Bit of a rambling tale this one, but there is an idea at the end of it for those with patience.
At the beginning of the Summer I decided to fulfil one one of my long standing ambitions and go for a walk.... a very long walk.
The idea had grown in my mind over the years, as I read those stories of armies marching 20 miles and more in a day to reach some battlefield of great historical significance, and most particularly the tales of pilgrims walking along the way to Canterbury, near to where I was born and raised, and which also was the scene of many of Charles Dickens' walks.
What must it have been, I wondered, to have made those pilgrimages over such long distances, and what could have been so inspirational about making such a journey?
These days, most of us never go anywhere except by car, and only to get from A to B, with all the distance in between flashing past the window as you go quicker than you can take it in.
Having made such journeys myself, I had always wondered about the places along the way, the towns and villages through which I drove, and those which lay beyond the sight of any traveller in a car, tucked between the hills and valleys of the middle distance, off the beaten track beneath the shaded groves and wooded lanes I'd only glimpsed.
So it was, in the spring, I had most definitely decided to make a journey... “some day”.
Some day... “soon”.
One of those things, like a new year's resolution, that you promise yourself you'll do, but never seem to find a convenient moment for, or just don't get around to. Ever.
...But amazingly, I did!
One night, when the heat was making it difficult to sleep (it was about 20 degrees...phew! A veritable scorcher in this part of the world!), and I had one of those long and boring ideas of mine bubbling away in my head, and gnawing at my brain like a rat with a rotten cabbage, which made sleep generally impossible, I found myself getting dressed and pulling on my walking shoes...
...Perhaps I'd had too much Coffee, maybe I was half delirious with lack of sleep, but I was out the door and into the night before I knew what I was doing, and even seemed to have formulated a plan before I'd reached the end of the street. I'd decided to walk the way from Rochester to Canterbury of all those many pilgrims past... Cathedral to Cathedral.
Now I am not a religious man, and am not an adherent of any organised religion, and when it comes to a belief in god, I will simply respond, when asked... “I'm working on it”, but this was something in my bones I just felt I must do... a kind of secular pilgrimage, an exorcism of the impulse to travel, the opportunity for which I missed in my youth, and for any great distance or time to do was much too late.
...But I could do this. Could see how far I could walk in a day... Less than a day, 12 hours solid walking. Get it out of me at last.
Nearing the Cathedral at Rochester at about 2am, all this was swirling around in my head as I calculated distance (33 miles to Canterbury), mapped the route (pretty straight and long (thank you Romans!)) and was telling myself how much I enjoyed walking, how often I did it. And how good I was at making good time when I did. All to convince myself I could actually achieve this task (if nothing else in my life), in the face of this now daunting reality that I was already on the way.
It was still dark when I reached across the railing bars to place my hand upon the locked cathedral doors I know so well, now silent in the balmy, early summer morning. I promised myself I would not allow this longed for journey to end in failure, and would not give up prematurely somewhere down the road, coming home thinking “what was I thinking about”, until I had placed my hand on the door of the cathedral at Canterbury, to signify the journey's end.
Some plant flags on moons and mountain tops, terrestrial extremities at the ends of the earth and the depths of the sea... but for a small life like mine, this is what I have instead of Everest, a Champions League or world cup medal, a channel swum or a desert crossed. Of no importance to anyone but me, and completely unnoticed, if seen at all by any who would even care to witness it.
But now excited by the prospect of my epic yomp, my “personal best” now taking shape and spilling from the confines of my imagination to an unfolding reality through which I strode, I could almost feel that I was walking in the steps once placed by Dickens, Chaucer, and the rest, as I made my way along the Rochester high street I had covered a thousand times, but never at the outset of a trek like this, the length which I'd never made before, and at this time when all was still and silent in the early morning air.
Past the Six Poor travellers house of Watts charity where Dickens stayed, and past his Swiss Chalet at the other end of the street. Across Star Hill junction, and down the old part of the High street to Chatham and it's now frighteningly large hill up to Gillingham which I'd even felt exhausting when seated in a bus, no people walked abroad with me in the sweet cool summer air of morning, but only urban foxes pulling at the bins by the side of the road, or the silhouette of an occasional cat stalking across the pavement ahead as I laboured up the hill.
But with the my legs moving, the air stretching out my lungs, all my senses alert to all details of the now slow moving scenery, searching in the depths of the shadows for unseen potential dangers I felt for the first time, in a long time, alive and free... and on my way to somewhere.
Along the road through Gillingham to Rainham, a space I'd thought before to be only two or three minutes journey, seemed to take forever, and now composed of many miles I never knew were hidden there. At last the towns receded from the road side like a drawing tide... and giving way to farmer's fields and trees in spaces where before, terraced housing might have been located.
The sun was coming up, revealing haunting views of morning mists hanging faintly over verdent fields and orchards, and the air at last was clean and new. My mind relaxed it's grip on the dreams and ideas which earlier would not let me rest, as I tried to hold them all together in my head like a small armed man trying to encompass a big pile of moving, slippery bits and pieces.
The strange thing about the mind I've noticed from my previous walks is that it takes on the dimensions of the space it occupies... get stuck for too long in a small room and your thoughts tighten up, and concentrate with laser like intensity in ever smaller circles. But as you walk out into the broader world of fields and woodland, so the mind will itself will flow out to try and fill that space, until the awareness of yourself almost completely dissolves into your environment. In fact, I generally attribute the general character of people from different towns, cities and nations to the landscapes in which they live, as much as from the people they grew up there with, precisely because of this effect.
And now I was on the long straight country road between the villages, with only a narrow excuse for a pavement next to a main highway which was now coming to life with the first early morning commuters, vans and lorries, the rain had started to fall and be cast sideways at me from the wheels of these vehicles, leaving me in an almost perpetual draft of rain saturated air... and I became aware of a slight ache in the bridge of my left foot.
You realise how much of modern life has been given over to the motor vehicle when you walk along a walkway that nobody has bothered to repair for decades standing next to a road that appears pristine and regularly laid with new tarmac... and then the terror of a lorry hammering past you at considerable speed, and only six inches or so from turning you into mashed potato. The rush of air alone this causes, nearly knocking you into a ditch, or down an embankment into a river where it could conceivably be a year or more before anyone discovered your body! The drivers apparently paying no heed for you, or even seeming to acknowledge your presence.
The contrast of those former times compared to these was brought home to me by seeing the old buildings by the side of the road which once were staging posts for change of carriages, Inns for weary travellers who must have been a regular occurrence, but now no longer needed as the distances between them have been superseded by the ability to travel twice as far in half the time. With the effect that many of these are either converted into houses or even, in the case of one I passed, just been left to stand and rot... a forgotten windowless structure of an age gone by that once might have hosted some of the most notable people this country has produced as they travelled on their way to Canterbury or the coast, now an empty box to offer shelter for the bugs and other wildlife there abouts.
It was clear that nobody much walked this way any more, and certainly not for the reasons I set out. I may have even been the first such walker in many a decade.
Whole towns have become just places you drive through on your way to get to there from here, but once were destinations in their own right, or simply new possibilities of destinations for those that stopped there, with the intention of going on further, but rather liked the place they found, and maybe decided to stay.
Through Milton Regis, and on to Sittingbourne I saw a steadily increasing number of small churches built hundreds of years before, and one or two more modern ones of different denominations, a clear signal that I was on the way to Canterbury, but as this was not a Sunday at least, nobody seemed to be going in or out of them... a fact which later on I would recall to be the basis of the idea I will eventually get to.
Just before I came to Faversham, I found a man by the side of the road who's car had broken down on his way home from France. It was a fair way between towns and nothing but fields and trees all around at this point... his car beginning to present an obstacle to the increasing flow of traffic as the day was coming to life.
After I had asked if he was OK, if anyone was coming to see to his car, and he said he had been told a wait of half an hour or so was ahead of him before assistance arrived, he told me pretty much the whole story of his journey from France, and the defects of the car that brought him along the way, and I helped him push the car into a farm track entrance next to a gate a little up the road the way I came, so it was out of the way of the the thickening traffic.
He thanked me for my help, and as I made my way back down the stretch of road I'd covered already before I came upon the man, I saw a little sign a had not noticed the first time... an English heritage sign pointing to a collection of stones in a square formation in the middle of the field next to me... I walked out into the field to satisfy my curiosity, and found the excavated wall foundations
of an ancient Roman temple, with a placard telling of the different elements of the construction from the different periods of history that had been added to the building... the small chapel area buit by early Normans at the far end for their Christian worship, and the hostel area at the other for the subsequent travelling crusader knights making their way to Jerusalem.
I sat on the stone wall on the far side, under the small copse of trees there and had a sandwich and drink I'd bought at a petrol station I had passed some miles previously, and thought to myself what good luck it was for me to have helped that man with his car, as I would have completely missed this little hidden treasure of the countryside when I walked straight past the track with my eyes fixed firmly on the pavement beneath my feet.
As I stood up to leave the church remains, I began to be aware of just how tired I had become without realising it before while I was walking, the ache in my foot had now reached the tendon in the calf, and was by now beginning to throb a little painfully. Still with many miles to go I almost panicked at the thought that there was at least as much distance behind me as there was ahead...
...No going back now!
I walked a little gingerly at first, but as I built some momentum the stiffness eased in my foot which was causing me the pain, and I began to move a little better.
With Faversham behind me I tried to recall the map I looked at before I came, and was lifted by the thought that I must have walked the greater part of the way already, and a straight run to Canterbury was all that lay ahead.
I had not counted on the length of the road between the two, or the fact that a little way before my destination the road ran out altogether... given entirely over to road traffic on a motorway where the old road once must have been.
How ridiculous it is that one of the greatest historical routes for pilgrimage could now be so inhospitable to people on the way by foot!
I had to make a detour through a old village that seemed to be stuck in 1920's picture postcard England, the other end of which was an enormous straight, and direct hill it took me a whole hour to climb, stopping half way up to rest, with the pain now beating a thumping rhythm up my whole left leg and into my lower back.... made all the worse by the opposite strain on the way back down the other side, another two miles of road or so that the signs promised Canterbury to me, but seemed to be there just to try and break me through offering false hope.
By this time I was completely feeling the sleep deprivation, and a general numbness all over, except the screaming hell in my lower limbs which was now pulling on the bottom of my shoulder blades. I felt like a wishbone at Christmas, pulled apart with the force of two angry elephants.
Hobbling along the road now with a face like wrinkled knee, contorted with pain and all the uglier because of it...I must have looked like a shell shocked refugee fleeing a war zone. Muttering to myself as I went.
But it was then I caught sight of what must have been the distant spire of the cathedral, and a wave of Euphoria washed over me as I felt the journey coming to it's end.
Still with a couple of miles to go, but buoyed by the prospect of my soon being able to go home, I began in my delirium to sing random nonsense tunes, make up little folkish songs (“If I were an acorn on an old oak tree”, and “I should Be a Pilgrim”, being those I am still quite proud of, though they did become quite rude in the course of composition due to my agitated state).
And what an odd sight I must have been to any travelling along the road from their car windows as I lurched along with arms waving, tears almost rolling down my face, laughing hysterically between grimaces and moans of pain, and murmuring semi-tunefully as I went.
And in a moment of self awareness I understood how all those old tales of pilgrims perhaps had come to be, with people travelling along the long hard way and having simply the time, space, and trance like mental state that was conducive to such bouts of creativity acting on the experiences of the road itself... the rapture of first seeing that cathedral spire and so knowing they were nearing Canterbury at last was as much to do with the relief of seeing the journey's end, and the release from gathered tortures as it was to any genuine holy experience.
I entered Canterbury less than triumphantly.
Merely a wheezing sack of moans and slowly escaping air like a broken bag pipe.... my body turning different colours and curling up as would a fallen leaf in Autumn.
Odd looks from startled tourists, who must have suspected I was about to fall over and die, and who's feelings of Christian charity that had brought them to Canterbury led them to cross to the other side of the street to avoid me. I was struck by the impression that this City cared more now for presenting an image to the passing trade than it's spiritual significance.
A fact confirmed to me when having come at last to within a couple of streets distance to the cathedral I had previously no conception the physical enormity of, I saw the ticket office and the ungodly admission fees displayed there.
It seems God charges his flock to worship him in his house.
I stood for a moment speechless... I had only enough money to get the train home, or go in the Cathedral... and I certainly was not willing or even capable of walking back.
Thirty Three miles in under 11 hours.
I could see the open door of the cathedral from where I stood... but not touch it.
So I turned around, and made my broken way to the train station. Bought a Ticket. Got on the Train, and went home.
The train journey home glided quickly over the tortuous miles it took me hours to cover, getting me home in half an hour.
As it went I thought about my disappointment, and how I'd missed the chance that I would never get again... but the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me it didn't matter if I touched the cathedral door, or went inside... the achievement was the going there. The pilgrim...ing, itself. The things I saw along along the way, people met, places been to and through.
I have been to Canterbury many times before, though not to see the cathedral... but I'd seen that on the telly anyway! And I might be called mad for having walked the whole way, but I don't know anyone else who can claim to have done so.
I'm glad I went.
...Gladder still that I came home.
I slept for a whole day and night when I got back, and took a week to recover physically.
And besides the small idea of a book of vouchers issued by the churches to pull the punters in and visit all the churches along the way, getting them to sign each one appropriate to that church to add up to an accumulated discount at least from the cost of admission to the cathedrals, and the hope perhaps that I could start a trend of amateur “Pilgriming” as a “thing” that people do, like skydiving or base jumping, maybe opening the way to retrace the steps of pilgrims past to reconnect with history and literature, re-engage people with people in modern towns and communities bringing money back into them as they went, the other big idea I had was this:
Wherever you may go, just occasionally, don't just go there.... in a car.
The Destination is not Important...the way you take to get there is.