Pilgrimage: Rodborough And The Ancestors


There are all sorts of Pilgrimages I have come to understand. Many American and Australian people who trace their ancestors back to our little country here called the United Kingdom, come on a pilgrimage to see the places where it all started, where their ancestors came from, and ponder perhaps why those few people decided to pack up all they had, sail thousands of miles to a land they had never seen, and start a new life, knowing in their hearts that they would never be likely to see their native country ever again. Pilgrimage can be scary. It can demand changes of lifestyle or behaviour that you once took so much for granted as your norm, and throw them upside down. Pilgrimage can challenge you to start anew without any guarantee of success. Where I live now, is surrounded by the evidence of the turmoil of populations past, in changing economic climates, when hundreds of people who worked small crofts and eked a sparse living were thrown off their lands, sometimes brutally, and many of them having no where else to go, took one more step and sailed across the sea to a new unknown life. These were the days when sheep were worth more to rich landowners than human lives and dignity. The Highland Clearances.

It was economic turmoil in the woollen industry that persuaded my Father’s ancestors to move. The  family had been in Rodborough for hundreds of years. They worked in the woollen industry, weaving, sorting wool, combing it, making the famous Stroud scarlet material that makes the soldiers uniforms we see today and the green baize that covers snooker tables. They worked at home, then in the mills that sprung up, but the work was getting less and opportunity beckoned to a younger generation to new pastures, to the vibrant and modern city of Norwich with its running water and clean modern streets, and markets that were European bound, the links having been put in place 300 years earlier between the Flemish weavers and the good folk of Norwich. By the time one male member of this family moved, he also was going through religious change, this was a family that would proud to call themselves Congregationalists. A new breed of religious diversity. Out of the old and traditional sprung new forms and ways of worship. The Census returns show me that the change was not easy to start with. Skilled workers in the woollen industry, he and his wife had to make do as all ‘immigrants’ do with work of a very low skill base to get started. He is mending brushes, she is working as a cleaner. Yet 10 years on, the next census shows that they have moved to a better property and are both now working once again in their skilled weaving capacity and by now also have a couple of children. They have made it. I am the one who found these ancestors, in family research. Or maybe it was them who found me, because they knew I needed them. To know where I came from. Do we ever understand such mysterious cycles of time and space, creation and existence…? And if we did, would the wonderful sense of mystery of thresholds between now and then, past and future, be too fixed to allow for miracles? Does our present ‘scientific factual’ approach diminish us, do we as humans long for mystery and miracle, for the simple joys of watching a rainbow grow and fade without needing to know about refraction?

Pilgrimage is about internal change as well as external. It is about developing and growing, of becoming all that you are capable of being, sometimes in places and situations that you would not have thought of or imagined for yourself. The best pilgrimage is when we let God lead us through our life, and welcome each new opportunity and challenge he sets before us, without judging it as good or bad…just experiencing it for what it is. And I wonder what my turmoil is, what my desires to retrace their steps in this journey is all about, and recognise a deep need for some sense of belonging and security in an ever changing society and world once again. I recognise the need to touch base, with them in some sense, and to wrap myself in the arms of God for a big hug in these sacred places, both landscape and man-made which saw the people of my family who travelled before me. I need the Mother God, to make me feel safe again, before I go back into the world and start over again with my next steps. I am scared and I need to have that hug from my ancestors to tell me it will be ok. I touch the font, walk up the aisle, wander round the graveyard and shed tears, and feel at peace and known.  I need to touch the land again, to feel the wind in my hair, to blend with the elements that are life in all its glory, drink from the sacred well, walk the labyrinth, and to listen to the young woman, wife and crone that are within my inner wisdom. I need the Christianity and I need the rich and full wisdom that preceded it, that which came before, which connects me to all who have walked before me. I need the blending of all to be complete, it is the Celtic within my blood, the ancient calls from earth and heaven that cries out to celebrate their marriage within me.  They tell me not to be fearful. The inner changes are leading the exterior. These photos are of Rodborough Church. Now after a whole day, I am ready for Walsingham. I shall leave tomorrow at first light and there I know, I will meet that which I am supposed to meet and the reasons will be made clear. I now move from an ancestral pilgrimage, to travel a sacred pilgrimage.  Its been an emotional day and I still need to survive the landlady from Hades….

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The font they were christened in:

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The Church they sat in week after week:

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The school they attended:

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And the graveyard where they are buried:

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The view of the school from the church door:

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And finally the stained glass:

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Photos (C) Stephanie 2012

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