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Between the Chalk and the Sea: A journey on foot into the past by Gail Simmons; Walking on Holy Ground: A Pilgrimage on the Via Francigena and the Western Front, from London to Laon by Nick Dunn

06 April 2023

Philip Welsh reflects on accounts of contrasting pilgrimage experiences

THE pilgrimage route from Southampton, where medieval Europe’s pilgrims landed, to England’s premier shrine at Canterbury was rediscovered in 2016 from the Gough map of c.1360, Britain’s oldest road map. It has now been developed as a 250-mile trail by the British Pilgrimage Trust, and christened the Old Way.

The travel journalist Gail Simmons decided to walk the Old Way in several sections across the year, navigating Covid restrictions, and with her journey articulated around the seasons of the Celtic calendar.

The enjoyable result combines a recognisable account of a walker’s ups and downs (“I peeled back my hood, the rustle of Gore-tex ebbed away and I heard the world again”); a loving evocation of the cursive landscape of the Downs, its birdsong and smells, its ancient churches, its local history and artists; the world of pre-Reformation pilgrimage and the story of Thomas Becket; and, before it all, the religion of pre-Christian England.

Woven through this is the author’s own history. Brought up on Chiltern chalklands in a nomadic army family, she became a restless traveller. Now, in midlife in Yorkshire, and aware of a “search for somewhere to belong”, she sets out on her “pilgrimage in search of a lost path, and my own topography within southern England’s chalk landscapes”.

She does not write as a full-on Christian pilgrim, but as that pastorally familiar figure “with a strong sense of the sacred, though not adhering to any formal religion in spite of my Church of England upbringing”, who loves to visit empty ancient country churches for their sense of rootedness and peace. She avoids going in when anything is happening. The one time when we find her joining any group ceremony is with a gathering of Druids in a car park.

She is attached to the idea that a woman walking alone is “an act of resistance”, but enjoys incidental encounters, fortuitously bumping into the TV pilgrim Peter Owen-Jones at his church (I walked the same stretch while writing this, but he failed to materialise for me, though I was serenaded by a trumpeter practising considerately inside thick church walls further down the line). Towards the end, she introduces us to the Old Way’s creator, Will Parsons.

There has been a range of books in recent years about the revival of pilgrimage or long walks of self-discovery. What Between the Chalk and the Sea gives us — its title seemingly half-lifted from Patrick Leigh Fermor’s tramping classic, Between the Woods and the Water — is an attractive project by a travel journalist who brings her attention back home. It is not a guide-book (and woefully lacks an outline route-map), but a lively and well-informed companion that makes you — pilgrim or walker — want to see the places for yourself. It brings to life the world of pilgrimage, whether with its ancient focus on the goal, or the modern focus on the journey: “The path was my shrine.”

And she reminds us that those medieval pilgrims, when they finally got there, had to turn around and walk all the way back, taking their pilgrim badge home. But when the author declares that her mobile phone is “as essential a piece of kit today as a pair of good walking boots”, I can only say, Oh no, it’s not.

Nick Dunne picks up where Gail Simmons finishes, at Canterbury Cathedral, and speaks warmly of the priest who sent him off with a blessing, as she does of the priest who offered her a blessing on arrival.

His pilgrimage follows the Via Francigena (“the way through France”) from Canterbury to Laon, with a significant detour along the Western Front. Voluntary redundancy as a social worker was the opportunity for Dunne, a Roman Catholic, to combine this first stage of a projected walk to Rome with a longstanding interest in the First World War, which intersects with his family history.

Like Simmons, he is good at evoking the Christian past of the churches and shrines that punctuate his route, but, in his case, he makes every effort to go inside and join with local people in the Christian present, even when he finds himself invited to take his turn in reading prayers in his schoolboy French.

The military aspect of his journey occupies much of the book, and Dunne draws extensively on his background knowledge and previous visits, making good use of individual witnesses. “The Western Front is a path that has defined the historical, psychological and, in many ways, the spiritual landscape of the 20th century.” Its battle lines and cemeteries are clearly not a detour, but a part of this pilgrimage on holy ground.

The miraculous post-war reconstruction of Ypres and its cathedral speaks to him of death and resurrection, and of how the blowing to bits of so many combatants caused theologians to struggle with the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, notable among them a stretcher-bearer at Verdun, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. And the author finds himself concluding that the real question about the resurrection of Christ is not how it happened, but “What changed the apostles?”

The Revd Philip Welsh is a retired priest in the diocese of London.

Between the Chalk and the Sea: A journey on foot into the past
Gail Simmons
Headline £22
Church Times Bookshop £19.80

Walking on Holy Ground: A Pilgrimage on the Via Francigena and the Western Front, from London to Laon
Nick Dunne
Som Tam Books £9.99

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