Having been a part-time writer for Inntravel for just two years (I graduated from being a long-time customer and am now retired from teaching and latterly from being a recreation ranger for the Forestry Commission) I am delighted when assignments – both on two wheels and on foot – come my way, and I'm always happy to oblige. It was difficult to select only these few 'moments':
I’m St Cuthbert
Cuthbert (c. 634-687 AD) was a very popular early medieval saint (until Thomas à Becket knocked him off the top spot), his status resting partly on his holy asceticism, partly on his persuasive missionary and intercessional powers, partly on the miraculous discovery years later that his body had not decayed or ‘corrupted’, partly on his association with the world-famous Lindisfarne Gospels which were written between his death and his elevation as a saint, and partly on the valuable artefacts raided from his burial casket. I got close to St Cuthbert on a recent assignment to check Inntravel’s ‘Holy Island & Northumberland Coast’ walking holiday.
I was impressed by Lindisfarne Priory (where he became bishop), I trod in his footsteps on part of the modern long-distance St Cuthbert’s Way (from the Scottish Borders to Holy Island) and I visited his eponymous cave where legend has it that he established a cell (or alternatively that Lindisfarne monks rested with his remains in flight from Viking raids). At the cave, chatting with a group of local lady ramblers, I was mistaken by them for St Cuthbert himself. Now, despite falling desperately short of the man’s qualities (‘incorruptibility’ yet to be tested) and despite my inkling that the ladies were just teasing, I confess that I came over all spiritual... and began blessing the cave, the copse surrounding it, and the craggy knoll above the cave.
Here I broke out my picnic and contemplated the view of Holy Island (my newly adopted spiritual home) on one side and the line of the Cheviots on the other. My sense of beatification proved temporary: as I descended from the knoll, a pair of passing walkers gave me an offended look as I raised my blessing finger, believing it to be a rude gesture. However, that brush with saintly elevation gave rise to remembrance of other divine moments, thanks to Inntravel.
In France, while cycling Inntravel’s ‘Châteaux of the Loire’ route, we blagged an out-of-hours viewing of the simply stunning 15th-century stained-glass windows of Sainte-Chapelle, Champigny-sur-Veude (which once came close to being destroyed so as not to compete with Cardinal Richelieu’s new château nearby, but was saved by an eleventh-hour papal intervention).
The vividness of the purple-blues in the windows that these medieval craftsmen achieved made me wobble and require the support of an effigy at worship. I wish I had had the same support when earlier on that delightful Loire assignment I suffered a moment of sadness in Saumur. (More of that later.)
In Vino Veritas
The connection between religious observance and alcohol is well evidenced. Think Friar Tuck. Lindisfarne has its St Aidan’s Mead; brotherhoods have historically planted hectares of vines and to this day produce beers in abbeys. On a walking assignment two years ago in Alsace, my eldest son and I had a wine-tasting at long-established family-run cellar in St-Hippolyte, a typical half-timbered, flower-bedecked village but unusual for producing respected red wines (from pinot noir grapes) in a region of superb riesling, gewurtztraminer and pinot gris wines.
We sampled beers and sausage in Bar St-Ulrich in Ribeauvillé, the best pub in this wine-devoted region, rewarding ourselves for having climbed to the three ruined castles above this town, and diverted via a monastery and a charming path in honour of another centuries-old brotherhood based in Ribeauvillé. And, after a long day’s walking in the foothills of the Vosges, we were delighted to encounter a lovely Alsatian lass in a bar in Kaysersberg – ‘l’Alsacienne sans culottes’ is the brand name of this abbey-style beer, literally meaning ‘knickerless’ but we prefer more modestly to translate this as ‘cheeky’.
Like blood from a wound
Switching region (now back in the Loire), activity (now cycling) and travelling companion (now my wife), let me recount a moment of grief and epiphany. We had cycled to Saumur, revelling in spring sunshine and stumbling upon the small Château de Marconnay offering a wine-tasting from its troglodytic cellar.
Rapturously we bought two bottles. I placed them in my pannier, and we rode on to have lunch in a square in the old town, overlooked by a church. Alas, while at the café, my wife’s bike gracefully tumbled, crashed into mine and, like blood from a wound, precious Domaine de Rocfontaine Saumur-Champigny Vieilles Vignes 2014 (oak-aged) began flowing into the gutter from a broken bottle. Quel dommage! My epiphany came from the waiter who sympathetically reminded me that one bottle was saved.
Stillness & Calm
Some of the most uplifting moments, of course, are alcohol-free. The Alsace’s Taennchel plateau in the Vosges mountains above Bergheim is renowned for its outcrop of weirdly eroded rocks (each with its own pet name and some offering up fairy songs to those who press their ear to the rock), its so-called ‘pagan wall’ (a moss-covered dry-stone wall that snakes for over two kilometres along its crest and flank, origin and purpose uncertain but evocative), mysterious cup marks and undecipherable inscriptions, and its supposed spiritual nature.
This derives from measurable telluric waves (meaning ‘from the earth’), magnetic currents whose effect – similar to ley lines – is experienced as magical and energising by some visitors. In truth we did not feel them whilst we were there, but we were certainly enraptured by a sense of stillness. It was our favourite walk.
As with a wave of his hand
Finally to North Dorset, the serene location for an assignment last year to research a new walking holiday, ‘The Hardy Way’, in Thomas Hardy’s Wessex territory. The area revealed many highlights: the accommodation, the stunning and interesting walks in the hills, vales and ancient hunting forests of Cranborne Chase, its restaurants, its local beers, and the memory lane of that Hovis advert (filmed on cobbled Golden Hill in Shaftesbury with a delivery boy on a bicycle), but no spiritual moments... till my last walk up Melbury Hill.
I walked out onto those timeless open chalky grasslands, as surveyed by Gabriel Oak at the beginning of Far from the Madding Crowd. From the top of the beacon with 360-degree views, my eye was caught by a glint in the valley opposite as sunshine broke through the scudding clouds and I curiously felt both sad and uplifted, recalling Hardy’s lines in the poem entitled The Last Signal (1886). He records a poignant moment when a friend’s coffin glints distantly in the setting sun: “Thus a farewell to me he signalled on his grave-way, / As with a wave of his hand”.
So if you are possessed by drudgery, go on an Inntravel holiday to re-invigorate your spirit. May your discoveries be divine.