English pilgrimage 2012

Joel and I made a pilgrimage from our novitiate at Manresa House in Harbone, Birmingham, to Walsingham, Canterbury and back from 3 June 2012 until 13 July. Below are some reflections on the journey in three sections: a short description of the journey, a few reminiscences of incidents along the way and some reflections of what I take away from the experience. First, a note especially to those who met us along the way and wandered if we would survive. Yes, we made it back safely, thank God and thanks to many people along the way. In fact, compared with some pilgrimage stories I’ve heard we had a pretty uneventful time.

I’ll describe the route by mentioning the places where we stopped for the night, although I realise that this does not tell you about the journey so much as the stops along the way. Looking at the pilgrimage as a whole it was the journey more than the destinations that form the bulk of the experience. But the richest part of the journey was the stops and it is from them that other memories hang because a lot of the road passed unremarkably. Generally, I won’t mention where we stayed because this is our story and not all of our hosts may want to be implicated. The main exception to this is Jesuit communities. Not to ignore the journey I’ll also say a few words about my mood or some experiences during a day’s walk.

12th century baptismal font
We sought refuge in many churches. This is a 12th century baptismal font in one of them.

We set out on a wet Sunday morning at about 9am. I was feeling quite strong and quite nervous. After a couple of hours of winding our way through the streets of east Birmingham through the still lightly falling rain my feet were sore and my shoulders ached. I was very glad to spot a church which was open and to take a rest for a while in the dry. That was the first of many churches which we went to for help and sanctuary. It was the weekend of Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee celebrations. We didn’t know how many shops would be open, particularly as we got further out. So we bought some food which added to the load, and then spent the rest of the day noting that we passed about about a dozen shops open for business, the last one within sight of where we spent the night. By about 4pm we arrived in Coleshill and admitted that we could not go any further that day. We made camp under a roof that mostly kept the rain off and slept badly but rejoiced in the rest for about twelve hours. I was tired and sore but somewhat revived to push on the next morning. There wasn’t much rain that day and the sun came out in the afternoon and it was lovely and warm. We made it as far as Nuneaton on the Monday.

In these early days Joel was taking more strain than myself but I was starting to get blisters and they dominated the rest of the days to Walsingham. Almost every step was painful and before setting off in the morning and after lunch I had a ritual of putting plasters over the latest blisters. I also had to develop a new style of walking that took less of a toll on my heels. Later on, in London, we heard some advice that novices in the late 1980s had for their pilgrimage, “take the first half of the pilgrimage easy” to build up your strength slowly. I recognised the wisdom of this advice from bitter experience. The reason we were pushing so hard was that we needed to be in London by the night of 18 June so that Joel could make a visa application to join us on a trip to France in August. [He got the visa and we have just returned from a great week in Lyon, in warm sunshine, meeting with novices from the Lyon and Nuremberg novitiates.] The last day of the jubilee weekend we continued walking wearily but without incident and had a pleasant, if wet night in Dunton Basset.

We were beginning to realise that most villages did not have a shop and so I went out of our way in places to make sure that we had some food with us. On Wednesday we stayed in Tur Langton and got to Harringworth on Thursday afternoon during one of the hardest and longest showers of the journey. The following day the weather made the front page of the newspaper. We got a lift for several miles to within striking distance of Peterborough. We got to the Nene river and found the path that should follow the river to the sea. We seemed to follow it in circles – we walked for hours without sight nor sound of the city. In the end we headed for a road and asked for directions and wearily made our way into the city. On Saturday we crossed the Fens which are completely flat and crossed by very straight roads that intersect almost at right angles. In the telling it isn’t obviously bad walking terrain but it was possibly the only part that I really didn’t like. A factor of that dislike was certainly that we had been walking for seven days and were feeling very tired. I made some unfortunate route decisions and so we didn’t make it to Wisbech where we had planned to stop. We spent the night in Parson Drove and made an early start in glorious sunshine to get to Mass in the town – not that we knew what time Mass was. In fact after the cold of the previous week we were not adjusted to the seasonable weather we had that day and found it tough going in the heat. I was struggling during that walk, even without the heat and realised that it would be more efficient to remain in Wisbech for the rest of the day than trying to push on. We went to Mass and had a wonderful afternoon and night in Wisbech. A particularly memorable day that ended up completely different than expected but much better.

Holy Ghost chapel, Walsingham
Holy Ghost chapel, Walsingham

Refreshed by the rest and clean clothes and armed with some local route information we set out for King’s Lynn. The morning was very wet; I spent most of it thinking that there was no way I would make it all the way. Lunch in the church of Terrington Saint John was really welcome. We pushed on and made it to West Lynn just before 4pm and got the passenger ferry into the city. That was another night when rest was very welcome. We made good progress towards Sandringham along the cycle route and passed the gate to the Queen’s garden party just before lunch. The nearby church was the most frequented I saw; perhaps it is always like that but probably it was some of the tea-partiers. For the rest of the afternoon we saw cars with smartly

Holy House chapel, Walsingham
Holy House chapel, Walsingham

dressed people passing by. That night we stayed in Syderstone within a few hours walk of Walsingham. On Wednesday morning the sun was shining and we made the distance and rejoiced to have reached the first major objective of the pilgrimage. Joel had the excellent idea of sending a postcard to the novitiate community. We prayed in the chapels and I basked in the sun before Mass at noon. After lunch we headed into the village and visited the Orthodox and Anglican shrines. Then it was back on the road to Fakenham that night. We made it to Swaffham the following night and arrived in Brandon on Friday afternoon – feeling pretty tired and sore at the end of another week and a particularly depressing navigational error which turned what should have been a leisurely walk into a mad rush. After taking local advice about routes and travel options we decided to travel to London the next day and rest on Sunday.

We got a coach to Victoria. It was strange to travel in a few hours what would have taken days to cover on foot. We headed up to the Jesuit community in Stamford Hill who graciously welcomed us for two nights which enabled us to have our first day without any walking. We could also go to Mass and do washing and think about our strategy on the Canterbury leg. Monday was a city walk to Brixton which I quite enjoyed because I knew where I was going even though the surroundings were not so picturesque. I had a bonus rest day on Tuesday when Joel went to make his visa application.

Main altar at Aylesford Priory
Main altar at Aylesford Priory

On Wednesday we made good progress to get beyond the built up parts of London into the villages and stayed at Cudham. Although there weren’t many houses and the roads were small and hedge-lined I still felt very much in London. It was not the same as the friendly villages we passed through in the first stretch, not that people were unfriendly individually, but they were more cautious. We did not make such good progress the next day and got to Otford. Friday morning we left with the objective of getting to Aylesford. We took more footpaths than any previous day; I was planning that we would walk most of the way to Canterbury along the North Downs Way which coincides with an ancient pilgrim route from Winchester to Canterbury. There were quite as many ups as downs and my knees took some strain. Another feature of marked footpaths cost us some time and more energy – we lost the markers at one point. We ended up at a church where women were decorating the church for a flower festival. Their vicar and some parishioners were out doing a sponsored walk from Winchester along the North Downs Way at that very moment. It started to rain before we got to Aylesford, but fortunately stayed quite light until we got there.

The next morning I woke up and felt that I would not be able to walk that day after the exertions of the previous day. Fortunately, it worked out that we could stay another night. We had the offer of a lift which meant that we could still make it to Canterbury by the Sunday evening which we decided to take and got to the cathedral in time for Evensong.

Pulpit in Canterbury Cathedral
Pulpit in Canterbury Cathedral

After a day in Canterbury we went to Faversham. During the first half of the walk we kept to small roads and occasionally took footpaths which had been relatively successful, but after London it was more difficult to navigate by small roads partly because they didn’t seem to be as direct and there were a lot more of them which made taking a wrong turn easier. On the way to Aylesford we’d walked for quite a long time along a small A-road which had a walkway. It was straight and relatively pleasant; more so than walking on the edge of some small busy country roads with cars streaming by at what felt like high speed. So the new plan for getting back to London was to follow the A2 which follows a similar route to an ancient road between London and Dover, although doesn’t seem to have been part of the pilgrimage route to Canterbury. We had a long day and got to Gillingham on Wednesday. I hadn’t been there before but had an idea that the Medway towns were a bit posh and was surprised to see that, at least in the bits we went to, this is not the case. We were glad to get a lift through the tunnel, which avoided going around to the bridge in Rochester, and walked to Gravesend on one of the truly hot days of the summer. I was glad to spend much of the afternoon sitting in a park near the Thames, and it seemed as though quite a few of the citizens of Gravesend felt the same.

I strained a muscle in my upper left arm which gave me some discomfort but I discovered that I could make an effective sling with my towel. I walked with it on for several days at this time although it unbalanced me a bit and so put extra strain on my knees. As Joel frequently observed, when one pain goes another comes to take its place. We got to Welling the next day – back into London – and still walking more or less along the A-roads. On Saturday I plotted a route through smaller roads but more directly to Clapham. I was very pleased when we had lunch in Peckham Rye Common because we were making good progress but more because once again I basically knew where I was and could walk the rest without a map. We passed my old parish church in Herne Hill, but by then we were just trying to keep putting one foot in front of the other and so didn’t stop. I wasn’t sure that there would be any Jesuits home and was more than half expecting to have to try another option which would have included more walking. Fortunately, there was someone home and he heard our knock (apparently not to be taken for granted from his second floor room) and welcomed us in. On Sunday we rested, actually I walked to visit my sisters which my feet weren’t very happy about. But I wanted to see them and was really pleased to be able to phone my mother on her birthday with them. By this time I seemed to be permanently hungry and my sisters and the Clapham community helped feed me up to ease the hunger.

Looking down Canterbury cathedral
Looking down Canterbury cathedral

On Monday we set out a bit later than usual, hoping to avoid the early morning traffic. We crossed the Thames at Kew and then headed upstream a short way to the Brent river and followed it and the Grand Union Canal to Southall. I was a bit concerned that the canal path would be unclear, stop, be very muddy, or that it would not be clear when to leave it. None of these came to pass and I confidently said that we were close to the Jesuit community and that I could find the way. Well, I’d gone there from the opposite side and the road layout seemed different in real life compared with what I remembered from the London street map and I ended up leading on a wild goose chase for what seemed like ages. This was one of the more galling instances of bad navigation. However, we got there in the end and once again the Jesuits were very welcoming – this time however, it was just a one night stop.

The next day we continued along the canal to Slough. Then we walked on to Maidenhead which was a long day by the time we stopped. The next day we went the relatively short distance to Henley-on-Thames. We decided not to buy any more bread because we hoped to be in the town for a latish lunch. We were following another A-road with walkway and making great progress. I saw an advertisement saying that the Henley festival was starting that day. Then I wished that we had taken another route because I thought that it was one of the worst days to arrive; the place would be crawling with people looking for accommodation for the rowing races and trying to get out of the rain. Fortunately, the rowing was the previous week and this festival was a more local event although there were still a lot of visitors. Then the walkway stopped and once again I regretted coming that way. I didn’t want to walk along the road because it was narrow and windy in parts. We investigated various options and in the end I led us up a path that I was fairly confident would meet a path or road going to Henley. Well after going up a steep hill, up and down some pleasant rolling countryside we had covered about two miles when we came out onto the road we had just left two hundred metres further on. Plan C was to head down to the Thames path which was muddy but passable but the extra time finding the path and then extra distance of taking it meant that we had to have a light lunch with what we had until we reached Henley a couple of hours later. As I recall this was the only time that we didn’t have enough food.

At the bishop's Old Palace in Oxford
At the bishop’s Old Palace in Oxford

We got to Watlington on Thursday night and prepared for the relatively long haul to Oxford under threat of rain in the forecast. We made an early start and made good progress. At about ten light rain started falling. I was feeling more confident because it seemed that they were counting the miles to the centre of Oxford rather than the edge. One of the frequent conversations we had was how the distances felt longer at different times, how one day we seemed to consistently notch up the miles while other days it seemed a struggle to get anywhere. That was a day that we made good progress, so much so that we had lunch in a church on the Cowley Road (in Oxford) – I knew where we were again which gave me a burst of energy. After lunch the rain was falling harder. A few minutes later it got harder still and so I asked if we could stand under a tree until the shower had passed. Five minutes later the rain was falling yet harder and tree or not I could feel water streaming down my shirt. So we decided to push on regardless. By the time we got to the Jesuit community we were soaked. I was very pleased to be able to get dried out that evening and the following day. The weather was in the news again and questions were asked whether it was wise to carry on. Our experience had been that although we didn’t see much of the sun and it was often quite cold we hadn’t been really wet more than a few times and so we were emboldened to continue.

We got to Charlbury on the Sunday afternoon which was much further than I expected. In the last week even though my feet and knees were sore and was generally feeling pretty tired we did seem to be going more consistently quicker. Chipping Norton was not very far and had been our intended stopping place for Monday but I wondered if it would be better to press on, particularly as heavy rain was forecast later in the week and I wanted to be able to keep out of it and still make it back home on foot. In the end we decided to stick to the plan. One of the deciders for me was a conversation I’d had with a lady after Mass during which she said that she was learning to take one day at a time. From my experience of the pilgrimage I realised that things had often turned out differently than planned and trying to anticipate the weather was risky. I decided to make detour and go to Heythrop, the place from which Heythrop College in London takes its name because it was based there for about forty years until it moved to London in 1970. A couple of generations of British Jesuits studied philosophy and/or theology there. Joel did not want to go and so we split up – which was in contrast to our usual practice of walking together. It was about the only time that I chose a route out of personal interest and went out of my way to see something and it gave the day had a different feel. I had more reflections of a personal nature. Most of the time I was doing it because we’d been sent, whereas this was something that I chose to do.

From Chipping Norton we went to Chipping Campden which turns out to be a tourist magnet (chipping means market). We had decided not to go through Stratford-upon-Avon because of the flood of tourists there and ended up with them anyway, less in number but higher in income I suspect. We had a very pleasant evening in this town of medieval buildings and ancient traditions. The next morning we came down the hill, after stopping for a minute to look at the wonderful views from Dover’s Hill and got to Bidford-on-Avon. On Thursday we were trying to decide whether to go to Studley or Redditch and decided to try Studley first. We didn’t have much success and after a few hours pushed on to Redditch in the rain and once again getting a bit lost and I was feeling a bit depressed by the time we got there. We were pleasantly surprised to find a very warm welcome which put us on a good footing for the final push to Birmingham. We arrived back home at about three o’clock very glad to be back, with an experience which I am sure I will think about for many a year.

A very rough calculation of distance (Joel will testify how inaccurate my calculations can be) is that we walked 450 miles and went by car or coach for another 125 miles. I was pleased to do a route that began from and ended at the front door. Most novice pilgrimages involve travelling to or from somewhere. It made me very aware that while a pilgrimage is a journey somewhere, it is also a journey back which we tend to forget when travelling by modern means of transport.

Stained glass window in Church
Joel gained a new appreciation for stained glass on the pilgrimage

The most memorable parts of the pilgrimage are meetings with people, particularly the way they welcomed or helped us. Some help was quite small, for example, people we asked for directions, particularly in towns when our map wasn’t detailed enough to follow. Sometimes a simple request resulted in receiving more than I expected. For example, a few times people we stayed with one night contacted someone in our next destination to ask if we could be accommodated there the following night (this sometimes caused its own problems and we generally declined as the journey progressed). One such day we were not going to make the arranged meeting together and so I pushed on at a quicker pace to try and get there. But I gave Joel the map and got lost. It was one of the least populated areas we walked through, but as I approached a house I saw a man walking along the road. He went into the house before I got to him. There were some off-putting signs on the gate, “Private – keep out” or something like that which made me apprehensive. Out of necessity I knocked at the house anyway and asked for directions. He gave the directions and then said, “If you wait five minutes I’m going to drive there and can give you a lift.” Well with eight miles to go in an hour, half of these along a very busy road this was an offer I could not refuse and so made the rendezvous.

Perhaps the most memorable experience of hospitality came at the end of a long day when we’d tried several churches without success. We knocked at a vicarage door and the vicar answered, clearly in the middle of some work. We told our story and her first reaction, like many people, was that we should have called ahead. For some reason she invited us in anyway and had a discussion with her husband in another room. Coming back to us she explained that she’d like to help but also had to consider her two young daughters. She suggested one of the churches we had already tried, then asked us more about who we were and what we were doing. We showed them our reference letters and then they decided to welcome us for the night. Not only did we have a room to stay in, but she cancelled an appointment that evening to take time to prepare a cooked meal and talked to us instead of doing the job she had been working on. Her husband also chatted with us and offered us a lift the next day because he happened to be going to our destination (we didn’t take him up on the offer). The next morning I think we used too much hot water but ate a wonderful breakfast and then were helped to get safely to the walking route. This meeting left such a deep impression because their generosity, but also because we could see something of the struggle and cost to our hosts.

A pleasant series of meetings were without consequence to where we stayed or how we walked but showed how interconnected we are. We have a Sri Lankan Jesuit, Roy, in our community who is doing further studies in Birmingham. To my astonishment we met three Sri Lankans on the journey who know him (two are Jesuits but it is still quite amazing). All were studying in London. The first, a Jesuit who was in the same novitiate group with Roy. The second is a diocesan priest who lived near Roy’s novitiate and knew them from that time. We met him because he is helping in the parish where my former parish priest now ministers and we were graciously welcomed by them. The third was born in Sri Lanka, lived in India most of his life and expects to go as a missionary to Sri Lanka after his theology studies and knows Roy because there aren’t that many Sri Lankan Jesuits in England.

Altar pieceSometimes things came together from unexpected sources. Near the end of a particular day’s walk a man stopped his car next to us on the road and offered us a lift – the only time anyone did that without any knowledge of who we were. He turned out to be on a journey himself; he had spent a number of years in Spain but had lost his job and had come to stay with his mother while he tried to find new direction in his life. Some years previously he’d spent three months walking in the Ethiopian Highlands – which made him sympathetic to us. He dropped us in the next village and we went to the church which didn’t seem to be leading to anything. Joel went to speak to a neighbour who was mowing his lawn. He was very friendly and pointed us in the direction of the church warden. For some reason our conversation with the warden did not go well and as we returned the neighbour invited us to stay in his home for the night and he and his wife were very hospitable.

There were times when we were feeling too sure of finding help in a particular place and got a nasty shock when it wasn’t forthcoming. There were a couple of nights when people helped us but clearly felt very uncomfortable about it, which made me want to flee. But even more I felt that we had to stay, partly because we did need the help, but also to honour the struggle the person had gone through to let us in. A comment that I think all pilgrims who undertake this kind of pilgrimage hear frequently is: “If you’d called ahead I could have prepared to welcome you fittingly”. One night I got a sense of how and why they might feel this. From our perspective we were happy just to have a roof over our heads and some floor on which to sleep. Thank you to those who recognised this – each time someone readily offered was amazing. We said, “We’re looking for a place to shelter for the night”, they quickly replied, “No problem, you can sleep in our church, sacristy, presbytery, church hall, village hall, office, etc.” Often these places had a toilet and/or hot water facilities which were much appreciated, sometimes even beds. After about a month I felt hungry most of the time (somehow even when I was full) and although we had enough money to buy simple food, cooked meals were really welcome.

We met many hospitable Roman Catholic clergy; those of East Anglia diocese particularly stuck us, but we also had some wonderful experiences in Southwark and Birmingham. Just as often Anglicans offered us hospitality. Our experience of communities of religious was encouraging. The time we spent with the Carmelite friars was very much appreciated, particularly their openness with us and an invitation to return for the Bright Lights Festival which was very attractive but didn’t fit into our route in the end. In Canterbury Franciscans came to our aid – both Anglican and Roman Catholic. The day we arrived, Joel correctly warned that we should not presume that it would be easy to find a place to stay. He did some investigation and found a community of the Society of St Francis who welcomed us very readily and warmly. Before we had collected our bags to go to them another of Joel’s contact resulted in him meeting a Conventual friar who said that they couldn’t accommodate us that night but suggested that we come to visit them the following day, which worked out very well for us. I really enjoyed the conversations we had in both communities. Joel wondered what effect it would have on people if they had been to church and heard a reading about hospitality or “who is my neighbour” and then met us. One day, unknown to us this was the reading of the day was about Jesus sending out his disciples without money or luggage and telling them to accept the hospitality offered them or to shake the dust of the town from their shoes as they left. We certainly were not following the no money or luggage part, but walking pilgrims are closer than they were likely to experience most days and our hosts remembered the reading and welcomed us enthusiastically (I suspect that they would have done so even without the reading, but it was a blessed encounter).

We were frequently asked what the purpose of the pilgrimage was. Here are some thoughts a month after stopping when I’m no longer hungry, although my feet still don’t feel comfortable walking very far. Pilgrimage was important in Ignatius’ own life. He went to Jerusalem on pilgrimage and after coming back did a lot of travelling on foot. In the Jesuit Constitutionsin the section that was given to candidates to let them know what the Society was and what they could expect if they joined, it says that novices could expect to “spend another month in making a pilgrimage without money, but begging from door to door at times, for the love of God our Lord, in order to grow accustomed to discomfort in food and lodging. Thus too the candidate,

Sleeping in a church
Sleeping in a church where the bells rang every hour made me think of Samuel sleeping in the sanctuary of the Lord and being called.

through abandoning all the reliance which he could have in money or other created things, may with genuine faith and intense love place his reliance entirely in his Creator and Lord.” We took the concession that was offered to us of taking some money. Unfortunately, I don’t think that I have reached the level of “entire” reliance on God but it gave me the opportunity to reassess what I need and also to take a look at life from a different perspective. The whole novitiate has given me a chance to do that but the pilgrimage was a particular and concentrated way of doing it. It has given me a lot to think about and is shaping my worldview. It raised questions of what is possible. Some might have considered the pilgrimage an impossible venture and I would definitely not have chosen to do it, but when I was sent to do it I managed. My sense of distance changed considerably, the distances that we covered in a day could be covered by car in less than half an hour. Yet, when we put all our days together we made a journey of quite astonishing distance. Hopefully, at times it will cause me ask whether a venture is impossible or just very big.

Before we left when people heard about the pilgrimage several asked us to pray for them. As we set out I made that my task. On the road others also asked for prayers. Many at home and along the way said that they would pray for us – thank you, we certainly needed prayers. Intercession was my primary activity while walking.

I wouldn’t call it a purpose, but a result of the way we did the pilgrimage, namely to go to churches as our first port of call meant that we got a series of snapshots of different aspects, expressions and experiences of church. One of the positive experiences of this is to discover that there is some life. I hope that we were also a sign of that life to some of the people we met. My overall impression, however, is of looking at a starry night sky – there is life in stars but they are few and far between. The stars are wonderful people doing some wonderful work. One of the most enduring memories I do have is how much hope and comfort I got from seeing church buildings as we approached a village (they were less obvious in towns). It also raised questions about the role of the church or its activities because it doesn’t seem to have much significance for many people.

Camping in a churchyard
Fortunately, most of the nights we slept outside were dry.

For a physical journey the pilgrimage sites we visited and other places along the way left surprisingly little lasting impression. This was surely partly because I was tired much of the time. If I were choosing to do a pilgrimage to be moved by the places I would go much slower and not as far. I’ve had a good experience of a bicycle pilgrimage for that.

One of the fundamental themes and experiences of this pilgrimage is hospitality. I was and am challenged to be more hospitable myself. Without warning or consent we asked hospitality of people every day of the journey. They reacted in different ways. When I think of how I would be likely to react, I am so grateful that we were blessed to meet people far more generous and hospitable than myself. For some hope in myself I’d like to think that perhaps an additional factor might be that they were blessed with the grace to be so hospitable beyond what their normal inclinations in the situation.

Although I found a lot challenges in having a companion I didn’t choose who is quite different from me I came to know Joel much better and appreciate some of his qualities and to depend on him in many ways. Looking back, I also realise that although we remember things differently and remember different things we shared quite an intense journey together and for much of the experience we only have each other to share the memories.


Statue of St Jude, Faversham
Shrine of St Jude in Faversham—the patron saint of hope (a positive spin on his usual designation)

2 thoughts on “English pilgrimage 2012

  1. Greatly enjoyed reading this, especially the part where you write that you have been prompted to distinguish just a really big task from the impossible.

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