This week I spent a day walking and talking with Will Parsons, co-founder of the British Pilgrimage Trust and intrepid explorer into that rich spiritual world which lies beyond the surface of any pilgrim path. It was a transcendent experience.
Our day’s journey began in the misty morning amongst the yew trees of St Mary’s churchyard, Patrixbourne and by the time we bade ‘farewell’ at Canterbury station many hours later, I was completely spellbound by Will’s deep personal and spiritual connection with the landscape of his homeland, which another ‘Will’ once called “This other Eden, demi-paradise, This fortress built by Nature for herself Against infection and the hand of war, This happy breed of men, this little world, This precious stone set in the silver sea, Which serves it in the office of a wall, Or as a moat defensive to a house, Against the envy of less happier lands, This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”
Our destination was the great stone cavern of Canterbury Cathedral where we would later soak up the crystal-clear evensong led by the warmly welcoming Precentor Max Kramer, but along the way we gave no thought to this near-future treat as each grove of trees, each holy spring, each flock of fieldfares and finches overhead held us in the exact moment of our journey.
We walked for hours along ancient paths that had carried the faithful to Canterbury for centuries, often meandering off the muddy tread into the woods proper, where the litter of oak and ash, alder and hazel leaves underfoot muffled every footstep and created a perfectly still acoustic in which to hear the robins and blackbirds which sang out their hearts to unseen ears.
At one point, my companion and I sat quietly under a canopy of bare winter branches to imagine the Roman Road which once passed just by this spot, the ghost of which could be seen as a faintly raised ridge. At another, we emerged into a clearing where the window-pane surface of a pond gave onto the golden pebbles beneath. This body of water is as close to Canterbury as Walden Pond is to Concord MA; both on the margins of urban life and both equally remote from it; both drawing pilgrims in search of meaning, looking for a way to live.
With some encouragement from Will, I removed my walking boots and socks, rolled up my trousers and stepped off the terra firma of January 2020 and into the spring of 1360, the date of the earliest known map of The Old Way from Southampton to Canterbury. There was no cold shock to the system as I had expected and instead the act of entering the pool was deeply meditative. No thoughts swam in my mind during those few silent moments; only trees, only water, only sky. Such out of time, out of place, experience is one of the true joys of pilgrimage and paradoxically that sense of liberation brings with it the security which comes from knowing we are part of something bigger, something beyond self.
The great Scottish American naturalist John Muir dedicated his life to knowing and then protecting the natural world of his homeland. He achieved this by spending his life in it, by being a part of it, not as so many of us are wont to be, apart from it. Muir wrote in his journal “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”
Will Parsons is cast of the same mould as John Muir; a singular person who truly lives in, and loves his homeland: we spent seven hours walking a very few miles as the crow flies, but breathing in every moment, hearing every birdsong. At many points along our way, Will sang out, giving thanks for the day, and this freely expressed gratitude is his guiding light: Self, Other, Nature, God – SONG.
Will’s mission is to encourage us all, one by one, or in a great wave, however it may turn out to be, to pick up a pilgrim staff and set out along the by-ways and find what it has to offer body and soul, and by knowing it, to honour it, and preserve it; to make pilgrimage central to the way we live, not the liminal experience it is so often considered to be.