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A Personal Pilgrimage

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In 2014 Rob Taylor, Headmaster of Cargilfield School in Edinburgh, learnt that Francis Renton (S 1901 – 1905) would be honoured as part of the Old Sedberghian Pilgrimage. As well as being a Sedberghian Renton was a pupil of Cargilfield School. As Rob’s son Andrew is a pupil in Evans House, Renton’s significance as a link between the two schools is particularly poignant to Rob.

Rob and Andrew set off on 25th July to cycle 225 miles from Cargilfield to Sedbergh, stopping en route to visit Renton’s home town of Eyemouth. They planned to continue by train and ferry to France and then take to their bikes again for the final section of the journey.

Rob sent home updates each day that were published on the Cargilfield School facebook page. We are grateful to Rob and Cargilfield School for allowing us to share his reflections along the way.

Day 1

65 miles. Cargilfield to Eyemouth, where Renton was born.

Legs aching after a 65 mile first day but better for fish and chips in Eyemouth. The Eyemouth Museum have been terribly helpful in tracking down the Renton family so we were able to find his old family home and have some soil from their garden to scatter on the grave in Northern France along with soil from Winder Hill in Sedbergh and from the grounds at Cargilfield.

Renton is listed on the Eyemouth War Memorial….but also tracking down an interesting story that suggests that Francis Renton’s father operated as the lawyer for an Eyemouth businessman called Nisbet who was the local business celebrity by day but an arch smuggler by night.

Heading down towards Hadrian’s Wall tomorrow – an even longer day’s cycling so some trepidation at this end.

Day 2

Back at Rothbury Church, the venue of the last leg of this summer’s choir tour…but almost 6pm and still 26 miles to go this evening and finish in Chollerford, just north of Hexham.

Rain most of the day but glorious Northumbrian countryside (and hot chocolate in Berwick) kept us going. 13 hours on the road today so feeling a bit sore tonight but staying within view of Hadrian’s Wall. Off to Kirby Stephen tomorrow.

Day 3

Today was a much hillier and blusterier day. After a quick cycle into Hexham for breakfast, we took on the climb up Allendale and down to Stanhope before cycling across the tops to Middleton in Teesdale and on to Brough and Kirby Stephen.

After about 80 miles the previous day, this looked likely to be shorter but with the hills and the wind, it was still a 12 hour day, arriving at just before 9 pm. The scenery in Teesdale was spectacular.

Friday is more like a rest day as we head to Sedbergh School and then on to Oxenholme Station for the train south and the overnight ferry to France.

Day 4

We’ve have made it! 225 miles from Cargilfield to Sedbergh School. The ride has taken its toll on Andrew so he headed home from Oxenholme after we reached Sedbergh and I’ve carried on to the overnight ferry to Dieppe.

A few hours’ sleep in a seat followed and then we were sent on our way at 4am (although worked out it it was 5am French time).

Day 5

A few hours has taken me on to Blangy sur Bresle on the border of Normandy and the Somme. Roads absolutely deserted and so had to keep reminding myself to stay on the right side of the road. Will send a photo of a beautiful military cemetery by the roadside en route. About 30 allied servicemen buried there including members of the 51st Highland Division – largely Argyll and Sutherland Regiment and the Black Watch and mostly in their early 20s – killed during the retreat to Dunkirk.

Day 6

After arriving in Amiens on Saturday evening, Sunday allowed me the chance to do a tour of the battlefields area, visiting a number of military cemeteries between Amiens and Albert and then having lunch at the wonderfully named Ocean Villas Tea Rooms (using the Tommies’ name for Auchonvillers…try it!) – my only chance of finding something open on a wonderfully quiet French Sunday.

I visited the Canadian site at Beaumont Hamel and the British memorial at Thiepval for those British soldiers who didn’t have a named grave….over 70 thousand names was staggering. Both sites were beautiful. On from there to Francis Renton’s grave on the quiet road between two small villages: Authuille and Aveluy. The cemetery is along a grassy path about two hundred metres off the road and surrounded by a farmer’s field and a beautiful wood and meadow…poppies and Purple thistle growing wild nearby.

I spent about an hour at the cemetery, placing the soil from FWHR’s home in Eyemouth and from Cargilfield and from Winder Hill which overlooks Sedbergh School. I also placed a cross with both schools and the date of my visit marked on it. After over 300 miles of cycling and all I’d seen that day, I found it very moving and was surprised that I felt moved to tears leaning on the wall of the cemetery. The sun shone with a gentle breeze occasionally blowing through the trees. I didn’t see or hear a soul.

During a two hour ride back to Amiens along the Somme River, I was able to enjoy the irony that, after racing across Scotland, England and France to make the published anniversary of FWHR’s death on 30th July 2016, the grave informed me that he actually fell on 30th August….I hope that he is looking down on me and enjoying the joke at the expense of the Headmaster of his former school!

Off to Paris and home to Edinburgh tomorrow….as the centenary of Paschendale brings WW1 to the forefront of our minds.

The ride out through Northern France was wonderful – and quite a bit easier than Northern England. I attach one or two photos of arriving at the graveside at Blighty Valley Cemetery – a beautiful site that is set back from the main road such that I felt entirely isolated from the modern world as you can’t see or hear the road from there (although as I left, I did see that there was a train line overlooking us). I placed the Sedbergh Cross with details of our visit and scattered soil from Winder, Cargilfield and Chester House in Eyemouth. I also read the beautiful prayer from the OS Former Bishop of Durham. The sun shone and a gentle breeze moved the surrounding trees – it is a truly lovely setting. As I walked back down the path, I noticed that there were poppies and a purple thistle growing wild at the side.

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