04 Apr 2024
by Dawn Champion

Old map of Kent highlighting pilgrimage stops.
The Old Way – an ancient pilgrimage route you can still travel today, as highlighted here on the 14th century Gough Map. (© British Pilgrimage Trust)

My muddy boots

Chaucer* tells us that April is the month when “longen folk to goon on pilgrimages” and I am certainly looking forward to the explosion of birdsong, greenery and firmer paths that springtime brings. Modern footwear means you don’t even have to wait until April, which is how I found myself walking lots of mud into a Porters’ Lodge in January. I was guiding pilgrims to Winchester and our last stop before the city was the Hospital of St Cross.

(*Geoffrey Chaucer was a 13th century poet, best known for 'The Canterbury Tales', 24 stories about a group of pilgrims travelling together.)

You’ve got to say something,” whispered the porter in my ear as the group stamped their feet outside and filed in through the door. I thought she wanted us to take off our muddy boots.  “I can’t offer it, you’ve got to say it” Ah! She knew what we wanted.

“We demand the Wayfarer’s Dole!” A platter appeared with morsels of bread and small cups of local ale. St Cross is famous for its unique and ancient tradition of providing the Dole to anyone who requests it. The custom was founded by a Cluniac monk, whose order always gave sustenance to pilgrims. Donations given in thanks, we left along the river. Shadowed by Iron Age Hillforts we headed towards the Anglo-Saxon capital founded by Romans around a prehistoric river crossing. The group discussed how many people must have done the same over the years and the beer made that final mile a little easier for ancient feet.

Small plate and several horn beaker style cups on a glass shelf.
The Wayfarer’s Dole – providing sustenance through the centuries. (© British Pilgrimage Trust)

Ancient paths

Pilgrimage routes such as the Pilgrims Way and Old Way follow truly ancient paths, borne out of the ridgelines and river crossings which hold the memory of nomadism in the early British Landscape. Often these paths are all that remains of the ancient landscape, hills and valleys radically altered by subsequent changes of use, ownership and care. These ancient paths were held open in part by the rise of pilgrimage, which now creates a joining thread between other, later stories.

The Old Way stretches from Southampton to Canterbury and would have scooped up pilgrims arriving in the various ports and harbours along the south coast as well as more local pilgrims. Inspired by an intriguing red line on the 14th century Gough Map, today’s Old Way does not fully replicate the medieval route - lots of it is under busy roads now - but instead weaves together all sorts of places significant to the modern pilgrim.

On this one route, you can tread where pilgrims have been walking for thousands of years. Neolithic pilgrims travelled on further to Stonehenge and Avebury, Roman pilgrims to the temple of Minerva and Neptune in Chichester. Medieval pilgrims journeyed to local shrines and holy wells. Now modern pilgrims join them, walking for their own purpose and adding their own layer to the journey. Pilgrimage routes connect us not just from place to place, but up and down through time.

Pre-historic standing stones in flat green landscape.
West Kennet Stone Avenue, a truly ancient processional pilgrim route in the Stonehenge & Avebury World Heritage Site. (© British Pilgrimage Trust)

Modern hearts

Today’s pilgrims may have better footwear than their historical counterparts, but the urge is the same. What makes their journey a pilgrimage is their intention - setting out seeking personal meaning in the places they see, people they meet, and experiences they discover on the way. Pilgrimage takes you out of your everyday life and puts your body in the land. But your intention also takes you on an inner journey. At any one moment, we almost all have at least one question we want answering, or something we want to bring into our lives, or let go of. This ancient practice of walking with intention offers a way of seeking these things in our land’s ancient and forgotten places.

The Old Way connects landscapes that I know very well, places I have lived and worked, countryside that I would consider to be my ‘back yard’. The first time I walked this as a pilgrim however, I found I had been missing an incredibly powerful way of connecting to the land and its stories. No longer an observer, I became a participant. Rather than passively reading the story of the landscape, it became an intrinsic part of mine.

In this way the land acts as a repository for memory, one that can only really be accessed on foot. It’s not just about the special places, but the collection of moments, and small things you encounter along the way. From the pockets of hazel coppice, to the glimpse of the church clock aligned to your path, you can start to read the memory of the land as it was made and used by ancestors. In the pilgrim’s mindset, these details become meaningful, and some will begin to resonate with your intention.

Green fields with a small stream leading to a stone church on a sunny day.
Respite on the horizon. Weary walkers still tread this beautiful landscape and can ask for the Wayfarer's Dole at the Hospital of St Cross in Hampshire. (© British Pilgrimage Trust)

So if a taste of bread and beer can become an unbroken promise of care for wayfarers through the centuries, a walk can be a journey to inner transformation through outer travel in the land. Well worth the muddy boots.

Find out more

The British Pilgrimage Trust is a charity that advocates for the benefits and joy of pilgrimage. They offer a comprehensive resource for learning about and planning pilgrimages in Britain, modernising the traditional. They develop and publicise new and old paths as well as the practice of pilgrimage itself by suggesting people say ‘bring your own beliefs’.

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