What’s a good way to get to know your diocese? Go for a walk...

bishops martin seeley and mike harrison arrive at St Edmundsbury cathedral after their lent pilgrimage from dunwich
bishops martin seeley and mike harrison arrive at St Edmundsbury cathedral after their lent pilgrimage from dunwich

The mud is thick and squelchy, and, as feet slip and slide, the path begins to feel perilously close to the river.

But the air is fresh, the views are glorious and Suffolk’s two bishops are unfazed by the hazards underfoot.

They plough on, setting a cracking pace along the riverside path. Only another four miles to go.

It is day eight of their Lent pilgrimage across the county, and they are walking beside the River Gipping from Needham Market to Stowmarket.

Gazing across the meadows, it is an idyllic scene. Looking down, it is slightly more challenging.

The experience, as one church member walking with them neatly put it, is “wonderful from the knees up”.

The Rt Rev Martin Seeley, Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, and the Rt Rev Dr Mike Harrison, Bishop of Dunwich, are used to working together.

But this month they have been walking together – striding out through the countryside and seeing their diocese from a completely different viewpoint.

The 65-mile pilgrimage began at Dunwich on the Suffolk coast and ended last weekend at the Diocesan Synod in Bury St Edmunds.

They invited people to join them during sections of the 11-day trek and, as a result, were rarely walking alone.

On the way, they visited youth groups, schools, churches, businesses, farms and pubs.

Sampling local brews produced at Earl Soham Brewery, Aspall Cider, and Bury’s Greene King was also on the menu.

So was getting up to their elbows in dough making bread with children from Framlingham.

The bishops’ aim was to spend time with people where they lived and worked, something they would struggle to fit into their normal routine.

Walking off-road for much of the way, they might have expected to meet some wildlife ... maybe not a boa constrictor, though.

A close encounter with the snake at Stonham Barns, home to numerous businesses, including one specialising in exotic pets, was just one of the surprises.

They were amazed at the huge variety of businesses, like ichiban UK, the country’s biggest manufacturer of sushi, that make their home in rural Suffolk.

Bishop Martin said: “I have been here for 18 months, and Mike for a year, and this is our first Lent together.

“We wanted to do something, making the point that we do things differently in Lent, and came up with the idea of this walk.

“It’s proved to be a wonderful way to get to know the countryside, talk to people and see the activities that go on.

“Lent is a time to think about our relationship with God and what may be getting in the way of us making a difference to others’ lives.

“Taking time out to do that is important for Christians, and so one way we decided to keep Lent this year was by disrupting our usual schedule.

“We walked together with people, learnt of their gifts and talents, and listened to their needs and hopes.

“We have had a wonderful reaction from businesses and schools along the way.”

Dunwich to Bury seemed the obvious route, starting where Christianity arrived in Suffolk, and ending where St Edmund was killed for his faith.

Bishop Mike, assistant bishop for the diocese, is a keen runner, so, for him, walking up to eight miles a day was never going to be a problem.

Before the pilgrimage, Bishop Martin intended to get in shape by going for regular walks.

“I meant to do some training, and put an hour a day in my diary from January to go for a walk, but it never happened once,” he says.

But the lack of practice turned out to be no problem, with much of the route in fairly short bursts and regular stops for visits.

His sportier colleague, who confessed to feeling slightly concerned for him before they started, was impressed.

“He’s holding up very well,” he said during a stop for lunch in Needham Market,

“Actually, it feels more like walking between meetings, which we half fantasised wouldn’t be a bad way of working,”

Both bishops bought two pairs of sturdy walking shoes for the journey, and managed to avoid blisters.

The secret, says Bishop Martin, is wearing two pairs of socks – one thick, one thin – so that they rub against each other rather than your feet.

They also managed to escape with only one real soaking, when they had to walk for an hour in heavy rain.

Each day began and ended with prayers at one of the churches on the route,

“We stayed overnight with hosts, and spent the evenings socialising in the local pubs, because that’s where people gather,” said Bishop Mike.

“Being relatively new to Suffolk, travelling on foot is a great way to get to know more of the county and the good work going on.

“As bishops, a key part of our role is being out and about, sharing stories of how God is at work.

“It’s wonderful to visit so many enterprising businesses and industries.

“We’ve had all sorts of conversations about the passions of people for their work and the products they produce.

“It’s been great having the time to do that, because, as a bishop, when you meet people, you are mostly doing the hosting.

“One of the key things for me is how you make the church accessible and approachable.

“People have been fascinated by the sight the two of us walking together.

“Some have said they cannot remember two bishops visiting their church at the same time.”