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Pilgrims honour Parry’s setting by walking in England’s pleasant land

11 November 2016

British Pilgrimage Trust

“And did those feet”: Will Parsons (left) and Guy Hayward at Blake’s Cottage, Felpham, West Sussex, on Tuesday

“And did those feet”: Will Parsons (left) and Guy Hayward at Blake’s Cottage, Felpham, West Sussex, on Tuesday

A GROUP of enthusiasts for the song “Jerusalem” have completed a 125-mile pilgrimage to mark the centenary of Parry’s musical setting.

The sites visited all have connections — some indirect — with William Blake, who wrote the poem in 1804, and Sir Hubert Parry, who composed the music in 1916.

The journey began at dawn on 22 October, as the walkers watched the sun rise over Primrose Hill in north London — representing Blake’s “chariot of fire” — and continued to the site of Blake’s burial in Bunhill Fields, just north of the City of London. The day also took in Parry’s grave, at St Paul’s Cathedral; the locations of Blake’s birth, baptism, and death, in Soho, St James’s, Piccadilly, and the Strand respectively; the Israeli Embassy; and the site of the Queen’s Hall, in Langham Place, where Parry’s composition was first performed.

Other sites included the mausoleum in Cobham Cemetery, Surrey, of the construction magnate Sir Robert MacAlpine, on the basis that he “builded here” more than most; and St Peter’s, Hascombe, Surrey, because it has a medieval screen made from Jerusalem olive-wood.

The pilgrimage finished on Tuesday with visits to both the cottage in Felpham, West Sussex, where Blake wrote the poem, and the cottage Knightscroft, nine miles away at Rustington, where Parry composed the music.

Will Parsons, who devised the pilgrimage, said: “It is the most important of songs: I cannot think of any other song that people from quite literally every walk of life in this country will sing. It is sung at cricket, football, and rugby matches, at Labour Party conferences and Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, and at royal events. People are still singing this wonderfully English myth about Jesus coming to England with Joseph of Arimathaea, and walking upon our land.

“It struck me just how resilient that dream is, and how it should be honoured and celebrated. As the poem is ‘And did those feet in ancient times walk. . .’, walking is the obvious way to do it.”

Mr Parsons, from Elham, in Kent, runs the British Pilgrimage Trust, which encourages people to walk to sites with spiritual connections, whether they have faith or not. “Our route was pretty wriggly,” he said. “We think Blake would approve. If we were aiming to go the quick, straight way, we’d probably take a train.”

“Jerusalem” was originally written as the prologue to Blake’s epic work Milton. Parry added the music at the request of the Poet Laureate Robert Bridges, as a morale booster for the movement Fight for Right, which encouraged men to enlist after the early setbacks of the First World War.

Parry later gave the copyright to the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies; and, in 1928, when universal suffrage was achieved, it passed to the Women’s Institute.

One of the pilgrims, Guy Hayward, a musician from Greenwich, south-east London, said: “It was absolutely brilliant. People along the way were absolutely inspired by it. We left a trail of something very special. We found many unexpected connections along the way. The First World War aspect shone through.

“So much of the song is about weaponry — bows, spears, arrows — and it was born from the need for more soldiers. We must have sung it at more than 100 war memorials.”

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