Rolling Through Fox Country

In September 2010, I was privileged to organize a tour of Fox country for a group from my yearly meeting.

The road to this vacation of 2010 began in 1983. It was the darkest time of my life. I had recently become divorced and a single dad of a very young daughter, whom I loved with all my heart, and, at the same time, I worked long hours trying to meet the demands of my new position as the administrator of a battered and financially challenged psychiatric hospital.

I was at my wit’s end and seeking an hour’s worth of sanctuary as I settled into the silence one First Day when I heard the sound of tires over crushed stone and the rumble of a motorcycle slowly approaching the meetinghouse. The door opened, and in walked my savior and soon-to-be best friend, Kimmett.

Kimmett, named after a lock on a Pennsylvania canal, had just graduated from seminary and had decided to reject entering the clergy because he felt that church politics presented too many obstacles in the path to spiritual fulfillment. As such, he wanted to learn about Quakerism. If that wasn’t enough to begin many late evenings devoted to deep conversations exploring true spiritual enlightenment, add to the brew that he also loved motorcycles.

Within days Kimmett had taken over the last bedroom in my three-bedroom house and became my daughter’s best friend. When I returned home from work and the childcare responsibilities reverted to me, Kimmett took off on his only form of transportation, “Rosie,” his motorcycle—named for its distinctive color—to provide volunteer work giving comfort and hope to the prisoners at Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Graterford.

The prisoners loved him as much as my daughter did. While always being aware that it was not good behavior that brought them there, and never naïve to the potential trouble prisoners present, he had a devotion to them that would have made Margaret Fell proud. Kimmett was, and still is, safe inside a prison’s walls because he is Kimmett, and God help the individual who harms a hair on his bald head while he is well watched over by hundreds of prisoners fiercely sympathetic to him.

Whenever we were free of our work and parental responsibilities, we were off on two wheels, combing the Pennsylvania countryside from winding road to river valley, just losing ourselves in the pleasure of it all.

Motorcycles allow you to be close to the world around you, but the truth is, if you want to be one with your environment, a bicycle is better, safer, and healthier, and walking is even better than that! Riding motorcycles is all too easy a method of providing organ donations to those who need them. However, in true Quaker spirit (and there are plenty of Quakers who ride them), it is a wonderful way to be “in the world” when traveling. You can feel the road beneath you and smell the air around you. Once your hands and feet learn to operate the motorcycle and work in concert with your body shifting side-to-side in a rhythm with the road, you realize you are dancing with the open road as your partner—there is nothing like it. Kimmett understood this the same way I did.

But when my daughter entered daycare, Kimmett turned to me sadly and said that he must return to England. He had first gone to England during a course of study at Eckerd College, his alma mater. As soon as his feet touched the ground there he felt that he was home. He had come back to the States to think carefully about what to do with his life, and one thing he knew for sure was that he would spend it in England.

Soon after he had gone, I received a letter from him (remember letters? this was 1983) telling me that he had returned to theological studies at Durham University and gotten the perfect job, which not only allowed him time to study but provided him with a home. And what a home it was. My friend Kimmett was the new warden at a place that was new to me and its importance yet unknown: Brigflatts.

He told me I must come and see the place as soon as possible. I quickly arranged to rent a motorcycle in London and I was off to the north of England. The moment I arrived I felt that I had found my spiritual refuge. I realized that no matter how difficult life gets, there is a place where I can go to heal. It is a beautiful meetinghouse on the edge of a small village in the place that gave us Beatrix Potter and All Creatures Great and Small—the Yorkshire Dales. These are the green pastures that restoreth your soul. Just don’t lie down too long, as there are sheep all over the place, and you are liable to get a surprise.

Brigflatts is in Fox Country, sometimes called Quaker Heaven; this is where silent worship began. It has been more than 300 years since George Fox came down from Pendle Hill, journeyed to Brigflatts, and joined with Seekers in silent worship. This is an exciting story that has been retold for hundreds of years. But truth in history can be difficult to discern; how do we know if the facts of this story are accurate?

The truth is, facts are not needed at Brigflatts. To illustrate why, let me tell you what I learned once in the forest of Fontainebleau. I once went all the way to France to understand the peculiar lighting the Barbizon artists incorporated into their paintings. As I found out, the reason was not historical, or a function of fashion, or what was taught in art schools at the time. They painted the light that way because that’s what it looks like there!

Likewise, the Seekers who greeted George Fox at Brigflatts engaged in silent, contemplative worship because when you are in the Yorkshire Dales surrounded by beautiful green hills, littered with gently grazing sheep, covered by a wonderful blue sky, that’s what you do! It is a place filled with silence. The sheer force of its beauty sweeps anyone who visits the place into frequent and deep periods of contemplation. Unless, of course, it is time to ride the motorcycle.

When God made the Dales, God had motorcycles in mind. God made endless winding roads in magnificent countryside. Even the farmhouses, made from stones taken from the earth, add to the pleasure of the sights around you. I am always struck with wonder by how natural they appear in the landscape.

By the time I arrived, Kimmett had lived there long enough to lead me on a Fox Country motorcycle tour, and it started with Firbank Fell, just a short and wonderfully twisty ride from our home base at Brigflatts. This is where Fox is said to have preached to the masses in a speech that lasted for three hours (so much for silent worship). Other Quakers may think it blasphemous, but I have had trouble with that story since that first trip. I have been there many times and although it is beautiful, I have never been there when the wind wasn’t uncomfortably brisk. Three hours would be a long time to hold the attention of a crowd of a thousand. But I wouldn’t doubt that Fox had been there, and it is also crystal clear to me that there had to be a firm desire to hear him speak, as those who attended had to climb a somewhat formidable hill (called a fell) to get there. In my mind’s eye, I always imagine an exhausted villager finally arriving at the top of the fell and thinking to himself, “This better be good!”

Apparently it was.

Back on the bikes, it is a wonderful ride to Swarthmoor Hall. You can get there a lot faster on a motorcycle than Fox could have traveled on foot or horseback. He is said to have been a great horseman; I wonder how he would have felt about motorcycles.

Swarthmoor Hall is the place where Fox met Thomas and Margaret Fell. Again, reviewing history has its pitfalls if you are looking for truth, but this is the place that set Quakerism on the road to where it is today. Margaret was convinced, dedicated to Quaker principles, and hard working. Thomas was influential. It is clear to me that the Quaker movement could have died in the hills around Brigflatts if it were not for Thomas and Margaret.

A tour of the place is illuminating, especially if you are interested in 16th-century architecture. Being 300 years old, with several different owners, who knows what it actually looked like when Fox arrived? But it is the stories that keep you captivated.

Just imagine coming home one day after a long journey as a circuit judge, the way Thomas Fell did, only to find that your wife, your household, and many people of the town around you had been converted to a new religion—by just one man, and a strange man at that! I’ll bet there was one interesting conversation around the dinner table that night.

It is said that if you visit the Yorkshire Dales you must vow to return or you could never tear yourself away. That certainly was true for me. For years, since my first visit, I have returned to sleep and worship in the comfort of Brigflatts and to ride the roads of the Dales.

Then I met Pam, the woman of my dreams. I was already head over heels in love when I took a chance and asked her if she would go to the Theater Festival in Edinburgh with me. As everyone who has been in love knows, if you want to test a relationship, take a long trip together. Let’s face it: a trip to Europe is more than a date. I knew that if she said she would come, I would be in as long as the trip was successful.

The Festival was great, but after a few days we felt we would really like to go to London. I love London and will go there with any excuse, but because my feelings about Brigflatts were deep and important to me, I secretly wanted to know if she could ever share them. So I gathered my courage and asked her if we could take a small side trip on our way.

Pam had said she had become a convinced Friend at her first meeting for worship, but I didn’t know if I could trust that. I didn’t know if she was a convinced Friend, or a convinced friend of mine.

We arrived at Briflattts and I was very nervous as I showed her around. She was very quiet. When my nerves couldn’t stand it anymore I asked, “What do you think?” Her reply will always be with me. She said, “Let’s skip London and stay here.”

Including our trip this fall, we have returned to Brigflatts every other year. We have made wonderful friends there that we never fail to visit. We have also added to our itinerary many more Quaker sites to visit: Pendle Hill, Lancaster Prison, and the Quaker tapestries, just to name a few.

Although Kimmett will always be a legend to those who live anywhere near Brigflatts, he no longer works as the warden there. Pam and I look forward to getting to know the current warden, Tess. To my knowledge, Tess doesn’t ride a motorcycle, but she would love to show you around.