Day 11 of Walking Out of the World, a 2000 km journey on foot to Compostela. Heading for the ferry in Sussex.
(Previous Post: Westminster cathedral departure.)
“Look at that strange man,” said the toddler, standing in the courtyard outside the Town Hall in Edenbridge with his mother, who was finishing her cigarette before going into the building.
“Henry, it’s rude to point,” she said, lightly smacking his hand down. “He’s a tramp.”
Her direct stare told me she didn’t think it rude to call me a tramp. I walked inside. Edenbridge Town Hall is the quaintest looking council building you will ever see. If it was a pub, you would be sure to find it full of matching tweed customers. You could imagine it being the sort of place where Pooh bear would fill in the application forms for Eeyore to get rural planning permission for a new Gloomy Place.
“Could you leave that big stick outside please?” said a man who turned out to be the Town Clerk. Now I was an old hand at this sort of thing. After the Gloucestershire Way there was something reassuring about being invisible to people in Town Halls who would instead only see my pilgrim’s staff and order it out of the building. I thought I had been walking through Surrey this morning, but seeing a notice in the entrance I discovered it was Kent.
“Look mummy it’s the tramp again! Why do tramps have a big stick?”
I left my bourdon leaning against the flowery ornamental cart in the courtyard next to the half-timbered Town Hall, and as I returned indoors with my credencial the woman blew cigarette smoke at me, as if to disinfect the space between us.
“I’m not a tramp, I’m a pilgrim,” I said as I passed her. The boy looked up at his mother and it was clear what his next question for her would be, but I went inside before he asked it.
The Town Clerk stamped my pilgrim credencial. The Edenbridge stamp was another of those posh embossed ones like the cardinal archbishop’s stamp from Westminster the previous morning. The Town Clerk was not wearing a cardinal’s red hat, but a rather 1970s Mexican-style moustache and a beige corduroy jacket with a wool tie more or less the same colour. I wondered if he was a distant cousin of the woman in the beige v-neck cardigan in the Town Hall in Winchcombe. As he signed and dated the stamp I was filled with astonishment: with ten days and 150 miles separating these two beige people in rural town halls, the signatures were almost identical.
“I see you’ve come from London,” said Pancho Villa, examining the credencial. “And where’s this Compostela place you’re walking to?”
“North west Spain, near Finisterre,” I said. “I’ll probably finish there, on top of the cliffs, looking at the Atlantic. The End of the World, you know.”
“There are parts of Kent that are pretty awful too,” he said. “Take Margate for example.”
I pictured the roads of Europe teeming with medieval pilgrims converging on Calais, to be transported on wooden boats to Margate to hold a tramps’ convention on the pier, burning their lice-infested clothes on the beach next to the Whelk Stall at the End of the World. Geoffrey Chaucer would be famous for writing a mediaeval literary classic about tramps: The Margate Tales. The chain-smoking mothers of Margate would be scolding their kids all day: “I’ve told to stop all that rude tramp-pointing!”
Back on the footpath, a few minutes walk out of Edenbridge, a walker striding along with aluminium Nordic walking poles caught up and drew alongside. He knew exactly what my pilgrim staff and shell meant, and we walked together chatting for a while. His name was Johnny. It was the first time I had company on the Way of Saint James since leaving Worcester more than 200 miles back. He said was a real walker. He had walked the Pilgrim’s Way, doing a few miles at a time during weekends from Guildford to Canterbury, picking up where he had left off to walk the next ten or fifteen miles. Now he was retired and had time to walk on weekdays too.
From him I learned this footpath going south towards the Sussex coast is called the Vanguard Way. (Route guide.)
“Meeting you, going to Compostela, makes me think I should walk the whole Pilgrim’s Way again,” he said wistfully. “I mean – not just in stages – but all of it from Guildford to Canterbury. I could stay in bed-and-breakfast on the way.”
“Take Chaucer with you,” I said. “Read The Canterbury Tales as you go along.”
“I’ll definitely do it!” Johnny Walker beamed. We parted soon after as he headed off west down the Sussex Border Walk. “I’ll do it. Thank you. Take care with the planes!”
“Pardon…?” I said. Johnny Walker was already out of earshot. I trudged on, puzzled. Yes, there were jet planes descending high overhead on a flight path to Gatwick. But why should I “take care” with them?
The riddle was soon solved. By a wooden style across the path was a sign: “CAUTION AEROPLANES Footpath Crosses Taxiway / Airstrip” So I nervously examined the grassy meadow and skies in both directions. All seemed quiet but I hurried across the field, just in case.
Are you having a wonderful Covid year?
It is November 2020 and everyone in England is in lock-down again. As I am a hermit, and living in Spain, where we had our lockdown – then came out of it and now might go into it again – I am happy not to go out very much. That’s the whole point of a hermitage anyway. Have you tried writing your Diary of the Virus Year?
Daniel Defoe wrote his Journal of the Plague Year, a novel about the year 1665. He had to be confined for the year, and the daily news was full of death and destruction, of course; but just see how he made the best of it and became a writer. Having survived the Great Plague, the following year 1666 came the Great Fire and his house burnt down. Also, legend has it that much earlier Defoe’s family ran the celebrated Olde Westminstere Pie Shoppe, a very lucrative establishment patronised by wealthy MPs, but it was blown up by Guy Fawkes when practising his early bomb-making skills, in what became known as the Great Pie Blast of 1604, so the family lost their livelihood and Defoe was brought up in poverty.
With all these tragic events the cheerful cockneys of London still kept smiling and called them “great”. In comparison we don’t have too much to complain about, do we? Just not going out, and having to wash our hands more frequently. So this virtual pilgrimage is an exercise in remembering an actual journey on foot from Worcester to Compostela, a journey that is a once in a lifetime experience. It is also a deeper exercise of using that journey for some contemplation now I have more time to consider it.
For most people being shut up at home against their will is very frustrating. I found the lock-down a gift! It legally imposed a rule of not going out that I had spent the previous couple of years putting off, with the idea that “I shall start being a hermit next month.”
One thing that a hermit does is to be in the world while being out of the world, so this virtual pilgrimage to Compostela, this Walking Out of the World, is my way of re-imagining an actual journey – a walk made in the real world – and reflecting upon it. The real 86-day walk from Worcester to Compostela took place in a world before Covid-19 so it was a more carefree world than now. That makes it a good thing to contemplate. The old normal. Perhaps we shall return to it one day? Or we may move towards a better world after Covid-19, as a result of what we went through.
Nobody looks at history and says, “Weren’t the plagues a great experience for people in past times?” But when you think about it, the Black Death helped bring about the end of slave wages for agricultural workers and the downfall of tyrannical robber barons.
Most disasters lead to rebuilding and social planning. Post-Covid thinking may lead to a social re-set and the collapse of the Big Tech companies – the Amazons, the Twitters, the Facebooks – and it could democratise the Internet. We could move beyond the present stuck world where all the facetime is run by faceless freaks, and billionaires who keep our brainless culture wars burning. In place of them, new communal ways may lead to kinder communication, as once envisaged by the Internet’s inventors.
But now, in confinement, this is the moment for Contemplation in a World of Action, as the Cistercian trappist monk Thomas Merton put it. The writer taught many in America and elsewhere the benefits of solitude, and many now experience it without seeking it. I’ll say more about that in tomorrow’s walk.
At the end of today’s walk the Vanguard Way brought me to where it veers to the east towards Poundgate, so I left it and continued south into Sussex alongside the A22 main road out of Forest Row, having lost the continuity of the footpath but gained some fish & chips in the town. When doing long distance walking in England and using a small tent for wild camping, the best and most economical strategy is to rely on chip shops for a supper that is consumed while walking or maybe sitting on a wayside bench.
When pitching a tent in places where it is unlikely you would have permission for camping, you must wait for darkness or just before. So the advantages of a late take-away supper become clear, as well as dispensing with the extra weight of camping stove and pots.
Another alternative is a pub, which also provides local knowledge; unless the local wisdom comes from the chap who has been drinking at the bar all evening. Do not rely on his directions. The seasoned walker will always find a quiet last-minute spot to stay the night.
Things to say and not say while sounding out wild camping places:
Do say: “I expect you’ve got some lovely little quiet woods near here…”
Do say: “I can’t quite remember but isn’t there a picnic spot very close by…?”
Do not say: “Can I put up my tent on your front lawn?”
On this occasion I found a spot in a wood, a short distance from Wych Cross, and was kept awake most of the night by a dog barking at me outside the tent. Maybe it wanted me to throw my big stick for it to fetch. I got up three times and went out to kick it, but on the last occasion I kicked a tree stump in the dark and fell over. Yes, the seasoned walker will always find a quiet last-minute spot to stay the night. But there are some times when you wish you’d pitched the tent at a proper official campsite, even if it cost much of the entire day’s budget. And of course, you get a shower.
A reminder for readers of the purpose and style of this “virtual pilgrimage”
- You are very welcome. Going by the stats there are many new readers for this blog series. The reader numbers are increasing, which is encouraging. Many of you are reading but not in a hurry to jump in and comment, which is how I expected it to begin!
- The introduction sets out what I am intending to do, creating a “virtual pilgrimage”. We flit about like butterflies on the internet, don’t we? An introduction is not something we have much time for! I encourage you to please read the introduction!
- This is not a random series of general information pages about the Way of Saint James! It is rather an experience of one particular journey which I invite you to share. See it more as a retreat, or if unfamiliar with ‘retreats’ see it as a sequence of seminars perhaps. A place of growth.
- We are not interested in general information about the Way of Saint James. If you are unfamiliar with it, I do include some rudimentary drop down pages above. Go here please and see what I mean. But there are other websites providing exhaustive information about roads to Compostela. That’s not my purpose here: this blog is the journey, not the travel agency.