Wych Cross to Newhaven ferry

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.

(Previous posts were: Day 11 Limpsfield to Wych Cross and Day 10 Westminster departure.)

I received some photos of the send-off from Westminster Cathedral two days ago taken by my daughter Alys at her Whizz-KidzPilgrim 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.

Move a life forward!

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.

Bluebell Railway, Sussex

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.

Lewes, Sussex. Don’t expect much in the way of a pilgrim stamp.

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.

Newhaven, where the ferry sails to Dieppe.

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.

Westminster Cathedral: departure for Compostela

Day 10 of Walking Out of the World, an 86 day walk to Compostela.

(Previous posts were: Day 9: Chertsey Bridge to London; and The Peasant’s Virtule Pilgrimnage.)

In nine days I had walked 170 miles to London carrying the heavy replica mediaeval pilgrim bourdon, a two-metre wooden staff carried by the 15th century pilgrim from Worcester to Compostela, Robert Sutton. You the virtual traveller on this pilgrimage will remember how difficult it was obtaining stamps for a pilgrim record. This was now much easier in London and I was spoiled for choice. I first went to get my Compostela credencial stamped at the Spanish embassy in Belgravia and to my delight this was done by a green uniformed Guardia Civil officer who saluted as he returned it to me!

I walked from the embassy to Westminster Cathedral, which had been the original planned pilgrimage departure point before the idea of collecting the bourdon from Worcester had arisen. I received the embossed stamp of the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster and I got the cathedral stamp too, for good measure, and the Confraternity of Saint James secretary Marion Marples (RIP) arrived with the pilgrim association’s stamp. So I collected four stamps within an hour which made up for the stamp famine on the stage from Worcester!

Westminster cathedral was also handy for the charity I was walking for which had its main offices nearby. Sponsoring a children’s mobility charity had not been my idea, but a friend suggested it: “If you’re going to walk all that way, raise some money for kids who can’t walk!”


Many of the staff at Whizz-Kidz came down to the cathedral to see me off, together with Karl, who came along in his specially adapted electric wheelchair to show me how the money raised can help children with mobility difficulties live more independently.

Farewell to my daughter Alys, who took this photo as I set off for three months walking to Compostela.

As I walked from London on the second stage, I took with me Walter Starkie’s The Road to Santiago. He writes, “As we become older we become more and more obsessed by the longing to undertake a hidden journey which will remind us gently of the ultimate one, and evoke for us countless shadowy spirits to haunt us when we plod along the road.”

I found myself drawn to thinking of those further down the pilgrim trail. Somewhere in France there will be others plodding along in solitude and sometimes I will meet up with them on the Way, le Chemin, el Camino; but for the moment I had to accept that mostly it would be a solitary day followed by a solitary evening. But to be solitary is not the same as to be lonely and there is a sense of walking in solitude while part of a pilgrim community.

Starkie refers to Langland’s poem Piers Plowman and the way that Plowman’s soul craved for a pilgrimage that would be the passage from a lower to a higher stage of life. “The idea of a pilgrimage to Santiago from home, setting out from your own front door, implies such a life-changing intention, or at least a desire to set out into the unknown of a new phase of life.”

From Westminster to Limpsfield in Surrey is a long haul of twenty miles through endless suburbs, but in a fairly straight line. (Through Balham, West Norwood, Thornton Heath, Croydon, Warlingham mostly on main roads going south but parks and heathland break the tarmac monotony. I will not provide a detailed itinerary: there are various ways of doing this according to where you want to shop, lunch and rest. Suburbs are to be walked through at a pace: they do not merit a detailed description!) Crossing over the Pilgrim’s Way, there is a foot bridge over the M25, and suddenly you escape the metropolis after Limpsfield and all becomes quiet and green, on the road going south to Edenbridge in the last light of the day, as the sun drops behind the Sussex downs in the west.

The road out of Limpsfield towards Edenbridge

In two more days the pilgrim will reach the end of land at Newhaven and leave by boat for France. There is something very appealing about a foot journey for the next two days across the fields and footpaths and wooden styles of Surrey and Sussex, ending with stepping aboard the midnight boat across the Channel, and the prospect of the first French pilgrim stamp in my credencial from the church of Saint-Jacques de Compostelle in Dieppe.

The planned road stretches out for hundreds of miles before me but tonight there is one simple goal for the pilgrim: to look out for a field and put up the tent once more.

In case you missed it, I was sponsored by readers to walk 2000 miles for Whizz-Kidz, so here’s one final link for you to donate today, to move a life forward!

Worcester to Tewkesbury

Day 1 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: introduction to Walking Out of the World.)

It was the morning of the second day of May in 2008 and I paused in the cathedral before the tomb of the Worcester pilgrim, considering how he may have felt before setting off in 1423.

I had originally planned to start my pilgrimage from London but the pilgrimage took on a life of its own and Worcester became the necessary starting place This added many more miles to the journey and making it a walk across three entire countries.

Katherine Lack, a fellow member of the Confraternity of Saint James (the English association for pilgrims) heard that I was going to do the traditional medieval long walk to Compostela. She is a medieval historian and the author of The Cockleshell Pilgrim, in which she solved the mystery of a 15th century pilgrim who was unearthed in Worcester cathedral in 1986 during repairs to the foundations. She got in touch with me to say her husband – a parish priest – had made a replica of the pilgrim’s staff found in the grave. She asked, “Would you like to carry it with you and take it to Compostela?” I was immediately persuaded and took this as a sign that I should start walking from Worcester instead of London.

The Worcester pilgrim was buried in pilgrim’s attire and boots, with a scallop shell of Saint James and carrying his bourdon, a two-metre knobbed staff with a two-pronged metal tip (see picture of original staff). It is thought he made the journey to Compostela in 1423. Carrying an exact replica of his staff, I began from his tomb in front of the altar in Worcester cathedral where they re-interred his remains.

So I received the old eleventh century departure blessing for a pilgrim setting out on his way, administered by the the Revd. Peter Atkinson the Dean of Worcester, with a sprinkling of holy water on this fine sunny morning. I was walking for the benefit of the children’s mobility charity Whizz-Kidz (whose T-shirt I wore for the publicity photos) and also walking for the medieval pilgrim found in the cathedral, whose staff I carried in replica. He was thought to have been Robert Sutton, a generous donor to the church – which I never have been – so his generosity counted for the two of us.

I set off at eleven fifteen – late in the day for a pilgrim – and walked south from Worcester alongside the river on the Severn Way (map), on the first miles of my foot journey to Spain, I soon began to realize that the main physical challenge was not my new walking boots. (In fact my Scarpa walking boots would eventually see me safely over many hundreds of miles to Santiago de Compostela without a single blister!) No, the unforeseen challenge was the traditional medieval bourdon, the very accessory that had changed my pilgrimage plan and added an extra week’s walk from Worcester.

The two metre hardwood staff weighed-in at two kilos and I had not practised walking with it before this first day. It was definitely not your normal walking stick! At every step the weight had to be momentarily lifted and swung forward. I had been entirely unprepared for the significance of this and the implications became apparent very soon: my wrists, arms and shoulders were going to be more tired than my legs by the end of the day and I began to feel that taking on the bourdon had been a mistake.

I will return to the subject of the bourdon again as the pilgrimage continues. It appears in many photos over hundreds of kilometres, becoming a kind of marker of a pilgrim’s progress, a reminder of the Worcester pilgrim, and it will also turn out to have unexpected practical purposes that this pilgrim had yet to discover, but it certainly took some getting used to!

As I walked along the narrow muddy Severn Way alongside the river, it began to rain. It would continue raining for the next six weeks, all the way to Bordeaux and I eventually made up my own little French song about it to keep up my spirits (but that comes later!) The pilgrim rucsack – including scallop shell – weighed only 10 kilos including a tent, with each item carefully planned. I knew the weight would be increased next day if I had to pack up a wet tent. There were no views of the landscape. Lunch was a soggy sandwich on a wet bench in Upton-upon-Severn.

I left the muddy Severn Way, crossed the bridge and continued to my destination along the A38 as the traffic roared past spraying me with surface water. White Van Man drove past tooting his horn, waving a rude gesture and shouting obscenities through the window. Did he do that performance for every tramp he passed in the rain, I wondered? As I trudged on I pondered, was there a medieval equivalent of White Van Man? Were there carters who behaved like this in the days when pilgrims walked the roads of England, or is this simply post-Henry Ford behaviour?

I arrived in Tewksbury abbey just before it closed at six o’clock. Welcome to the travels of the pilgrim, and this is what makes it different from tourism: you arrive tired from your walk and too late to see the sights! There was no pilgrim stamp to be had, but I was just in time for Father Paul to sign my pilgrim record before he closed the abbey for the night. (I’ll say something about the pilgrim record or credencial at a later point in this walk… The good reader has already learned bourdon, so that is progress enough for the day.)

My baptism into English accommodation costs came next: the campsite in Tewksbury wanted £15 to pitch my small tent for the night (it was a Camping and Caravanning Club site next to the abbey). I told them my daily budget for the pilgrimage was twenty pounds a day, so I would have to leave the town and camp at the roadside, they rather disdainfully reduced the pitch fee to £10. Welcome to the pilgrim budget balancing act!

The Bell, Tewkesbury

Then I had a well-deserved pint of real ale in the half-timbered pub opposite Tewkesbury abbey gate, and the swings and roundabouts of the pilgrim budget came into play in a way I had not foreseen.

I only paid for my first pint that night in The Bell in Church Street Tewkesbury and the regulars paid for the rest. In exchange for hearing all about the road to Compostela, the Worcester pilgrim, and how I intended to follow in his footsteps, I had free beer all evening.

And that is how it might have been for the medieval pilgrim in Chaucer’s day, talking to the locals in the inn at the end of the day. Indeed, Robert Sutton the Worcester pilgrim may have stopped here at the end of his first day’s walk? His arms and shoulders would also have ached, like mine, as he lifted the tankard of ale. Meanwhile, the heavy bourdon rested in the tent, protected from the fine drizzle descending on Tewkesbury, and ready to be carried next day into Gloucestershire.

The pilgrim continues on his way and welcomes you to walk with him to Compostela on this virtual pilgrimage


Throughout this blog series I will provide occasional footnotes and references for readers, who may be fellow Compostela pilgrims or simply readers interested in the history or the cultural details of the virtual pilgrimage I am taking you on. Don’t be put off by the sight of footnotes! You can ignore them and you won’t miss anything: this blog series is not an academic exercise but some inquiring readers will benefit from the additional notes. You may even be inspired to walk the Way of Saint James

  • Lack, K.  2005. Dyer on the Road to Saint James: An Identity for ‘The Worcester Pilgrim’? Midland History, 30:1, 112-128.
  • Lubin, H. 1990. The Worcester Pilgrim. Worcester: Worcester Cathedral Publications.
  • The pilgrim staff is called a bourdon (Fr.), bordón (Sp.) and there is a well-known maker of traditional staves who supplies a variety of different models https://www.bourdon-pelerin.com. “Des choses nécessaires, il faut être garnide bourdon, de mallette, aussi d’un grand chapeau,et contre la tempête avoir un bon manteau…” (From a French pilgrim song: “Necessary things, one must be furnished with a staff, a scrip, also a large hat, and against the storm have a good coat.”)
  • Further reading: There are many books in English about the pilgrimage to Compostela and as this blog series continues I will occasionally reference them. Walter Starkie’s 1957 book, The Road to Santiago is still in print (republished by John Murray, 2003) and can be obtained through the Confraternity of St James (www.csj.org.uk) who deserve your custom more than Amazon. Unlike the ‘celebrity’ journals and the new-age drivel that have none of the authentic spirit of traditional pilgrimage,it is a work of scholarship combined with the easy style of an Irish troubadour. He truly lets himself be guided by tradition, rather than turn the Camino into a reflection of himself, which is what I also aspire to do here.
  • Then and now: I write this in November 2020 and all the places I mention on Day 1 – Worcester cathedral, Tewkesbury abbey, the camping site and The Bell hotel – are all closed to the public. (There is no current update about the availability of the wet bench in Upton-upon-Severn as a place to eat your damp sandwich, but you may be lucky.)