As weather folklore tells us, if it rains on St Swithin’s day ( July 15th ) it will rain for 40 days after. Well in July 2019 it did just that and it’s been raining here ever since. For many of us the persistent precipitation just adds to the metaphorical storm clouds that hung over our democracy for most of last year, but at the dawn of this new decade, there is much to be cheerful about. Not least the advent of 2020 Year of Cathedrals, Year of Pilgrimage, a joint enterprise between the British Pilgrim Trust (BPT) and the Association of English Cathedrals (AEC).
In these times of turmoil and uncertainty, it’s great to see that we are turning to pilgrimage as an escape from the noise and toil of the everyday. But as the BPT has so rightly identified, this ancient off-ramp which originates deep in human history remains relevant in the modern world. Writing in the Times today the Tory MP Bill Cash tells us that pilgrimage is a great substitute for a trip to the spa as a way of relieving stress: in Ancient Greece, there was little distinction between the two.
For pilgrims visiting the Delphic oracle, there was the chance to exercise in the Gymnasium, soak in hot baths, or take the waters of the Castalian spring which sprung from the rocky face of Mount Parnassus. And further south, at Epidavrus, pilgrims were able to enjoy theatre and worship, whilst benefiting from the rudimentary cures on offer in the healing sanctuary of Asklepios. These ancient pilgrim sanctuaries were open to all, irrespective of race or class and this guiding principle has echoed through down through the centuries. The pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, came from all walks of life; from the noble Knight to the scoundrel Summoner and this inclusiveness is reflected in the ‘2020’ initiative which declares that pilgrimage is ‘open to all’, of any faith or none.
Setting aside the cultural norms that might skew participation towards one section of society or another, time and money are the greatest constraints for many would-be pilgrims and with this in mind the BPT/AEC project has created 30 pilgrim routes each of which can be completed in a single day. I’m planning to undertake a dozen of these walks over the coming year, which will see the publication of my book We are Pilgrims on Maundy Thursday (April 9th).
April is the time of year when, as Chaucer tells us, ‘sweet showers fall, that pierce March’s drought to the root [and] folk do long to go on pilgrimage’. Given the continuing deluge of the past few months it may not be lack of time but too much weather which determines how many of us will take to the road this year. Personally, I’m hoping that the usual April showers go to Australia where bush fires continue to rage and rain is so desperately needed. Perhaps then English pilgrims can set out with the promise of a blue sky and the sweet breath of the west wind blowing them onwards. Sounds enticing, bit like a trip to the spa… meanwhile, the rain continues to fall.