I felt a surge of emotion and, unexpectedly, I shed a tear. For the next few minutes, the kicking of my feet seemed to evaporate and the pack on my back felt lighter than it had been doing all week.
After three months locked in a city apartment overlooking a busy road, I have never enjoyed nature so much
I had just seen the spiers of Canterbury Cathedral bristle above the tree line for the first time. After eight days of walking 130 miles along an ancient pilgrimage route, I had reached my destination. I walked the last mile of the Pilgrim’s Path from Winchester to Canterbury with drunken glee.
In fact, there is a term for my experience: “raising the joy”. According to Dr Guy Hayward, director of the charity The British Pilgrimage Trust, the notion is described in medieval reports. “The first time the pilgrims saw their final destination, they would normally be somewhere higher up, like a hill overlooking the city,” he said, explaining that after walking for weeks, if not months, the pilgrims “cried for joy” from joy at having finally achieved their goal – hence the term.
Pilgrimages are back in fashion. Take the most famous pilgrimage in Europe, the route of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. In 1972, only 67 pilgrims were recorded as having completed the walk. In 2019, some 348,000 did so. Other lesser-known walking pilgrimages like the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome attract more visitors, while the Japanese Buddhist pilgrimage to Shikoku has also seen similar growth. Millions of Muslims go to the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia which is one of the five pillars of Islam and something that all Muslims who are physically and financially capable are required to do (the tendency to the increase in the number can also be observed there). Meanwhile, the Hindu Kumbh Mela in northern India is described as the world’s largest human gathering, attracting some 220 million pilgrims for 50 days in 2019.
The Covid-19 outbreak has, of course, significantly reduced pilgrimages in 2020 and possibly beyond (Saudi Arabia has limited the number of Hajjs to around 1,000 this year, up from 2.5 million in previous years. ). Nevertheless, the general upward trend is striking. What is it about this form of travel that attracts so many people?
The Pilgrim’s Path is Britain’s best-known pilgrimage and you can take two generally accepted routes: either the longest from Winchester Cathedral or the shortest from Southwark in London. This second route is best known for its association with Geoffrey Chaucer’s novel 1400 The Canterbury Tales.
People started walking towards Canterbury around 1172 to visit a shrine to Saint Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had been assassinated there two years earlier. Becket had been the chancellor of King Henry II, and Henry installed him as archbishop in the hope of making the church more flexible. But Becket decided that his loyalty rested on his faith rather than the king and became a thorn in Henry’s side. In a fit of anger, King Henry is supposed to have shouted “who will get rid of this troublesome priest?” and four of his knights took this as an order – stabbing Becket to death in the cathedral.
Becket became a martyr and was soon made a saint. Soon after, admirers began to visit Canterbury to see its sanctuary.
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“The majority of UK pilgrimage routes are modern constructions,” said Dr Emma Wells, a historian who has written a book on all of the major British pilgrimages. King Henry VIII banned pilgrimages in 1538, so modern routes are based on clues in place names and what appears to be the logical route – we are not sure which paths the pilgrims would have taken in the past.
However, the route I took in Winchester is not entirely arbitrary. Visiting the Sanctuary of Thomas Becket was very popular in medieval Europe, and for travelers arriving from France, the port city of Southampton would have been a logical place to land. From Southampton, Winchester is the nearest large cathedral city. From here you soon reach the North Downs, a ridge of chalk hills that stretch all the way to Canterbury. Following paths on this ridge would have made sense; the swampy land below would have been much more difficult to navigate on foot or on horseback.
Additionally, the Pilgrim’s Path follows part of the Old Way, an ancient path that connected Dover (the closest crossing to Europe) with western England and possibly Stonehenge. These roads from the Neolithic era had been used for trade for millennia. It makes sense that the pilgrims would have used them as well.
It suddenly made the world more human in a way that traveling by plane, train or automobile can never.
Dr Wells explained that medieval travelers would wear specific clothing and badges identifying them as pilgrims, and they would sleep in church porches or stay in monasteries with rooms reserved for pilgrims.
In a feudal society where the peasants were tied to the land, getting permission to travel was not easy. “You would need a blessing to go on a pilgrimage by your local priest… and your certificate [a kind of wallet pilgrims carried] and your staff [walking stick] would be blessed on the high altar of the church, ”explained Dr. Wells.
Today we could consider the pilgrimage as a form of specifically religious journey. But even in the past, tourism was as important as spirituality. Dr Marion Turner, a researcher at the University of Oxford who studies Geoffrey Chaucer, points out that “it was a time away from mainstream society, and allowed a play time”.
In many ways, the pilgrimage is the predecessor of modern tourism; if feudal serfs wanted to go out and see the world, visiting a holy place was one of the few reasons they would be allowed to travel, explained Professor Ian Reader, a specialist in religious studies at the University of Manchester. As pilgrim sites became popular, a whole host of infrastructure developed around them – from inns and souvenir shops to guidebooks. And cathedrals have been (and still do) their promotion in the same way modern tourist boards advertise sandy beaches.
In The Canterbury Tales, the pilgrimage is described as a carnival, with people from a wide variety of backgrounds socializing, joking, eating, storytelling, and often getting drunk together. Indeed, some of Chaucer’s contemporaries viewed the practice as rather unsavory: “Pilgrims were seen as just going on vacation and having fun and women coming back pregnant,” said Dr Turner.
My own pilgrimage was quite unique. My journey began on July 4, the first day the UK coronavirus lockdown was eased. When I attended matins at Canterbury Cathedral on Sunday July 12th, I was greeted warmly and said I was the first pilgrim to arrive in months.
As a form of travel, walking a pilgrimage route was unlike anything I had done before. Over and over I totally hated it, my feet were throbbing in pain. Nevertheless, I learned a lot from this experience. It suddenly made the world more human in a way that traveling by plane, train or automobile never can. I saw the landscapes gradually change around me – something you can’t see from a pop-up train window or even a bicycle.
In many cultures, people feel the need to have a “good” reason to travel.
It is impossible to know if my own walk followed exactly in the footsteps of medieval pilgrims, but the idea that perhaps hundreds of thousands of people had had an experience similar to me over the centuries was certainly a comfort, especially when my bulbs were burning me. It also helped me resist the temptation to jump on a train – what would the ancient pilgrims think of me?
Everything has become simpler too; I really had nothing to think about other than stepping one foot in front of the other and deciding what to eat at the next country pub. In addition, after three months locked in a city apartment overlooking a busy road, I had never enjoyed nature so much.
Dr Hayward sums it up this way: “If you spend several days in nature at a time, you start to feel different, more like the animals than we are… there is something about being a body on the ground. earth, which looks very natural. “
But why make a pilgrimage? You can, after all, feel a connection with nature by walking anywhere. For Dr. Hayward, walking vacations are all about looking for some of the same things, but pilgrims may be more consciously looking for something deeper. And of course, this is an opportunity for believers to visit holy places and meditate on their faith.
The popularity of specific pilgrimages increases and decreases over time, according to Professor Reader, and different pilgrimages attract different levels of attention at different times for a mix of political, religious and cultural reasons.
Take the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, which in the 19th century had all but disappeared, according to Reader. However, it got a kick start under Franco, the Spanish dictator until 1975, who began to promote the pilgrimage by tying it to his ideology of “muscular Spanish Catholic nationalism”.
After Franco’s death and Spain’s integration into the European community, making the pilgrimage gradually became a form of expression of a shared European identity (it was chosen by the Council of Europe as the first itinerary European Culture in 1987) – almost as much as an expression of the Catholic faith. Documentaries and books by travel writers and novelists from across the continent have also contributed to its growing fame and growing popularity.
Professor Reader, who has studied pilgrimage around the world, added that in many cultures people feel the need to have a “good” reason to travel. They want to feel that they are not just going somewhere for fun, but that there is a deeper or legitimate reason for going on vacation; for many people, becoming a pilgrim provides such a reason.
When I got home, my feet healed and my “mountain joy” calmed down. But sometimes an image of my trip comes to mind: of a path through an orchard; a buzzard hovering in the sky above; a break in the forest trees with a view of the farmland. The thought lingers for a moment, before it disappears, resigned to history with the memories of the countless pilgrims before me.
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