I interviewed writer and person of faith Janet Lees, about her quilts and her major long-distance walks across Britain. Janet, who is a follower of the rule of St Benedict, comes from a Congregationalist and Reformed background. She owns an elderly campervan called Bambi that she uses as community creative space.
Leslie: You describe yourself as a Lay Benedictine and use the Twitter handle @Bambigoesforth. What are these titles intended to say about you?
Janet: I’m a member of the Lay community of St Benedict and you can listen to me on a podcast here.
It’s a community of people from all over UK (and some international members I think) trying to follow the Rule of St Benedict in daily life. It was written in the 5th century for monks. I’m not a monk or nun, but I am interested in developing community, a life or prayer and a relevant spirituality with others. I’ve been a member since 2017. I often blog about the Rule. You can find an example here.
My Twitter handle reflects my love for being on the move (which isn’t very Benedictine by the way). I chose it when I retired in 2019. Before that I was a school chaplain in Yorkshire.
Leslie: How did you prepare for your canal walks? Why do you walk what did you learn on the journey?
Janet: I have been walking for a long time. I decided that when I retired in 2019 I’d walk the End to End (Land’s End to John O’Groats also called LEJOG) so I started preparing in 2016 with long distance walks like the Cleveland Way and Hadrian’s Walk Path.
Walking LEJOG I was following in the footsteps of my husband Bob, who walked it in 2003, and my daughter Hannah, who walked it 10 years ago in 2012 when she was 18. I was 60 when I walked in 2019, and it took me 117 days to walk 1110 miles, with the help and support of Bob and Hannah, and others people including some from the Lay Community. The LEJOG blog is here.
We had intended to do the canal walk in 2020 but along came Covid19 and we couldn’t do it then. This year was the first time we could do it. It took 48 days: walking to London by canal and back by the route of the Great Central Railway (where possible). But I wasn’t as fit as in 2019, as I’d had Covid19 myself in April 2022 and I was very aware that I’d lost a lot of my fitness. I wasn’t walking so far each day, but we made it (that’s me and Bob: him walking about 2/3 and me walking about 1/3 of the route).
I walk because it’s really the only kind of exercise I enjoy as an adult. I’ve found it’s good for my mental health and I love the countryside and nature. The canals are a good network to walk – not that hilly and harder to get lost on!
I learn that my body’s response to Covid19 meant I’d got to travel more slowly. My LEJOG had been a real high point in 2019. The 2022 canal walk was shorter but actually harder work. You can read my thoughts about it here.
Leslie: Tell us about your Grenfell quilt. Why did you choose that medium and what went into its making?
Janet: It was during lockdown that I started making quilts and just carried on and on. I’d done it as a teenager but never as many as this (I made over 50 of different sizes). People were dying and we needed both to remember and be in solidarity with their families so I called them the Covid Memorial Series and I sent some of the small ones to friends. I used patchwork because I knew how to do it, had a lot of scraps that I could reuse and it was simple to do at home on my own.
In June 2020 I was very aware of the anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire and the lives lost. I was not related to anyone who died there but I did need to make it clear that I stood alongside those who had lost loved ones and were still searching for justice. They still are. I made the quilt to represent what seems to me to have been a vibrant and colourful community. Crafting like this can make a statement and provide a space to mourn and pray.
Leslie: How did you put together the Mobile Chapel of St Scholastica and how do you use it?
Janet: Bambi is also called the Mobile Chapel of St Scholastica (Scholastica was the sister of Benedict although we don’t know very much about her). Bambi is a 35 year old campervan and I bought Bambi before I retired expecting to travel about visiting places, people and communities. But then the lockdown came so I couldn’t. So how to use Bambi?
For example, in the autumn of 2021 I took part in a local event to support our local children’s hospice. It was called a Jumble Trail and we had stall in our gardens, but I had my stall in Bambi. Now, after the lockdown, I do take Bambi to other places, as a base for walking for example, or to meet other members of the Lay Community. A van is a friendly space and can be used for lots of things.
Leslie: What did you learn from your churches walk and how does that experience fit into/illustrate/speak to your faith?
Janet: The blog End to End via the churches is a re-blog of my 2019 End to End. These churches were along my route which, as my family and I agree, was like a pilgrimage, a life-changing journey the length of Britain. There were many other places I visited but someone asked me about the churches and so I started sorting them out. There will I hope be a few other parts. I was fortunate to walk LEJOG in 2019 as I couldn’t have done it in 2020, and maybe I wouldn’t be fit enough now. It’s wonderful experience to be in the landscape, able to free heart and mind and be open to nature. I’m sure there are lots of great places to visit but the End to End will long stay in my memory. As the first act of my retirement, it remade me and helped me to rebuild my faith, differently, after I completed my formal ministry. I find it much easier to pray in the open air these days. I’ve written a book about it called Come Wind, Come Weather to be published by Wild Goose in 2023 www.ionabooks.com They publish other work of mine.
Leslie: Why is conservation/heritage so important to you? What makes you want to involve yourself in history and which are your favourite projects of that sort?
Janet: There are many places I like to visit, especially those associated with the lives of early Christians in this country, for example, the Quakers in Cumbria. Their communities have had equality of women and men for many generations. They also used textiles to record their history. The Quaker tapestry can be seen in Kendal and was a huge community effort to make. I’m also very interested in ecological projects and the people and organisations involved in protecting the environment like like the Wildlife and Wetlands Trust not because I know a lot about birds, I don’t, but because we are becoming disconnected from nature and until we reconnect to the wild we will struggle to get our planet back in balance. Lots of my quilts reflect the valley where I live.
Next week I interview aroace agender writer, artist and performer Arden Hunter who writes erasure poetry, audio poetry, collage, found and digital visual poetry as well as straight, on-the-page poetry/fiction.
ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:
- Love’s Register tells the story of romantic love and climate change over four UK generations. Beginning with ‘climate children’ Joe, Mia and Cass and ending with Hereiti’s night sea journey across Oceania, the book’s voices take us through family conflicts in the 1920s, the pressures of the ‘free-love 60s’, open relationships in the feminist 80s/90s and a contemporary late-life love affair. Love’s Register is a family saga and a modern psychological novel that explores the way we live now.
- Heaven’s Rage is a memoir that explores addiction, cross-dressing, bullying and the hidden sides of families, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
- The Dream Speaks Back, written by Sue Hampton, Cy Henty and Leslie Tate, is a joint autobiography exploring imagination and the adult search for the inner child. The book looks at gender difference, growing up in unusual families and mental health issues. It’s also a very funny portrait of working in the arts, full of crazy characters, their ups and downs, and their stories. You can buy a signed copy of The Dream Speaks Back here