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Sunday, 23 June 2024

Father undertakes a pilgrimage across Europe in memory of his daughter Niamh

FOLLOWING the death of his daughter Niamh in 2021, Peter Scanlon, a refrigeration and air conditioning engineer from Denton, embarked on a spiritual journey that would take him across Europe, walking more than 450 miles and raising more than £4,500 for Francis House Children’s Hospice.

Peter’s pilgrimage took him 34 days, walking the Camino de Santiago (the way of St. James) a network of ancient pilgrim routes from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the southwest of France to Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain.

Through heavy rain and with blisters on his feet, he slept in the most basic accommodation. During his journey, he met dozens of other pilgrims, from many different countries – each walking for their own personal reasons and becoming part of a unique community.

Peter and his wife Claire, a Residential Support Worker for the Seashell Trust, wanted to give something back to the children’s hospice in Manchester that had supported them and cared for Niamh when she died.

Francis House

When Niamh was only eighteen months old, she started to show loss of her abilities as her development slowed down. She was diagnosed with Metachromatic Leukodystrophy late infantile form, a condition that affects the brain and nervous system. Niamh was given a life expectancy of five years of age. She lived until she was fifteen.

Father undertakes a pilgrimage across Europe in memory of his daughter Niamh
Niamh Scanlon 15 months old.

Peter, 54, said:

“Francis House did so much for Niamh during her life and when she passed away, we had the option to take her there by ambulance. We had a safe place to go with Niamh, so we want to ensure that there is always a place like Francis House for other families.

“If we didn’t have Francis House, we would be in a right mess now. I still would have struggled with Niamh’s death, and I still struggle with it, but not half as much as I would if it hadn’t ended so peacefully because of Francis House’s care and compassion. That is why I really wanted to do the Camino for the hospice.”

Francis House cares for more than 550 families of children and young people with life-limiting conditions. In addition to respite care, the hospice provides a range of services including homecare, sibling support and end of life care and bereavement support.

There are three Rainbow Rooms that are specially cooled to allow the child or young person to remain at the hospice after their death. The suites offer a space and privacy where families can spend time saying their goodbyes until the funeral.

Peter said:

“The way the staff treated us with respect, checking that we were okay, whether we wanted anything to eat, anything you wanted was there. It just made it so easy.”

Claire, 49, said:

“Through bereavement care, Francis House just comes into its own. Like the Camino journey, grief is a journey, there are highs and lows in dealing with grief.

The journey begins

Eighteen months on and Peter decided the perfect time to walk in memory of Niamh would be in the six weeks between Niamh’s older sister Isabel’s birthday in September and Niamh’s birthday in November.

Claire said:

“I thought he was bonkers, but I understood why he needed to go. At more than 450 miles when the most he has ever walked is ten miles in a day, I just hoped his feet would last the journey.”

On Sunday, September 25th, Peter caught a coach from Manchester Chorlton Street coach station to travel to Stansted airport. The following day he flew to Biarritz in Southern France where friends Terry and Jan Pye-Russell met him. The couple took him to the starting point of the French town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, where he set off the following day, accompanied for a few miles by Jan.

The second day of the walk is the most arduous and the most difficult section of the Camino Frances as pilgrims must cross the Pyrenees through the Roncesvalles Pass. With terrible weather and a very steep descent on rough ground, Peter’s wet feet began to suffer. However, it wasn’t just physically that Peter felt the strain.

Accepting help

The accommodation for pilgrims is extremely basic. Dormitories of twenty bunk beds, with 40 people sharing a bathroom.

Peter said:

“Sometimes there was just a mat on the floor for a bed and you got a hot shower if you were lucky. You would get up in the morning put your rucksack on and get going again.

“The worst part about the whole trip was every night we would have a WhatsApp video call, and I could see Claire and all my home comforts. We’d have a ten-minute call then I would turn it off and have a look around me and think what am I doing here?

“You have to be mentally tough as well as physically fit which I wasn’t. You are up and down, you laugh, and you cry. I was praying quite a lot of the time, especially for my sister-in-law who has cancer. But there was always somebody walking up behind you and they would ask if you were okay and it is like a problem shared.”

One day Peter was about to take a wrong turn when he was spotted by a fellow walker who put him on the right path. Recognising Peter’s Francis House t-shirt, the man introduced himself as Kevin from Stockport.

Peter said:

“There weren’t that many people from England on the walk so to meet someone from Stockport was quite remarkable.”

Kevin later sponsored Peter on his JustGiving page.

Living another reality

The pilgrimage route took Peter through many medieval towns and villages, following rivers, and mountain trails, and visiting churches and cathedrals en route. There were beautiful landscapes, sunrises, and sunsets.

Peter said:

“Everyone was missing their families and so you all become like a family unit. It was lovely the way that everyone bonded together, not hearing a bad word said by anybody for six weeks.

“My feet were in a bad way for a while but on the way, people try and help you. It’s not a lonely walk, as there are lots of other people walking the Camino at the same time who you keep bumping into, but you do have time to walk with your own thoughts.

Since Niamh’s illness, the couple have been fundraising for Francis House. In the summer, supported by comedy legend Jimmy Cricket, a fundraiser in Niamh’s memory was held at St Mary’s Church in Denton which raised more than £2,000.

Claire remained in the UK working shifts for The Seashell Trust – a residential school in Cheadle for children with complex learning disabilities and additional communication needs. Phone calls were timed to fit in with Claire’s shifts and Peter’s walks.

Claire said:

“It was quite lonely spending six weeks on my own. Isabel came home twice from university in Sheffield where she is studying Occupational Therapy as a result of Niamh’s influence and guidance.

“Coming back home to a dark empty house and going back out to work the next morning was very strange, naturally I missed him loads. Emotionally it was tough for me to think is he going to get back home in one piece as he is renowned for being accident-prone! He has had two bad injuries one resulting in him being blind in one eye and I was anxious whether he would do any permanent damage to himself.”

A parent’s pilgrimage

Peter self-funded the trip travel and flights plus 50 Euros a day spent on food, plasters, and nightly accommodation; he walked every day for 34 days carrying a heavy backpack.

During the last few days, Peter covered 26 miles a day accompanying a man called Fabius, who was walking from his home in Germany, a journey of more than 1,000 miles.

Peter said:

“At Cruz de Ferro in Northern Spain, there is a cross at the top of a hill where people leave a stone with all their worries and everything they want to leave behind on the Camino. In lockdown, Claire and I decorated a stone with Niamh, and I wanted to leave it there as the reason I was doing the pilgrimage. That was a really big moment for me leaving the stone there.”

Upon reaching the town of Sarria near the end of the walk, Peter contacted his friend Jan Pye-Russell and asked her if she would like to finish the walk with him. After driving nine hours from her home in France to Santiago in Spain, Jan walked the last four and a half kilometres with Peter.

Peter said:

“Arriving in Santiago de Compostela was just part of the journey. Niamh was with me throughout, we talked to each other along the way, and it was a reflection on Niamh, Isabel, Claire’s, and my life, and where we are going after this. Asking Niamh to help us make the right decisions. We still need her even though she’s not physically with us.”

Father undertakes a pilgrimage across Europe in memory of his daughter Niamh
Jan and Terry Pye-Russell at Santiago de Compostela.

In a final gesture of kindness and generosity, Jan and Terry took Peter to Bilbao airport so that he could fly directly back to Manchester.

Peter said:

“I can’t thank them enough for what they did for us.”

Returning home

Upon returning to Manchester after more than six weeks apart, Claire and Peter had just 45 minutes together until Claire had to leave to go to work.

Claire said:

“We had speedy beans on toast and a quick catch-up. He looked like Forrest Gump with his long grey beard. He was overweight when he left and had lost about a stone and a half.

“I am pleased to have him back and immensely proud of him. I am amazed at what he has achieved. I couldn’t have done it.”

Father undertakes a pilgrimage across Europe in memory of his daughter Niamh

A few days later, on November 5th and what would have been Niamh’s seventeenth birthday, Claire, Peter, and Isabel went to visit Niamh’s grave and decorate it with toys, flowers, balloons, and photographs.

Peter said:

“Niamh was a big part of our parish community at St Mary’s and when she passed away nearly 2,000 people watched her funeral online which shows just how special she was. Francis House is well known by everybody in Denton because of Niamh.

Claire added:

“We appreciate the running costs of Francis House with only a small proportion coming from the government, for all that we have had, we just wanted to give back to show our appreciation.

Messages of support and donations for Peter’s pilgrimage have topped £4,500.
To support Peter in his fundraising, please visit: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/peter-scanlon5.

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