The return of the pilgrimage: walking from Canterbury to Rome

    8 May 2019

    A friend of mine is walking to Santiago, the Galician shrine of St James in north west Spain. He’s heading for Sahagun, which means he should be in Santiago in two or three weeks’ time. That means his pilgrimage, along the so called French Way, from Saint Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyranees, will take four or five weeks and he will, by the end, have covered more than 500 miles.

    The pace depends on his companions. He met them by chance when they invited him for a beer in one of the hostels along the Camino – drink and sociability is standard on the pilgrimage. He’s a Catholic; his companions include a non-believer and Protestants. People fall in with other pilgrims along the way. Risky, obviously, but another friend of mine, a retired man from Cork, met up with a Finn on his route a couple of years ago, and they’ve stayed friends and visited each others’ families.

    What possesses people to go on this gruelling trek, which, while a good deal less dangerous than it was in the Middle Ages, is still tough going (one thing you learn, apparently, is the importance of looking after your feet)? My friend used to work for Transport for London; he’s 47.

    “Why am I doing it?”, he writes. “Although I have a reason – an act of devotion –  I still wonder! I have used up nearly all my savings to pay for it and quit my job… But I wouldn’t have it any other way. By walking the Camino, I have stepped outside regular life; I dared myself to do something different (profoundly different).”

    That’s not untypical of pilgrims. There are lots of people on pilgrimage now, from all manner of motives. The Camino, the way to Santiago, is one of the most popular: last year some 270,000 pilgrims walked it, compared to 1,000 back in 1987.

    You can in fact, start it in medieval style in England – including at Finchale Priory near Durham, the base of that hardened pilgrim, St Godric, who travelled to Santiago twice, to Jerusalem twice and to Rome three times, once carrying his elderly mother.

    All manner of pilgrimage routes and destinations are being brought back to life. English Heritage is working with the British Pilgrimage Trust to revive some of the ancient routes: to Canterbury, to Walsingham (to Our Lady’s House) via Thetford Priory, to Hailes Abbey in Gloucestershire, once home to a relic of Christ’s blood. It’s reopening the 220-mile Pilgrims’ Way over the South Downs from Southampton to Canterbury, incorporating 64 churches and 40 pubs.  The CofE has begun a research project, ‘Pilgrimage and England’s Cathedrals’ to “identify and analyse the core dynamics of pilgrimage and sacred sites in England from the 11th to the 21st centuries.”

    It is a curious rolling back of the Reformation, which put paid to pilgrimages along with much else. One of the fans of the Walsingham Pilgrimage is the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams; “We walk the route from the Catholic Slipper chapel to the shrine barefoot”, he says”.

    The smart route, however, is the Via Francigena, the medieval pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome – “the thinking man’s Camino”, as one priest friend drily put it. It was the basis of a curiously moving BBC documentary, Pilgrim, which saw a disparate group including Greg Rutherford, the athlete and Dana, the former Eurovision winner, make their way through Italy to Rome; she was the only Catholic. There’s a new staging post outside Canterbury Catheral for the pilgrimage, and the route is newly signposted in Italy.

    San Gimignano, Tuscany – on the Via Francigena

    A friend says flatly it’s better than the Camino: “not made up of bleeding heart liberals trying to find themselves.” It is, he says, curiously empty, and the route takes longer than it did in the days of Sigeric, the Anglo Saxon bishop who did it in 900 along Roman roads and wrote about it.

    It was an important Anglo Saxon pilgrimage; one English traveller bequeathed the famous Vercelli Book of Anglo Saxon poetry to the town of that name en route. The best known account of the Path to Rome was Hilaire Belloc’s, with much about the inns on the way.

    Indeed, for younger Catholics, pilgrimage is another way of doing religion. As one university chaplain observed: “There is a definite sense that young people like striving, putting themselves out to achieve something. They like their faith to cost them something.” Get fit and get God, then.

    The benefits of pilgrimage are obvious: walking with a shared aim to an historic sacred destination, is likely to bring people together. Pilgrimage is an old metaphor for the spiritual journey through life, except the physical sort leaves you leaner and fitter, more ready to discard life’s non-essentials on the way.

    And duly, researchers at Lancaster University suggests that companies might relieve employee stress by sending them on pilgrimage, though as Dr James LeFanu observes there could be a prophylactic effect, in addition to the benefits of fresh air, exercise and purposefulness: “if you believe some activity is beneficial, it probably is.”

    But the fellowship and the spiritual benefits remain. Some encounter God on the way; everyone encounters other people.