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Halifax to Bradford: A Pilgrimage

Updated: Mar 8, 2020

My first pilgrimage was along the British Pilgrimage Trust route to Bradford Cathedral, starting at Halifax Minster.

This was the first of the Year of Cathedrals, Year of Pilgrimage routes I took for 2020, mainly because it was close to home. The 10 or so miles from Halifax to Bradford would be a dry-run of sorts for routes in less familiar territory.

The initial departure out of Halifax is a steep one, but rewarding if you plan to take photos as well as just admire the scenery and reach your destination. I couldn't fit the Minster into one shot down at ground-level, but from goodness-knew how high up, and only five minutes away, there was no problem getting a good shot of that building and the old spire still attached to Calderdale's library.

From there, there were some more steep roads and limited pavements on the way up to the Shibden estate and then Stump Cross. This is Anne Lister country, and I was reminded a few times of those scenes in Gentleman Jack where Anne is walking up a steep cobbled footpath – I say 'walking', I mean 'stomping purposefully', because there's no other way to handle these gradients. It's bracing, for sure, and you feel you've taken on nature and won – until you see the next hill, and your feet protest, then your shins, then your knees...

More than once, it struck me I should have taken a bus for some of the earlier sections of the route. The hardest, most uphill, sections came almost immediately on the way out of Halifax, and then not long after in the climb past Shibden Hall and up to Northowram. I was wishing I'd taken a bus after just forty minutes.

But I pulled myself together, and told myself this was the hardest part, that it would get easier, and that this was the time I had to really commit my energies to. After all, if I failed here, the whole exercise was a waste of time, and what's a pilgrimage without fighting off a little temptation?

I'd been thinking about Jesus being tempted by the Devil in the wilderness, and just then I drew level with a bus stop, at the same moment that a bus pulled up and let someone off.

I won't lie, my resolve faltered for a second. Was this divine intervention? A test? Or was this temptation, trying to divert me from my holy objective, so soon? How had this bus arrived at my weakest moment?

You feel you've taken on nature, and won - until you see the next hill, and your feet protest, then your shins, then your knees...

Reader, I persevered, and doing so renewed my determination to complete the task. I was only forty minutes into what I expected to be a four hour journey; it would get easier. The reward would come at the end, when I could feel the sense of satisfaction and look back at how far I'd come.

In Northowram I dodged a gang of hoodies and the uninspiring square Methodist Chapel, and struck out on the first of what I thought of as the route's cross-country sections. I later realised this bit was hardly cross-country, but there we are; I was naïve. This was a narrow country road, with pavement only one side, and for the first time I was away from any bus route. No more could I hope to just hop onto a passing bus and speed up the journey, or run home if I'd had enough.

The lack of support vehicle was actually comforting. I was on my own, trusting only in myself, my plan, and the map on my phone, much as the medieval pilgrim must have trusted in God and whatever map or route he had planned in his head.

Of course, this was also the time when the rain showers started.

My next destination was St John the Baptist's, Coley Hall, which I could soon see in the distance. What I could also see was how much higher up it was than me, and that there was no direct route. Tantalisingly, one of the streets on the way was called St John's View – I could indeed view St John's from there, but had a long and winding detour still to follow.

St John's has a lofty situation, high and windy, with a graveyard across the road. There's a good strong, square tower with a clock and illuminated cross, and a few monuments in the church's immediate precincts. However, the church itself was closed, so I took a few photos of the outside and moved on.

The map suggested I take a right at St John's, down what looked more like the entrance to a field or private land than an accessible path. But, it was signposted as a public bridleway, so I decided to trust to the map and follow the 4x4 that ventured down there.

Bridleways, I quickly remembered, involve horses, and I was soon dodging piles of steaming equine deposits as well as patches of road worn through to the mud beneath. This much was tolerable, I thought, so long as it didn't last long. For some reason, I hadn't anticipated ancient and natural walkways to involve quite so little tarmac.

Reader, things got worse. Round the next bend, I found myself stopping and muttering 'really?' under my breath frequently, because this bridleway was now more a set of muddy ruts and puddles than it was a navigable path. But, I reasoned, my new walking boots weren't meant to be kept clean, and I'd come this far so I might as well plough on (plough as in go through the soil and churn it up some more).

This sort of muddy, uneven path through countryside, shaded by trees and flanked by – if you're lucky – drystone walls, is the part of the journey most in keeping with the original idea of the pilgrimage. These are the sorts of paths your medieval pilgrim would have had to contend with, and he or she wouldn't have flinched as I did at a bit of mud.

This bridleway eventually gave way to slightly firmer ground and some tarmac. I'd reached a strange little world, a slice of civilisation out in the sticks, where there are cottages nestled into the wooded hillsides and the pavements are raised so far above the road you're walking higher than car roofs. There were sections steep enough to snatch my breath away, and just as I started complaining that West Yorkshire was too difficult for this Midlands boy, the rain started again.

But was I downhearted? Was I out of breath? Well, yes, a little. But the view of the last spire behind me was worth a photo, and so was the next spire ahead – a spire I'd seen in the distance when first entering the bridleway. These were sure signs of progress, and set me up for the muddiest, roughest-looking section of public footpath so far.

Some of this was quite steeply downhill, badly muddy, and isolated. It cheered me to realise that if I slipped, broke my neck and died – or worse, slipped, broke my neck, survived, but was unable to move – nobody would really know where I was. The only way my body might be found would be if my wife had interpreted my earlier description of 'from Halifax to Bradford' to mean 'on a mud-soaked, underused public bridleway between two villages nobody's ever heard of'. It was lucky I stayed upright, really.

After the dispiriting uphill into Northowram, this was probably the bit of the pilgrimage I actually enjoyed most. The sun came out again, but so strongly that I was too hot. No longer was I worrying about the logistics of the route, about going the wrong way, or whether I'd make it on time. I was thinking about how to navigate this particular bit of countryside, and how much it might have changed in the hundreds of years that people had been walking it (in some ways, it hadn't changed at all). This was the most medieval section of the journey – difficult, yes, but an invigorating challenge. It was also the time that I finally got myself a pilgrim staff.

There are a number of functions of the pilgrim staff. Firstly, balance; it's very hard to walk in a straight line if you keep looking around, I've found. Then, the staff can apparently provide some propulsion on those tough uphill sections (though I've had little practical success with this theory). The end of a stick can help assess the depth of a puddle, and whether it's safe to wade through rather than find an alternative route. And of course, for the medieval pilgrim, though hopefully not for the modern pilgrim, a staff could also be a handy weapon for fending off robbers or other threats. One suggested idea is that the staff is an object the pilgrim picks up at the start of the journey, comes to associate in their minds with the journey, and then releases at the end – you allow all the negative energy you're carrying through your life be absorbed by the staff, and then cast it away at journey's end.

Honestly, I'd thought it a bit silly. I certainly wasn't about to go out and buy a stick just to throw it away somewhere in Bradford city centre. Especially with an artificial staff, this seems like littering to me. The sustainable approach is to grab something that's already come off a tree, and happens to be about the right thickness and length, then either keep it or return it to nature.

I was in the muddiest part of the bridleway when I spotted the ideal candidate. It was a bit long, with one end was already trailing in the mud, but I stamped and snapped a bit off, leaving myself with almost six feet of stick that fit my hand comfortably. Off we went, my pilgrim staff and I.

For the first few strides, I admit it did feel pretty silly. The stick was still too long – taller than me – and heavy enough that it wasn't really helping much. But it proved useful on some of the muddier sections, and more than once I was able to vault across the path to slightly more solid ground. Given that I didn't expect to be pouring my negative psychological energy into the staff, I was surprised how quickly I became attached to it.

Suddenly a dog came bounding round the corner. I panicked, worrying that this large, cheerful collie might expect me to throw my stick for him. I mean, it was a pretty big stick, I doubted I could throw it very far, and besides, it was my stick! We'd only just found each other, I didn't want to lose it just yet. But rather than risk the confrontation (and looking silly when the dog's owner arrived), I dropped my staff and carried on walking. I felt terribly guilty about it.

Then, the dog bounded off down some other path, into the brook, and I trotted back to collect my staff. I apologised for abandoning it so quickly, and promised to take it at least as far as Wyke. I know, I know, it was just a stick, but I'd come to feel having one was an important part of the pilgrim experience, and I shouldn't have given up on that so quickly. I should commit. After all, this was a psychological as well as physical challenge, and I wanted to do it properly.

Given that I didn't expect to be pouring my negative psychological energy into the staff, I was surprised how quickly I became attached to it.

My stick and I covered another kilometre, passing through woodland parks and a farm, before reaching Wyke. I looked around for a likely place to cast away my staff, and with it my worldly cares. But to one side was a school playing field, and to the other a field of horses. I didn't fancy throwing a whacking great stick into either, plus they both felt very final. A pilgrim's staff isn't supposed to be retained, of course, so I took a deep breath, and committed to leaving my companion behind one last time. I would miss him; he was a prince among sticks, a veritable branch of a staff. To be fair, this thing was taller than I was, even after I'd snapped that bit off.

From Wyke, the route turned urban, and pretty boring, and a staff would have been out of place. So I drove him into the ground like the tree from which he'd grown, and left him to stand as a marker of my progress, my journey so far. In a way, it was the end of the fun part of the pilgrimage.

From here, I was very much on a familiar bus route, treading a road I've seen daily for years from the top of a double-decker. The long, straight main road was dull and a little soul-destroying – on reflection, I realised this was partly my own fault. I hadn't strictly followed the BPT route, and this stretch of the journey was being walked for the purpose of getting somewhere, rather than for the purpose of discovery; it wasn't a journey for its own sake, as in the wider concept of pilgrimage. I’d let the journey become a case of getting from A to B. The bridleway had been unusual and interesting, but it also wasn’t the most direct route; it was a path with the destination almost as a by-product, rather than one chosen for directness. Lesson learnt.

The light faded before I reached my next church destination, though, and a combination of poor visibility and increasing concern for safety in an area not known for friendliness compelled me to knock that particular adventure on its head. Instead, I grabbed a supermarket granola bar and pressed on into the city centre.

I'd set off late in the day – unwisely, perhaps – so as to arrive at the cathedral in time for the Son et Lumiere Pilgrimage event at 6:30pm (which you can read about here). It was February, and getting dark, and I didn't have my staff to fend off threats any more.

I trudged wearily for another hour or more until I came round the corner of the Broadway Shopping Centre in the middle of town...and there she was. Barely lit by streetlights and the bright blue Christmas star on the west tower, looming up out of the narrow Victorian streets: St Peter's Cathedral, Bradford.

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