“I’ve never had to change the stamp date by three months before”, said the curate at Winchester Cathedral after I asked for my pilgrim’s passport to Canterbury. I had 140 miles to go and it looked like I was going to be alone on the Pilgrims’ Way.
After the Catholic Herald walk into Rome last October to mark the canonisation of St John Henry Newman, I had my Via Francigena pilgrim’s passport stamped on arrival in the Vatican. Like Ghislaine Maxwell, I now have three passports. Back in the middle ages, sex criminals or those found guilty of ecclesiastical crimes were often sent off on pilgrimages rather than mutilated: chopping a hand off meant you couldn’t work. If you were sent off on a long pilgrimage, you had to get your passport stamped along the way to prove you had been there. Pilgrimages were not just jaunts to Canterbury or elsewhere. They could also be a form of “medicinal” punishment: a way of saving your soul.
I also learnt that the easiest way to find a church when walking into a village is to look for a pair of towering ancient yew trees. – William Cash
My mode of travel was a thirty year old camper. She was to be my trusted Rocinante, and means of accommodation, along the ancient route that winds its way through the valleys of Hampshire to Farnham Castle. Much of the route runs parallel to the North Downs Way, a long distance walking path from Farnham to Dover.
My camper van was called Scarlett and she was a convert, by which I mean she was originally a left-hand drive (she was made in Brazil). Thomas Becket’s own conversion, of course, from worldly, ambitious, hunting-mad chancellor to hair-shirt ascetic saintly defender of canon law, was what turned the London born middle-class draper’s son into a martyr and patron saint of European pilgrim travel.
Once behind the wheel of Scarlett, I began to enjoy the life-is-a-road-trip lifestyle. In the same way that G.K Chesterton saw the English inn in his poem The Rolling Road as a symbol of freedom, so I felt as I abandoned my iPhone Sat-Nav for route directions. As you walk along the ridge of North Downs Way – incorporating much of an old pre-Roman track that Hilaire Belloc re-discovered over 100 years ago – you can navigate via the church spires, which act as a primitive form of traveller beacons, in each village as the valleys spread below. I also learnt that the easiest way to find a church when walking into a village is to look for a pair of towering ancient yew trees. These were often planted in church grounds as medieval signage – and such ancient, towering trees still loom beside the churches.
More than once, I had to hitch to get back on the route. Hitching during a pandemic with a mask on is not to be recommended. – William Cash
Along much of the way, I was tortured by the fact that all the pubs and inns were closed. When they did re-open on 4 July, I lunched well at the 13th century ‘Dirty Habit’ pub right on the Pilgrims’ Way and stayed at The Bull in Wrotham, a 14th century pilgrim inn covered with framed relics not of saints but of charred mechanical parts of Spitfires shot down in the Battle of Britain. A very different form of shrine but perhaps rooted in the same human instinct to honour the past.
In Victoria Preston’s fascinating new book, We Are Pilgrims, she explores how pilgrimages have become a modern metaphor for meaning and change, and how the concept of what is sacred today has become multi-purpose, appealing to all faiths and social tribes. The book skilfully investigates, in anthropological terms, why as many as 200 million people each year embark on pilgrimages – from visiting Graceland to Glastonbury – and why the boom in such journeys are a “reminder that we are each part of something greater than ourselves”.
The exact route of the Pilgrims’ Way and the subject of pilgrim numbers are much disputed and debated in pilgrim circles. Whilst the North Downs Way is well signposted with nicely carved way-marker wooden signs giving you the mileage until the next village, the Pilgrims’ Way itself hasn’t a single sign. I ended up lost many times, so I often found myself walking along a promising looking lane towards the next destination. Admittedly, medieval pilgrims didn’t have maps, and most couldn’t read. More than once, I had to hitch to get back on the route. Hitching during a pandemic with a mask on is not to be recommended.
[Pilgrimage is a] reminder that we are each part of something greater than ourselves. – Victoria Preston
Pilgrimages today can be about anything. They are not so much about prayer and penance but the quest for meaning. Pilgrimage, argues Simon Jenkins in Preston’s book, is a human urge today not so much of “faith as of purpose”… “The use of the body in a ceremony of emotion, discovery and renewal, culminating in the metaphor of destination”.
As I walked for miles along the chalk river valleys of Hampshire, I enjoyed dangling my feet in the cool River Itchen where pilgrims had submerged their aching feet. At Martyrs Worthy, a pair of swans and a scruffy baby signet, the colour of a grey duster, swam nonchalantly by me as brown trout darted below, easily visible in water as crystalline as the Aegean. I was re-connecting with the spirit of nature and couldn’t be happier that my iPhone battery had long died.
The highlight was arriving in Canterbury to be greeted by the Dean, Robert Willis. As we talked, he used the Becket rose as a metaphor for the pilgrim’s journey. Earlier that day, he had filmed an online morning prayer sitting on a bench in his garden holding a beautiful red rose, named the Thomas a Becket. “Persistence and patience” were the watchwords required to grow this velvety Becket Old English rose, said the Dean, taking his cue from a lesson on the parable of the unjust judge from the Gospel of St Luke.
Despite the beautiful citrus scent, the rose wasn’t quite what I had hoped to see on arrival in Canterbury: the famous reliquary from the Vatican containing Becket’s bloodie tunicle that he had worn when murdered 850 years ago. It’s return next year will be an excuse for another journey – doubtless with another purpose.
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