Making progress, pilgrim?


There are times and places for things, and I have to say that the middle of winter, during storms that threaten to push sea levels over the flood-defence systems down two thirds of the east coast, is probably not the time to fantasize about walking the Northumberland strand. But there it is.

As usual, it’s the telly’s fault – last night I watched Pilgrimage with Simon Reeve, on my father’s recommendation. How right he was, the programme was a treat! I recently wrote a short and horribly undercooked feature about pilgrimage (450 words – NOT enough) but my research led me to have a little think about journeys and travelling and whatnot. Which is something, of course, that came much into focus during my Oxford to Tisbury jaunt a couple of months back.

Do long, physically arduous journeys inevitably spark a spiritual awakening? Not sure about that. I suppose if you decide to go on a pilgrimage you’re rather priming the pump: ‘I am walking to fortify my spiritual life.’ The least one could expect then, under those conditions, is metaphysical fillip. You’d really have to be made of mud and turnip not to get some kind of resonating experience.

Plus, if it’s a religious pilgrimage, you’re surrounded by people looking for the same kind of nourishment, along with any number of hucksters aiming to encourage just that sort of suggestible mindset that might lead to an unwise purchase of goods or services. Vial of Mary’s breast milk? The blood of Thomas à Becket (drawn from a cistern topped up daily with dyed water)? Just two of the treats on offer in pilgrimage centres a thousand-odd years ago. Basically, Pilgrim, you’ve told yourself it’s going to be spiritual; your fellow travellers say it’s going to be spiritual; and the people who press their conversation most insistently upon you say it’s going to be spiritual (especially if enriched with sundry overpriced knick-knacks). QED.

However, I was walking alone, along a route of my own invention, through unfashionable country, and I didn’t set off with any ideas of penance, redemption or sanctification. I just like walking. (It’s also possible that I am in fact made of mud and turnip, but let’s tactfully jump that particular puddle.) The mental nourishment came from puzzling out the map, the wonderful views, chatting to strangers, a sense of walking the paths that have been walked by others just as unremarkable for thousands of years, and the falling away of material needs. The material needs was probably a biggie. Because the only thing that matters – and it matters a lot, although, pleasingly, it’s easy to achieve if you’ve done your planning – is that you arrive at your destination, uninjured, by nightfall. That’s it.

But it obviously gave me some kind of delight, whatever its basis, because I am champing to get away again. Is January too early? Gawain and the Green Knight, read during my first year at university, is pretty clear that travelling through England around new year is a terrible idea, and not just because a gobby gatecrasher at last year’s party has invited you to his pad in Wales with the stated intention of beheading you. Even without a Welsh maniac in the mix, travelling in the dead of winter is a tricky and uncomfortable business. I’ll stick to the south for now.

However, Reeve’s striding across the seabed to Lindisfarne has crystallised for me that I have to go to Northumberland, though perhaps in the more clement months. Already planning the route, in fact, though I might put that on hold for 24 hours, in case half the bloody path has been washed into the briny deep.


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