For the Roses

A while back I wrote here about the book I’ve been working on which has occupied a fair amount of my time and attention over our collective sojourns in the various lockdowns.  I thought a few more words about it might be in order now; some thoughts perhaps less concerned with political pressures.  The book, now finished, is an account of a walk along the Pilgrims’ Way, that 120 mile route that follows the North Downs for the most part, from Winchester – once the country’s capital – to Canterbury; that enchanted heartland of the Anglican Church.  It actually follows a route that once led in the other direction; before Winchester’s ascendency, the thoroughfare along the North Downs led to Salisbury Plain and Stonehenge.  Journeys in this direction were mirrored by the phenomenon of later pilgrims also heading West to St Swithun’s Winchester shrine before Thomas Becket’s martyrdom reversed this trend, in quite a literal sense.  Curious then that the route has often led to a sacred centre of these Isles.

While walking it, as in the writing itself, I attempted to tease out various themes; what did the route mean to me?  Why did I feel the need to go on pilgrimage and how, at all, did this differentiate from any other given walk?  And perhaps above all, how did I feel about the Christian faith, bearing in mind that I considered myself primarily pagan for much of my adult life?  It started with an instinct I suppose; a feel for a certain quality in the air I’d experienced at times; a light in a window when semi-homeless that spoke of a warmth and apparently unlikely but still somehow prevalent hope; experiences in cathedrals, lighting a candle for prayer; and arriving in an Abbey after a week’s walk in the hills further west; an organ recital in spate, a feeling of elation that had much more to it than architecture, exhaustion and music alone.  

Modern pilgrimage is on the bounce of course.  You can see celebrities explore it on TV, Hollywood pitched in more than a decade ago with Martin Sheen in ‘The Way’, you can read about it in an ever-increasing litany of books. The Camino Frances in Northern Spain in particular has acquired a legendary status worldwide.  Writing in his recent book on pilgrimage, Peter Stanford quotes the writer and actress Shirley Maclean who described her pilgrimage as a ‘mythological and imaginative experience’, a ‘walking meditation’ that enabled her to ‘walk backwards in time to a place that began the experiences that made me and the human race what we have become today’.

Part of the appeal of any pilgrimage is its universality of course.  You don’t have to subscribe to any faith or even any given belief to undertake one.  There’s a general emphasis on spirituality but, like the many medieval pilgrims Stanford writes of escaping the mores of their local parish priest, modern pilgrims are free from what many see as the dogma of the traditional church in general and Catholicism in particular.  You can see it as social; a chance for a long walk with cheap wine and digs.  Or as a cultural trip; fine food and architecture, framed by a pace that’s ideal to take it all in. 

If any of that sounds vacuous, it’s worth bearing in mind that, whatever the expectation, pilgrimages are no holidays, or at any rate not simply so. For one thing, somewhere, somehow, something of the various routes’ history tends to rub off.  The pre-eminence of churches, cathedrals and shrines strikes a sense of familiarity; prayer, candles, blessings at masses are all part of the experience, lent a sense of almost existential need by the rigours of the road that make them all the more pertinent, more welcome.  It all encourages a degree of reflection about cultural – if not necessarily personal – Christian roots.  For my part, I was raised Catholic and never lost the habit of praying in churches.  And I’d always walked.  It was when the two married for me with pilgrimage that I began to look more closely at my faith.  They say that for those who don’t believe, nothing can convince them.  And for those who do no explanation is required.  But there are always influences along the way, accounts of that which makes sense to given people at a given time.

For what it’s worth, I’ve attempted an articulation of some of the insights that I’ve come to hold dear down the years, some of the things that have served to sustain me, the things that have helped me along. In this account of experiences on a given pilgrimage, I’ve tried to look a little closer at, amongst other things, the roses and perceived thorns of the prospect of formal religion.  As for the thorns, I list my own grievances, common to many, about the so-called ‘Magisterium’.  But they’re chiefly political points.  What I am certain of, as much now as then, is that a system of worship, a belief that chiefly venerates prayer, positivity and love can still hold great value today.

Some issues remain, for my part at least; the doctrine of ‘one true creed’ or apparent monopolies on true salvation that place any given faith on a pedestal above another, residues of recrimination and guilt, an enforced clerical celibacy whose roots lie in the politics of property rather than anything else.  But it’s easy to criticise, or concentrate on points of division when that which unites us can be so beautiful and strong.  It’s easy to throw the baby out with bathwater, so to speak, or – as a Cornish pilgrim and poet I once met put it – “discard the vintage which cannot be redeemed”.

This is an account of one walk then, years ago; a tentative navigation of the way ahead, an attempted exploration of landscape and questions alike, when arrival felt far off and uncertain but which ultimately was a path towards a greater clarity and healing.  It describes a route that anyone can take; all in one go or in stages and which is here, right now, on our doorsteps and offers itself as an opportunity whose like might just help take off the pressure on longer routes over the seas.  At the heart of it all is a faith in what prayer and walking can do; of life as a dance not a line (as the medieval mind knew), of what we can do when we simply keep striving for love.

The Long Way Home

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.

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.