On a recent visit to Australia my friends Matt and Ange gave me a dried sunflower head from the previous year’s crop. The golden spiral of seeds is beautifully compact and pregnant with potential.
Each day of our journey we give a seed or two to the special people who offer us shelter or encouragement. With a bit of luck these humble gifts will grow into giant blooms that resemble the star they worship.
The first seeds were given away on 1st March in Dover. How tall will they be when we reach Iona?
Have we given you a seed? Send us a picture when the flowers grow!
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 15–mile 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.
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.
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?’
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.
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.