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Pilgrimage: Lessons learnt on an unfinished journey

21 June 2024

Despite not making all of his planned pilgrimage, Thomas Ward gleaned other insights from his time on the path

Supplied by the author

Thomas Ward near the start of his pilgrimage

Thomas Ward near the start of his pilgrimage

THE French toad-counting man scooped disks of jam out of their little foil pots with his knife and popped them into his mouth whole. He didn’t bother with the butter, rolls, and croissants provided by the friars as part of their generous breakfast buffet. His manner of eating managed to be both mindful and hungry, which, I felt, suited his situation.

I was having the friars’ “full English”. I was neither mindful nor particularly hungry. I wanted comfort. It was a soggy Monday morning in March, and I was fed up and lonely. The emptiness of the friary was not helping my mood. The French toad-counting man and I were the only people in the guest refectory.

“Let me get this right. You’re being given a bed tonight, for free, in return for counting toads?’

“Yes, that is correct. It is a project to do with roads and toads crossing. I must count each toad that crosses the road between seven and ten. It is absurd, but very beautiful.”

“Where will the toad people actually put you up?”

He slipped a disk of apricot jam into his mouth and shrugged. “I do not know exactly. A church hall, I think. Anywhere will do.”

The toad-counter and I had met ten minutes before, over the buffet. I had discovered that he was doing the same pilgrimage as me: the Old Road from Winchester to Canterbury, in honour of St Thomas Becket. It was soon apparent that that was where the similarity between us ended. The toad-counter was a very serious, full-time pilgrim.

He had tramped south on the dusty tracks of the Via Francese to Rome, headed north-east on the cold footpaths of St Cuthbert’s Way to Lindisfarne, and struggled westwards over the Pyrenees and then out along the Milky Way on the famous Camino de Santiago. He had done pilgrimages that I had never even heard of. He dossed in church halls, pilgrim refuges, monasteries, and sometimes under the stars.

Also, unlike me, the toad-counter prayed as he travelled, and I got the impression that he prayed a lot. “Sometimes, I pray by praying,” he said, “and sometimes I pray just by being and seeing.” The toad-counter had said something about watching a horse kick and run wild in a field the day before. This was also a prayer, apparently, although I had no idea how. The image had a dreamy quality to it, however. I liked it. It had reminded me of something.


MY ROAD to the friars’ breakfast table had been different. I was there because I had just turned 50, and was not enjoying it. I was increasingly unsure of myself, and worried about my recently diagnosed arthritic knees. I was uncertain of what I believed, or where I was going. That Christmas, a friend had bought me a copy of Britain’s Pilgrim Places, published by the British Pilgrimage Trust (Books, 27 January 2023), and, in the dull, regretful days between Christmas and New Year, I had read the introduction by Simon Jenkins, and then a few of the journey descriptions that made up the bulk of the book.

Supplied by the authorThomas Ward outside Winchester Cathedral before starting his pilgrimage

I had been surprised to discover that pilgrimage was undergoing a modest revival in Britain and in Western Europe generally. Jenkins compared this resurgence to the increasing popularity of cathedral services in the Church of England, in contrast with the ongoing decline of parochial worship.

If you’re a secular Brit for whom the idea of God is a bit nuts, or even slightly distasteful, but who, nevertheless, feels the loss of the beautiful things around God from time to time, cathedral evensong or a few days hiking to Canterbury might be good ways of slipping your paw into the religious cookie jar without the bother of creeds, community, or commitment. You can kneel or walk where prayer has been valid, and feel the benefit, without the boredom, discomfort, and compromise of actually trying to pray.

In line with this view, the British Pilgrimage Trust’s motto is “Bring your own beliefs,” and it defines pilgrimage as “a form of cultural heritage that promotes holistic well-being for the public benefit”. The word “holistic” crops up a fair bit in the contemporary literature about pilgrimage, noticeably more than the word “God” — a fact that caught my attention in the days after Christmas.

From the comfort of my sofa, it occurred to me that a couple of weeks holy rambling might be just the thing to give me a good holistic sorting out, addressing the various layers of my mid-life malaise. It just so happened that I read the bit in Britain’s Pilgrim Places about the Becket pilgrimage on 29 December. Something niggled me as I read the chapter, but it wasn’t until I had finished that I realised that I was reading about the saint on his actual feast day. I was slightly pissed at the time; so this seemed significant. I felt as if the pilgrim stars had aligned above me, all the way to Canterbury.


THE toad-counter stacked five empty jam pots on top of each other. He wiped his moustache and beard with a napkin, and drank some coffee. “And you, how has your pilgrimage been?”

“Good in parts. Less good in others.”

“How do you mean?”

The toad-counter was slightly irritating me. I felt his serenity as a kind of rebuke. I felt that his pilgrim depths would expose my hidden pilgrim shallows. On the other hand, I was desperately keen to talk to someone, and I was never going to see him again.

“I’ve been lonely. I’m tired. And I haven’t prayed very much. I thought I would. I certainly planned to. But I haven’t.”

The toad-counter was still and very quiet.

“To be honest, I’ve hardly prayed at all.”

The toad-counter nodded, with rabbinic solemnity.

“That is sad,” he said.

I got the feeling that he meant it, and that irritated me, too.

My pilgrimage had started well, as I enjoyed a weekend in Winchester with the friend who had bought me the pilgrimage book. On Monday morning, my friend had driven me to a spot just outside the town, and I had pulled my rucksack, guidebook, and pilgrim staff out of the boot. I had started walking down a track with grassy banks on either side, in the drizzle. Almost immediately I was struck by how dull and empty everything felt.

I had a quick wee to gather my thoughts, but, somehow, I got muddled, holding my pilgrim staff and penis at the same time, and ended up pissing all over my ankles. My friend laughed and waved and then drove off. And that was it. I was pilgriming, all on my own.

Supplied by the authorThomas Ward outside Winchester Cathedral before starting his pilgrimage

One big problem was that I didn’t enjoy the walking very much. My knees ached like mad, and the right one swelled up, and, although some of the landscape was nice enough, I seemed to spend a lot of time struggling across muddy playing fields or hacking through gated estates, full of triple garages and tennis courts. Twice, I left my pilgrim staff in pubs, and had to retrace my steps, once for more than an hour, to reclaim it. I got lost a lot. Some little prick tried to steal my phone.

More significantly, I got lonely and depressed as the days drifted by, and my efforts to pray dried up almost immediately. Each day, I began my journey with a rosary in one hand and my staff in the other, but each day, after a couple of minutes, my attention drifted, and I caught myself watching myself praying and being a pilgrim, instead of actually praying and being a pilgrim. Then, I caught myself watching myself watching myself, and everything went bonkers and slipped away from me.

Each day, I made a few attempts to get back on track, but, after half an hour or so, I gave up and spent most of my prayer time thinking about my sore knees, or everyone in the world who irritated me, or where to have lunch. Little by little, the rest of my pilgrim discipline slipped. I drank too much in the evenings and spent time scrolling through social media or texting mates.

“So,” asked the toad-counter, “where will you travel to today?”

“I’m not sure yet.”

“Don’t you have a plan? Where will you sleep tonight?”

“I don’t know if I am going to finish the trip.”

I hadn’t known that I was going to say that until I said it, but as soon as the words were out of my mouth, I knew that they were true. “I think I’ve had enough. I want to go home.”

“Do you think, perhaps, that you will finish the pilgrimage another time?”

“I don’t know.”

I smiled weakly at the toad-counter. “Please, when you get to Canterbury, give my apologies to St Thomas.”

He smiled back and stood up.

“Of course. I will give him your apologies. God bless you on your journey.”

“Thank you. I hope you count loads of toads.”


EVERYONE is on a journey these days, which may be one of the reasons that pilgrimage is so cheerfully culturally appropriated by non-believers. Journeys in general and pilgrimages in particular provide a satisfying metaphor for life and much else. They suggest a kind of structured sacrifice, a difficult but logical progression, and a final encounter with something significant or transcendent, as a reward.

Supplied by the authorThomas Ward on the road at the start of his route

My own pilgrimage experience was quite different, but not ultimately as awful as it seemed at the time. In the weeks that followed, as my knees recovered, it slowly dawned on me that the lesson I had taken from my pilgrimage was the opposite of the standard metaphor. It was that there really doesn’t have to be a structure or logical progression to things. There doesn’t have to be a journey. There are muddle, and sore knees, and pissed-on ankles, and nearly stolen phones: these things are indisputable. But they do not have to lead anywhere. There is not a final destination (humanly speaking), or a graded progression, or an earthly city that we all trudge towards — which came as a gentle relief to my mid-life angst. Where am I going? Nowhere in particular; and that’s probably OK.

In fact, I came to suspect that to lean on the journey or pilgrimage metaphor too heavily means missing things, or at least missing things as they really are. It is to live life as a boring travel guide rather than as poetry. It means trusting in the future rewards of your own pilgrim efforts rather than in the disconcerting grace of the pointless present.

If you have your eyes too firmly fixed on the prize of St Thomas’s altar in Canterbury, you risk missing the horse kicking and running wild in the field. The toad-counter’s Buddha-like serenity had irritated me over breakfast, but I came to believe that he had that bit right.

It wasn’t until months later that I realised what the toad-counter’s thing about the horse had reminded me of, incidentally. It was an image from T. S. Eliot’s poem, “The Journey of the Magi”:

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.

I have loved the poem since I was young. It begins with the lines that Eliot stole from Lancelot Andrews:

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey.

My pilgrimage had not been long. It hadn’t been at the worst time of the year. And I had not had a cold coming of it. But, still, I was happy to have made the connection.

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