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How coronavirus curbed the pilgrimage

Pilgrims celebrate Easter - Credit: Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

CHARLIE CONNELLY on three books about pilgrimage, both secular and religious… an activity which has been curbed by the pandemic.

With plague afoot in the land and a populace kept subdued by and in thrall to a privileged elite, there is something distinctly medieval about Britain at the dawn of the 2020s. We might not get our news in rhyming couplets from itinerant bards these days, more’s the pity, and an inflated pig’s bladder on a stick isn’t nearly as entertaining as it used to be (albeit still pretty entertaining), but there has been a tangible air of the 14th century blowing through these islands in recent times, one that’s increased in strength dramatically since the Covid pandemic hit.

Whatever next, princesses in tall pointy hats? Toothless crones prescribing pungent herby poultices for common ailments? Pilgrims traipsing around the countryside in search of spiritual salvation?

Well, in the case of that last one, yes, as it happens. Not only is the plague back, so is the pilgrim. He or she might no longer walk rutted tracks with a scallop shell pinned to their hat, clonking the base of their staff on the ground, but the pilgrimage is on the rise again.

The religious pilgrimage is certainly thriving. The Hajj has long drawn Muslims from all over the world to Mecca in great numbers, for example, but the Christian pilgrim is also returning to the roads. In the mid-1980s, barely 2,500 people a year received the certificate for completing the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, in north west Spain. By last year that number had risen to nearly 330,000. That figure will be vastly reduced this year of course but once coronavirus restrictions are eventually relaxed expect it to rise again, possibly dramatically, as a combination of cabin fever and the soul-search for meaning in a post-virus world sends people onto the pilgrim trail again.

Until it is possible to range unhindered across the countryside once more, the wealth of available pilgrimage literature is a useful substitute in the meantime. The pilgrimage plays a key role in the literature of England in particular thanks to what one might call its founding text: Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, a sprawling, bawdy and immensely enjoyable account of a group of pilgrims gathering at the Tabard Inn at the south end of London Bridge in 1386 and setting off for the Becket shrine at Canterbury, telling their own stories along the way.

The Tabard was a real establishment and stood for more than 500 years, opening in 1306 and lasting until 1873, when the galleried structure that replaced the original after a fire in the 17th century was demolished. Even the landlord, Harry Bailly, who guides Chaucer’s pilgrims along the route and suggests they pass the time by telling their stories, was the real landlord of the Tabard at the end of the 14th century.

Although it’s long gone now, a pilgrimage to rather than from the Tabard isn’t entirely a waste of time. In Talbot Yard, an alley off Borough High Street that’s easy to miss, you’ll find a blue plaque identifying the site of one of literature’s founding locations. A stone’s throw north along the street you’ll find the George, an inn of similar design and antiquity, to gain at least some sense of the establishment from which the literature of our language launched itself.

This summer Matthew Kneale published arguably the closest modern equivalent to The Canterbury Tales. Best known for his 2000 novel English Passengers, which followed the journey of a group of Victorian travellers sailing halfway around the world to Tasmania. Pilgrims (Atlantic Books, £16.99) is from the same thematic mould, relating the adventures of a group of people making the long trek from England to the tomb of St Peter in Rome in 1289.

From a rich heiress seeking the assistance of the pope in annulling her unhappy marriage, to an amiable dimwit dressed in rags hoping to release his cat from purgatory, via a bad-tempered knight who chinned an abbot and a young girl who goes into trances and apparently speaks in the voice of God, this is a vividly drawn bunch whose backstories, like The Canterbury Tales, elevate the plot from mere travelogue.

Combining the realism of a Pasolini film and with the occasional bawdiness of a Carry On, Pilgrims has been one of my literary highlights of the year: it’s entertaining, it rattles along like a medieval cart down a slope and the characters are flawed, unpredictable and never less than engaging.

Even Matilda, the wailing mystic from King’s Lynn who speaks only to God and patronises anyone who isn’t a deity with pious put-downs, doesn’t get wearing in Kneale’s hands, even if she would be unbearable to travel with for longer than a bus ride into town, let along a tramp across Europe.

It’s not all bawdy larks and tricks upon travellers, however. For all the comedy and farce Kneale tops and tails the book with the story of a woman named Motte, a mother, recalling a massacre of around 500 Jews in London in 1264. As we follow the pilgrims’ journey it’s not clear why Kneale opened with Motte’s story, she’s not one of the pilgrims and has no connection to them. It’s only at the end of the book that things become clear. The year after Kneale’s pilgrims set off, 1290, saw the Edict of Expulsion, which banished the Jews from England. At the end of the book Tom, satisfied his cat is in heaven, is returning home when he sees a group of people in a cart going the other way being abused. His companion even spits at them. Tom, despite not being the brightest of chaps, realises who they are and seems to be the only one among his group aware that this was outrageous. He didn’t want to make a fuss. “So I just kept very quiet,” he says, and the Jews keep on being persecuted.

Also out this summer was the paperback edition of James Meek’s To Calais, in Ordinary Time (Canongate, £9.99), a novel set half a century after Pilgrims when the Black Death was rampaging across our continent towards us like the flag arrows in the opening titles of Dad’s Army.

Meek is a regular contributor of thoughtful long essays to the London Review of Books among other things, and last year published a collection of his LRB pieces in book form as Dreams of Leaving and Remaining, the works combining to form an eloquent analysis of how Britain found itself voting to leave the European Union. It’s one of the better Brexit books, not least because it wasn’t written as a Brexit book. His fiction is absorbing and inventive and To Calais, in Ordinary Time is probably his best novel yet.

The novel follows three people as they make their way from the West Country to what’s now the main French port for access to Britain but which was then a fortified English town recently wrested from the French during the Hundred Years’ War. Bernadine is trying to escape a marriage arranged by her father to a much older man in order to track down the man she really loves, a knight named Laurence Haket who has raised a unit of archers stationed with the garrison at Calais.
Will Quate is a tenant farmer on Bernadine’s father’s land in Gloucestershire and is on his way to Calais to join Haket’s garrison, something he believes should release him from his status as a villein, or feudal tenant. Thomas Pitkerro, a lawyer for the papal court at Avignon on secondment to the abbey at Malmesbury, is despatched to Calais to take confession from the garrison in the event they are struck down by the plague, fearing for his safety and longing just to go home.

The shadow of the plague hangs over the book: it opens in July 1348 a month after the first plague death in England, an outbreak that would go on to wipe out nearly half the population.

It’s a less rollicking book than Pilgrims but no less rewarding, not least in its use of language. Kneale adopts 21st century vernacular for his 13th century charges which works surprisingly well, only clunking anachronistically on a couple of occasions.

Meek adopts a style somewhere between modern English and the language spoken at the time, a little like Paul Kingsnorth did in his Booker longlisted post-Norman invasion novel The Wake, which works just as well once your ear is tuned to it.

Both books make effective placeholders for setting out on an actual pilgrimage, and once we can take to the roads and lanes freely again, without the fears of restrictions and rules, the whopping, 600-page, sumptuously illustrated Britain’s Pilgrim Places (Lifestyle Press, £19.99) will be an invaluable guide to planning.

It’s edited by Nick Mayhew-Smith and Guy Hayward, who have pulled off the Herculean task of compiling Britain’s holy places and the pilgrim paths that connect them, from the magnificent pilgrim magnet that is Canterbury Cathedral to the roadside St Columba’s Well on the Ardnamurchan peninsula, a freshwater spring at which the eponymous holy man baptised the child of a couple he met while travelling. It’s next to the B8007 and according to the book, “my untutored eyes could see no trace of any ancient structure but the water does indeed emerge directly from
a rocky hillside”. Don’t expect a gift shop.

The book is produced under the auspices of the hardworking British Pilgrimage Trust, formed to encourage an ancient itinerant tradition and act as an umbrella organisation and information source. These might be religious places and the routes established on a religious basis, but the BPT is keen to stress that a pilgrimage doesn’t have to be religious.
A pilgrimage can be different things to different people: sites that are important to an individual’s genealogy, for example, or the locations of favourite films. My well-worn route to the Valley, home of Charlton Athletic, has provided a lifetime of spiritual sustenance, some of it occasionally rewarding. It’s been my spiritual centre, my cathedral, all roads leading there wherever I’ve lived, even when that’s been abroad and my pilgrimages have been rarer. But they are still pilgrimages.

The BPT’s stated aim is to encourage that principle, to “advance British pilgrimage as a form of cultural heritage that promotes holistic wellbeing, for the public benefit”. Their wonderful book is a testament to that aim, even if its only disadvantage is being so detailed it’s too much of a whopper to stick in a rucksack.

Once the virus allows it, people will be inspired to roam again. Not just vaguely, but with some kind of spiritual goal, religious or secular. A journey encourages learning and contemplation, a combination that leads to wisdom, whether that be found at the end of a journey to an ancient holy relic or the grave of a film star. Whatever our inspiration, we’ll need it after all this.

At the dawn of the 20th century Hilaire Belloc walked the ancient route from Winchester to Canterbury for his book The Old Road.

“Pilgrimage,” he wrote, “ought to be nothing but a nobler kind of travel, in which, according to our age and inclination, we tell our tales, or draw our pictures, or compose our songs.”

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