Turning 40 brings with it new life challenges but for Reverend Paul Critchley it was an emotional and gruelling test as he lined up with a group of adventurers to walk 100km of the Western Front from France to Belgium raising funds for soldiers and their families.
The superintendent minister for the North Fylde Circuit of the Methodist Church took three days to complete the Frontline Walk for the ABF Soldiers’ Charity
His journey to date has helped raised over £5,300 and the dad-of-three boys, says he has been “absolutely amazed” with the support.
Paul says it was his wife Jo who challenged to take on something for his birthday after she was challenged by a friend who works for the soldiers’ charity to take part in the London Marathon for her 40th birthday, which she did successfully.
Proud of his own achievement Paul described the walk as the “most emotional, physical and challenging thing I’ve ever done.”
The group started at the Lochnagar Crater in France. That was created by an explosion at 7.28am on July 1, 1916, signalling the start of the Battle of the Somme.
The walkers crossed the finished line at the Menin Gate in Belgium with the Ceremony of the Last Post.
The Battle of the Somme was one of the largest battles of the First World War, with more than one million soldiers wounded or killed.
It has been hailed as one of the bloodiest battles in human history.
Paul says it was a privilege to follow in the footsteps of the soldiers and walk alongside a number of veterans of the services and their families.
Having first met the group at Wellington Barracks in London, he says: “We met two coaches of strangers.
“There were veterans, soldiers, air force, navy and people whose families had been impacted by the war
“But by the end of it we were all really good friends. “Everyone had their own individual story.
“The opportunity to share with one another and the honesty with which our life’s stories were shared was incredible to be a part of.
“The care and concern one showed to another was amazing.
“We laughed and cried together - sharing our sorrows and joys with an openness which we imagined was similar to those from the Great War in whose footsteps we were following.”
Paul says he started his training for the walk back in January.
“At first I started on short walks and really got stuck into after Easter - I walked over 200 miles throughout the training process.”
“I knew I had to get over the mental blockage so once I’d walked 20 miles two weeks before, I knew I was going to be fine.”
Prior to the walk, a member of his congregation conducted research at a Poulton Church, finding a memorial plaque dedicated to Geoffrey Potts who fell in WW1.
During the walk, Paul was able to pay his respects to Pott’s gravestone at Wancourt British Cemetery.
“I was really taken back by the amount of headstones that were there - over 50 thousand.
“Finding Geoffrey’s headstone I had a bit of a meltdown and then I payed my respects and gave him a prayer to say thank you for his services.”
Paul’s effort has been further spurred on through his involvement with an event called “Brothers in Arms” - a multimedia production telling the story of the First World War through the eyes of the Chavasse twins, which he says holds a “special poignancy”.
He adds: “This a joint project with Lancashire Methodist district and Blackburn Diocese which looks at the lives and service of Noel and Christopher and Shavasse.
Noel served as a medic in World War 1 and is one of only three soldiers to be awarded the Victoria Cross twice and did not survive the war and is buried in Belgium. Chris was a chaplain who survived and went on to become Bishop of Rochester.”
Originally from Helsby, Cheshire, Paul was minister at Pilling Methodist Church for nine years until becoming the superintendent for the eight north Fylde Methodist churches of Pilling, Knott End, Poulton, Thornton, Anchorsholme, Cleveleys, Fleetwood and Bispham.
ABF The Soldiers’ Charity gives a lifetime of support to soldiers and former soldiers from the British Army, and their immediate families, when they are in need.
It makes grants to individuals through their Regiments and Corps and supports a wide range of specialist charities that sustain the British Army ‘family’, both at home and around the world.
The charity has been going since 1944, working with veterans of every conflict.
Anyone wishing to support Paul’s effort visit www.justgiving.com/fundraising/critchyboy76 or write a cheque to ABF The Soldiers’ Charity and sending to Rev Paul Critchley, Poulton-le-Fylde Methodist Church, Queensway, Poulton, FY6 7ST.