Abingdon to Maidenhead

Days 6 & 7 of Walking Out of the World, in which our intrepid pilgrim joins Year 9 bunking off from school in royal Berkshire and is greeted on the road again by White Van Man.

(Previous post: Day 5 Oxford to Abingdon)

As it was a clear night and I was a bit merry after the evening pub stop, I did not put the tent up last night, but found a small park and wrapped the tent around my sleeping bag as a bivouac to keep off the morning dew. I set off early, after a blessedly swan free slumber and walked half a mile, only to remember that the Thames Path that I was following was on the opposite bank to the town.

So I had to retrace my steps to Abingdon bridge, which was an opportunity to stock up with food and drinks from a small grocery shop, which was just as well because I couldn’t easily calculate the miles to the next town because of all the meanders in the Thames. It is something to take into account when opting for a river-walk: the winding bankside route almost doubles the walking distance.

After those first days of walking in the rain, the second leg of this journey now faced the challenge of hot weather, which in England is humid, and more so when walking alongside a river. For two days I trudged alongside the Thames, stopping for rests occasionally. All was reeds and menacing swans or cows blocking the path, and transport planes circling on their bumps-and-rollers circuits around RAF Benson. Years ago I had gone there for a few days as an airframe technician on a trip away from my home RAF base, to help repair a crash-landed Canberra bomber. Now I was just a part of the riverside wildlife. I camped overnight somewhere with noisy water rats on the south side of Wallingford bridge, heading to Goring (map).

As I lay in the tent I wondered if I would make it all the way to Compostela. The heat and humidity and the continuing struggle with the weight of a two kilo staff was taking its toll and I hadn’t even got within sight of London yet.

Day 7 From somewhere near Wallingford to a night under a motorway bridge near Maidenhead

Next day it was more of the same: miles of Thames walking. Hot and humid weather and by mid-afternoon, I made a decision to miss the long meander of the Thames around Henley. I would leave the Thames Walk, cutting off a long loop in the river and walk through the urban centre of Reading instead (map), and take a look at the old site of Reading Abbey before heading straight down the A4 to Maidenhead.

The pilgrim bourdon gained some attention from three school kids in the centre of the green park in the old abbey grounds. They gestured at me. Possibly in a rude way. A boy and two girls. As a seasoned teacher, I clocked them straight away as Year 9 kids bunking off. It was too early for school to finish. Probably sneaked off at lunch time and never went back.

“Are you a wizard?” asked the boy with half his white shirt front untucked, blowing cigarette smoke out together with the question. One of the girls snorted and giggled. The knot of her school tie was slung carelessly halfway down her blouse, like a dishevelled airline steward with ankle socks. Her face was daubed with cherry red lipstick. She was absent-mindedly lighting matches and throwing them in the grass at her feet.

“No, I’m not Harry Potter’s grandad: I’m a pilgrim,” I said, immediately realising by their blank expressions that I might as well have said I’m Vlad the Impaler.

“What’s one of them?” demanded an overweight girl with straggly pigtails, while trying to snatch the cigarette from the boy.

Luckily, I had years of experience of teaching Year 9 so I can explain things in a clear and simple way, at once appropriate for their age and understanding and appealing to their natural curiosity and sense of wonder at the world around them. You must – of course – begin by assuming a low level of general knowledge. A person less acquainted with the way non-linear learners struggle to assimilate an oppressive post-enlightenment rational-based, and largely left-brain pedagogical construction of reality might easily fall into the trap of blinding them with jargon.

To begin by asking how much Chaucer they had read – and playfully quote a few lines of drawling Middle English from the Prologue – would be a hopeless start. No, anyone with long experience of these matters knows the Year 9 history curriculum includes a good little basic section on religious life before the Reformation. With colour pictures of pilgrims in Merrie England! But the good educator also knows that keywords often haven’t been grasped, so knows when to move swiftly on after blank looks upon the term “pilgrim” and instead reach for more basic linguistic building blocks.

“Well, you know how people sometimes go on long walks…” I began. (You see how I avoided technical vocabulary there?) “And occasionally very long walks… Even all the way to Spain…”

“Why?” interrupted Cherry Lipstick, “You mean walking the dog out? So it can have a shit?”

“Ermmm… Yes, some people might take a dog with them. Yes, but…”

“What’s happened to your dog then?” demanded Half Untucked. “You lost it? Or did you brain it with your wizard stick?”

Cherry Lipstick was hysterical at this. Half Untucked looked pleased with himself. Straggly Pigtails peered at me through smudged glasses, so I couldn’t see her eyes; like a sort of female version of Piggy in Golding’s classic story of schoolboys turning savage on a desert island. She asked, “Where have you come from?”

At last a sensible question. I could make some progress with this. I seized the opportunity to deliver an explanation of pilgrimage that would be suited to a Year 9 audience. One of my lessons had been judged ‘Outstanding’ in 2005 during an Ofsted inspection at the Archbishop’s School in Canterbury. “It was the way you brought the whole lesson down to their level,” the inspector told me. I had actually just read two chapters from a Roald Dahl story, using silly voices for different characters; but – what the heck? – having some retired teacher who has lost touch with present reality in the classroom, and needs to supplement their pension, come and give you a pat on the back and tick all the Ofsted boxes is always welcome. But I digress.

“I came from Worcester,” I said. “I began… at a big church where a vicar – which is a sort of wizard but without the hat – said some good things to me to help me set off on my walk, and I’m going on foot all the way to, um… To another big church in Spain, where… Where another vicar will say ‘Well done and thank for coming all the way here.’ And I’ll get a piece of paper that says I’ve done it. And I can see you’re looking slightly puzzled but… Well, hey: I’ll meet all sorts of interesting people on the way… Like you!”

“Walk to Spain! How can you walk through the sea anyway?” asked Half Untucked. “You’re a loony. Are you a terrorist ?”

This wasn’t going as well as my usual delivery to a Year 9 class, but as an inspirational Ofsted outstanding-rated professional I could still turn this around. I was suddenly inspired!

“This very park was the site of Reading Abbey, destroyed by Henry VIII’s vandals in the Reformation.” I waved my arms around me in a theatrical gesture, pointing with the bourdon, like one of those charismatic cultural national treasures, making a twelve-episode TV documentary series, Great Unknown Pilgrim Routes of England

“You know at one time, this park where we stand now was a place filled with… Wizards in long black hoodies…” (Cue choir singing slow plainsong dirge in bass tones:Kyrie Eleison...”) “All this park would have been a big church full of monks swinging thuribles… Erm, a sort of smoking silver handbag thing on a chain that smelled nice, and…”

“Monkey, monkey, monkey!” Cherry Lipstick began leaping in a circle, around the smouldering cigarette-end thrown down in the patchy grass.

The others took up the chant and joined the war dance. The abbey grounds witnessed the horrible living embodiment of Lord of the Flies. If I stayed a moment longer I could suffer the fate of the good and wise Piggy and be bludgeoned to death by Year 9 with my own bourdon.

I raised my arm weakly to wave farewell and walked away swiftly but not fast enough to trigger a chase. Yes, it would have been a mistake to have started with Chaucer. I walked out of the park through the impressive medieval gateway – all that remains of Reading Abbey – the rest now being just a patch of grass for Year 9 to hide while bunking off and stub out their cigarettes. Henry VIII has a lot to answer for.

I paused to ask a lady with a small growling dog to take my photo by the gate. The dog bared its teeth as I gave my phone to the lady and it let out an aggressive continuous yapping and began to froth. Mrs Dog-Lady struggled, with the mutt’s lead in one hand and the phone-camera in the other. I tried to smile for the camera for nearly a whole minute and as soon as I stopped smiling she took the photo, lost her grasp of the dog’s lead and he immediately rushed for my trousers. I resisted any defensive reflex action involving the bourdon, realising this was the second incident in Reading abbey within half an hour that could have turned into a potential police matter.

“He doesn’t like your big stick,” she said. “Are you from the army?”

I decided further explanations were futile in this godforsaken place. I hadn’t expected the Reading Inquisition. A few yards away from the abbey gate, in the shopping centre, I found a fish & chip shop and bought a big portion of chips and a Cornish pastie. There was nowhere to sit down and eat. I thought it unwise to return to the abbey grounds. I shuddered at the vision of Year 9 spit-roasting a tramp over a pyre of blazing park benches.

I made a fast exit from Reading, eating chips and I walked straight down the main A4 road towards Maidenhead feeling disappointed and defeated by the brief return to the world of people. Another White Van Man drove past me making a one-fingered salute and shouting something unintelligible. Is it the bourdon? A two-metre phallic symbol with knobs on: guaranteed to evoke a Pavlovian reaction in White Van Man? Have any scientific studies ever been done on this?

Like all long journeys – pilgrimage or otherwise – nostalgia for the early part of the trip set in. I now wished I was back on the Gloucestershire Way in the rain. Even walking through the grotty wet blanket of Witney was better than this! Berkshire was pure savagery.

Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of a true, wise friend called Piggy.

A Bridge Too Loud

I walked late into the night, rejoined the river Thames at Maidenhead bridge, walked a short distance further and slept under the New Thames Bridge where the M4 motorway crosses the Thames (map), waking up next morning not much rested, due to the noise of motorway traffic above me echoing through the metal girders. The next main town would be royal Windsor.

Oxford to Abingdon

Day 5 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: Day 4 Wychwood Forest to Oxford)

I left the YHA after a fried breakfast and made my way to St Giles in the centre of Oxford. The Dominicans at Blackfriars have a good pilgrim stamp. After the brother in the porter’s lodge had stamped my passport he asked, “Are we on the route to Compostela?”

“You would have been at one time, brother,” I told him. “When Oxford was filled with Dominican and Franciscan friars in merrie England, you would have walked the main roads to London and Dover alongside all the pilgrims. They’d be walking to Canterbury, Rome and Compostela, and you, brother, would be walking to the universities at Paris or Cologne to study and dispute with your brother scholastics like Bonaventure and Duns Scotus.”

“You’re absolutely right,” he said. “And where did you learn about all this, brother pilgrim?”

“I was a Franciscan friar but all that was long ago, brother,” I replied.

“You know the best portrait of the life of the friars of that time?” he asked, before answering his own question. “Brother pilgrim, you cannot find better than The Name of the Rose. Do you know it?

I did indeed know Umberto Eco’s novel, so we spent a pleasant few minutes discussing how it had thrilled us years ago with its portrait of medieval monastic life and itinerant friars of medieval Europe. Things were looking up: I finally had my first ‘proper’ pilgrim stamp in my credencial, after four days out of Worcester. The Tourist Office sticker from Day 2 and the Thames mooring licence from the lock keeper on Day 4 had just been a warm up to the real thing.

I walked through Cornmarket Street and gave a pound coin to a homeless man selling the Big Issue, not out of kindness but because pilgrims are meant to be charitable, and I spent the next five minutes while walking down St Aldate’s wondering what damage that did to my day’s budget. And so I crossed the bridge over the river Isis (map) and looked across Christchurch Meadow to the mist in the trees over the river Cherwell where in a far off times I had punted along the river as a student, with my girlfriend who became the mother of Alys, who many years later is a pilgrim on this virtual road to Compostela making comments about Witney blankets. I am in another reverie remembering a far off world that I was walking out of once again, through New Hinksey and out of Oxford along the road to Abingdon, the destination of the pilgrimage today.

In my route notes, the plan for these next four days was to follow the river Thames footpaths all the way to London. That’s not the route medieval pilgrims would have taken, but their old route was now paved over by the A40 main road and no place for a pedestrian! With a good English fried breakfast in me, I hoped to cover a good few miles but nothing excessive as I was still getting used to the bourdon and some leisurely rests watching swans on the river would punctuate the walk.

But first I needed to call at Littlemore. It is the place associated with Cardinal John Henry Newman and there is a small community of sisters of the Society of the Work who preserve the place and continue the work of Newman. They were not expecting me, but like the best religious houses they provided an instant first class welcome. (As a former brother guestmaster in a monastery, I am a connoisseur of monastic hospitality: I will keep my critical eye on it and report the wayfarer’s experience of welcome as this pilgrimage crosses France!)

The sisters instantly saw I was a Compostela pilgrim and they had the stamp ready to put in my credencial even before they had put the kettle on to make me a pot of tea. For a Catholic house, it was a very protestant-looking stamp: a plain functional letterhead to stamp on a plain cuarto sheet and write a letter to the parish council about the drains. Still, you can’t complain if you’re desperate enough to get lock-keepers’ mooring licences in your pilgrim passport.

“I suppose you’ll want to spend some time praying in Newman’s oratory,” said a cheerful sister, bringing me a souvenir postcard of Littlemore. “I’ll get the key and open it up for you.”

Again, this was one of those pilgrimage moments of genuine conflicted thoughts! What am I going to do? Look at the chapel, maybe kneel for a moment, say “That was very nice, sister,” and head off down the towpath to to Abingdon? Or be a true pilgrim and reflect on John Henry Newman’s life and journey, spending a proper time of prayer and meditation in his sanctuary?

The pilgrim does not receive grace by hurrying on from what he was walking out of the world to contemplate in the first place! The impatience of the pilgrim to reach the day’s destination is probably a modern phenomenon. It is born out of short periods of holiday from working life. In a busy stretch of the Camino de Santiago there is a competitive aspect too: the need to reach a pilgrim refuge by mid-afternoon before all the bunks are filled. More than anything else, however, it is the difficulty of living in the present moment, that sacrament of the present moment I mentioned earlier on our road together. I will return to this subject.

The sister turned the key in the lock and opened the blue painted door of the small oratory. I knelt down at the very prayer desk where Newman himself knelt and the sister went away to leave me alone For the first ten minutes I treated the experience more as a curiosity. It was a Victorian time capsule like a re-creation of a room in a 19th century rectory, something I would find mildy interesting for three minutes in the V&A Museum in Kensington before hurrying away in search of something more solid and medieval. I then thought about the significance. It was actually Newman’s own space, preserved. I occupied his reality for the moment, out of my world and into his world.

There are so many photographs of Cardinal Newman that the very art of photography in England seems to have been developed by men with huge wooden boxes on tripods taking portraits of John Henry.

“Hey, look at this, Ferdinand, I managed to get a perfect plate of John Henry Newman sitting under a tree looking sour and meditative.”

“Really? What shutter speed did you use, Algernon? I usually take the Reverend Newman’s portraits with him sitting in high-backed leather armchairs. Better for stability on long exposures. Yes, sour looking man but he dignifies our art, eh?”

Newman always seemed to me a dry, dusty intellectual, like a character out of a George Eliot novel. She was his contemporary, of course.

“Yes, that’s how I always imagine you, John Henry!” I said, whispering at his prayer desk in his own most special place. “You’re Casaubon from Eliot’s Middlemarch! I don’t know much about your story and hardly ever managed to read beyond chapter one of anything you wrote. Boring windbag.”

I nearly got up off my knees to go, then hesitated. It was too early to leave the oratory. The sisters would think I hadn’t spent a respectful length of time in the place. (“Calls himself a pilgrim? Ha!”) So I took out my prayer rope and began, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner…”

An hour passed by. A moment in and out of time.

As a Catholic convert from the Anglican church, I should have studied Newman more, as he had made the same journey but in a far more consequential way as a priest and later a cardinal. But we shared the same question: “Wherein lies the true Church?” For Newman it was a far more serious question than for me because he was an intellectual giant and I had only taught myself to think by reading a Corgi paperback about a motorcycle ride.

So here we are in Littlemore on this virtual pilgrimage today, and you too have walked out of the world into the world of Johgn Henry Newman. He occupied this very space, this very prayer desk where we kneel, and he was not taking a break from a virtual pilgrimage to Abingdon or Compoistela, but wrestling with the most serious question of faith as an Anglican priest. Should he continue in a church of the Reformation or choose the Catholicism the one mother Church before Henry VIII ? Other Anglican theologians would tell him that was the wrong question. It was almost the dilemma of Martin Luther, but in reverse. Such was the enormity of the questions weighed by the soul who knelt at this prayer desk.

The following short film captures the atmosphere of Littlemore very well and the presence of Newman is there, preserved by the sisters. As the pilgrim viewer may get confused by the opening of the film, you need to be aware that the first priest is the Italian missioner in Oxford, Father Dominic Barberi who was instrumental in Newman’s conversion. The actor playing Newman appears after the first five minutes. This short and remarkably reflective film is set in Littlemore itself. It deals with huge questions of faith in a very economic manner in just a quarter of an hour! Surely we can spare that before continuing down the river Thames on our pilgrim road to Compostela?

If you want to read more about the struggle of Newman and other Anglican High Church theologians to reconcile their catholicity with thmembership of a protestant tradition (and I’m guessing you don’t want to, so I’ll keep it short and get back to the Thames footpath) the best book I have read is The Panther and the Hind by the Dominican Aidan Nichols, referenced in the new bibliography page above on the drop down menu: References. This takes the place of the footnotes arrangement that I experimented with on Day 1, but it didn’t seem right. Who needs footnotes on a pilgrimage, unless you have a prescription for blisters?


The above photograph did not require a wooden Victorian tripod but was taken on my phone and shows the “protestant-looking” stamp on my credencial from Littlemore, beside the Oxford and Abingdon stamps: yes, I managed to get there in good time to get a stamp in my credencial at Abingdon town hall.

“Hello, I wonder if you can help me…”

“Can you leave the big stick outside please?”

This was short walk today and only took me fifteen kilometres from where I set off, due top too much praying and a long pub stop. I’m not going to spend any time in long descriptions of riverbanks. There were swans all over the place. Enough said.

Our day is done and it is time for a pint of bitter at the wonderful Nags Head pub next to Abingdon bridge (map). You can’t beat Brakspear’s beer (Estd. 1779), brewed here in the town (and also available in the Museum Tavern opposite the British Museum in London, if you don’t have time to walk to Compostela via Abingdon.)

As we know from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the pilgrim drinks deep and sleeps well. Or in the worst case scenario falls down a well. But such are the random tired thoughts of a well-welcomed pilgrim in Abingdon carrying his bourdon slowly out of town, as the dogs bark and the moon rises. Tonight I will sleep by the side of the river if I can find a spot, walking a short distance out of town. Somewhere on the riverbank among the rushes like Moses, but not infested by swans. And I will sleep well giving thanks for the life of Cardinal John Henry Newman who shared his saintly thoughts with me today on this pilgrimage to Compostela.

Deo gratias.