Pilgrimage – Winchester Canterbury
Of all the questions we are asked, the second is most difficult.
Why? Who knows ‘why’? If ‘why’ is already known, why go walking? The mysterious dysfunction of cause and effect is not a clear web to us, nor would we pretend otherwise. Sometimes we’d mutter about ‘self-initiation’, ‘going on adventure’, or ‘meeting our country’. More often, in response to this ‘why’, we’d offer our first walk as a contextual analogy, concealing a lack of explanation with the illusion of history.
In Spring 2004 we walked from Winchester to Canterbury, along the Pilgrim’s Way.
We wanted to investigate this ancient beaten track, to see what remained of the phenomenon of pilgrimage. We took about three weeks, slow going by most standards, an uncertain first investigation into the art of journeying. In truth, our initial pondering steps were amazingly naive. We had few relevant outdoor skills, no tents/tarps nor maps, and we had no idea what a long walk meant. Slowly we began to perceive the vast scope of our ignorance.
We detected no contradiction in taking a train to Winchester, to walk back again. Movement toward Canterbury seemed safer for inexperienced walkers, a journey empowered by the summoning gravity of home.
Initially accompanying us was a fellow called Ted, who had jumped on board at the last minute. Ted was a big quiet man, who wore tired old Nike trainers and carried a jacket that tenuously boasted of ‘water-resistance’. He walked mostly in silence, practising tai chi at every spare moment. He was a good companion.
In contrast to Ted, we were gloriously overburdened, our backpacks full of plastic kagouls, waterproof sleeping bag covers, books, potatoes, gloves, hats and scarves. We had each baked a loaf of bread the night before we left, full of our personal power foods, seeds and greens, potatoes and spices. These loaves became swiftly less than appetising, guaranteeing their longevity as emergency rations all the way to Canterbury. On cold nights with no fire, we’d gorge on these stale savoury cakes, chewing heavily and thinking of Elven Lembas bread.
The idea of beneficial fasting appealed to us. A sense of growth through self-denial, iron-rations and wind-bitten hands, lingered somewhere in our myth of pilgrimage. We shared dreams of finding the biggest forest in England, and getting lost in the middle.
But we were young, and full of flickering distractions. That other life, normal and creditable ambition, the money and career thing, still echoed its tricky little voices. Will had not finished his studies, and the ghoul of dissertation awaited completion. It was then that we glimpsed the thrilling possibility of ‘research’, which made essay cease to loom so great and so abstract. Instantly, the project flickered into an open page, an empty map waiting to be filled with people, adventure and walking.
We aimed, hard, to prove that Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales crafted an illusory political stability; he obscured the historical truth of pilgrimage as a form of social protest, and hid its historical contests.
His book rebuilt the pilgrimage landscape with twin towers of story within story, to normalize the sacred journey as a middle-class saga of fine horses, gossip and chat. We saw this as strong cultural propaganda, soft-power, hearts and minds stuff.
But the many angry words of the big essay did little to alter the world’s interpretation of the Canterbury Tales. The degree was won and the dissertation read by perhaps eight people.
The real rewards of the journey were elsewhere, in our fingers, toes and hearts, in our immediately deepest roots. Far from student essay-consciousness, we had stumbled into a fresh and uplifting reality, an England of footpaths, woodlands, churches and villages. We had somehow accessed an ancient dream of wandering life, and found it kind, sustainable and exciting. It was a clear step closer to the ultimate human potential that we craved.
A few plot fundamentals were written into our story from the start. We had agreed to pay for no accommodation; to take no lifts; that we should graze, gathering wild food whenever it was abundant and identifiable; that anything we bought would be from independent shops not supermarkets. A dream of freedom, we agreed, needs a root of discipline.
And so we went our footloose and headstrong way. It was with a proud twinge of rebellion that we spent our first night next to the walls of Winchester Cathedral. The lights that usually burn all night, to highlight the Gothic symmetry, were being repaired. So we slyly jumped the fence, and bedded down on the dark stone floor beneath the soaring walls. Dreams came swiftly on.
We arose just before dawn, and soon realized we had slept only five yards from St Swithin’s grave, the famous Saxon Archbishop of Winchester. This was the very spot where Swithin requested to be buried, and where he lay for 100 years, until being re-buried inside the Cathedral walls. This was not the result of insensitivity, but was due to the medieval phenomenon of ‘Translation’, the theft and relocation of saintly relics to other religious centres. Those bones brought in gold.
Swithin’s eminence had made Winchester an early capital of Christian pilgrimage in Britain, before the ascending cult of Beckett and Canterbury. We were repeatedly told of Swithin’s remaining popular legend: that the weather on his day, July 15, would continue for 40 days to come.
We left the Saint’s chosen grave, packed up quickly and silently in the grey morning, and with cold eyes made our way into town. We could see and smell the bun-haze freshly rising above the city, billowing through the waking streets, and we eagerly tracked it to source.
That morning, after pastries, still enjoying the early city sights we bumped into the Dean of the cathedral, who had previously been the Archdeacon of Canterbury. We said nothing of our night’s sleep, and he told all of how he had walked the Pilgrim’s Way in the other direction when he had been promoted, striding with his dog over the downs between the two Cathedrals. With his blessings, we made our way out through the town, agog with synchronicity’s thrills.
The way is well marked Eastward from Winchester along the Itchen river, and the path mainly skirts agricultural land. We stopped frequently in places that called us, beneath a great Elder tree amidst the corn, and beside tiny tributaries of the river to soothe and cool our feet. Soon enough, the way became more exciting, and more difficult.
Huge warehouses appeared alongside mountainous rubbish dumps, in the midst of twisting woodlands. Parts of the ancient path were blocked entirely by electric horse fencing, over which we threw our bags and bodies. We sat in one such paddock awhile, where a huge white stallion and a fine black mare were kept in pining separation by wire and voltage, until the stallion kicked down the paltry fence, and the two ran joyously free together. We liked that.
We soon found the myth of pilgrimage to be alive and strong in the British psyche, despite Henry VIII’s divorcing efforts. One night, too few miles above the M25 (the popular original route of the pilgrim’s highway, a living heritage enshrined under tarmac), we were cooking our pot of stew over a small fire. Suddenly, our ears warned us of approaching noises of shuffle and mutter…not badger, but humankind.
Now, we all know of what Banksy calls the “Crimewatch Syndrome”, whereby television has imprinted the idea of dark natural environments being inhabited by fearsome humans, capable of hideous evil. So hearing unknown people surround our fire, we did hastily bind our shoes to our feet, bringing our staffs close to hand.
Suddenly into the fire’s circle-light stepped a huge man all draped in Barbour, thick-bearded, his low-rimmed hat hiding his eyes.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded. This was reassuring. Dialogue was always missing from Crimewatch reconstructions. We spoke up:
“We’re pilgrims, on our way to Canterbury” we announced, as calmly as we could.
A pause, and the stew bubbled out from under the pot-lid, to spit and crackle onto the fire.
“O, pilgrims, well that’s alright then,” he replied, reassured, “we thought you were troublemakers from the village. They’ve been up here pulling out fence-posts, and burning cars.”
Unsure of what had been avoided and what won, we were wished a good night and a safe journey, and the people disappeared as swiftly as they had come.
The Pilgrim’s Way from Winchester to Canterbury follows paths that sit between the summit and the foot of the North Downs. Such paths protected rich pilgrims from potential robbery in the outlaw-patrolled woods, and from wind and rain exposure on the hilltops. As we followed these muddy tracks and green lanes, up and down hillsides, Ted’s insufficient footwear proved a constant wonder. He slipped and slid everywhere, his feet soaked everyday within just 10 minutes of setting out. Each night, he toasted the useless running shoes on the fire, like toxic marshmallows.
The weather was an initiation all of its own. We didn’t like tents, and considered them to comfort the camper by the imposition of nylon walls, while we instead sought immersion and awareness of our surroundings. In truth we had not even the most basic conception of walking in foul weather. We slept in clearings, trusting the good weather to hold, which was wonderful until we woke up soaked, not knowing how to dry our sleeping bags.
We had to learn the technical benefits of shelter, of overhead shrubbery, tree trunks and ruined chapel walls. We kept a closer eye on the sky, and on animals, noticing how cows huddle in one corner of a field, tails toward the wind when rain’s coming. We learned to watch for patches of sunshine, when we could rig up a string and hang our soggy clothes in the sun’s direct glare. The sight of water turning to steam, drying your only shirt, is beautiful sacred physics.
The journey was physically more difficult than we had predicted. Youth is blessed by the illusion of its invulnerability, and we happily endured our petty suffering. We generally ached a lot, and pushed ourselves according to beliefs and ideas of limitlessness. We listened rather disparagingly to the protests of our hips, knees, ankles, and shoulders. Being blessed by fearsome blisters, we looked forward happily to the promised future of tough-footedness.
Everywhere we walked, equipped with our 1940’s guidebook to the way (it had seemed the best option available), marks of tradition and history awaited us. Pubs, churches, signs and way markings, all whispered of the years of dedicated journey that preceded our own.
We had vetoed the carrying of OS maps, so we happily followed the instructions our old guidebook gave us. This was wonderfully fruitful, until we reached the river Medway. We searched for miles in each direction, trying to find the ferryman who was described so well in our guidebook. We were confused by the industrial complexes that hugged the riverbanks, fencing off the streets and houses alongside. Local kids had no information to venture. An older fellow, emerging from his lunchtime pint, laughed loudly at our queries: “There’s been no ferryman here, for at least 40 years gone. I can’t remember his name…was it old Jack? No, that’s all long gone now.”
We headed downriver, until we found a bridge, and vowed to read our guidebook through to its finish with a critical modern eye, to check for other surprising plot twists.
One night, approaching Box Hill, more lost than usual, we emerged onto a small lane, where two cars zoomed past to splash our already dripping bodies. The third car slowed down, politely avoiding another drenching, and from its window drifted the off-beat sound of Bob Marley’s ‘One Love…One Life…let’s get together and feel alright…’
“Ah…” we thought, and then the car stopped, and a grinning Czech fellow poked his scraggly head out the window, with a yellow 50p price sticker stuck on his forehead.
“Want help?” he articulated, and we most happily took this opportunity to consult his map, before arranging to meet in a Boxhill pub later that evening. The girl was an au pair with weekend driving privileges, and together with her visiting boyfriend, they offered us support where we would have hoped to help them. We spent the evening together in a wild west theme pub, which was confusing for all parties.
The night was passed in Ted’s cousin’s house, whom we dripping disturbed from a night alone with her boyfriend. We felt bad, but it was a big old house, and family is blood. We found out in the morning that the shed where Logie-Baird invented the television lay in the garden of this house, and walking through a village at nightfall, we were coming to appreciate very strongly the common support systems of humanity along the route. Houses were providing water for our canteens when doors were knocked upon, strangers were wishing us constant good luck, and drinks were lining up in public bars for our tales to be told.
People often seemed unsure about not what we were doing, but what we were. Ed had developed a mania for fixing to his walking staff all the relics of the road, the twigs, feathers, pinecones and foliage that he found.
In one village we spied a notice for a local garden tea party. The day and date we confirmed as timely conjunction. We soon found the garden of promise, and eagerly introduced ourselves. We were told, by a distinctly worried gentleman, that the event was not starting for an hour. Hurriedly consulting his lady wife, we were offered the compromised opportunity to take refreshments before the other guests arrived. We are still unsure if this was generosity, concern for our convenience as walkers with miles to tread, or if we were viewed as a potential threat or possible embarrassment. Was this welcome or segregation?
Such an uncertain reception returned. We were not yet singing together, and Ed wore his hair in long dreadlocks, so we surmise we presented a difficult image for middle England to digest smoothly.
One evening, stepping over the threshold of a friendly looking village pub, we very clearly felt the eyes of unwelcome. Perhaps the smell of woodsmoke, or the feathers in our hair, or maybe our raggled green clothes…but we definitely rang alarm bells. Strangers at the door are not always good news…
We shuffled into a corner, bought our ales, and determined to undo suspicion by politeness and good cheer. This was worth little effect for the bulk of the pub’s clientele, but one little old sweetheart called Betty, who had lived in the village for 50 years, decided to be the sole outreach from her community. A wonderful night of energetic conversation followed, and despite our protestations, Betty kept buying the ales. Still, each time we approached the bar, a villager would warn us: “Don’t take advantage of Betty’s generosity”. It seemed that genuine friendship between such apparently different people, us and her, could not be perceived as genuine and heartfelt, but must be reduced to conniving and mal-intent. This hurt our hearts, but we did not let it spoil a rare and beautiful night of cross-generation companionship. On this short walk we never fully overcame such troubles, but it felt like our intentions became clearer, to us at least, while our reception continued to be confused.
We stepped onwards, ever closer to the spires of Canterbury, passing many mysterious monuments of furtive story. Kit’s Coty, and the Countless Stones, which rest near Maidstone, sent us onwards with new appreciation of the energetic boons offered by seemingly anonymous piles of stones. We won’t tell secrets, save to say we were both sent onwards with renewed vigour.
Crossing the A249 at Detling we met another important monument, although its story is new and clearly dictated. A beautiful village, Detling was cut clean in half by the road that was built to protect it from traffic. The Pilgrim’s Way is also neatly chopped by this fast and dangerous road. A bridge crosses the road, entitled Jade’s Crossing, which was built after a difficult battle with a reluctant council, to provide a safe place for people to cross the busy road. OAPS and children had been killed, many villagers’ dogs and horses, and still the council delayed, harping on costs. It took the death of an 8 year old girl, and her grandmother, and £100,000 of donated money, before the bridge came.
We crossed this path on a full-moon night, unwilling to sleep on such a pleasant and bright evening. We slept on a hillside somewhere, waking in long grass with a beautiful valley stretching in front of us.
On a very wet day soon after, as we dipped down from the North Downs to seek shelter in the village of Chilham, and ducked into the pub which was blessed by a huge fire. Here we took ale and soup, and hung our soggy jumpers and hats on the iron hooks that adorned the inglenook fireplace.
An irate Scottish voice barked: “Do ye think this is a Chinese washing house, boys? Put yer clothes away. Now!”
Well, this upset us, but it was wet outside, so we slowly did as asked. The tradition of welcome, a backbone of the public house, was demonstrably snapped like a brittle withy. Thankfully such foolishness is atypical, and most pubs appreciate their traditional role as institutions to serve the traveller.
Approaching Canterbury, we followed the river Stour as it washed into the tiny city. Our pilgrimage was nearly done, and we wondered how it would feel to re-visit the tomb of Beckett, that had previously been so meaningless, after this extensive reflection on his historical and social role in the pilgrimage tradition, and the cultural shape of England.
Passing through the tiny village of Harbledown, through ghosts of apple orchards, we knew we were walking the same path King Henry II had taken when he came here in penitence for Beckett’s death, and was whipped, a king punished by monks. We were buoyed and immensely cheered to be walking up the High Street, that looked the same as ever, but more markedly ancient than we remembered.
And so this little journey drew to close. Our pilgrimage nearly completed, we felt joyous. We entered the city through the West Gate, one of the only surviving medieval gates in England that is treated as an inconvenience to traffic-flow.
Marching over the cobbled high street of Canterbury, we saw the architectural evidence of pilgrimage previous, the old hostels, the stone loops where Beckett lead badges were sold, the churches that would prepare pilgrims for the cathedral ahead. In fine high spirits, we saw the grasping spires of the Bell Harry tower, and under the horrid torpor of a 1980’s statue of Jesus, we walked into the Cathedral precincts.
Here we were told: “No. You can’t come in.”
A concert was due to start, and fur-coated women were arriving, who to their credit were as perturbed by this numb rejection as we were. We knew our journey was not sensational, but still, that our pilgrimage should be so undervalued, by the Cathedral, seemed a grievous woe. Canterbury had grown to wealth and power by grace of pilgrims, and we were sorry that this had been forgotten.
We live near Canterbury, and have been back to the Cathedral many times, to enjoy the herb garden or sing a song in the unbelievable acoustics. But we have not since visited Beckett’s tomb.
The cathedral has now launched an appeal for £50 million, called “Save Canterbury Cathedral”. The Dean and Chapter own half of Canterbury, beside many great ancient treasures, and small traders are frequently complaining of the exorbitant rents that force their businesses to close.
We really want to end this writing with the words “save yourselves!”
But Canterbury Cathedral is one of our favourite places to spend good times. It provides a silence, an opportunity for gentle reflection, that is otherwise unavailable in a modern environment. And from this hub, the deeds and words of this city (small town) flow outward to the rest of Britain and the world. It seems that ancient channels of communication converge here, the seat of the Church of England. The cathedral has recently revived its monastic herb garden too, which is a fine living place of instruction and refelction. And the choristers sing every night, at 5:30 evensong, which is a free daily concert of some of the finest choral music available without a ticket.
And we are great fans of Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is an excellent poet, an aquiline intellectual, and an outspoken fan of the Incredible String Band. We’ve also heard that he blocks Masonic promotion in the Church of England, due to his concerns about priests swearing oaths to others than God. It makes sense, and is an interesting window into the world of dark rooms and power, the marks of which are all over Canterbury.
So we shall only say: we hope to finish our pilgrimage, at the tomb of Thomas, the next time we return to Canterbury.