After a year in which I’d gone to London just three times I had the prospect of four trips in one week, thanks to our Walk with Hope event.
The event was due to launch on the Monday with a shortish walk from the Irish Centre in Camden, where we have our offices, to St Bride’s church on Fleet Street, named after our patron saint at the Chaplaincy, St Brigid. I was so excited to be going out for the day that I left home earlier than I needed to. I caught the 7.48 High Speed train from Canterbury, my former daily train, whose twelve cars used to be packed with commuters. Now it has six cars and there was just a handful of people in my carriage when we pulled into St Pancras International. I had a chat with the train guard as we strolled down the platform and I realised that it’s those kinds of little encounters that I’ve missed.
I’d been interested to read an article in the Guardian the week before called ‘Has lockdown given you brain fog?’ It explained how the “brain is stimulated by the new, the different,” and that “We have effectively evolved to stop paying attention when nothing changes and to pay particular attention when things do change.” Like many people over the last year, I’ve been working at home, and therefore spending a lot of days on my own sitting in the same position with the same zoom background behind me, and without many of the stimuli that would occur naturally in a day when I was out and about and seeing people. It seems that our brains have begun to switch off!
I was wondering if I’d end up drastically over-stimulated by a week filled with meetings and events with real live human beings but needn’t have worried. I’d discovered on my first group of six cycling club ride after the lockdown how unbelievable pleasant and energising it was to be with people in the flesh again.
It was a great joy to meet people from the Irish Chaplaincy for the first time in over twelve months; so too to stroll through the streets of London as we chatted, to look at the buildings, the passers-by, to stop for a cup of tea. We were warmly greeted at St Bride’s, the ‘Journalists’ church’, by the Rector, Canon Alison, and even given a historical tour of the crypt, which included a perfectly preserved Roman pavement and a glimpse into a vault filled with human bones and skulls called the charnel room. Following a whole year of probable under-stimulation I was lapping it up. As we went our separate ways I headed for the nearest underground station but decided instead to make the most of the sunshine and being in London and so set off on foot back to St Pancras, stopping en route at the Italian family-run café in Russell Square, an old haunt. I had a pot of tea, I wrote a letter, and I simply basked in the sun and in the sight of people, real people!
Wednesday was the big walk of the week. Three groups of six assembled on the steps of Sacred Heart church in Kilburn for a blessing from Fr Terry and a photoshoot, before setting off for our eleven miles to the Irish Embassy. We stopped, on the way, at Wormwood Scrubs prison, a place where the Irish Chaplaincy has for many years had an especially strong presence. Again, it was a pleasure to be walking and talking with people. It felt like being on pilgrimage. There was an unexpected special moment in Kensington Memorial Park where we’d stopped for a well-earned lunch. Firstly John Giltenan of the Council of Irish Counties Association produced a bottle of Rosé wine, which down very easily and nicely. Next, he turned on Gerry Byrne’s show on Irish Radio just as he was making a dedication to the Walk with Hope event. And then Gerry played the song which I’d recorded for the event, ‘500 miles with Hope’, a slightly altered version of the Proclaimers classic, and with everyone roaring out the words when it got to the chorus.
We duly arrived at the Embassy and were warmly greeted by the Ambassador, Adrian, and First Secretary Isobel and more photos were taken.
Thursday’s walk had a decidedly ecumenical theme: going with Bishop Paul McAleenan from Westminster Cathedral to Westminster Abbey where we were met by Canon Anthony Ball. Then on Friday we were off to Holy Family Primary School in Ealing, whose children had not only made Christmas and Easter cards for many of those elderly Irish we support in London but also recorded their own version of the song ‘500 miles with Hope’. I was thrilled that one of the recipients of the cards, John Concannon, had been able to come. In the pre-Covid days I had been going to visit John once a month in his flat in Hammersmith and continued to enjoy weekly chats with him on the phone when visiting was no longer possible. John is originally from Galway and he grew up quite close to where my dad grew up. It was lovely to see him in the flesh again.
We were treated like royalty by the staff and children of the school. On arrival there was tea served outside in the sun with scones made by one of the teachers, Mayo-born Sarah, and there was plenty of craic with the wonderful Ann-Marie from Donegal who is also a teacher besides being an Irish Chaplaincy volunteer; also with Thomas the Headteacher whose parents, like mine, came from the West of Ireland and Co Down, and with Chair of Governors Fiona whose mother is a Kerrywoman. It turned out that another of our wonderful volunteers Pat, who was there as well, had taught Thomas’ brothers back in the 70s! And then I heard a very familiar song. Ann-Marie’s Year 3 children had come out and were marching round the playground singing the song:
And I would walk 500 miles, And I would walk 500 more
Just to see the smile upon your face when someone knocks upon your door
As I’d explained to Gerry Bryne in the interview the previous week, ‘500 miles’ would be one of my Desert Island Discs and I’ve had the pleasure of singing it in with some interesting groups in some interesting places, including an Alpine cave above a waterfall. Here it was now being sung in a school playground by these lovely children as part of our Walk with Hope event. It was a moving and fitting end to my week in London.