As soon as I saw it I knew: an email in my spam folder I retrieved through an unlikely chance. The link took me to a site about a pilgrimage – five hundred miles from London to Glasgow, to arrive in time for the COP26 climate conference. Walking in general and pilgrimage in particular have always been abiding passions, as has environmental work and these twin two strands stood prominent as I applied. This, I could already tell, would be a big one.
Nonetheless, it was not without some trepidation that I accepted my place. Not only would it be a bloody long way but the pilgrimage group would conceive of and deliver a performance en route in preparation for a finale at the conference itself. The play would be inspired by the places we passed through and the people we met along the way. Even just accompanying as a musician would take me right out of my comfort zone. Would my feet hold out for such a long way? How would I hack travelling en masse? And could I possibly succeed in packing my bag to anything like a sensible weight?
But eventually, after what felt like a minor marathon of preparation, I was sat early one Saturday morning, alone on a bench in Trinity Square Gardens. Faces half familiar from preparatory sessions on Zoom appeared; one or two at first and then a steady stream. Before long we had our bags loaded in a Luton and were listening to speeches on the green before an all-day hike across town – during which we were tailed by police as a demonstration was also occurring. The muted distinction would be a familiar theme, but we were chiefly walking without an agenda, whatever private feelings we might have had; seeking to garner our messages from an attitude of openness and observation.
Our crew were disparate and intimate at once. For what seemed like weeks we walked in blazing heat – sweated miles out along the Ridgeway before turning north towards a hinterland of meadows and footpaths. We were walking the Elen and Belinus leylines – or ‘The Spine of Albion’ to give the route its grander title. This meant a team of organisers had been grafting for months to find places to stay – from orchards and organic farms to church and village halls and grounds of country houses. The route was broadly determined by the lines – which meant bridleways, long distance paths and other relatively easy-going thoroughfares were generally not in use. Though for perhaps a week we navigated the Black Country and surrounds along towpaths that were both welcome and seemingly endless.
It was good going, punctuated by occasional towns and cities which always felt strange but somehow part of a wider momentum. We gorged on blackberries, elderberries, grew accomplished at grazing at speed. Days off were far and few between and spare time was often taken up with logistics meetings so that it sometimes seemed that any performance would be a distant thing.
After Manchester, things changed. Hills, proper hills now, grew around us. The weather turned suddenly foul. One of the organisers – Anna Lehmann of No Planet B, who’d been walking with us for a while, departed by showing us the forecast for the next two weeks on a screen – a moving blur of purple cloud: promise of effective saturation. But other things changed too; our ability to navigate the hills and their sometimes indistinct paths, the coherence of the group; moving at varying speeds and our capacity and schemes to help facilitate this. And, somewhere in Lancashire in a brightly decorated tent we took our first steps as a group towards fooling; improvised performances where the worst thing you could do was have a plan. It all seemed a tall order to some of us still; to act without script or prompts and still deliver something worth the effort and the audience’s time.
The weather somehow gradually improved or we just grew inured to the rain and the slugs and occasional ice on our tents. And, by some miracle, it seemed we were almost constantly accompanied by rainbows; hardly a wet day went by without a break in the clouds and ensuing display to encourage us forward on the road.
We were spanning broad swathes of Northumberland now – nothing could phase us after the day crossing Shap Fell in a weather warning where half the party had tried wading swollen streams. But we attempted to inoculate ourselves against complacency; treated the Fells with respect and sought local advice where we could when the hills loomed. Tensions came up, dissipated like the wind. We kept on talking; endless circles of things to be done, what wasn’t working, what was; the gripes, the seemingly endless litany of little and practical things. It was almost as hard as the walking itself.
But somehow, whether it was the ‘scratch-performances’, the tribulations, collective will to carry on despite the still-looming distance, the negotiations and the differences overcome, something quite precious unfolded. We were a diverse bunch of people all told; bar managers, lecturers, hillfarmers, actors. It was one of the wonders of the trip that nobody really fell out. And for a while we achieved a kind of synthesis; boundaries blurred as we got to the Uplands, we were more of a masse who knew each other inside out, whether we chimed or we grated, we were all now together, all of us one as our steps echoed, unlikely and loud.
The Scottish cities then could only ever have been surreal to arrive in. We rehearsed, navigated the newly familiar streets, attempted to catch up with ourselves. And the performances? We talked at length outside the first venue, a frenetic exchange of views as to what we should do more than a meeting of minds. But somehow, if only from the nerve shredding intensity of it all, we were all of us on fire.
Our performances, sometimes rough and ready but always heartfelt, spoke of the distance we’d all had to go; its trials and triumphs, the surreal existence of fell after fell when every item of our day to day existence seemed enough to go on with, just as much as they were enough to endure. We were animated by these miles, the elemental nature of it all. Some of this at least fed through to the plays we delivered; like a kind of osmosis where every cloud and every patch of sunlight in each given day spoke to us on our arrival in a way it was impossible to fully understand. But the rainbows were still with us and, on a morning in temporary lodgings, I woke to see a nearby towerblock lit up bold white in the face of the clouds as I readied myself to make my way in to the ultimate march. A rainbow; one of those familiar manifestations of something we couldn’t quite guess, accompanied me as I made my way in. Perhaps that spoke as much as I could ever do for all of this: to walk as if blind; hope, expectation somehow both distant and present at once, the scale of our challenge met with the knowledge of what we must do in the face of the mountain to climb.