After Athelney

So for a while now, several years infact, I’ve been working on a book about the Pilgrims’ Way in England.  Given one thing and another, it seemed wise and somewhat necessary, for me, to concentrate on something other than purely political writing for a while.  And pilgrimage in general has been a pretty major backdrop for me these last few years; its potential for healthy transformation felt like the best thing I could do in a world that has sometimes felt harder to understand, or at least second guess, than at any time I can remember.  The book’s in its final stages and I’ll certainly provide some notice here in the event of publication.

Far from unmindful of everything at stake, I’ve set out on The Pilgrims’ Way and other, longer routes at various times during this preceding decade.  This particular Way takes in 120 or so miles through Hampshire, Surrey and Kent, begins in Winchester, ends in Canterbury and forms one of our most iconic pilgrimage routes on native soil.  I was partly drawn to it for this reason alone; to help highlight a route more immediate, more accessible than continental options, which holds many merits in its own right and which a greater interest in would help take pressure off other, more popular, pilgrimage paths.

It also occurred to me early on that the story of – and stories associated with – this given route deserved fresh attention; not least that of Thomas Becket, whose martyrdom (850 years ago this December) helped popularise the route back in the day, making it one of the most frequently travelled in Medieval Europe.  His story is tied up with Henry II of course and the tale of power and piety, both taken to extremes, makes for a fascinating tale.  But the story of the Pilgrims’ Way is also one of historical and cartographic myths, recounted as I make my incremental way along the many miles.  Was Becket as Holy as they say?  Or Henry that bad?  And was the route itself as popular as the Victorians tells us?  These questions and more rebounded in my mind as I began my research.  But one figure encountered along the way stands out as much as that of Becket.  Any visit to or treatment of Winchester cannot be complete without some kind of reference to the man.

Tomorrow, October 26th, is King Alfred’s Day; once a more-lauded date in our collective and not-so-distant past, a personality cult that was certainly in no way diminished by the extent of Victorian attention.  But he was popular down the centuries ever since his reign; a saviour of the Anglo-Saxon world and founder, in effect, of what we now know of as England today.  We can remember of course that England was a different place before the Normans came.  And, if Victorian sentiments in any way smart, we can remember that he was also – at one point – an underdog, faced repeated invasion at the hand of the Danes, endured constant threat and actual defeat for years.  His story is immortalised in G.K. Chesterton’s ‘Ballad of the White Horse’; a poem which – as preacher and poet Malcolm Guite reminds us, (and whose rendition of the poem can be found here) – provided psychological sustenance for many soldiers in the two world wars.  Both wars had been partly foreseen by GKC; both were partly products of a cult of violence, of that of the superman and of a nihilism the ballad was meant to offer some kind of antidote for.

As we gear up for one of the most apparently foreboding winters in living memory, can we draw some comfort from the story of this most iconic of our historical figures?  Compounded crises of Covid and climate change, to say nothing of Brexit, rebound upon our knowledge and imaginations and need no rehearsal here.  Is it valid then, at such a time, to think of Alfred beleaguered on the Isle of Athelney in the marshes of Somerset, his army reduced to little more than a bodyguard, resorting to guerrilla warfare, his fortunes at the lowest of ebbs? The poem opens with a careworn Alfred receiving a vision of the Virgin Mary who implores him to take heart, to have “faith without a hope” even at this point of nadir.

It’s a challenge as much as a promise.  And perhaps that challenge is as much as we need – to go forward out of a kind of bloody-mindedness when there are no promises, no guarantees.  Alfred was eventually successful of course, he led Wessex to victory over the Danes and won peace for a generation and the survival, and actual flourishing, of the Anglo-Saxon world; a world that, back in the marshes, had seemed on the brink of annihilation.

We don’t need some Viking – or indeed any other kind of – bogeyman to focus our minds; the ‘invisible mugger’, as some term the virus, does that for us.  And climate change?  There’s never been a point of greater focus, of greater attention paid to this ultimate threat to us all.  That alone gives me hope that, even if the scale of the challenge looks daunting, and probably has been nothing else for some time now, if we can act with unity we can tap into the great reserves of what can happen when people come together from the knowledge of this greatest of crises.

Some see Athelney as Holy ground as it stands in remembrance that even when things seemed at their most bleak, the fate of the country was buoyed by resolve and a vision; a hardiness under duress.  Chesterton’s account is mythic of course but while it may not be historically true, it taps into the spirit of the story, into the spirit of the tradition of the balladeers themselves.  As such it takes its place as one of the last great epic English poems.

Its title refers to that most iconic of our hill figures; the White Horse of Uffington, under whose eye Alfred’s first great victory over the Danes at Ashdown was fought.  Later in the poem we find him return to the horse, the scouring of weeds from its chalk symbolic of the value of vigilance in times of peace, renewing the spirit of the land and its people.  Perhaps we can be at such a point of renewal now; that our current trials can temper us, give us new impetus to look again at our priorities, take stock of what is truly of value or not.  Perhaps just as in the fires of the Second World War a new social contract was drawn up for the people, our efforts in this time can set a better course for the times ahead, where the earth herself is bestowed greater respect and protection, where the poor are lifted up from their duress, where we step forward into a greater equality, with a stronger belief in and vigilance towards our hard-won freedoms.

It’s easy to wheel out fine sentiments of course, just as we know that this winter may ask more of us than for perhaps any time in a generation.  But this is surely not the first time we have faced a common, formidable foe. We could do worse than remember the spirit that drove our various historical efforts; it may yet be the best teacher we have for how we can hold fast, overcome and withstand whatever this winter may bring.  And sometime, when this year is just a crazy memory and an excuse for endless anecdotes, may we all of us thrive, may we stand all the stronger, inspired perhaps by Alfred in his fought-for peace, who planted the seeds for a new wave of learning, bore out the time given to him and bestowed a better future for an age. At Athelney then, when the outcome was still far from certain, unsweetened by assurances, it was met with a will to continue, a faith tempered by reserves of that which can sustain us, a faith which can help us endure.   

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