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St Winefride and her well

I promised that I would tell you how I got on to this pilgrimage business in the first place. The hook was a chance encounter with a seventh-century saint named Winefride; the hook turned out to be connected to a line, which was a pilgrimage route from Shrewsbury to Holywell; and once I pulled on that line, it just kept unspooling into a whole fishing net's worth of new discoveries.

Icon of St Winefride in Shrewsbury Abbey

St Winefride was the unlikely subject of a Bible study at my homegroup. Niece of the Welsh saint Beuno, she was determined to be a nun. However, a man named Caradog was equally determined that she should become his wife. When she refused, he cut off her head with his sword. Fortunately St Beuno had heard Winefride's cries, and, arriving at the scene, placed her head back onto her body, and restored her to life. Caradog met an untimely end, Winefride was able to pursue her calling into a nunnery, and at the place where her head fell, there arose a spring of water which became known as St Winefride's Well.

Evangelical Christians, while being sure that all the resurrections in the Bible definitely happened, tend to be sceptical about the resurrection of seventh-century saints. I realise this is not entirely logical. St Winefride's story was not received with any great enthusiasm by my homegroup, but something about it stuck with me. The spring associated with her still exists, in Holywell, North Wales, and has been a shrine continuously since the Middle Ages. At some point in the 12th century, Winefride's remains were moved to Shrewsbury Abbey. And so there was formed a 70-mile pilgrimage route between the two places.

But once you've got from Shrewsbury to Holywell, why stop there? You can join the North Wales Pilgrim's Way and walk all the way to Bardsey Island, reputedly the burial place of 20 000 saints, although I haven't figured out who they all were yet. Or you can turn east and get to Chester, then follow the Two Saints Way from the shrine of St Werburgh in Chester Cathedral, 92 miles to Lichfield Cathedral, dedicated to St Chad (I wrote a poem about him, once).

Lichfield Cathedral

Suddenly the map of Britain changes. Saints pop up like jack-in-the-boxes: Cuthbert, Frideswide, Aiden, Catherine, Kentigern. Pilgrim routes criss-cross the countryside, leading to Canterbury, Walsingham, Lindisfarne. Around every corner, it seems, is a healing well, a stone circle, an ancient yew tree, a ruined abbey. The land speaks of long ages of faith.

I knew, of course, that pilgrimage was a big thing in the Middle Ages. I can't claim to have read much of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, but I've at least heard of it. What I didn't know is how popular it has become again today. Britain doesn't seem to have quite caught up with some of the European routes, which have extensive signposting and low-cost hostels along the way. But some churches on pilgrim ways now offer "Night Sanctuary", allowing you to stay overnight, and there are no end of guidebooks and tour companies on offer.

At some point, I suppose, I will have to stop writing about pilgrimage and start walking! The Peak Pilgrimage from Ilam to Eyam is tempting as a first attempt. At 35 miles, it sounds relatively manageable in a long weekend, and has youth hostels at regular intervals along the path. Plus the start point is only a half-hour drive away. Shrewsbury to Holywell might have to wait a while, as that is definitely a week's walking, and a little more complicated to arrange. Meanwhile, I am following along with Pete Greig on Lectio 365, as he journeys from Iona to Lindisfarne, and stretching my legs by continuing with the National Forest Way.

St Winefride, you've got a lot to answer for!


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