A Modern Pilgrimage
Published in Country Life, April 8, 2020
With the Canterbury Tales in mind, we decided to string together half a dozen of the most beautiful cathedrals of southern England to create our own modern pilgrimage. Starting at Wells and walking east, passing through the naves of Salisbury, Winchester and Rochester, our goal was to reach Canterbury by Easter. We aimed to catch all these cathedrals at their most magical—for the mid-afternoon service of evensong. At Salisbury, however, we arrived early in the day, to be greeted at the porch by a verger who welcomed us in, along with the dogs, as if we were prodigal children.
We wanted to discover the English landscape at the slow, all-absorbing pace of a walker. Instead of staying at inns in the Chaucerian way, however, we inflicted ourselves on friends and relations, so our route was determined by joining the dots between hospitable households. These were tested to the nth degree, particularly when we needed to be picked up from a pub or set back on our path after breakfast; hosts threw dinner parties so that we could meet their neighbours and, sometimes, friends we hadn’t seen for decades would meet us with a picnic. On one occasion, a host was detailed to bring a suitcase to a railway station, but, in every instance, our claim to be pilgrims worked its magic.
I walked with a shepherd’s crook, a hat, at least one lurcher, maps and a compass. My companion, an architectural historian, strolled along unencumbered by anything weightier than a pair of glasses and a toothbrush. Luckily, she’s a free spirit so there were no arguments about the route. Friends for 40 years since our student days, we were confident of our compatibility as walkers and inured to any mild eccentricities. Neither of us is bored by an archaeological lump or can pass the door of a village church without popping inside. This provided a competitive sport—wandering around a darkened nave trying to guess the age of an arch before permitting ourselves to look it up.
In so many ways the walk reversed expectations and prejudices. Crossing the farmlands of Somerset, Wiltshire and Hampshire, we met no other walkers; indeed, wading through long, wet grass on the edge of Salisbury Plain, it was clear the path had not been used for days. Halfway through our journey, we joined the North Downs Way, where we found a more organised trail with a succession of wooden signposts and some long distance walkers to chat to.
We had secretly been dreading the commuter belt towns and their suburbs, but the route from one to the next took us through wild flower meadows and villages with pretty cottage gardens and charming pubs. Between Alton and Farnham one hot July day, we passed just one other pilgrim. From Farnham to Guildford the next, after sheltering from a downpour in a church porch, we were able to take in an exhibition and a cream tea at the famous Watts Gallery at Compton, which stands right beside the Pilgrims Way.
Coming off the footpath as the evening light caught the walls of Farnham Castle, and then finding ourselves at the top of a wide street lined with a parade of Georgian houses, was a revelation. In the Eight Bells at Alton, we overheard fragments of local gossip about a Civil War battle that took place here as if only yesterday. Breakfasting at The Angel, the old posting house in Guildford, I stumbled on a Gothic vault while visiting the gents and learnt of the remains of a 12th-century synagogue (the oldest in Britain) beneath Waterstone’s in the High Street. In the Hampshire village of Bentworth, we witnessed a Munnings-like scene of a little girl leading her brother up a lane, both riding bare-back on ponies as a young scamp peddled along furiously behind—no adult in sight. At Newlands on a memorable morning’s walk between Box Hill and St Martha’s Hill, we stopped at an outdoor café to enjoy glorious views south over the Weald. I found myself sharing a bench with a fearsome looking motorcyclist in a leather jacket studded with badges, who turned out to have been a sergeant in the Welsh Guards who had fought beside a friend of mine in the Falklands. Two hours later, we struck up conversation with a young inventor who had already made his first fortune in Silicon Valley. He wore a backpack wired up to a tiny elevated camera and was collecting a 360 degree view of the wildlife and plants of the North Downs Way, from treetop to forest floor.
Among the highlights of our many picnics was the feast stage-set by friends in the shadow of King Alfred’s Tower on the Wiltshire-Somerset border, complete with al fresco lemon cocktail and freshly brewed coffee. Three walks later, we sat among the llama-grazed ruins of the Norman hunting palace of Clarendon, eating pork pies while admiring a less familiar view of distant Salisbury Cathedral. Cafes along the way were few and far between, but we visited them all, most memorably the family run Cassandra’s Cup opposite Jane Austen’s house-museum at Chawton.
Best of the many companions who joined us for different stretches was our mutual godson Harry, who revealed an extraordinary depth of knowledge about the burial places of Anglo-Saxon dynasties and then proved himself on the ground by identifying the gatehouse to Hyde Abbey, one of the lost splendours of Winchester where the Kings of Wessex were buried.
We stumbled upon our most unexpected discovery at the end of a long march through Grovelly Woods on a gloomy, rain-sodden track that the map had enticingly labelled a Roman road. Tired as we were plodding along the water meadows on the final stretch from Wilton to Salisbury, there was something about the church and rectory of St Andrew, Bemerton that demanded to be investigated. This, we discovered, was the home of George Herbert, one of the great spiritual voices of 17th-century England and friend to other poet-priests, such as John Donne and Nicholas Ferrar. That day I knew our walk had become a true modern pilgrimage
As with Chaucer’s pilgrims, we have not yet reached Canterbury. Overcoming natural impediments, such as the flooding of the River Mole, we have at last made footfall in Kent. However, our progress has now been thwarted by a modern plague and so we must rest our boots for a few months until we are free to resume the journey and reach its culminating glory—the tomb of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral.
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