We have been home in Madison for a week now. And I remember why I don’t normally blog. Not enough time! We are still technically off work until this Sunday, but it has been a busy week nonetheless. Between taking care of unpacking and getting life in order again we had the honor of co-officiating the wedding of two Pres House alum that we’ve known since they were freshmen. It was up in beautiful Door County.


We have had a few adjustments coming back: remembering to drive on the right side on roads that seem enormous, getting used to the heat of summer in the Midwest, and retiring some of our British vocabulary in order to be understood.

As I begin to look back on our sabbatical I am incredibly grateful that it was all we had hoped it would be and more. But all good things must come to an end. One of these days I’ll get around to turning Facebook back on (though I am in no rush) and it was great to see some Pres House folks at the wedding. It has been nice to reconnect with neighbors and I am looking forward to re-entering the community at Pres House this weekend. I don’t know what we will be doing with this blog in the future. Is it too early to start planning our next sabbatical…;)

– Mark


Saying Goodbye (and bell ringing initiation)

We fly home to Madison early on Tuesday morning. So today we began the sad process of saying goodbye to our wonderful new friends here in Hexham. This morning I rang bells with the Hexham Abbey Bell Ringers for the Sunday morning service at the Abbey. It was extra special because I rang alonside John and Jean, the couple who we exchanged homes with during the past months. They returned from our house recently and we are all staying together in their house here in Hexham for our last few days.

After a bit of a rocky start to my ringing, I rang reasonably well in the middle of six bells and managed to change my position in the order of bells (called “call changes”) with the help of my excellent ringing coach, Andy. It was fun, meaningful, and memorable. Here is a video clip of my “performance”:

After ringing, I was honored to be given a certificate making me an Associate Member of the Hexham Abbey Bellringers Guild. When I first learned that John and Jean were bell ringers I hoped to simply witness bell ringing at the Abbey. It has been an unexpected joy to not only watch, but to learn beginning ringing myself, and be welcomed into the ringing community of the Abbey.

Then this afternoon John and Jean hosted a lovely catered luncheon for us and some of the people we have gotten to know here in Hexham. It was a wonderful time for us to say goodbye to friends we have grown close to here. These friendships have made our time much more than simply a tourist experience. We are most definitely going to miss Hexham and the people who have made it home for us in the past three months.

– Mark



This gallery contains 7 photos.

We just returned from a fantastic week in Paris that culminated in a trip to Disneyland Paris. We are full to the brim with art, magnificent buildings, chocolate croissants, and Disney characters! Here are a few photos.

Cuthbert’s Home

For the past three months I have been reading about, and meditating on, the life of the 7th century English pastor, St. Cuthbert. And so it was with great excitement that we went to Lindisfarne and Inner Farne islands at the beginning of this week.

St. Aidan founded a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne in 635 AD at the request of King Oswald. After spending time at other monasteries Cuthbert become prior of Lindisfarne later in the 7th century. Despite its remote location off the northeast coast of England, Cuthbert eventually moved to the even more remote island of Inner Farne.

Today, Lindisfarne remains a relatively quiet and beautiful place. It is only accessible by car or on foot during low tide. To get to it one must drive across a road that is covered by the sea at high tide. Despite numerous warnings to keep careful track of the tides, every year someone tries to beat the sea – and loses. There are little huts built up on stilts for those who get caught in the rising tide. One of my daughters saw this and asked, “But what happens to their car?” Well, it is claimed by the sea as so many other human made instruments have been through the ages.

On Lindisfarne today there is a small village with nice pubs, bed and breakfasts, and shops. We ate and spent the night at a pub overlooking the ruins of a 11th century priory and a 16th century castle. There is nothing left of the original monastery. The ruins that are visible are from a cathedral and priory built by the community from Durham cathedral in the 11th century at about the same time that St. Cuthbert’s body was finally laid to rest in Durham. After King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in England, many of the stones were used to build what was seen as more important to the realm at the time – a strategically located castle.

One of the best aspects of visiting Lindisfarne is enjoying the sound and vistas of the sea all around. As the tide came in and the majority of visitors went out, we were left on the island in peace. As we walked along the shore we heard the braying of seals and saw up close some of Cuddy’s ducks (Eider ducks). We could also see the magnificent Bamburgh Castle on the mainland and Cuthbert’s second home – Inner Farne Island.

Cuddy’s Ducks

Inner Farne Island can only be reached by boat. And it is quite an adventurous boat trip. We climbed on board a small fishing vessel with about 60 other visitors and set off into the wind and waves of the North Sea. While we didn’t get seasick in the hour and half trip, much longer on those waves and we would have released our lunch to the wild. Before stopping on Inner Farne Island, we took a tour around the Outer Farne Islands famous for their shipwrecks and thousands upon thousands of nesting birds.

Inner Farne Island today is also home to countless sea birds of about 12 different species. Spring time is the most amazing season to visit because they are hatching their eggs. When we first arrived on the island we were pleasantly surprised to come across a pretty, little Arctic tern sitting on a fencepost. Then it suddenly flew up and began attacking us. The terns are fiercely protective of their young and will dive bomb and peck your head with their sharp beak. Even our five-year-old daughter couldn’t escape the wrath of a tern as the video below shows! It is a good thing that we heded prior warnings and wore hats which at least kept the skin on our head intact. I wonder if St. Cuthbert had to wear a hat during the 10 years he lived on Inner Farne island…

I put together a little video of our time on these two special islands. Unlike my typical approach, I did not add any music to this video. Instead I simply made the soundtrack as close to what St. Cuthbert would have heard during his life on the islands: crashing waves, blowing wind, and the calls of thousands of nesting birds.

The two days spent on the Northumberland coast were two of our best days in England (and we’ve had a lot of them!). It is remarkable and humbling to consider that for over 1300 years people have been meeting and worshipping God amidst the amazing birds and creatures of the English coast.

– Mark

1000 Miles

Today I passed 1000 miles of cycling on the roads of England. I am pleased with this for a few reasons. First, the combination of an unfamiliar bike and the steep hills means that it takes me about 30% longer to ride an average mile here than at home in Wisconsin. Second, while we have had some nice stretches of weather, there has been an awful lot of rain. It was the wettest April in 100 years in England! And third, the entire length of Britain from top to bottom, including Scotland, is just over 600 miles.

After enjoying a hilly ride through the North Pennines this morning, I returned the bike I’ve been using to the great guys at the Bike Shop in Hexham. We are leaving for a week long trip to Paris on Saturday and then return to Madison on June 19th, so my riding has come to an end. I couldn’t have asked for a better situation with the bike. Jon, the bike shop owner, rented me the bike for the whole time we were here at a very reasonable cost. It was sad to part with the trusty steed, but I am looking forward to getting back on my own bike when we return to Wisconsin in a couple of weeks.

I threw together a short video montage of photos I’ve taken on bike rides over the past weeks. These photos don’t cover all my rides but they were all taken from my bike. There are so many amazing roads that in the roughly 26 rides I took I never once repeated a route exactly. It has been a real joy to experience so much of northern England from my bike.

– Mark

Diamond Jubilee

Does anyone in America (besides my parents) know that this weekend is the Queen of England’s Diamond Jubilee celebrating Elizabeth’s 60th year on the throne? Well you can’t miss it here! While American’s fly their flags all the time, here the Union Jack doesn’t make much of an appearance unless there is a big occasion. Like the celebration of the longest reign of monarch in England since Queen Victoria. There are official festivities all weekend. Today there was a huge pageant of 1000 boats on the Thames in London (led by a barge carrying 8 bells and ringers ringing a quarter peal all the way down the river!). Tomorrow is a bank holiday (national holiday) and a big concert for the Queen in London. Tuesday is another bank holiday (a very exciting extra day off!) and a service at St. Paul’s Cathedral.

But it is the local celebrations that have been the most enjoyable and interesting for us. Growing up in America I have never really understood the whole concept of a royal family. And yet it is hard to not get into the spirit of merriment that is all around us. The girls got to leave their school uniforms in the closet on Friday and go to school dressed up for “posh” day to mark the Jubilee. They have learned the Jubilee song (below) and sung it to their grandparents and great-grandmothers with gusto.

On Wednesday Hexham Abbey hosted a special service for children from throughout the county of Northumberland attended by the Duke and Duchess of Northumberland. Erica and I didn’t realize that it was only meant for kids who were invited, so we ended up sneaking in the back to join in. This morning a similar service for the community took place in the Abbey. Elements of it were quite odd for us – especially when the service closed with the hymn, “God Save the Queen.” But it was moving to reflect on all that the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth (the 54 countries voluntary associated with the UK whose ceremonial head is Queen Elizabeth) have gone through in the 60 years that she has been Queen. The most powerful part for me was hearing this recording of the 14 year-old Princess Elizabeth speaking to children on the radio in 1940.

After the service today, Hexham Abbey and other local churches hosted a community pot-luck picnic in the central park of Hexham. It was a way to mark an occasion that as the Rector reminded us, we will never see again in our lifetimes. It was also a way to reach out to the community with hospitality that had no strings attached. As an aside, I also learned that I was mistaken about funding for the Church of England in my previous post “Welcoming the Pilgrims”. The Church of England is NOT funded with money from the state. Which makes its outreach to the whole community even more of a gift born out of a faithful response to God’s gift of grace to us and the church.

The idea of an outrageously wealthy royal family passing down reign from generation to generation remains odd for me. But the value of a person serving as encourager and beacon of hope for 60 years cannot be dismissed. Perhaps more than anything, the celebrations this weekend are of a nation remembering the darkness it has been through, celebrating the triumphs it has seen, and considering the opportunities that lie before it.

– Mark