Twenty years ago, almost by accident, my husband Raymond and I discovered St Winefride’s Well at Holywell. We were driving through North Wales and we saw a sign, so on spec we turned down the road. It is the oldest uninterrupted pilgrim site in the UK; at least 800 years old and has been visited by Henry V, Richard I and Catherine of Aragon. There’s a chapel and healing well with a beautiful fan-vaulted canopy over it. I’ve always wanted to go back – it’s known as the Lourdes of Wales.
Would you make any special stops?
I’m a very unadventurous traveller and the beauty of a pilgrimage is that the route has been laid out for you. I’d begin by driving to Stratford, which for me has been the centre of England since I started writing about Shakespeare in 2001. It’s possible that the Shakespeare family made the pilgrimage to Holywell because Shakespeare’s father John mentions St Winifred as his patron saint in a little spiritual will, found in the roof of his house by a builder in the 18th century. Scholars debate whether it ever existed as it’s since been lost and survives only as a copy but there’s strong evidence that it did. The story of Winefride’s Well is a bit more fanciful – it began with a beautiful noblewoman who took a vow of chastity and became a nun. One of her suitors flew into a rage when she refused him, and cut off her head. It rolled down the hill and where it settled a miraculous fountain of red water sprang up.
Who would be your travelling companions (excluding your husband and children)?
The first is my friend and neighbour Rosie, who is a kinesiologist, a type of healer. She is endlessly interesting about the relationship between the mind and the body. Also, she notices everything so she’s an excellent walking companion. The other person would be the poet Robert Southwell. I’m researching his life at the moment and I have endless questions I want to ask him. Like the other persecuted missionary priests of the 16th century, he probably made the Holywell pilgrimage back in the 1590s when it was a much more dangerous thing to do. The only disadvantage might be that unlike me he was apparently a very brisk walker.
You can transplant your favourite pub, bar or restaurant onto the route. What is it?
Well, I love pub food so it would be The Dirty Duck at Stratford. As I’m about to walk 100 miles for the first time, I could have fish and chips and drink Guinness.
Camp under the stars, or find a church hall to sleep in?
Camp under the stars. In the 1970s, when Raymond and I were young, his parents lent us their camping equipment for a trip to Italy. It was very ancient and military and included old metal thermoses and camp beds that were extremely difficult to assemble, but no tent – they didn’t consider it an essential. We got used to falling asleep looking up at the stars and waking up in the rain. I’d like to try it again, but with a camp bed that’s easier to put up.
Which books would you take with you?
Ruskin’s The Elements of Drawing. I would take pencils and paper too, but although it is a practical guide to drawing, you can read it purely for pleasure. Its beautifully written, and makes you look at the world all over again. I’d also need a thriller, so I will hope Robert Harris’s next book might be out in time for my pilgrimage.
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