After sleeping in the crypt of St Mary’s church, Woburn, we spent the morning with the local congregation as they cleaned the church in preparation for the Easter services.
Graham spoke to us about his work as a clinical psychologist working with refugees and others in London and throughout the world. He explained that the words ‘trauma’ and ‘stress’ are derived from architecture and do not translate well into other languages. He also spoke of the power of ‘the wounded healer’, someone who has renewed themselves through therapy and is able to help others who have suffered similar misfortunes. He appreciated the parallels between our journey and the more difficulty journeys of unwillingly displaced people.
Though we skirted the major conurbations of Luton and Bedford, our discussions with locals indicated that the rural community saw migration and refugees as issues which affected these cities. We met a care-worker from Luton who expressed concern for the children of migrants ‘who don’t avail themselves of the opportunities for employment’. She spoke of families made up of an Asian father and Eastern European mother who struggled to reconcile cultural differences. Her husband, a head-teacher, perceived Bedford as a ‘segregated’ town where national identities were preserved and accentuated in enclaves. He said sport was a wonderful way to unite people across cultures, except every four years when the football World Cup brought out the worst on nationalistic belligerence.
We met an older couple who shared controversial views in a friendly bantering tone. ‘Don’t you think this country’s full?’ The man asked. His perception that it is was based on the increase in the amount of traffic he has seen in his lifetime. He cheerfully narrated the story of his first encounter with a black man in North London when he was a child – he and his friends hid behind a wall in fear of what they thought was ‘a bogeyman’. He was an unapologetic Brexit voter who was glad that we would stop losing money to the E.C. He also suggested Scotland should take their chance of independence as ‘we’re giving them millions’.
One man said he had thought about volunteering to meet detainees in nearby Yarls’ Wood but was put off by the time commitment it would involve.
We also met some lovely open minded people who were inspired by our walk and were keen to listen to our story. It was refreshing to let others ‘do the listening’ and deepened our sense that what we are offering is of value.
In an unusually dry April the fields of rapeseed sprang from cracked earth. Legions of massive wind turbines reminded us of the importance of renewable energy in times of uncertain weather patterns. We marked the first day of coal-free power in Britain since the industrial revolution and reflected on James Turner’s words about the links between drought, revolution and displaced people.
We found the many historic churches dotting the landscape to be peaceful places to rest and shelter as well as store-houses of artistic and social-anthropological treasures. These places have witnessed everything from marriages, births and deaths to conflict, gambling and social upheaval. They are often built on pre-Christian sacred sites and their doors are open to people of all faiths or none. You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the 10,000 church buildings between 500 and 100 years old throughout England. As one rambler we met said, ‘what would England be without Churches and footpaths?’
We walked many miles on the Bunyan Trail, reflecting on pilgrims of the past and in literature as well as the far-reaching upheavals of the Civil War.
Walking alone while Isabel visited her father I came to appreciate the kindness and hospitality of strangers even more. At last the accents began to change from blanket Southern tones and I left the commuter belt behind.
I didn’t visit Leicester, but learned that during the wave of emigration by Asians from I did Amin controlled Uganda Leicester City Council had seen fit to poet a notice discouraging migrants from settling there. It had the opposite effect, alerting new arrivals to the possibility of moving to the city and increasing diversity in a previously monocultural area.
In a rural pub frequented by farmers and wealthy golfers a Punjabi chef prepared outstanding curries for the lucky patrons.
In ancient villages I read the local history books, learning of communities held together by agricultural jobs and a long lived social hierarchy in which the Lord of the Manor carried on a luxurious life while being responsible for local employment, housing, sanitation and education. With the decline of the aristocracy, the losses of two world wars and the closure of local railway lines these villages have changed dramatically in the last century. Will international migration change them again, or does the fact that shops and transport links have fallen away mean they are unfit to host new arrivals?
A member of the Ramblers’ Association spoke of their predominantly white, older, female demographic. This organisation has done so much to keep footpaths open throughout the country that our walk would be impossible without them. It occurred to me that a collaboration between Ramblers and Refugees would be beneficial to both groups.