The Accidental Pilgrim

The Accidental Pilgrim

A Pilgrim’s Joy

My feet burn,
but my heart is light.
My body aches,
but my spirit soars high.
My worldly goods
are rags and tatters,
but I am wealthy beyond measure.
I have walked the Holy Road
and I am blessed.
I have walked the Holy Road
and I am cleansed.
I have walked the Holy Road
and I am reborn.

Kevan Manwaring. St Bees, Midsummer 2019

A pilgrimage suggests a significant degree of intentionality, a desire to shrive one’s sins, to extirpate some failure of character or traumatic memory, or to reconnect with the ‘true’ spiritual life – by aligning one’s physical path, literally, with a spiritual one. In medieval times, the duration and ardour of the journey had significance: the hard and longer the pilgrimage, the holier it was perceived to be. Thus, three pilgrimages to Bardsey Island, off the tip of the Llyn Peninsula in northwest Wales, was thought to be the equivalent of one trip to Rome (in medieval ‘God miles’, so to speak). Not being Christian these traditional holy pilgrimages interest me less than one’s that have personal significance to me – these usually entail literary pilgrimages (to places associated with a particular writer or text), but might also include to prehistoric sites or sites considered to be ‘sacred’ by modern pagans. Glastonbury Tor was my first such pilgrimage (when I was eighteen), and Avebury another (walking the Ridgeway to it over four days); also thumbing it to Crough Patrick in the west of Ireland, and Mon St Michel in Brittany as a long-haired art student in love with all things Celtic. Over the last few years, I have undertaken long walks at the end of the academic year – as a kind of ‘detox’ from modern life and the demands of my profession.

Since 2014 these sabbatical walkabouts have got increasingly longer – extending from the 84 miles of Hadrian’s Wall to the 268 miles of the Pennine Way – but this year I decided to eschew that, going for quality, not quantity. Still the Coast to Coast, at 192 miles, crossing 3 national parks (North Yorkshire Moors; Yorkshire Dales; the Lake District) and several thousand feet of peaks (28,235 ft of climb) is not an easy walk by any stretch. The terrain (and sometimes brutal weather conditions) make it taxing on the legs and morale. With a full pack (one weighing nearly sixty pounds in my case), even more so (I camped along the way and had to take everything with me). Yet I didn’t want to just follow the customary route, from St Bees on the west coast of Cumbria to Robin Hood’s Bay, on the Yorkshire side. I decided to tackle it in ‘reverse’, (of most guidebook advice and the direction of the majority of walkers) – from east to west, ending at St Bees.  This would save the Lakes until last, and align with many pilgrim routes which go from east to west (El Camino de Santiago being the most famous). It is the ‘way of the sun’ – one that on clear nights mirrors the Via Lactea, the Milky Way, the celestial pilgrimage route that our solar system is one tiny dancing part of.

And so I planned my trip accordingly. The decision to go east to west was instinctive – it just felt right. It was only when I set out on June 10th, that I discovered that Saint Bega, the 9th Century Irish princess associated with St Bee’s, my terminus, is connected with Midsummer … exactly when I would finish my walk. And so I had unwittingly transformed my long-distance walk into a pilgrimage. After several years of walking mainly national trails, I felt a yearning for something more meaningful to reciprocate my effort – not just a random slog between two arbitrary points – and here I had alighted upon just the thing.

Although I didn’t make heavy weather of this spiritualised repurposing of my walk (I had plenty enough of that, spending the first few days walking into the teeth of a storm) it did add a certain frisson to the last few days, as I entered the solstice period and the Romantic Sublime landscape of the Lakes. The weather improved, suffusing everything with lush, golden immanence. I had saved the ‘best ‘til last’, the Lakes serving as a dramatic final act of my perambulatory fortnight’s narrative arc. And I did feel like a medieval pilgrim when I hobbled into St Bee’s on Sunday afternoon, after approximately 80 hours of walking. What made my arrival especially resonant was the association with the St Bega legends and midsummer (eve). She was said to have arrived in the area on 23rd June – she asked the local lord, Egremont, for some land. He, sardonically, said, ‘As much as is covered by snow on the morrow.’ The next day being midsummer shows how niggardly this gesture was. But lo, St Bega, prayed and it snowed! And so St Bega built her church on the land covered by that miraculous snowfall. However apocryphal the legend (one that has echoes in the legend of St Melangell in Mid-Wales; and of St Bridget’s cloak in Kildare – and other defiant stories of female empowerment in the face of patriarchal authority) it was enough of a folkloric node to give my journey some symbolic significance: arriving on midsummer’s eve, and visiting her church on midsummer’s day felt like a fitting finale of my accidental pilgrimage. I had turned the trail on its head and shifted its emphasis from Alfred Wainwright (still honoured by a pint at both the Wainwright Bar in the Bay Hotel, Robin Hood’s Bay; and one in the Coast to Coast Bar in the Manor House Hotel, St Bee’s) to St Bega, creating a personalised ‘C2C’. I am sure old A.W. would have approved. Indeed, he advocated as such:

Plan your own marathon and do something never done before, something you will enjoy, a route that will take you to places often read about but never yet seen.

And plans are afoot for a completely new pilgrimage route for next year – one I wish to undertake not solo, but in a fellowship of kindred spirits… I believe anyone can create their own personalised pilgrimage – it doesn’t have to be anything epic or masochistic: it could be a journey to any place of profound significance that requires a degree of effort (in accordance to one’s ability – for some with limited mobility that may be just to the park or to a viewpoint). Sometimes we don’t even know the real significance until we get there. We can all be accidental pilgrims.

Kevan Manwaring
Guest Writer | Website | + posts

Kevan Manwaring is a writer and lecturer in creative writing based in the East Midlands. He is the author of several books of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry including The Long Woman, Lost Islands, Desiring Dragons, The Immanent Moment, and others. He is the psychogeography editor for Panorama: the journal of intelligent travel, a long-distance walker, cyclist, and trail runner. He blogs and tweets as the Bardic Academic.



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