Day 1 of Walking Out of the World: a two thousand kilometer 86-day pilgrimage to Compostela on foot across England and France to the north west corner of Spain.
(Previous post: introduction to Walking Out of the World.)
It was the morning of the second day of May in 2008 and I paused in the cathedral before the tomb of the Worcester pilgrim, considering how he may have felt before setting off in 1423.
I had originally planned to start my pilgrimage from London but the pilgrimage took on a life of its own and Worcester became the necessary starting place This added many more miles to the journey and making it a walk across three entire countries.
Katherine Lack, a fellow member of the Confraternity of Saint James (the English association for pilgrims) heard that I was going to do the traditional medieval long walk to Compostela. She is a medieval historian and the author of The Cockleshell Pilgrim, in which she solved the mystery of a 15th century pilgrim who was unearthed in Worcester cathedral in 1986 during repairs to the foundations. She got in touch with me to say her husband Paul – a parish priest – had made a replica of the pilgrim’s staff found in the grave. She asked, “Would you like to carry it with you and take it to Compostela?” I was immediately persuaded and took this as a sign that I should start walking from Worcester instead of London.
The Worcester pilgrim was buried in pilgrim’s attire and boots, with a scallop shell of Saint James and carrying his bourdon, a two-metre knobbed staff with a two-pronged metal tip (see picture of original staff). It is thought he made the journey to Compostela in 1423. Carrying an exact replica of his staff, I began from his tomb in front of the altar in Worcester cathedral where they re-interred his remains.
So I received the old eleventh century departure blessing for a pilgrim setting out on his way, administered by the the Revd. Peter Atkinson the Dean of Worcester, with a sprinkling of holy water on this fine sunny morning. I was walking for the benefit of the children’s mobility charity Whizz-Kidz (whose T-shirt I wore for the publicity photos) and also walking for the medieval pilgrim found in the cathedral, whose staff I carried in replica. He was thought to have been Robert Sutton, a generous donor to the church – which I never have been – so his generosity counted for the two of us.
I set off at eleven fifteen – late in the day for a pilgrim – and walked south from Worcester alongside the river on the Severn Way (map), on the first miles of my foot journey to Spain, I soon began to realize that the main physical challenge was not my new walking boots. (In fact my Scarpa walking boots would eventually see me safely over many hundreds of miles to Santiago de Compostela without a single blister!) No, the unforeseen challenge was the traditional medieval bourdon, the very accessory that had changed my pilgrimage plan and added an extra week’s walk from Worcester.
The two metre hardwood staff weighed-in at two kilos and I had not practised walking with it before this first day. It was definitely not your normal walking stick! At every step the weight had to be momentarily lifted and swung forward. I had been entirely unprepared for the significance of this and the implications became apparent very soon: my wrists, arms and shoulders were going to be more tired than my legs by the end of the day and I began to feel that taking on the bourdon had been a mistake.
I will return to the subject of the bourdon again as the pilgrimage continues. It appears in many photos over hundreds of kilometres, becoming a kind of marker of a pilgrim’s progress, a reminder of the Worcester pilgrim, and it will also turn out to have unexpected practical purposes that this pilgrim had yet to discover, but it certainly took some getting used to!
As I walked along the narrow muddy Severn Way alongside the river, it began to rain. It would continue raining for the next six weeks, all the way to Bordeaux and I eventually made up my own little French song about it to keep up my spirits (but that comes later!) The pilgrim rucsack – including scallop shell – weighed only 10 kilos including a tent, with each item carefully planned. I knew the weight would be increased next day if I had to pack up a wet tent. There were no views of the landscape. Lunch was a soggy sandwich on a wet bench in Upton-upon-Severn.
I left the muddy Severn Way, crossed the bridge and continued to my destination along the A38 as the traffic roared past spraying me with surface water. White Van Man drove past tooting his horn, waving a rude gesture and shouting obscenities through the window. Did he do that performance for every tramp he passed in the rain, I wondered? As I trudged on I pondered, was there a medieval equivalent of White Van Man? Were there carters who behaved like this in the days when pilgrims walked the roads of England, or is this simply post-Henry Ford behaviour?
I arrived in Tewksbury abbey just before it closed at six o’clock. Welcome to the travels of the pilgrim, and this is what makes it different from tourism: you arrive tired from your walk and too late to see the sights! There was no pilgrim stamp to be had, but I was just in time for Father Paul to sign my pilgrim record before he closed the abbey for the night. (I’ll say something about the pilgrim record or credencial at a later point in this walk… The good reader has already learned bourdon, so that is progress enough for the day.)
My baptism into English accommodation costs came next: the campsite in Tewksbury wanted £15 to pitch my small tent for the night (it was a Camping and Caravanning Club site next to the abbey). I told them my daily budget for the pilgrimage was twenty pounds a day, so I would have to leave the town and camp at the roadside, they rather disdainfully reduced the pitch fee to £10. Welcome to the pilgrim budget balancing act!
Then I had a well-deserved pint of real ale in the half-timbered pub opposite Tewkesbury abbey gate, and the swings and roundabouts of the pilgrim budget came into play in a way I had not foreseen.
I only paid for my first pint that night in The Bell in Church Street Tewkesbury and the regulars paid for the rest. In exchange for hearing all about the road to Compostela, the Worcester pilgrim, and how I intended to follow in his footsteps, I had free beer all evening.
And that is how it might have been for the medieval pilgrim in Chaucer’s day, talking to the locals in the inn at the end of the day. Indeed, Robert Sutton the Worcester pilgrim may have stopped here at the end of his first day’s walk? His arms and shoulders would also have ached, like mine, as he lifted the tankard of ale. Meanwhile, the heavy bourdon rested in the tent, protected from the fine drizzle descending on Tewkesbury, and ready to be carried next day into Gloucestershire.
Throughout this blog series I will provide occasional footnotes and references for readers, who may be fellow Compostela pilgrims or simply readers interested in the history or the cultural details of the virtual pilgrimage I am taking you on. Don’t be put off by the sight of footnotes! You can ignore them and you won’t miss anything: this blog series is not an academic exercise but some inquiring readers will benefit from the additional notes. You may even be inspired to walk the Way of Saint James
- Lack, K. 2005. Dyer on the Road to Saint James: An Identity for ‘The Worcester Pilgrim’? Midland History, 30:1, 112-128.
- Lubin, H. 1990. The Worcester Pilgrim. Worcester: Worcester Cathedral Publications.
- The pilgrim staff is called a bourdon (Fr.), bordón (Sp.) and there is a well-known maker of traditional staves who supplies a variety of different models https://www.bourdon-pelerin.com. “Des choses nécessaires, il faut être garnide bourdon, de mallette, aussi d’un grand chapeau,et contre la tempête avoir un bon manteau…” (From a French pilgrim song: “Necessary things, one must be furnished with a staff, a scrip, also a large hat, and against the storm have a good coat.”)
- Further reading: There are many books in English about the pilgrimage to Compostela and as this blog series continues I will occasionally reference them. Walter Starkie’s 1957 book, The Road to Santiago is still in print (republished by John Murray, 2003) and can be obtained through the Confraternity of St James (www.csj.org.uk) who deserve your custom more than Amazon. Unlike the ‘celebrity’ journals and the new-age drivel that have none of the authentic spirit of traditional pilgrimage,it is a work of scholarship combined with the easy style of an Irish troubadour. He truly lets himself be guided by tradition, rather than turn the Camino into a reflection of himself, which is what I also aspire to do here.
- Then and now: I write this in November 2020 and all the places I mention on Day 1 – Worcester cathedral, Tewkesbury abbey, the camping site and The Bell hotel – are all closed to the public. (There is no current update about the availability of the wet bench in Upton-upon-Severn as a place to eat your damp sandwich, but you may be lucky.)