Last weekend was the Winter Gathering of the Order of Bards Ovates and Druids. The Order holds two gatherings each year, one in June, the other December, both in the Somerset town of Glastonbury. 200 members from all across the world gather together for community, music, ritual and discussions. The theme of this year’s Winter Gathering was Walking the Land – Ritual, Magic and Pilgrimage. One of the highlights for me was listening to the two founders of the British Pilgrimage Trust talk about pilgrimage, the work of the Trust, and some of their adventures. Their presentation was a blend of history, anecdotes and folk song, and it was wonderful.
I’ve made a few pilgrimages in my life thus far. Journeys made with intent, purpose, and completely on foot. For two years me and a few friends walked the same route over the weekend of the Summer Solstice. We met at a small harvest mound just outside the Sussex Country Town of Lewes called The Tump. There we sat together and contemplated our Journey. We would walk a total of about 35 miles. The route would take us across the Lewes flood plains, up Itford Hill, along the South Downs Way, then down into Alfriston (for a well-deserved pint), then to climb the hill above the Long Man of Wilmington, to pitch our tents near the Long Barrow for the first night. The second day would take us into the valleys of Lullington Heath, home of adder and sparrow hawk, through deciduous woodland, then up once more onto the Downs at Firle Beacon, there to sleep upon a dug out Bronze Age Barrow. The final morning would take us across the A27, up the slopes of Mount Caburn, there to rest a while and contemplate the end of the Journey. Picking up our backpacks once more we walk the valley thats leads us back to Lewes, and the Snowdrop pub, for a last pint.
Those were good days. Each step was taken with purpose, and meant something. There were times, particularly Itford Hill, when we were gasping for breath, and gravity proved a real problem. But most of the time spent walking the Sussex landscape brought me closer to the land, the Spirits of those old trackways, their stories, their songs. The conversations were never mundane, and there was a real bond between us as we walked. On both weekends the weather was wonderful, and the only problem was a little sunburn. This was a time before mobile phones too, so as we left the roads and towns behind us, there was no way for that peace to be broken. As we left The Tump, and made our way past Lewes Priory and under the A27, then out into the Sussex countryside, so we left much behind, and I’m sure each one of us felt lighter for it.
I had no idea that Pilgrimage had been banned here in the UK. Hearing that came as quite a shock. It’s hard to understand why, or indeed how, that could have happened. I’m guessing it came about during Tudor times when the Crown were trying to wrestle power away from the Pope and Catholicism. I think there is such a calling to walk, to travel to some important religious or spiritual place, that this need lies within our very souls, and at some point the call becomes overwhelming, and on go the walking boots, out comes the rucksack, and into the countryside we go. In times past that might have been to a Cathedral, a Relicary, or other Christian holy site. For us it was the local landscape, and several ancient Pagan sites.
When our lives are lived at such a high speed, it can be both rewarding and challenging to leave that phone behind, make a pledge to yourself that you will stay off Facebook for a few days, and walk out into the green. Can you drive on pilgrimage? Well I guess that’s a choice we each make, but I’m not sure it works for me. There has to be at least some space from the car, to the site. Some time spent on foot walking to the destination – time for contemplation. The longer we spend on foot, the more we leave our stuff behind, the more we focus on the slowing down, the more connection there is to the Journey, and I’m not sure that can ever be experienced in the same way driving in a car. We are in the end still on that fast-paced conveyor belt, but that conveyor belt runs out at countryside Public Footpath signs, and the earth is simply too slippery for it to move as fast.
What did I take with me?
I always had plenty of water. There were places on the South Downs Way where I could fill up, but they weren’t guaranteed. I had a Trangia, a tiny way of heating food with a methylated spirit burner; some dried food and energy bars; a bed roll; a small walkers tent; a change of clothes; good waterproof coat; a hat; a torch; an OS map of the area; a compass, and good worn-in walking boots. Oh, and a walking staff. The staff has several uses – for balance, measuring distance, and also to help create a walking rhythm. It really does help.
We planned the route.
A pilgrimage is a walk with intent, a purpose, and a specific destination. So we always spent some time with the OS map, planing the route, the places we could stop, the places we could safely camp, our beginning and the final destination. Things might not always go to plan, but that time spent before was very useful.
After listening to Will and Guy talk at the OBOD Winter Gathering it has inspired me to take another Pilgrimage next year, but it has also reminded me of those past walks I’d made – of the connection to the land and my gods that they brought me. Life can sometimes feel like a race, but for what? May my footsteps tread lightly, may my mind be free enough to stop, to see, and to hear.
May I walk gently upon the Earth, in the footsteps of the Ancestors.