Step by Step

by Issy

My biggest challenge so far has been my feet. Although I’m not an experienced walker, I like to think that I’m relatively fit and I was relieved that 15mile days, with 5kgs on my back weren’t a problem, but my feet aren’t happy. My first pair of shoes caused me tendonitis, so I switched to my trainers, which gave me blisters. Four days in and things seemed to be settling down until small stings/bites appeared on my ankles, which promptly blistered and caused my ankles and feet to swell. I felt seriously fed up and frustrated, my feet seemed set on testing me and the odds seemed stacked against me making it through the first leg (Dover to London), let alone the next 600 mile stretch (London to Iona).

Over dinner I mentioned the bites to Debra from Hornchurch, she immediately ran off to her room to grab a big bottle of Aloe Vera gel, insisting that I should keep it. So kind when she’d literally just met me a few hours before. Similarly, Clover, who we stayed with in Hartley, on seeing my swollen foot rummaged through her medicine cabinet and was thrilled to find that she had some old antihistamine tablets. Meanwhile, having posted a photo of my swollen foot on Instagram and Facebook, I found a whole host of concerned messages from new and old friends alike. How kind and caring everyone was, albeit slightly embarrassing that my puffy foot had become the centre of attention. My frustration turned to gratitude for everyone’s support.

Debra and Chris

Amazingly my foot made a speedy recovery overnight and was able to stride the 11 miles to London in time to enjoy a lazy picnic in Greenwich Park, with our friend Alexandra who’d joined us for the last few miles to Southwark.

I was happy, relieved and had learnt two big lessons. Firstly, to keep the faith. Secondly, to banish expectations and embrace each day as it comes. You can prepare as much as you like but new challenges, delights and opportunities will constantly be thrown up that no amount of research would have either avoided or discovered. For someone who likes to be organised and in control of things, this is hard, but something I’ll now be more aware of.

 

Religion

By Christy

 

One of the interesting things about being a pilgrim is being asked “Is this a religious thing?”

From the perspective of our partners and sponsors Projects For All the Listening Pilgrimage is not religious. Projects For All is not affiliated with a religion. Its projects are secular and inclusive. Similarly, our friends at The British Pilgrimage Trust take an inclusive approach to pilgrimage, encouraging pilgrims to BYOB — Bring Your Own Beliefs.

We are all sensitive to the divisive potential of religious labels, so this is a theme that we have to approach thoughtfully from the very start. For the record then, here is my personal response to the question, ‘Is this a religious thing?’

The Millennium window at Barham Church

I was baptised and confirmed in the Church of England. I grew up in a series of villages in rural Suffolk and Cambridgeshire. My family would go to church sporadically, especially for Easter and Christmas services. The church played a big role in the social life of the village, as it has done throughout England for many years. I attended a Methodist school and studied A-level Theology. I had my atheistic tendencies, inspired by ‘The God Delusion’ by Richard Dawkins, and managed to shrug off habits of worship that I had grown up with but never examined. In recent years I have come back to faith with an open mind, and now I can say without blushing: I am a pilgrim.

Is pilgrimage religious? It depends on the pilgrim.  

There are forms of pilgrimage in all religions, and some that are purely secular. If you wish to understand pilgrimage, pick a destination that means something to you, that calls you. It could be a temple, a spring, a battlefield, a football stadium, whatever.

Yew Tree tunnel to the door of St Mary’s, Patrixbourne

Now get there, under your own power if possible, or with the help of friends. If you can, walk.

Be open to your surroundings and welcome all encounters. Go in the spirit of giving, not taking. Learn from each meeting and every challenge. Reflect on the history of those who have walked the path before you. Trust in the way and the kindness of strangers.  

When you get to your destination, you will know something of what pilgrimage is.

Bring your own beliefs, be open minded, and don’t be afraid to enter places of worship.

In just two days walking we have been in or around nearly twenty churches and one cathedral — the spiritual heart of a global religion. As we progress, we intend to visit synagogues and mosques, temples and meeting-houses. We set off to collect stories about refugees, but at the same time we are exploring the history and state of faith in these islands. The two strands are intertwined.

Spire of St John the Baptist, Barham

 

British Pilgrims

By Christy

The sun struck rainbows through the millennial stained glass window. We woke and washed and drank tea and discussed the benefice with church wardens John, Brian and Stephanie. Will Parsons arrived, original British Pilgrim and our guiding angel for the day. Will took photos of us, and fed us with local granola, raw milk and hard-won, freely given knowledge from his powerful fountain of wisdom. He really believes in pilgrimage, as you can see if you contact him through The British Pilgrimage Trust. Flatteringly, he really believes in us too.  With his fold-away saw I cut myself a hazel staff for the journey, to keep me in touch with the earth in spite of my rubberised shoe-soles.

At Bishopsbourne we met Liz and Andy, beaming in their sun-kissed allotment, now burgeoning with Spring life. Liz is a therapist who has just returned from working in Malta to ease the arrival of African refugees who find themselves there, often in the belief that they have arrived in Italy. Read more about her remarkable insights here.

More churches, pre-Raphaelite and medieval art, saints and holy wells, skinnydipping, singing, striding out over fields and through parks and forests and over burial mounds of Saxons and Jutes and every age of man and woman. More chance encounters: a genealogist fresh from Canterbury, our destination that night. A conservationist contemplating trees and fields under the doom of future housing. Elephants and a leopard. Spring lambs. A man and his daughter in an empty church, playing piano and enjoying the acoustics. Swinging from an ancient beech tree riven with initials of lost generations of youth.

We arrived in darkness, the lit cathedral looming orange between black trees. The Cathedral garden smelled of blossom. The empty cloisters echoed in the darkness. Tales of knights and poor Nel buried alive. A final circumambulation and then home to London, 60 miles an hour on the old pilgrim road feeling very strange indeed.

So much to reflect on. So many connections made. We look forward to picking up where we left off and walking a three cathedral route from Canterbury to Southwark via Rochester and Medway, City of Sanctuary.

To be continued…

Thanks to all those who are making this journey possible: Projects for All, The British Pilgrimage Trust, Kati, Monika, Roland, Ellie, Will, Brian, and all our supporters.

Thanks to Isabel, my fellow pilgrim, and to the Way.

Onward to Iona.