Day 2 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.
As expected, I started the day by packing up a wet tent in the camping ground in Tewksbury, which added to the weight on my back, and the start of the second day with the bourdon was a challenge as both shoulders and forearms ached from the first day. This bourdon was not yet my friend, even if it looked picturesque in a bluebell wood.
I headed east on the Gloucestershire Way and went off my first map shortly after leaving the town behind. There would be a big gap of thirty miles before arriving on my Oxfordshire map (sheet 164 OS map). This was not an oversight, but I figured carrying too many maps adds to the weight. I hear the reader ask, “Why didn’t you use GPS on your phone?” It is a good moment to remind the reader it was 2008 and I was not using a smartphone. The basic phone was good for taking the photos you see here but the whizz-kidz-pilgrim blog was kept up using internet cafes: hard to find in England but very commonplace in those days all across France and Spain. I did find a way of blogging from the phone eventually, but not until I was halfway down France, whiling away the time in a wet tent. So, navigation towards Oxfordshire would be done following footpath waymarking, compass and prayer.
The Jesus Prayer
The reader will see a green knotted woollen rope on the bourdon (photo in the bluebell wood above on the Gloucestershire Way.) This is a Russian Orthodox 100-knot prayer rope, always associated with the anonymous classic The Way of a Pilgrim and the Jesus Prayer in the Russian tradition. I mentioned “compass and prayer” together above because a pilgrimage needs some routine of prayer for the walking to be properly orientated on the spiritual goal, and the Jesus Prayer is a kind of compass.
The Jesus Prayer – a short formulaic prayer based on a New Testament story and later found in the Orthodox Philokalia – can be said in a longer form: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”; or a shorter one, “Lord Jesus have mercy on me”; or any preferred short form. Some just repeat “Jesus”, which was the practice of an Anglican nun and hermit I once talked to while trimming a tree by her hut in monastery grounds.
For each prayer you move your fingers across the woollen knots of the rope until you reach the cross at the end and you know you have said the prayer 100 times. Then begin again. In The Way, the pilgrim introduces himself saying, “By the grace of God I am a Christian, by my deeds a great sinner, and by my calling a homeless wanderer of humblest origin, roaming from place to place.” The quest in his journey is to discover how to pray continually, a question he puts to various holy men (the Russian staretz) and eventually he learns about the Jesus Prayer. You will recall that “The Way” is also a name of Jesus
I found, some years ago, that the longer form of the Jesus Prayer was ideally suited to a walking rhythm and it has now seen me through thousands of pilgrimage miles. Here’s how it works while walking, and it’s very simple. Say the black, do the red: “Lord“ on right foot forward, “Jesus” left, “Christ” right; silence and breathe in on left foot forward, then paired words for each step, “Have mercy“ right, “on me” left, “a sinner” right; move your fingers forward on the prayer rope, one knot and take three silent steps left-right-left before starting again with “Lord” on right foot forward.
I you have any experience of precision square-bashing you’ll get it instantly, but you don’t need to be ex-forces: it is very simple and it leads to a very practical synchronised breathing and walking rhythm. The pace can vary: days of constant long steps across the flat straight chemin Saint-Jacques across the Landes, south of Bordeaux require a different timing to the one-day hard steep Pyrennean climb out of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and over the Spanish frontier. The method is not my invention: it is implied clearly in The Way of a Pilgrim but the anonymous author never spells it out. He lets you discover it for yourself: I’m simply sharing with you my method.
Winchcombe in the Cotswolds
Winchcombe is a pretty village that is a kind of nodal point for walkers (link to map), with a junction of the Gloucestershire Way, the Cotswold Way and Wardens Way (Winchcombe Way), all meeting at the main street of the village. Descending from Langley hill (275 metres) I discovered the practical advantage of a bourdon on a descent: unlike a normal walking staff, it can be stretched out before you and used like a punt pole to steady your descent. The twin metal prongs dig into the ground to prevent slipping. The bourdon at last demonstrated its purpose!
I entered the village and found it quite full of walkers. In the Tourist Office at the Town Hall I managed to get a stamp in my Compostela pilgrim credencial. Well, it was more a sticker than a stamp if truth be told, but a pilgrim is always happy with a stamp even if it is a sticker.
A Compostela pilgrim asking for a stamp was clearly not something they were used to in Winchcombe and not geared up for it. The lady in the beige v-neck cardigan had to scramble around to find something that would do as a stamp. It was such a good thing that there was not a rush of pilgrims heading to Compostela. The lady had asked me to leave my “big stick” in the street outside the office. “For safety.” Hers I supposed.
She asked, “Will there be more of you?”
“No, I doubt it,” I replied. “I think the last big rush of pilgrims on this route to Compostela was in about 1423.”
“Yes, probably,” she said, vaguely regarding the wall clock. “Were you looking for bed & breakfast?”
“No, thank you. I’m on a budget of twenty pounds a day all the way to Finisterre. It was the end of the world in medieval times.”
She nodded with the sort of disapproving patience that she probably practised on visitors with small badly behaved dogs. She clearly wasn’t putting up with the end of the world in her tidy office much longer and she returned to her unfinished Kit-Kat. She straightened some tourism brochures on the desk and I retreated to the street. The footpath signage for the Wardens Way, pointing up the hill out of Winchcombe, is very good if you need to leave quickly.
So that was the Cotswolds behind me, but I was still quite a long way from the Pyrenees. At some point a few miles further on the path morphs into the Diamond Way, following the winding, gurgling Windrush river. The waymarking is consistent and clear for walkers. The route passes through the pretty village of Naunton with its parish church of Saint Andrew, then through the hamlets of Upper Slaughter, Lower Slaughter and Slaughter Pike. I had been walking all day and was well and truly slaughtered.
A few miles further on it was good to find a corner of a field where there was a perfect spot to pitch a tent. It was just outside the village of Wyck Rissington (map) where there was a Sunday communion service the following morning and I had just joined the Oxfordshire Way, so the next day’s walk was across a new county.
If you pitch your tent in a field on private farm land, there are a number of checks to do first. Make sure you pitch as the daylight fades, so you won’t be seen. See if there is evidence on the field of cattle, because they might arrive on the field early in the morning and you could be trampled. Sit down for half an hour and eat something while you wait, before you pitch the tent. If a nearby farm dog is going to pick up your scent and begin barking to alert everyone, you don’t want to have to pack up the tent again, so a half hour wait is well worth it. In the morning strike camp at dawn and leave no trace of your stay.
Apart from the aches due to the bourdon, all was going according to plan. I had kept well within budget and spent less than ten pounds all day, and at the end of the walk there was no pitch fee, unlike Tewkesbury. I slept soundly that night and already time was becoming irrelevant: I was slipping out of the world and into the Way of Saint James.
- If you take just one lightweight book with you on a walking pilgrimage, take The Way of a Pilgrim
There are many editions of The Way of a Pilgrim and instructions on the Jesus Prayer, and online sellers of handcrafted 100-knot prayer ropes. I obtained mine at the Russian cathedral in Kensington thirty-five years ago when the great teacher Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh was still there.
The Jesus Prayer does not work in all situations, e.g. steep downhill descents on more technical paths or clambering over rocks, where the steady rhythm of the Jesus Prayer is not recommended. Many a pilgrim has fallen in a ditch to keep the prayer rope turning. Likewise when being pursued by wolves, a hasty prayer to Saint Michael is a better idea. Keep your eye on the animals and raise the bourdon in an attitude of charitable menace.