ON OUR first family pilgrimage, along the Via Francescano della Pace, which leads from Assisi to LaVerna, sites respectively of the birth and death of St Francis, our oldest child, Jessica, was 14. She despised walking, and even before the beginning of the journey she was complaining about being made to go on a “forced march in the middle of nowhere”.
The evening we arrived in Assisi, we walked through the streets, looking in the shop windows at the souvenirs and fabulous leather goods on display. Stopping in front of a pair of pink kitten heels, Jessica sighed dramatically . . . and I had a brainwave.
“Jess, if you promise not to complain at all the whole journey, I will buy you those shoes on our return.”
“Deal,” she replied instantly. (She had calculated from lira to pounds more quickly than I, and knew how expensive as well as how impractical the shoes were.)
The next day, in the pouring rain, as we trod wearily up yet another hill, I heard Jess muttering behind me. I turned round and snapped: “What was that, Jess?” “I’m thinking about my shoes, I’m thinking about my shoes. . .” She didn’t complain for the entire trip — and still has the shoes.
Taking children on pilgrimage is not simple, but, over the years, we have found it to be a wonderful way of spending time together, strengthening family bonds and giving us memories that still unite us even now, when nearly all of the children are adults.
Sally’s youngest, looking delighted to be setting off from AssisiCounterintuitively, the younger they are, the easier they are: our first trip was made when the youngest was nine months, and he had a marvellous time perched on my back, at head height with the rest of the gang, who fed him biscuits and sang him silly made-up songs.
Wishing to spare my young children the mixed sleeping arrangements and ad hoc approach to wearing clothes at night which are common at many hostels, we chose hotels rather than pilgrim accommodation. To save money, we all slept in one room, usually ending up on the floor, and ate picnics rather than go to restaurants; but this was not a hardship as it only added to the sense of adventure.
A PILGRIMAGE is not just a walk: there is a definite destination, which is recognised externally as such, and the sense of purpose which this gave our trips certainly made covering the miles in between much easier.
The pilgrimage aspect can be informed by ensuring that the story of the trail is told: that modern pilgrims are reminded that the route they are taking is one that has been in use for many hundreds of years by many thousands of people, all seeking to deepen their relationship with God.
If churches and holy sites are open to visit along the way, these can be helpful in reinforcing the primary purpose of a pilgrim journey: to grow in depth and understanding in our relationship with God, and to offer love and service to our neighbour by enabling and supporting their journey.
It can, indeed, seem as if a pilgrimage is just a huge adventure, especially for children. That’s fine; very often, for adults as well as children, the spiritual wisdom emerges after the journey is over, when thinking over the events and the experiences during times of quiet and reflection. These may not become apparent for years, but the seed will have been sown, and the fruit will appear.
There are some hard but useful life lessons to be learnt by young pilgrims, however, not the least of which is that sometimes there is no way out but through. Pilgrim routes can be flooded, precipitous, wet, hot, overgrown, or crowded; however challenging, once begun, they must be completed — but the sense of achievement and increase in self-confidence is valuable indeed.
Pilgrimage is an all-age event, and one that takes place on terms of equality: the oldest and the youngest can help with the navigating, choose the conversation topics, argue over choice of food, and try to under-stand the dialect of local shopkeepers.
Powerful conversations are a natural result of hours of walking, the comfortable rhythm and side-by-side approach encouraging a depth and honesty that can be lacking from day-to-day exchanges, when time and attention are limited.
Above all, days spent surrounded by amazing landscapes bring a sense of awe and wonder at the marvels of creation which can only strengthen belief and deepen faith.
Having said this: when we walked to Santiago de Compostela with our ten-year-old, we planned to stop and pray in each church. In the event, all the churches were locked; so we stopped and played in every playground instead.
The Revd Sally Welch is the Spirituality Adviser for the diocese of Oxford, Vicar of Charlbury with Shorthampton, and co-director of the Christian Pilgrimage Network. Her latest book, Sharing the Story, for Lent 2022, is published by BRF (Books for Lent, 21 January).
Family pilgrim essentials
THE author and walker Alfred Wainwright wrote (1973): “There is no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.” This is especially true when walking with children. Spend what you can on boots and waterproofs, as these will prevent much misery.
Bear in mind, however, that the child must be happy to wear the item, and be prepared to balance practicality with style: our 12-year-old walked to Trondheim on St Olav’s Way in his Nike trainers, fortunately with no ill effects, because, he said, boots were “uncool”.
Don’t be too ambitious about the number of miles you plan to cover each day, and allow plenty of time to stop for breaks and lunch. Pilgrimage is not a competition. . .
The best bit of the journey is the discussions and conversations; have a list of “ice-breakers” for when things lag. I have spent hours listening to descriptions of what kit a child would wear if they were a medieval knight, or the way each room might be decorated in an ideal house. I have also stretched my brain making up long, elaborate stories, which can be embroidered folk-tales, if nothing original springs to mind.
Spend some time walking in silence — this gives the adults a break, speeds up the walking pace, and enables the children to listen to music if they have gadgets to do so.
Prepare some activities in advance for moments of boredom: filling a matchbox with the tiniest items; grandmother’s footsteps (Google if you don’t know how to play); making a journey stick (collect objects — except wild flowers and live insects — along the way and attach/wrap on to the stick using string: this will become a souvenir of the journey); catching leaves; guessing what is in the other person’s hand; making a feather headdress — anything that keeps the momentum of the journey going.
Bear in mind that children recover from exercise quicker than adults. However tired everyone is when they arrive at their accommodation, after a couple of hours of rest and some food, entertainment will be demanded. Either have your phone fully charged for games (buying a solar-powered phone charger is a wise investment), or pack some playing cards and/or some portable versions of board games.
Five routes to try together
istock The St Oswald’s Way signs on the Northumberland Coast Path
St Oswald’s Way: walk along the Northumberland coastline. Miles of empty beaches, punctuated by fabulous castles, including Alnwick Castle, which starred in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Accommodation can be in one place, because there is an excellent bus service along the route, which makes things easier, in terms of not having to carry loads of luggage each day.
Thames Pilgrim Way: 100 miles of flat, well marked, mostly stile-free walking, from Oxfordshire through to the site of the signing of the Magna Carta. The railway line runs parallel to the route from Oxford, which makes getting to and from the start point of each day much easier.
The Devon Pilgrim: offers three day-long walks in fabulous country — and offers an excellent range of souvenirs as well.
Sally’s husband with their youngest, nine years later, on the Camino Inglés to Santiago de Compostela. The churches along the way were closed, but the playgrounds were open
Camino Inglés to Santiago de Compostela: when we walked this path, people were totally charming to our son, and he grew to expect free sweets from every shop he entered.
Assisi to Gubbio: it’s not long, it’s well marked out (although a bit hilly in places), and it’s punctuated by friendly, relaxed accommodation, which had no trouble in coping with my fussy eater’s demands for spinach at every meal. It goes in the opposite direction from the Via Francigena to Rome, but we did not find that a problem.