Chertsey Bridge to London

Day 9 of Walking Out of the World, in which the pilgrim reaches London and completes the first leg of his 2000 kilometre pilgrimage on foot to Compostela

(Previous post: Maidenhead to Chertsey Bridge)

I woke to the sounds of early morning rowers preparing in teams to lower their boats into the Thames from the landing stage on the opposite bank from my tent, in a landscape almost unchanged since the century-old postcard below. There was a campsite nearby – according to the map – but arriving just before dark and after the experience on Day 1 with a site fee of fifteen pounds for my small hiking tent, I decided on wild pitching again on open ground near Chertsey bridge.

As I set off from Chertsey I am determined to get to London by the end of the day. I have a great sense of satisfaction at having walked right across the heart of England in eight days. I have not yet added up the miles: the winding Thames route needs calculating and I’ll do that in my rest days before setting off from London on the next stage towards France.

I want to begin this day’s walk by saying something about the use of postcards to illustrate this virtual pilgrimage to Compostela.

This card is postmarked 1919: credit Chertsey Museum.

As well as a few photographs from my phone as I walk across England, France and Spain, I include these old postcards because one of the many things that make a pilgrimage distinct from a touring holiday is the constant sense of living in different layers of time. On a traditional pilgrimage you are conscious of many others who have walked the same route before you. A postcard literally provides a snapshot of a place in an earlier time.

I have used the phrase ‘traditional pilgrimage’ which I now want to unpack. As we walk along, there are many things we could discuss in the two thousand kilometres to Compostela. Forgive my ramblings, such as the Lumiére brothers and the steam launch yesterday, but these are also the stuff of the mental journey as whole days on the road pass by. I have a penchant for the comedic, so I often imagine scenes for my own amusement.

Many types of discussion take place between pilgrims as they meet up, make their way together and part again; either to never meet again or once more team up for continued company, after a reunion and a communal meal in some hostel or pilgrim refuge. One common thread is the question of “What is a pilgrim?” as distinct from a mere ‘tourist’: a creature regarded as an inferior sub-species of traveller.

This is a tricky question as it can sadly descend these days into pointless and tedious ‘culture wars’. For example, on the Camino Francés in Spain the question might be posed like this: “Are you a proper pilgrim if you don’t carry your own rucsack, but have it transported ahead to your next lodging point?” or “Can a non-Christian be considered a pilgrim when the point of the journey is to venerate the apostle Saint James at his shrine?”

We are already in pilgrim dynamite territory here, believe it or not. The controversy around these questions remind me very much of the Franciscan poverty debate of the 14th century (the time when the Papacy was seated in Avignon), so skilfully narrated by Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose, which eventually led medieval scholars and inquisitors to the delightfully absurd question, “Did Christ own the clothes that he wore?” Heretics were burnt at the stake for being on the wrong side of that debate. We may rightly see that as an example of a 14th century ‘culture war‘; and all the more remarkable because they didn’t need the help of Facebook or Twitter to descend into verbal violence, ignorance of facts, and a rigid chemical separation into teams wearing different shirts, shouting abuse at each other.

The so the question of “What is a pilgrim?” needs to be defused early in the conversation and defined in a sane manner, before the culture wars turn it into an unseemly brawl in a pilgrim hostel. (Such a surprisingly common occurence, that the English idiom “couldn’t organize a pissup in a brewery” is matched by the Spanish equivalent: No se pudo organizar una pelea en un albergue de peregrinos. “Couldn’t organize a brawl in a pilgrim hostel.”)

What then is a pilgrim? The etymology is from Latin peregrinus through Provençal pelegrin and comes into Middle English in Chaucer’s time as pilgrim which it remains for us in Modern English. In Latin peregrinus simply means ‘foreign’ (from peregre ‘abroad’: per- ‘through’ + ager ‘field’). So peregrine as a falcon’s name (just one letter difference from pilgrim in Spanish, peregrino) is literally ‘pilgrim falcon’, because falconers’ birds were caught fully grown on migration, not taken from the nest. There you have it: a pilgrim in the original sense is simply someone who has come from somewhere else. As we all generally did.

A pilgrim in the received historical English culture owes much to layers of religious and literary tradition, and we might start with its most popularly recognised reference point – Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – in which a whole cross section of medieval England is represented by a travelling group of pilgrims, telling stories that give us an insight into their lives and motives for travel. Then after hundreds of years of development and post-Reformation dilution of Catholic pilgrimage tradition, we come to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Remember the ladies in the church in Wycke Rissington singing “To be a pilgrim…” as they dusted and swept? (See Day 3) That was a perfect example of the tradition of pilgrimage remaining alive in the popular imagination. The popular being two cleaning ladies and the imagination being limited to the English Hymnal.

We also find a modern, post-Christian (or post-Jungian if you want to be terribly clever) archetype of the pilgrim: one who travels for a spiritual purpose. All the old signifiers – God, angels & demons, the saints, and the holiness of the pilgrim “Way” – are entered into by the enthusiastic New Age pilgrim whose idea of a ‘spiritual journey’ includes such concepts as self-development, psychic well-being, and a broad sense of ‘enlightenment’, which they see as wider in scope than Christian spirituality. The latter is primitive and inferior to religious practices like – for example – worshipping squirrels, because the idea of a God who actually made squirrels is too difficult to grasp. Whereas the possibility of grasping a squirrel by the tail is real and concrete, though it might not

The Camino de Santiago does indeed become a mystical end in itself, not a journey to venerate the Apostle Saint James as a final end point of the walk. Along the way, the New Age pilgrim will be thrilled to meet like-minded souls discussing the spiritual power of crystals, ley lines, I Ching hexagrams, or mystical Knights Templar who appear to them in dreams.

To communicate with Mars, converse with spirits,
To report the behaviour of the sea monster,
Describe the horoscope, haruspicate or scry,
Observe disease in signatures, evoke
Biography from the wrinkles of the palm
And tragedy from fingers; release omens
By sortilege, or tea leaves, riddle the inevitable
With playing cards, fiddle with pentagrams
Or barbituric acids, or dissect
The recurrent image into pre-conscious terrors—
To explore the womb, or tomb, or dreams; all these are usual
Pastimes and drugs, and features of the press:
And always will be, some of them especially
When there is distress of nations and perplexity
Whether on the shores of Asia, or in the Edgware Road.

- T.S. Eliot

Woe betide the Catholic pilgrim who dismisses all that kind of thing as mumbo-jumbo, unless they can give a reasonable account of the faith that they have received when someone enquires about it. The rather snooty stance of the ‘proper’ Christian pilgrim towards those who travel the Way of Saint James without holy veneration for Catholic tradition can fall apart quite quickly.

In the pilgrim hostel, somewhere in a dusty little village in Spain, the New Age enquirer puts away their Tarot cards and says to the Catholic pilgrim telling his rosary beads, “So let’s get this straight: you believe that the beheaded body of James the apostle of Jesus was laid in a magic stone boat which sailed across the Mediterranean with no crew, went out into the Atlantic, up the coast to northwest Spain and washed up on a beach in Galicia, was buried by monks and rediscovered centuries later due to signs in the sky, and everyone fell on their knees in wonder and said at once it was Saint James?”

Nope, shrugging and saying, “Stranger things have happened,” is not the most convincing response. You’ll need to do better than that. Judging each other is the worst spiritual trap. Stoning the blasphemers is one approach…

“No one is to stone anyone until I blow this whistle,” says the Pharisee played by John Cleese in The Life of Brian. “Even if they do say ‘Jehovah’.”

…But on this virtual pilgrimage we shall try to do better. We have plenty of time to explore this subject. Situations on the road give rise to fresh evaluations of what our spiritual journey means. If we are honest about the absurdities, difficulties and contradictions of the things we believe, and unafraid to let our our faith be tested, or willing to laugh at ourselves when we admit our lack of understanding, then we can be relaxed about letting our misconceptions be pulled apart and reassembled.

Yesterday, calling at Saint Peter’s in Staines to try and get a pilgrim’s stamp, the parish priest Father Cush reminded me that it was the commemoration of Mother Julian of Norwich and he wrote it in my credencial. This lady was the first known female author in England. That is the just the beginning of her genius (which is and always will be beyond my simple intellectual grasp or spiritual aspirations) but she is, alongside Saint Clare of Assisi one of my preferred spiritual writers. I frankly admit that I find much of the theology and spirituality offered in the writings of great men of the church dry, over intellectual and owing more to Aristotle than to Plato. This pilgrimage will try to tip the balance more towards writers such as Mother Julian.

‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,’ and with your comforting words, Mother Julian, I arrive in Walton-on-Thames, which means a pint of Young’s Special Bitter at the riverside hotel.

“A pint of Special please, brother bartender, and a packet of roasted peanuts.”

“Have you come far, sir?”

I thought about the question. I have come from the 14th century cell of an anchoress in Norwich just now, but I was in Chertsey earlier (or it might have been in 1919) packing up my tent. I have a few more miles to walk today, through the 16th century at Hampton Court where I shall recall how Henry VIII destroyed all pilgrim shrines of England, and on through Wandsworth where I shall drink another pint of Young’s Special Bitter in the shrine of the Brewery Tap pub. An hour later – probably after dark – I will return to my room in the presbytery of Holy Ghost Catholic church in Balham, and I shall recount my journey from Worcester for Father Stephen over supper in the presbytery kitchen while he admires the replica bourdon I am carrying in memory of the 15th century Worcester Pilgrim whose journey I am following. I am pleasantly tired but after a couple of days rest the pilgrim shall set off again from Westminster Cathedral with the Cardinal Archbishop’s embossed seal in my pilgrim credencial and continue through Sussex and France, mostly in the 13th century.

“Yes, from Worcester,” I said.

“Your nuts, sir.”

“Thank you.”

Walking Out of the World continues
after a two-day rest on Wednesday 18 November.

Thank you for following.