On a Saturday morning in July, I stood for a few moments on the edge of the main road that runs from Slough to Maidenhead, somewhere between the site of the Taplow Giant Car Boot Sale and the Nike Factory Shop. And then, turning heel, I began walking south, away from the hum of traffic, down a road called Marsh Lane. These were the first steps on a kind of pilgrimage. I wasn’t going far, though: just a few short miles to Eton.
But who goes on a pilgrimage to Eton? Worshippers of the English public school tradition, maybe, intent on paying homage at the motherlode, desperate to walk in the footsteps of Wellington, Bond, Rees-Mogg? That wasn’t me. Not being English, I can never quite fathom the full potency of either the lure or the repulsion of Eton College.
Instead, the inspiration for my trek across a swathe of Buckinghamshire green belt came from a brief period in the middle of the 15th century, when the famous school was still in its infancy. Back then, the “Collegiate Church of the Blessed Mary of Eton next to Windsor” was one of the most important centres of pilgrimage in England. Fields near the college were used for a fair held on the six days following the Feast of the Assumption in August. Thirty beds were hired for chaplains and their servants, who were enlisted to help the regular staff of 10 cope with the influx of revellers and penitents (often, presumably, the same people).
All of this I originally discovered by accident, browsing through a book of essays by a former headmaster in a second-hand bookshop. This prompted some further digging, leading to a piece for the Catholic Herald a few years ago summarising Eton’s hidden history, and, ultimately, to an unexpected, inexplicable desire to convert this knowledge into some kind of pilgrimage.
I was, of course, unlikely to meet any other pilgrims on the road. It was just me; and even I felt like a bit of a fraud. I’m not a regular pilgrim, nor a seeker after relics, nor a joiner of processions. I’m not even that keen on walking. Yet here I was. It seemed apt that this very modest experiment with pilgrimage should have an inauspicious, even furtive start. A nondescript junction on an arterial road near the M4 was perfect. No Chaucerian gathering at a local inn. No setting out in boisterous company. I said a little prayer and off I went.
I was, I admit, soon feeling a little smug. The weather was ideal: cool enough to make the exercise feel close to effortless, and warm enough to make it pleasant. I was traipsing along a flat, mildly wending road. A ribbon of houses, on one side only, was giving way more and more to fields.
But perhaps all pilgrimages, even the briefest, are destined to confound expectations; to become, in one way or another, trails of the unexpected. So it proved for me. In next to no time, my planned route was in tatters. As Marsh Lane began its ascent to traverse the M4, I could see in the distance high-vis jackets, red and white road barriers, and diggers with their buckets raised, poised for action. Major works were underway and the road was completely closed to traffic, horses, pedestrians… and pilgrims. There was no way through.
Thankfully, the Ordnance Survey app revealed a possible alternative. I returned to a fork in the road where Old Marsh Lane spliced off from its upstart version. It looked like this would take me down to the riverside and to a tow path leading me under, not over, the mighty M4.
I soon found myself passing Amerden Priory. Or at least that was the name I saw on the gatepost of what looked like an old timber-framed building with a tiled roof. A Google search told me, however, that Amerden Priory was never actually a priory. There was an Amerden Manor, inhabited by the Manfield family who, in the late 16th century, seemed to have endured various kinds of fines and punishments as a result of their stubborn papistry. It seemed that I had inadvertently strayed into a small patch of recusant country.
Moments later, I had reached the bank of the Thames. Just downstream from Bray and its five-star restaurants, I walked past handsome detached houses in ample grounds with impeccable lawns sweeping down to the river. But the noise of the motorway was relentless, like the sound of ocean breakers that never broke. Cutting back down residential side roads, seeking to rejoin my original route, I came across a defunct red telephone box now stuffed with books for taking away or replenishing. Acquiring a nice 1960s Everyman edition of The Abbot by Walter Scott put the cap on my detour.
I was now back on Marsh Lane and the high road to Eton. With an effort of the imagination – scraping away from my eyes and ears the sundry modern impedimenta of tarmac, cars (not many), traffic cones, road signage, the thrum of agricultural machinery – I could have been in Tolkien’s Shire. There were horses grazing over my shoulder and what looked like red kites hovering overhead. According to the RSPB, the red kite was considered a valued scavenger during the Middle Ages. It kept the streets clean, and was protected by royal decree. Killing one of these birds was punishable by death.
With kites still overhead, a lane on my right led me to St James the Less, 800 years old, adjacent to a beautiful Tudor manor house, and now the Anglican parish church of Dorney. Here, very unexpectedly, the contemporary world returned with a bang. Dotted around the walls was a notice headed “Topple the Racists Map Error”. This was, I discovered, a response to a crowdsourced map of “statues and monuments that celebrate slavery and racism”, housed on a UK website called “Stop Trump”. The website had identified the church as containing a memorial to Sir William Garrard (1507-1571), “pioneer of English involvement in the slave trade”. The notice, firmly but politely, pointed out that this was incorrect. The monument was in fact dedicated to William Garrard’s son, his wife and descendants. The church had successfully asked for the map listing to be deleted, but perhaps the notices remained in place to put right any protesters (or even statue topplers) who might not have got the message.
I said another prayer and then, still trying to absorb this startling collision between the 12th, 16th and 21st centuries, I stopped at The Palmer Arms. Naturally, I was delighted to be drinking in a pub whose name included a medieval word for pilgrim, although this probably had more to do with the family that has lived in the manor house over several centuries than the memory of an earlier hostelry for thirsty Christians on this same spot.
It was a big day. Pubs in England were reopening for the first time since the coronavirus lockdown. Dorney is a “conservation village” and the local is therefore plusher and more genteel than most. Nevertheless, as I ordered a shandy to accompany the cheese sandwiches I had brought with me, I thought I detected a faint trace of that much talked-about, much yearned-for “return to normality”. It tasted good.
My route took me next to Dorney Common, a wide open expanse of around 170 acres that has been in agricultural use for about 1,000 years, and which, these days, serves for grazing and haymaking. At my feet were dry cowpats that I had to weave my way between. In the middle distance, hugging the treeline, were herds of brown and creamy coloured cattle. And on the far horizon Windsor Castle loomed up for the first time.
What really caught my eye, though, was Eton Wick, on the other side of the flat, open fields. The boundary between the village and the common is long, straight, abrupt and razor sharp. There is only one road in and out, fenced and gated at either side. Close up, I realised that there was even a kind of moat there, formed by a stream making its way south to join the Thames.
So even though I was in reality heading towards a settlement dominated by low-rise post-Second World War housing, I wondered whether this was a little like how it must have felt to approach the entry to a medieval walled city. There were no gatekeepers, but a small cluster of local anglers did eye me a little suspiciously, I thought. To complete the sense of moving abruptly from the rural to the urban, from outside to inside the walls, the last strip of road into the village was a cattle grid.
Eton Wick was originally a hamlet containing the homes of shoemakers, tailors and others who met the needs of the college. It now has a population of over 2,000, many of whom presumably work at the school or service it in some way. (Eton College has a staff of around 1,000, of whom about one fifth are teachers.) As I wended my way through the village, there were more signs of the slight thawing in lockdown restrictions: four bushy-headed men sat in stony silence on socially distanced fold-up chairs set up outside a barbershop on its first day of reopening.
The churches of Eton Wick, on the other hand, were all closed. A sign on the door of the Primitive Methodist Church, founded in 1886 and tucked away down a side street, explained that it was shut due to Covid-19. Back on the main road, the Catholic church of St Gilbert was closed for good and had been since last year, due to a combination of maintenance costs and dwindling numbers of priests. The doors of the Anglican parish church of St John the Baptist, which marks the end of the village on the Eton side, were locked too. I left Eton Wick a somewhat frustrated pilgrim.
Out on the road, it wasn’t long before the castle reared into view again, now displaying its full turrety breadth and mass. A long regiment of railway arches carrying trains between Slough and Windsor marched over my head. Tempting footpaths sprouted left and right, criss-crossing the surrounding meadows, but I stuck to my route.
Before long I was on Keate’s Lane in Eton, craning my neck to read a cruciform inscription high up on the walls. It marked the place of “The west end of the College Chapel as intended by the founder”. At the end of the lane and across the High Street, I could see the actual west wall. Had this wall been at the point where the founder, Henry VI, intended, Eton would have had the longest church in England.
The chapel, along with the school, was closed. This could have been the end point on my miniature pilgrimage. But there was one more place I wanted to visit. At the other end of the town, tucked away off the High Street, by the side of a municipal car park, is Our Lady of Sorrows, a tiny eruption of glowing Baroque in russet-coloured Eton. Opened in January 1915, this chapel was built by Lord Alfred Braye, a Catholic convert and Old Etonian, in the face of opposition from the College authorities citing an old law preventing the construction of windows overlooking school land. As a result, the interior is lit by skylights; but, once again, I did not get the chance to go inside – and see, among other things, a painting of Christ taken down from the Cross, attributed to the 17th-century Italian artist Pietro Testa – as this church too was closed due to the pandemic.
There was hope, though. The notice outside explained that the chapel would be open for private prayer for two hours on most days. Parishioners were strongly urged to come and pray, at least occasionally, “in these disturbing times”. I said my own final prayer underneath the words carved above the door: “DEI MATRI MARIAE CRUCI ADSTANTI”.
And that was it. My pilgrimage, such as it was, was over. I felt satisfied and at peace, though I have yet to work out why exactly. Perhaps the only way to find out would be to do this, or something like it, again – and soon.
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