The story begins, as many do, with a crinkly old map.
The ‘Gough Map’ is named after the 18th century antiquarian Richard Gough: though he in turn inherited it from a man named Honest Tom, famous for drinking ‘strong beer for breakfast’ (and, more suspiciously, for always insisting on being called ‘Honest’). No one in honesty knows where Tom found it, but it’s now believed the ‘Gough Map’ dates back to the 14th century and has come to be regarded as the oldest road map of Great Britain. It presents a god-like view of a medieval land; illustrated with little turreted towns and green rivers. A ship about the size of Yorkshire sails off the page, close to a depiction of what looks like a smiling shark. At the bottom, a red line wanders over the countryside from the Solent to Canterbury.
Some six centuries later, a member of the British Pilgrimage Trust spied this line and hypothesized it was a long-forgotten pilgrimage route – running from Southampton to the shrine of St Thomas. On a drizzly May day, I’m standing on the ‘Old Way’ – the British Pilgrimage Trust’s real-life reimagining of the red line – a 250-mile long footpath mapped not on ancient velum, but with gpx files. The Trust’s Dawn Champion is leading the Old Way’s 21st century revival.
“Other pilgrims on our walk include two Roman Catholics, an atheist and someone from Wiltshire with a tattoo of holy circles on their hands.”
“Wherever you go in the world, almost every culture has its own version of pilgrimage,” she tells me. “Homo sapiens were once a nomadic species. You might say it is almost innate.”
I meet Dawn in a Saxon church in Stoughton, Sussex, set amidst the gentle undulations of the South Downs. It would take an ardent soul to walk the entirety of the Old Way to Canterbury – instead I’m joining her on an eight mile saunter to Chichester Cathedral. Dawn assures me that this humble effort still counts as a legitimate pilgrimage: the Old Way isn’t a place for dogma. The packing list for the day includes a packed lunch, waterproofs and “an open heart and mind.”
Nor, for that matter, is the British Pilgrimage Trust wholly affiliated to one particular religion. Founded in 2014, its aim is to promote the benefits of pilgrimage to people of all faiths (and those of none). The Old Way is its proving ground. Other pilgrims on our walk include two Roman Catholics, an atheist and someone from Wiltshire with a tattoo of holy circles on their hands (which, she hints, might represent the stones at Stonehenge or Avebury). There is also Chris: an aeronautical engineer who carries a hazel staff he fashioned in tribute to ouroboros – the ancient snake symbol representing infinity.
In the nave of the church, Dawn explains what makes a pilgrimage distinct from a walk: intention – allying your journey to a specific hope and charging it with a deeper meaning. Out in the graveyard, she instructs us to each pick a wildflower as a token of our intention and to carry it to journey's end. I pocket a soggy sprig of cow parsley. Then, we strike out as our medieval forebears might have done – trudging uphill through beechwoods and hedgerow-hemmed lanes, reaching the chalky trails that crest the spine of the South Downs. A buzzard circles overhead. On a clear day, views from the top stretch along the coast towards Southampton – the port where pilgrims might have disembarked ships to follow the ridge to Canterbury.
In recent times, academics have speculated that the Gough Map was revised over a period of time. In the same way, the landscape we are travelling tells a richly layered story. In one place, Iron Age earthworks are overlaid with WWII tank traps: in another, Bronze Age barrows are said to be haunted by vanquished Vikings.
We descend into Kingley Vale – home to some of the most impressive yew woods in Europe. Today the South Downs are known for wide open spaces where the winds roam unobstructed – but once the dark, tangled realm of yews covered these contours. The surviving woods have a labyrinthine intricacy as we step inside. Some trees here are rumored to be two millennia old. Dawn explains, still worshipped by neo-pagan groups in Sussex today: she suggests we each press our foreheads to the trees for a few minutes, feeling the wrinkles of their bark against our skin. In other circumstances this might feel strange, but in the company of other pilgrims it feels wise, natural – an act of veneration we can define on our own terms.
“I think today is not about so much saying I’m right and you’re wrong” says Stephen – a pilgrim and construction lawyer from Guildford. “It’s about being out here, absorbing things.”
”Decades ago, only a few hundred pilgrims trod the trail across northern Spain – these days annual traffic is as high as 350,000 hikers.”
Indeed, more people are opening their minds to the possibilities of pilgrimage – most obviously on the Camino de Santiago. Decades ago, only a few hundred pilgrims trod the trail across northern Spain – these days annual traffic is as high as 350,000 hikers. On the last leg, the gradients flatten and we emerge from the woods to see the spire of Chichester Cathedral rising tall over a field of barley.
“When you’re facing someone across a table, it can be confrontational. But on a pilgrimage, everyone is facing in the same direction.”
Pilgrims sometimes take off their shoes when their final destination is in sight – a recognition they have crossed a threshold to a sacred space. We keep boots on for another mile or two – crossing suburban streets – before removing them in the cloisters of the cathedral. Inside, we feel the coldness of mediaeval stones underfoot – a balm for trail-weary soles. Some pilgrims in our party pray. Others sit and think. One or two crane their necks to see slanting sunlight illuminate stained glass.
A pilgrimage has the same symmetry as a human life: a starting point and a destination, obstacles to overcome, baggage to carry – and human company that makes the load seem lighter. Though our endpoint is a Christian cathedral, Dawn has also welcomed Buddhists, Muslims, neopagans and atheists on her walks, each focused on finding their own purpose. "When you`re facing someone across a table, it can be confrontational. But on a pilgrimage, everyone is facing in the same direction. We’re all walking side by side.”