Discovering John Bradburne: 21st-24th June 2019

Professor David Crystal writes:

A truly remarkable weekend.

Sister Margaret called it ‘Discovering John Bradburne’, and that’s precisely what happened. About 30 people came, over the three days - about 15 for the whole weekend, the others coming and going. They were from all over the country, as well as from abroad - an American living in Ireland, a couple of Brits who work in Malawi. Some had visited Mutemwa. Most had encountered the name on a leaflet and had read something about John.

That was the most unusual thing about the weekend, actually. Normally, when we mention John’s name to someone we are met with a blank look - who he? Here was a group all of whom knew who he was, at least by reputation, and wanted to know more. And many had their own personal stories to tell. And that was the other beautiful thing: they were prepared to tell them, in front of everyone, and felt uplifted by having done so. For example, one lady told us all of a vision of John that had brought her peace of mind at a crisis time in her life. She had an early morning sense of someone bringing her an experience of peace and love, but didn’t know who it was - she thought it was Jesus. As the figure left her, she asked who it was, and John's name appeared above him in big letters.

The weekend was a mix of talks, chat, religious services, a day out, and excellent meals! The talks were slotted into the spiritual structure of the Sisters’ day: morning prayer, morning Mass, evening prayer, all in a beautiful, atmospheric chapel. It was a bit like going on a retreat, and the opportunity to take part in the natural rhythm of the Sisters’ spirituality was very special.

Discovering John Bradburne   Discovering John Bradburne
 Discovering John Bradburne Discovering John Bradburne 

We set up our exhibition in one of the downstairs rooms, with all the books and leaflets about John on display There was great interest in the planned events for this September, a Mass in Mutemwa on 5th, and one at Westminster Cathedral on 21st, to celebrate the official opening of the cause for John’s beatification.

Discovering John Bradburne

The opening talk on Friday evening was a general one about John’s life, with an introduction to Skirwith, which we were visiting the next day, and a mention the bee theme, as we were to get a talk from a bee specialist on the Sunday. I told them some of the bee stories, and said I was confident bees would turn up at some point!

On the Saturday we all packed into four cars and the Boarbank minibus, and drove off to Skirwith, about an hour away. We stopped at Langwathby, a few miles from Skirwith, for lunch. When we reached Skirwith, we all went down to a little park beside the beck that flows through the village (often mentioned by John) and I read a few poems about the place.

Poetry at Skirwith

Then we went up to the church for an afternoon service. We met the present vicar, Stephen Pye, and his wife, and a couple of the people who look after the church there. The church warden had arranged for us to see the baptismal register for John and his siblings. They also pointed out the memorials to his brother Philip and sister Mary in the cemetery by the church. Their ashes are there, nestling up against the church walls, and just around the corner from the family home.

It was hugely interesting to see the inside of the church, and to sit where John sat as a child and see the various statues and windows that are sometimes alluded to in the poems. And then, a bonus. Two people from a nearby village turned up who had actually met John, having lived out in Zimbabwe for a few years at the time.

Skirwith Church interior

Back at Boarbank, in the evening, we watched a video of a miraculous spinning sun, which took place at Mutemwa, and a DVD compilation of people who knew John talking about him, his life and his death. The next morning there was an amazingly informative talk by Julia Piggott from BeeEd, a local nature sanctuary, about the history of the honey bee. (Still no bees to be seen, though.) And then in the evening, some members of the group read poems aloud. It was really heart-warming to see how much people enjoyed them.

On the Monday morning, we had a session focusing on the poetry of birds (mainly eagles) and bees. We also played on CD poem about birds written and read by John himself, and heard him sing a psalm in his beautiful tenor voice.

Just as the session was about to close, there was some excitement from two of the ladies sitting by a partly open window in the drawing room.

A bee had come in and was crawling about on the floor!

Everyone was delighted.