Each New Leaf

850 years ago tomorrow, the 21st February, Thomas Becket, so famously martyred near the quire of Canterbury Cathedral by a clutch of violent social climbers, was canonised by Pope Alexander III in a reflection of the wave of shock and, later, devotion to his memory that swept the Christian world in the wake of his death.  Becket had been a controversial figure for much of his life, something later ameliorated by his posthumous saintly status.  His friendship with Henry II had turned sour long before his murder, probably since the king made him archbishop against the then chancellor’s wishes.  It was a move the king hoped would embed his man in the Church but Becket found a piety in the process that would propel him to great things.

One of the outcomes of his newfound contrition and the stature it somehow brought with it was an increased antagonism and alienation of not just his king but many of his countrymen as well.  Nonetheless many others flocked to him, his story becoming in many minds, perhaps not least his own, one of truth against autocracy.  Towards the end he had become a kind of living legend, a walking cypher for everything he’d come to represent.  Defined by devotion, his story’s conclusion beckoned all the more inevitably as he pursued what many saw as his calling – to defend the Church against oppression from on high.  That this championship was a die that he himself had partly cast was an irony lost to the crowd.

I spent a good amount of time looking at his life in the course of research for my book about the Pilgrims’ Way, that classic route along our southern hills.  His – and Henry’s – stories are central to the history of that particular path of course; Becket’s shrine a magnet for international pilgrims as his cult grew.  But many followed it too in keenness to trace, perhaps even emulate, the penitential steps of their scandalised monarch who made his way, though his route is uncertain, to his former friend’s resting place.

If I’m honest, I’m still sometimes surprised as to why the history of these two men held such immediate traction over me as soon as I began to read about it.  It was more than simply background reading about the history of this given pilgrimage – even if walking it remained the main event.  Was it because Becket’s conflict and conversion to a greater faith seemed to dovetail into questions that felt more pertinent than ever for me; my relationship to the Christian Church, how I might find a deeper sense of belonging within it, how I might find a deeper dimension of faith despite what you might call a former degree of circumspection regarding the merits of formal religion?

All of this certainly resonated and looking at his story became a means to help myself answer more personal questions.  But Henry too you had to feel for – how it all went wrong, the necessity of his eventual journey to pay penance at Becket’s shrine and how that itself may well have changed things.  His story takes its place among other instructive medieval sagas – one recurring theme of those times; however unlikely it may sound, is the apparent wrath visited on those plundering or otherwise disrespecting Holy Ground – just look at King John, or Eustace, or Henry’s own eldest son.

The story fascinates still in its reflection of piety and power – what can happen when either or both threaten to become all consuming.  Henry was a man who liked to get his way.  Becket sometimes appeared to pride himself on rising above – or against – his monarch’s will.  But within it all are other articles of faith; other questions, dimensions and tensions.  Were either men driven by pride?  Was there a kind of glory cloaked in self-deprecation?  Or a humility in striving to be true to duty?  Was Henry’s penance sincere?  We may never know, which is partly what makes the story so iconic; the light it throws on mortal men, the value of searching our hearts.

In some respects, Henry’s and Becket’s stories played out as prolonged tragedies; the hubris amid the reverence, the wrestling of different manifestations of might.  And yet the two men still impress by respective determination if not always necessarily their virtues.  What perhaps is more important for anybody wishing to follow in a literal sense in Henry’s footsteps by walking the ‘Way is that – whether through shock, veneration or the veritable cash cow of pilgrimage infrastructure in the Middle Ages – many pilgrims chose to walk this way and doing so today is act of sympathetic magic with forebears perhaps not quite as distant as we think.

Perhaps, amid the distant echo of former dramas, the instruction given by a king laid low by what all told was still the power of a spiritual intensity, of Becket’s very real courage as he could see all the more clearly just where his convictions were leading, the answers for us all still lie in wait.  Perhaps we can be closer to the ones who’ve gone before not by contrition or stumbling on our knees or keeping something going for the sake of it.  That is not to say some things do not have an inherent worth or that we cannot find, when all the flotsam’s stripped away, a kind of solid bedrock of belief.  But the things we need can still feel more immediate; to step out in the early April sun, to meet the track, to find a little joy in each new leaf.  We may find then that kings and prelates take their place amongst a rich panoply, where every pilgrim walks at one another’s side, where stories settle like the mulch and we find that with nothing but a bag and staff and sense of shared endeavour we are richer than we ever dared believe.

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.