The pilgrimage started in mist. Yet for me it felt as though the mist had lifted. All the fears and moods I had experienced for the last few weeks lifted and I felt a lightness of spirit that continued for the whole of the 5 days. As we gathered in the car park at the top of Reigate Hill I really felt I was setting out on a journey.
My memories of that first day are of abundance and space. Our first stop was at these rather mysterious ‘Millenium Stones’. Each one had an inscription from the last two thousand years. Starting with the first few verses of John’s Gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
It is the beginning of an extraordinary passage which links words with actions and God with the reality of the physical world. In the rhythm of the steps we took; In the ups and downs of the North Downs, we all experienced a bit of that reality.
This is some of us on the first day near the stones. The sheep and goats were very friendly and interested in us, especially our packed lunches! As we walked along the mist lifted and we had amazing views over the countryside and then sometimes we were in woods, quite closed in. I remember especially fields of wild garlic under the trees with their great glossy green leaves. We also saw our first bluebells that day, but just a smattering, not the carpets we saw later. And there was an abundance of conversation. One of the people walking with us that day was a young man about to train as a priest. I was really interested in how he had come to that decision. It seemed that other people had recognised this in him before he had in himself and had told him so. And I walked with a lady swimming teacher and we talked about how kids did and didn’t learn to swim. On that first day I didn’t feel a need for silence, that came later.
After almost 20 miles of walking we came to a strange sort of wood. A number of large bushy pine trees had come down across the path. We couldn’t tell if they had been felled or just fallen. It seemed at first as though it would be impossible to get through them but there proved to be a way round or over all of them, all of us felt this to be symbolic in one way or another. Then we came out of the wood and had sight of Chevening House. It looked much like any other large country house, only the tall metal fence around it showed it to be a government residence.
As it grew dark we came to Chevening village. I knew we were going to stop at the church but I hadn’t expected such a warm welcome: Coffee and cake and a wonderful lecture on the history of the church. The image I cannot get out of my head is of coming into the warmly lit church through a curtain. We were tired and dirty but made so welcome. On the altar was this wonderful carving of the last supper.
The second day seemed harder. For many people in our group it was a lot harder. Blisters and knee problems set in. I was lucky that I had had time to prepare and get my knees strong enough but I know that some people in our group were really struggling on that second day. It was on this second day that the walk began to feel more like a pilgrimage.
It had rained heavily in the night and the clouds were still over the downs. There were quite a lot of small steep, slippery paths and, although we still had some amazing views we had to concentrate on the footing.
Then, quite suddenly, we came out on a large clear space high over the valley. The land around belonged to a Christian training centre and they had put a large wooden cross at the edge of this space to act as an open air worship centre. As I looked at the cross I seemed to see another cross on another windy hilltop long ago, as the sky went dark:
As we talked together many people said ‘Oh, but the walking’s not the important thing’. But for me it was a sort of calming rhythm that forced me to exist at a slower pace. I had wondered what it would be like to be without the pressures of working with computers and, that afternoon, I started to find out. I dropped behind and just enjoyed the beauty of the woods ‘A cathedral of treeness’. Each kind of tree had its own special way of growing and existing. At the end of that day, coming into Rochester we walked through a long wood full of elegant beech trees that made different shapes as we walked.
Day 3 did not start well for me. We had arranged to attend morning prayer and communion at Rochester cathedral. I was not raised in a Christian family and our own church is fairly informal so the complexity of these services was baffling. I couldn’t understand why we had to pause in the middle of sentences (and for how long?). The Dean was wearing a beautiful robe but it made the service like a theatrical performance. That, and not being able to follow the short service in the various books we were given, I felt I was just looking on as an outsider, not involved at all.
Then at (a very good) breakfast in the church café it was suggested that we should all walk together at a slower pace. I had really enjoyed the fast pace and long walks of the last two days so this didn’t seem like a good idea at all in my current state of mind.
At this point I should explain something: Each one of us had been given a ‘Prayer partner’. This was someone who was not walking with us but was supporting us through prayer and other means. Vanessa and I sent texts to each other and she had also prepared a little card for each day with a thought and a bible verse. I had a daily shock as she hit the nail on the head with amazing accuracy. Her thought for day 3 was:
You have an inner strength and I know you can help encourage others. Keep going, this may be the hardest day but you can do it.
Sometimes we just need to be told! The walk was a lot shorter that day.
But we had a lot of steps, endlessly up and down, and it was the only rainy day. I hope I was encouraging to those around us. I’ll remember it as a day of conversations: A conversation, walking through the rain, about God and Science (two great passions of my life) and how they each made the other come alive; A conversation over coffee in a pub about our lives when we were younger; A conversation about answers to prayer and, near the end of the walk: a conversation about these very strange flowers growing under some Yew trees:
Vanessa’s text for the day was Matthew 11:28:
Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Lean the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly. (Message translation)
And so it was. It was a day of fast walking on easy tracks but the sense of lightness and rhythm increased. We had a singer with us and she tried to get us all singing. The problem was we couldn’t remember the words. We were walking mostly on the original pilgrims way and I had a sense of all the thousands and thousands of feet that had been before us. What were they hoping for? Healing of their bodies or souls? Resolution or forgiveness? As I walked along in the spring sunshine I imagined Jesus walking beside me, keeping step. Not the western vision of Jesus: tall and delicate, but a short swarthy chap with dark skin and a hooked nose, in a rather grubby linen robe. In the evening I drew this picture of the both of us walking together:
At lunchtime we were joined by a few others, including our Vicar, Phil. There was the option of driving a few miles and doing a shorter walk or walking another 11 miles that afternoon. I was quite keen to do the longer walk and in the end there were just 3 of us doing the whole 11 miles. One of our youth ministers, Wendy, was with us and she extracted all sorts of information from me and Hazel: How we met our husbands, how we ended up in our professions. When we finally came into Chilham we were certainly ready for a drink and a rest but it was a good afternoon.
The final day was just as I had imagined it: Lots of people walking together, sunshine and fluffy clouds. With only 7 miles to walk it was like a holiday. We passed through lots of apple orchards with blossom on the trees. With everyone walking at different speeds there were lots of stops and conversations. I had lived for two years in north west Canterbury so the countryside became more and more familiar to me.
It seemed like a different person who had walked through the chestnut woods 26 years ago and in a way it was. It was before marriage, children, Jesus and a whole career in computing. In spite of this it was good to be back. As is so often the case, it was all smaller, brighter and really quite pretty compared with all those years ago.
And then, finally we were at the cathedral. And what happened there, and what happened next will be in the next post.