pilgrims but, after some conversations with the family and a bite to eat, I crashed hard and was asleep by 7:00pm. After a great two days, really our first full day in-country, I hope the rest of the pilgrimage will be as equally awesome. So now it is off to bed. We shall see what tomorrow holds.