I ‘invented’ the Malmesbury Pilgrimage in 2009 and this is a photo of the very first one. It was a two day walk and the first time we did it we took some detours that made it about 45 miles. We got a bit lost on several occasions and the during the last ten miles a thunderstorm raged around us. It was all my idea ( not the thunderstorm). I’d been turning it over in my mind for ages, ever since I learned that one of the little churches I served on the edge of the Severn had been looked after by monks from Malmesbury Abbey and – here’s the gory bit – one of them had been murdered as he made his way across the fields and, it was said, the water in a local stream ran red like blood, every year as a reminder. That triggered a memory because the same legend was attached to St Arilda’s well, just outside my parish. In that case St Arilda, a hermit, was murdered by a Roman soldier because – as the legend said – she would not lie with him. Obviously my parishes were pretty dangerous places in those days. They hadn’t changed much! The red staining, by the way, came from algae not blood but the murders – with or without the legends – are still remembered many centuries later.
So, I thought, I could re-create the walk that the monks might have taken (there’s no record) and at the same time take in two of the three sites in the country asociated with St Arilda. Taking in the third would have meant a huge detour to Gloucester Cathedral and at least an extra day.
When I got the maps out I searched for every public footpath I could find that took us vaguely in the right direction in order to minimise walking on roads and then I talked some keen walking friends into joining me. We got thrown out of Malmesbury Abbey for talking during their (private) prayer service at which pilgrims were absolutely not welcome, there’s hospitality for you, but it all went pretty well apart from exposing my lamentable map reading skills. To be fair, many of the paths had lapsed into virtual invisibility and the next year I packed a pair of binoculars for long distance stile spotting. We still got lost but in different places.
But the point of this is not my own heroic resourcefulness, but to say that when you walk for a couple of days with someone, you learn so much. On one of the walks we were treated to a two day seminar on arable crops. Sad to say over the whole forty plus miles, our informal tutor – who had spent many years buying and selling grain on farms – only saw two or three fields that met his approval. Why’s that sad? Well I suspect that his career had taken him to the very heart of intensive agriculture and all its obsessive spraying of weedkillers and insecticides and feeding of artificial fertilizer. The fields he liked were monocultural deserts, the soil was getting thinner and thinner and the cornbrash (stones) were increasingly visible on the surface. What I learned as well was how to identify all the main cereal crops when they were only a couple of inches high by examining their leaf structure and the way the ligules wrapped around the stalk. Great stuff for showing off! – but I learned so much just by listening and not judging, and if you wanted to know how we got into this environmental mess, it’s because thousands of decent and well meaning people didn’t stop and think. No-one wanted to kill the insects but were all so blinded by the prospect of controlling nature and making farming ever more productive, that they just did it anyway. Now we need urgently to row back.
On another occasion I walked the last ten miles with a man who had spent his entire working life on local farms as a stockman. As we approached our destination he knew every inch of every field; what grew there, what thrived there, and how well it was being farmed. He would comment approvingly when he saw good practice and again I learned an enormous amount. I could go on – I walked miles with a chief electrical engineer at a local power station who knew the model number of every single pylon we passed. Hmm.
Perhaps more importantly relationships were cemented and confidence and trust was built between a group of people who, on the face of it, didn’t have that much in common. That’s the great thing about pilgrimage – sharing experiences, noticing things, being grateful for small mercies like easy walking on a very long hot day.
All this thinking and remembering came out of another morning alone on the allotment. I was going stir-crazy during all this cold weather and when it failed to snow as forecast today I thought I’d put in a couple of hours. I was so absorbed in building more beds and recycling some posts I needed to remove that I didn’t even notice it was raining until the water started to run down my neck. The temperatures haven’t got much above freezing for ages and yet when I’m out there, totally in the moment, I never feel cold. The ground is very sticky at the moment so I tried as much as possible not to walk on it, and we’re very close to completion. My preferred site for the hotbed fell at the first hurdle when I measured the site properly, and so I had to think again. As is often the case the new site is probably better anyway and on Friday it will be complete and filled with fresh manure. Home for a late lunch rather wet but as warm as toast.