Day 12 of Walking Out of the World, in which the pilgrim reaches the English Channel to take the midnight ferry to France, in his 86 day walk to Compostela.
I received some photos of the send-off from Westminster Cathedral two days ago taken by my daughter Alys at her Whizz-Kidz “Pilgrim Control Centre” in Hampstead. I wanted to get some good photos on the blog quickly to help with the charity sponsorship for Whizz-Kidz.
Nobody in the crowd was injured during the traditional priest’s blessing for sending off a pilgrim, which was another triumph for the new Health & Safety measures introduced in the Catholic Church. I would often think of Karl sitting outside Westminster Cathedral in his specially adapted wheelchair, as I walked the 2000 km to Compostela, conscious of my freedom and good fortune and health, that I could enjoy this walk while knowing there are many whose life circumstances are different.
For most of the journey on foot to Compostela, I relied on computers in internet cafe to update my progress. Sometimes several days went by without contact. ‘Smart phones’ were not yet in general use and I did not have one.
Much later in this journey when I was a day’s walk from Bordeaux I sent this photo – waving to Karl with the river Dordogne behind me (well… behind that tree on the right!) – wearing my Whizz-Kidz t-shirt. Donate to this children’s mobility charity now on this Whizz-Kidz link.
Lost in Sussex
A sleepless night with a barking dog outside your tent is a bad way to start any day. It is a particularly bad way to start a walking day with a very late finish. From Wych Cross my plan is a continuing walk along the southbound Sussex footpaths to Lewes. Then out of town along the footpath through the meandering estuary of the river Ouse to Newhaven. The deadline is eleven o’clock at the ferry dock, in time to buy a ticket for the midnight boat to Dieppe.
I spent a horrible morning trying to find the right walking path south from Wych Cross, and drifting southwest along lanes and bits of footpath, mostly following a compass bearing (oh why am I here without maps?) Then I ended up on the side of the main road A275 for a while.
I found the Bluebell Railway, (see map) a steam train line running through Sussex. I went in with my pilgrim credencial and had it stamped from a faded inkpad producing a hardly legible: “BLUEBELL RAILWAY BOOKING OFFICE – Sheffield Park Station.” Ironic really. I was not catching a train, but walking to Compostela.
I shall not describe any more of the day until the point when I reached Lewes because I have my pride as a retired Geography teacher and this stage had been a complete disaster! Talking about teaching, Year 9 had turned out to welcome me to Lewes.
I had the good fortune to be approaching Lewes shortly after the schools had emptied and I passed a group of Year 9s in badly-worn school uniform, sitting smoking at the edge of a wood where the footpath from Offham came into a scruffy council estate on the outskirts of Lewes (map).
“What’s that weird stick for?” asked a girl, sitting on her bag of school books, exhaling smoke. I wondered if these good burghers of Sussex had friends in Reading. I was not going to even try to engage with them this time.
“It’s a bourdon,” I said curtly, “a pilgrim staff. If you don’t know what a pilgrim is, ask your teacher. I’m not paid to explain things and I have a ferry to catch because I’m walking to Spain.” I continued forward, determined not to waste any time, a few steps further past a boy sitting on a rusty iron fence pulling leaves off a tree branch above his head.
“You’re just mental, mate,” he said. I glared at him and said nothing, tired of the rudeness of England.
But in truth, I was “just mental.” This brief exchange, which is the most ‘conversation’ a pilgrim might expect in Lewes, had summed up the entire cultural problem. If the Beckhams or the Kardashians aren’t doing it, whatever you’re doing, it doesn’t mean anything. Who wants to know about pilgrims or Chaucer or the footpaths of Sussex? Even I had got lost. No: if you desire to follow on foot some ancient pilgrim route, you are indeed “just mental.” Mate.
So, that’s England out of the way, thank goodness. This time tomorrow I shall be walking along the pilgrim route from Dieppe to Rouen. It will be good to be in a land where people know something of their own past.
I received my last pilgrim stamp in England at Lewes Tourist Information Centre. The chap at the desk wasn’t wearing beige, which was a relief, nor did he say, “Can you leave that big stick outside?” He made a complete mess of the page in my credencial by smudging his worn out rubber stamp on the crisp cream page.
Thank goodness I’m leaving England tonight. What is it with this godforsaken country and the inability to provide pilgrims with proper stamps in their pilgrim records? There should be a full parliamentary enquiry. I made my way downhill through the town to a place where I could find one last reminder that England still had some good taste left. Harveys Sussex Brewery, and the best pint of English ale since Wandsworth.
In the very last of the daylight, I made my way out of Lewes along the footpath by the river Ouse. I had plenty of time before the midnight ferry sailed and Newhaven would be the best place to spend my last English pounds, filling myself with fish and chips before leaving for Dieppe. I had sailed from here so many times and the place brought back memories of bicycle trips to Normandy, the start of adventures, the salt smell of the sea and the shriek of gulls.
There is no better way to leave England than this, and when I permanently left England some years later I made a point of leaving from here.