Providence and a Pilgrim’s Harvest Welcome Home

It’s amazing don’t you know?
He visits in the place of a loved one,
That sadly had to go.
He comes to show they miss you,
Just as you do them,
And they too, long for that day,
That you shall meet again.
They’re by your side forever more,
And that will remain so,
So they send a little robin,
As a way to let you know

A Visit from a Robin – Author unknown

My walk to Rome began with a visit from a bird and it ended with a visit from a bird.

Back in early August, just before I was about to embark on my charity walk from St Peter’s Winterbourne Stoke to St Peter’s Rome, a strange event occurred.

It was a Saturday morning and as I was doing some weeding in our garden near the church yard, I heard a bit of a commotion. A chap ,staying at the campsite, had found a wounded bird in the church yard and was debating with his young son as to what was to be done.

Peregrine Falcon

It turned out that the bird was a young peregrine falcon which had been wounded and bleeding from the mouth. As Olivia examined it, she noticed that it had a ring on one of its feet which said ‘ If found, please notify the British Museum’

Bizarre. We did eventually manage to get the falcon to the Hawk Conservancy Trust at Andover but for some reason the bird remained on my mind. A few weeks later I got an alert on my Facebook page that there was a special exhibition at the British Museum commemorating the 850th anniversary of the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170, whose shrine at Canterbury I would shortly be walking to along the Pilgrims’ Way. Peregrine (as in peregrine falcon) means pilgrim in Latin. Strange coincidence? Divine Providence? Who knows, but it sometimes makes you think (as did Michael Henchard in the ‘Mayor of Casterbridge’) that there are signs in nature that are worth observing and that the chances of a ‘pilgrim’ falcon from the British Museum landing in the churchyard st Winterbourne Stoke are pretty darned slim!

I never really talked to my father about religion or his views about the afterlife, but I do remember him once telling me that he would like to be reincarnated as a robin.

My father was a keen ornithologist. As a child growing up in Cornwall in the 1920s on Bodmin Moor, he used to spend days out on the moors with his fishing rod and a pair of binoculars for bird watching. One of his few childhood friends was a chap called Tony Soper who went on to become a famous ornithologist.

Tony Soper

When he wasn’t fishing or solving the Times crossword puzzle, there was nothing he liked more than to go on a long countey walk and see how many birds he could identify by sight of sound. An hour’s walk on the North Downs would often yield a list of 30 to 40 birds which he had observed.

After I returned home to Winterbourne Stoke on Tuesday, a lot of the next few days was spent preparing for the harvest festival in the village including a children’s craft workshop and a harvest gathering for the village in St Peter’s Church on Saturday.

Both events, which Olivia had helped organise were a great success. On Saturday afternoon a number of children in the village tried out their painting and baking skills, making harvest themed bread animals, corn dollies and hand prints. It was a great success.

Harvest craft workshop

In the evening it was hugely gratifying to see so many people in the village packed into the church enjoying the harvest get together.

St Peter’s Winterbourne Stoke

The church looked beautiful with an array of autumnal flower arrangements and flickering candles.

It was also satisfying to know that the money raised from the ‘Raise the Roof Appeal’ should go a long way towards helping repair the leaking roof, enabling St Peter’s to remain open for regular worship as well as serving as a hub for village activities.

Harvest gathering at St Peter’s Winterbourne Stoke

When I went down to the church on Thursday morning to make some preparations for the events on Saturday, no sooner had I opened the front door than a Robin flew into the church. As hard as I tried to encourage it to leave the church, it simply refused.

As soon as I saw the bird flying into the church I was reminded of the famous account by the Anglo-Saxon chronicler, the Venerable Bede, who recounted an incident that took place during the reign of the Northumbrian King Edwin in the 7th century.

King Edwin of Northumbria

According to the account in Bede’s Eccleciastical History of the English People (Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum) King Edwin, king of the Northumbrians called a council of his wisest retainers to debate whether they should convert to Christianity. Bede reported that one of the “king’s chief men” gave the following speech, in which he compared man’s life to that of a sparrow flying through a hall in winter:

The present life of man upon earth, O king, seems to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the house wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your ealdormen and thegns, while the fire blazes in the midst, and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter into winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all. If, therefore, this new doctrine tells us something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.

Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People
Bede’s History of the English Church and People

There has been much debate about whether the words were truly spoken, or merely written by Bede as an elegant explanation of life and the hope that Christianity could provide to shine light into the darkness of where we have come from and where we are heading. Perhaps the words were spoken, but had been rehearsed and taught to the man by Paulinus, the Christian missionary who had come from Rome, by way of Kent, to preach to the people of England. Whatever the truth of the matter, the words eloquently sum up mankind’s total lack of knowledge about what lies beyond the realms of this life, using a metaphor that is as easily understood by anyone now, as it would have been in the early seventh century.

On Saturday morning the robin was still in the church, perched on the bunting and flying up to the altar. It flew around the church for a good hour that I was down there. I left the door open, hoping that it would eventually find it’s way out.

On Sunday morning, midway through the Harvest service, I heard a flutter of tiny wings and saw the little robin above my head. It was still there when the service drew to a close, once more perched on the church bunting.

Robin perched on the bunting

My walk to Rome began with a peregrine falcon in the churchyard and ended with a robin in the church at St Peter’s. It seemed a fitting end to my walk, almost as if my father was reaching out to me in approval of my efforts and was finally answering in the affirmative to my question ‘Will This Do?”

If you’d like to make a donation to the ‘Raise the Roof Appeal’ to help renovate the roof at St Peter’s Church, Winterbourne Stoke, you can do so by following this link:

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