Stories on Whalls: what’s a mini-pilgrimage?

Whether it’s Mecca, Santiago di Compostela or the Old Bull and Bush down the High Street, a pilgrimage has a number of common elements. They’re walks with purpose, driven by a desire to reach an end point which will have emotional spiritual or psychological significance. Whilst the end point is the whole point of the pilgrimage, people will also remark on the journey they took to get there: it’s not just the product, they exclaim, but the process too! It’s about the journey as well as the destination! It’s as much about the anticipation of redemption as it is feeling redeemed.

It’s about recognising, as per all ancestral myths and good blockbuster films that you’re about to embark on a three act structure of your very own: the set up and getting there, the being there and then the final winding down and return from whence you came. You are about to become the hero in your very own heroic adventure. Joseph Campbell (he of The Hero with 1000 Faces) would be proud of you.

So what marks out a mini-pilgrimage from the high caffeine pilgrimage? The set up will be one distinguishing mark. If I want to travel to Santiago in order to experience the Way of St. James, then I will need to spend months planning an itinerary. I will need to book taxis, trains, boats and planes unless I’m a real stoic and undertake to make the whole journey by foot. Including the section that would involve crossing the English Channel.

This planning will take for ever and almost certainly eat up three year’s salary. It will involve informing the family, the neighbours, the cat and the dog that you are about to embark on a long perilous journey after which life will never be the same ever again. Whilst the family might just shrug this off as another middle life crisis fuelled by too many pints from the Old Bull and Bush which you’ll soon sober up from, the cat and the dog will look at you in complete disinterest (cat) and utterly distraught (dog).

The beauty of the mini-pilgrimage however is that it needs little in the way of planning apart from figuring out when the next bus leaves town. If you have a bus pass it will cost you nothing. If you have a loaf in the larder, you can even make your own sandwiches to take en route. You can, if you are so inclined, take the dog with you, leave enough in a bowl to feed the cat and tell the family that you’re just popping out for a bit and will be back soon. No-one will have the faintest idea what you’re talking about. Assuming they heard you in the first place.

The second distinguishing mark of the mini-pilgrimage is the act of being there, once you’ve arrived at your ultimate destination. In the full fat, high caffeine pilgrimage, you will have travelled with hundreds and thousands of people of all different shapes and sizes. As you get nearer to your destination, you will become alarmed about how many more people had exactly the same idea as you all those years ago and experience that utterly devastating moment of realising that you are but an ant in the whole of human experience, not worth a micro-bean of any-ones’ attention, apart from the street vendor who is trying to sell you some inexplicable goods at exorbitant prices. You can be sure that on the proper pilgrimage, that not only you and thousands like you have crossed land, sea and air to get to this sacred place – but that hundreds of sellers of pop, trinkets and endearing slinky things that fall apart as soon as you put them in holy water have also found their way to the holy place that is your final destination.

The pilgrimage vendors know a good crowd when they see one and they will bask in the full knowledge that once your pilgrimage has been attained, they will count up their proceeds, plan for this year’s summer holiday for their whole family in the Maldives and feel safe in the knowledge that this has been secured for the best possible reason: your salvation.

The beauty of the mini-pilgrimage of course is that given its impromptu set up, the ignorance of your nearest and dearest (apart from the dog) and the fact that you can jump on a bus pretty much any time of day, means that no-one is there to meet you at the other end to greet you with trinkets, inhalers or funny little glow sticks that go bump in the night. You will be left alone with your sacred moment, able to share it just with the site itself; and of course your dog, should he or she have lasted the whole bus journey without crashing out due to heat exhaustion.

And finally, the act that differentiates the mini-pilgrimage from the full fat, high caffeine, full spiritual make over pilgrimage is the return home. Campbell calls this the return to the human world and it’s marked by various moments; a comic flight, a crashing down to earth, a huge sense of anti-climax and even bigger questions of what was it all about in the first place? Why did you ever consider that a five month walk to Santiago de Compostela would answer the questions that were gnawing away at your soul ever since you tipped over 40 and realised there were probably less birthdays still to have than you have had already?

These big existential questions of course lead to a mental climate in which another pilgrimage beckons: bigger, better and more authentic than the first one of course. That’s the main problem with the proper pilgrimage. It demands you ask even more questions which can only be answered by yet bigger pilgrimages. Knowing the answers of yesteryear are no use: what the next pilgrimage has to answer are the questions of tomorrow. So you set about your next journey, this time to the North Pole in mid January in 2022.

The mini-pilgrimage is thankfully the antidote to this tendency for pilgrimage dependency. Given it only took you a few hours to get there; that you weren’t stripped of your goods and chattels by holiday-hungry vendors and their charming children and that your dog is still looking adoringly at you, the beauty of the return from the mini-pilgrimage is that you can be back home in time for tea, settle back down in front of the TV and thank your lucky stars that you’ll be ready for work in the morning without anyone noticing you’ve been away. If everything goes according to plan, you can be back in the Old Bull and Bush before closing time for one last swift one, before the questions of what on earth you thought you were doing earlier start flooding back in.

Whilst Mecca and Santiago de Compostela clearly have a lot going for them in terms of significant spiritual and psychological make-overs, there’s nothing quite like a mini-pilgrimage to the Old Bull and Bush to allay your thirst for spiritual satisfaction. Especially if it’s got ‘Single Malt’ on the side of the bottle.

Stories on Whalls: Trinity House, Leicester.

 

These almshouses were founded in 1331 by Henry Earl of Lancaster and Leicester and were rebuilt in 1901. The original almshouses were known as the “Hospital of Annunciation of the Virgin Mary”. They were for a warden, 4 chaplains and 50 poor and infirm people, 20 of whom were to be resident there. By 1354 the number of resident poor people had doubled to 40. The almshouse survived the dissolution and was renamed Trinity hospital in 1614. Whall executed an East window for the Chapel. (List of works by Christopher Whall)

You never know who’s looking over your shoulder.

“The Vice-Chancellor and his senior staff are delighted that you are able to join them for lunch. The lunch will take place after the ceremony in Trinity House at 12.00 for 12.20pm.”

So I sit down amongst the finery and refinery sporting my guest badge meeting with a laudable gent from the Guild of Patten Makers (inserts in shoes not templates for sheet metal) and a lecturer in photography and before you know it there’s a very decent three course meal and then someone gives a welcome speech and then I’m chatting to someone from the arts and humanities department about the cross overs between arts and science education and evaluation processes and what’s causal and what isn’t then someone points to the bread and something in a bowl next to it and we’re not sure whether it’s pate or butter and then there’s a very nice glass of wine on offer but I’m not drinking as it’s midweek and if I have a glass now I shall be out like a light and then there’s some very appetising chicken so I give the wine a miss but the elderflower cordial is pretty lovely and think I’d better get off to work as it’s a busy day and I have a meeting in thirty minutes and then I have a train to catch and then there’s loads to do and it’s fifteen minutes until the next meeting and then and then and then and then.

What I didn’t do was stop in my tracks. Turn a corner and look up at the altar at the end of the chapel. If I had, I would have seen the magnificent window by Christopher Whall, benignly staring at us assembled hoards, albeit around the corner, just feet from where I was sitting.

I didn’t have a clue who or what was looking down as this whole stained glass window thing was news to me and anyway I was far to busy to stop in my tracks this time but I should have stopped I should have done and taken it in for a few minutes how something in our past can be just around the corner out of sight but benignly present if we were so inclined to see it.

We don’t stop often enough to take stock of what’s just around the corner, wishing us all good grace and offering to be an angel in the midst of our day. And we lose out, being engulfed in the mist of our daily routines.

 

Stories on Whalls: Church of the Holy Cross, Sarratt

Whall was responsible for the “Charity” window in this church. It is the East window in the North Transept. The window dates from 1923. The Church dates back to circa 1190. Whall was responsible for two other windows, “St Cecilia” and “Bringing the children to Christ”. The “Charity” window comprises two lights featuring angels. There is a panel below each light and in the panel below the left hand light is a heart and below the words “Deus Caritas Est”. “Bringing the Children to Christ” is the earliest of the three windows and was installed in the West of the tower in 1913. It is a two-light window and in the left hand light we see a mother with two children. They look towards the right hand light in which we see Jesus with a third child. In a roundel above the two main lights, two angels are shown and the inscription “In Heaven their angels do always behold the face of the Father.” The window “St Cecilia” was installed in 1921 and is the South window, South Aisle. St Cecilia sits at a piano. The window was commissioned in her memory by the children of Emily Catherine Hamilton Ryley. (List of works by Christopher Whall)

And then, there’s the M25, always present, always humming, always flowing. Or trying to. 50 years it wasn’t. It might have a glimmer in a planner’s eye but when we were growing up in the area, the challenge that the M25 was to become and the traffic it would generate was beyond our imaginations.

We were able to ride our bikes through the narrow country lanes out of Heronsgate, around Chorleywood, down Solesbridge Lane and up to Sarratt without having to dodge lumbering articulated HGVs which had taken the wrong SatNav instruction and now found themselves squeezing through bushes and demolishing rabbit warrens before they were forced to reverse perilously, jack-knife and bring the whole of South East to a gridlocked halt. It’s amazing how one errant truck can take a wrong turning and seize up the nation’s supply chain.

In those days, Holy Cross Church in Sarratt would have looked very much like it does today – and probably how it looked like 800 years ago. Motorways may wax and wane but these older churches are made of hardier infrastructural policies.

But these days, the M25 helps you makes a trip to Sarratt by car in a hop skip and a jump and within minutes you can find the village’ s now empty duck pond, the Village Hall (scene of my first young farmers disco) and the Cricketers Arms (home of beautiful cobalt blue cutlery which is unfortunately not for sale).

A ten minute walk down Church Road – greeted politely by locals (“lost your way? You’re not from ‘ere are you?”) making it clear there’s nothing more suspicious than a couple of blokes walking down a country lane – leads unsurprisingly to the church, in which Christopher Whall is present, jostling for attention with the likes of Powell and Alfred Fisher. In the Baptistry, there’s St. Cecilia, patron saint of musicians, dating from 1921; in the Bell Tower, Bringing the Children to Christ (1913) and in the North Transept, Charity (1923).

Back outside, you clock that the Church of the Holy Cross  is opposite another pub, The Cock Inn, with its promise of ‘fab fish weekends’, which no doubt complement the fish and loaves Sunday mission of Holy Cross itself. The pub and the church: constants in an ever changing flux of articulated lorries, traffic diversions and speed cameras.

What comes first, the window or the wall?

The PTA of my old school recently invited me to see a ‘Wall of Honour’ they had installed on the main school corridor which, over the years, must have witnessed millions of pupil, parent and teacher journeys all in the search for the holy grail of a perfect education.

Part of the lead up to the installation was a request by the PTA to send in photos of what its alumni had done since they had stopped patrolling that corridor in search of the perfect girl or boy friend and left the school for good.

I duly obliged with a few photos of my own and as I approached the school became increasingly intrigued with what they had done with the photos on the corridor walls.

How would they frame this ‘wall of honour’? How would they stop errant 4th formers from making they own marks on the august faces beaming at them from the privilege of their post-school hide-aways? Would the ‘wall of honour’ be accompanied at some point by a floor of concrete which everyone would be invited to put their own footsteps into, making the corridor full of indelible marks on both its walls and floor?

All that would be needed to complete the effect would be a ceiling of the most anointed: those alumni who had developed stellar careers – or serious drug habits – which would mean they could only be found by being dragging them off a different ceiling or out of the heavens.

So as I was escorted down to the corridor of a million journeys, it’s fair to say that calling the experience underwhelming would be an understatement. It’s six pictures in frames underneath the PTA title board: the complete antithesis of what telling a good story on a wall might look like: something the Whalls were both pretty good at.

It’s amazing how we think that just sticking something on a bare wall is better than nothing. Actually, it’s worse than nothing as at least a bare wall has some sense of purity to it. Desecrating it with some half-thought out plan demeans both the plan and the wall. Better to do nothing than just gesture, aimlessly.

Trouble is, a wall invites you to make a mark. Challenges you to add Something where nothing’s actually needed. It says, go on then, if you think you’re so important, beat this. Make your mark count more than my empty space. And more often than not we get it wrong, especially in public spaces where getting the marks right is even more important, given you’re speaking to far more many people than you would do than if you were in the privacy of your own living room.

The Whalls though weren’t simply about stories on walls – but in windows which were part of the wall; or a different type of wall with a different purpose. You wonder, does the brick work support the glass? Or does the glass determine what kind of brick work is needed? What comes first, the window or the wall?

Whatever the answer, the PTA of the old alma mater could do with some serious rethinking of what the purpose of the walls, floor and ceiling of a school corridor is all about.

Stories on Whalls: St. Katharine’s Parish Church, Irchester

Three-light window in St Catherine’s North Nave depicts the life and martyrdom of St Catherine (List of works by Veronica Whall).

It’s the first trip of the mini-pilgrimage to visit St. Catharine’s Church in Irchester, near Wellingborough, and to see Veronica Whall’s window which depicts the life and martyrdom of St. Catherine of Alexandria.

I take an East Midlands Trains from Nottingham to Wellingborough, a walk into the town centre and finally collect the X47 Bus from Swangate Centre which takes me directly to Irchester, dropping me literally onto the doorstep of the Vicarage. The Revd. Caroline Lucas is up at the church at the time, holding a bible study class on the Beatitudes and when I get there, there’s a low murmuring discussion about the complexities of turning the other cheek in times of conflict.

The patron saint of the church, Catherine of Alexandria, would have been an exemplary model of turning the other cheek. She was was the daughter of Constus, the governor of Alexandrian Egypt during AD286 – 305. When the persecution began under Maxentius, she chastised him for his cruelty to Christians which led to her being condemned to death on a spinning wheel into which a load of knives were set (the origin of the Catherine Wheel firework) but miraculously she was spared this agony – only to be later beheaded by Maxentius who clearly knew nothing about turning the other cheek.

Caroline tells me she’s been nominated as a pioneer vicar. The town is in the process of building a new community in Wellingborough, Stanton Cross.  This will see homes for 10,000 people, three new schools and all the associated infrastructure being built: and her role is to offer pastoral and spiritual care for all the folk who would make Stanton Cross their community and new home.

She’s not going to have a church building to work from – and whether the new infrastructure will extend into providing stained glass window design lessons across the curriculum is debatable – but it will be interesting to come back later to see how Catherine and the Church have managed to build a sense of community and belonging in to what is currently a sprawling building site next to the railway station.

Let’s hope the planners don’t forget that roads and railways are one thing: but that it’s culture, diversity and mutual respect that binds people into community.

Stories on Whalls: an introduction to the mini-pilgrimages.

Christopher and Veronica Whall were English stained glass artists who worked in the late 19th and early 20th Century and became recognised as two of the key figures in the modern history of stained glass.  They were also father and daughter; and, as it turns out, my great-great-Uncle and cousin.  They were perhaps, in our family, our earliest film makers given their ability to conjure up complex stories onto walls using, as Veronica herself said:  “glass, lead and light… for lead is our medium, and light is our colour.”

They were also widely recognised as great advocates for the arts for everyone and Veronica was also remarkable for crafting her career as a stained glass artist in the early 20th century when the tradition was heavily dominated by men. Consequently, they have both provided me with  inspiration over the years – even if I was unaware of their work and inspirational force at the time.

Their work can be seen across the UK and as far afield as New Zealand. So I thought it was about time to undertake a series of mini-pilgrimages to visit their works, record how the years have treated them, and to consider not just what’s on the walls in front of me, but what’s around and behind them, and what future they’re facing.

This blog will record those mini-pilgrimages, relay what stories the Whalls told to each other and the world on their walls: and imagine what stories we could be telling them, and how we would tell them,  if they were alive today.

I’m hoping it will turn into reflective and celebratory history of two English stained glass artists which at least honours Christopher’s mantra: “the design of the window must relate to the architecture of the frame” albeit written from the point of view of a distant family member as opposed to a stained glass expert: but time will tell on that one.  If you want a more authoritative account of their work, you can start by looking at a list of Veronica’s work here and a list of Christopher’s work here.

I start in Ilchester near Wellingborough on a cold, sunny Spring day in 2017. Where I end up, and how I get there? Just read on.