Listless by Moonlight

Tea bags, 9volt batteries, baking potatoes, printer ink, headset and mic, new notebook…..Working from home and making a list over lunch of what we need to carry on with our daily lives under lockdown reminded me of the explorer Richard Francis Burton and the list of items he acquired in Alexandria for the onward journey. “A change or two of clothing a substantial leather money belt to carry my gold, a little cotton bag for silver and small change for ready use in the breast pocket, a zemzemiyah, or water bag of goat-skin, a huge cotton umbrella of Cairene make [i.e. made in Cairo] bright yellow, like an overgrown marigold, a coarse Persian rug, which acted [as] bed, table, chair, [a medicine chest] and lastly a shroud, without which no person sets out for Mecca.”  

Burton, who made the journey in 1851, explains that, should a pilgrim get sick or wounded while on the Hajj, the caravan cannot wait for him. The patient is therefore ceremonially washed, wrapped up in his kafan, partly covered in sand and left to his fate. The function of many of the items he listed – waterproof, sleeping bag, water bottle, medicaments, can be found in many modern travel guides and indeed Burton’s list more or less mirrors the contents of my rucksack on the road to Rome, although, when my companion succumbed to crippling blisters after two days walking, I did not abandon her, wrapped in a shroud at the side of the road.

Carrying life’s basic necessities on your back helps draw the line between an everyday self, and the self that strides out, but few of us can match up to the hardy self-reliance of John Muir, that great Scottish-American ‘Man of the Mountains’ In a letter to his wife Louie, Muir declares“Only by going alone in silence, without baggage, can one truly get into the heart of the wilderness. All other travel is mere dust and hotels and baggage and chatter.”  

By contrast, the packing instructions of 15th century priest and Bursar of the Eton College, William Wey for the six-week voyage from Venice to Rome were highly detailed. Wey specified “three barrels, two for wine and a third for water” recommending that travellers “Put red wine in one barrel and keep it in reserve. If possible, do not broach it until the return passage, unless you have to because of illness or some other necessity [as] even if you are prepared to give 20 ducats for a barrel, you will not be able to get any after you have gone far past Venice.” Wey advised that pilgrims must also take “a small cauldron and frying pan, dishes, platters wooden saucers, glass cups, a grater for bread” as well as a bed from vendors close to St Mark’s Church. “You will pay three ducats for a feather bed, a mattress, two pillows, two pairs of sheets and a quilt. When you return, bring the bed back to the man from whom you bought it and you will get a refund of 1 1/2 ducats, even if it is broken and worn.” It’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to buy a second-hand feather bed that has made a round trip from Venice to Jaffa by sea, but, as is the case today, travel in the Middle Ages had a level to suit every purse: many of the boats setting out from Venice were packed tightly, with the poorest pilgrims confined below decks and forced to live on bread and water for the entire duration of the voyage. 

As we remain confined at home, perhaps dreaming by the light of the moon of our next journey and already compiling a list of items as evocative as Burton’s, or as comprehensive as Wey’s, let’s spare a thought for the thousands who live out on our streets and for whom life out on the road is their everyday, and home but a chimera. 

Victoria Preston is the author of ‘We are Pilgrims – Journeys in Search of Ourselves’ published April 9th by Hurst

Mackerel sky and moonlit dreams – Suffolk – image V.Preston using Leica Q

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