It is always a pleasure to get with people who have shared common experiences. The Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome, as a group, is still in its infancy. Last Saturday they held only their 4th AGM since foundation, but there is obviously a very strong, committed core of support, with a membership that is growing rapidly. Still a long, long way from the dizzy heights of the success of the Confraternity of St James, but following it in its wake.
The first session, led by Via Francigena veteran Joe Patterson, provided interesting overviews of how to make your pilgrimage happen, covering all those necessary details from what boots to wear to how much luggage to carry. With several recent returnees from the VF in the audience, there was lively debate and many reflections on the ups and downs of long distance travelling.
I had been invited to fill the after-lunch slot with my presentation of a Cyclist’s Tale of my journey from Canterbury to Rome, which I had completed last September. Unlike all my presentations to date (to parish groups, Rotary and cycling clubs) I was standing before an audience who all had some experience of the VF, or were expecting to embark on their journey in the near future. I love telling the story of the journey……………and that is basically what it is………my story (or my tale). If I had been speaking to an audience of a 1000 people who had all travelled exactly the same journey, my own experience would have been unique, and so would everybody else’s. Furthermore, since the cyclist’s perspective (because most pilgrims walk) is rarely put across, I was delighted to be able to promote the use of two wheels to travel along this most ancient route.
Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome (CPR)
This relatively new Confraternity (www.pilgrimstorome.org.uk)was born just four years ago, sprouting as an independent association from the Confraternity of St James (Camino de Santiago). I went to my first meeting with them at the weekend, which took place in the conference room of St James’ Church, Piccadilly, a basement room within earshot of the Christmas markets taking place in the street above. Some of the people assembled there were known to me only as names tagged onto emails or message boards, so it was good to put faces to them. Others came from a variety of backgrounds with a fascinatingly motley interest in the Via Francigena, some as pilgrims, writers and researchers, others who were simply drawn out of curiosity and wanted to learn more.
The focus of interest was much wider than the implications of the VF. We were treated to a fascinating visual account of the meaning of Buddhist pilgrimage, by a couple (Ian Brodick and Rosemary Norton) who had experienced the challenges of the Kailash Kora, a high altitude venture in a remote part of Tibet. Jim Brodie brought us further west and took us along part of St Paul’s journey through modern Turkey, finishing at the site of historic Antioch. Walking the route solo, he vividly focussed on the thrills and spills of venturing into remote areas in search of a destination.
The final session, which had the challenge of re-awakening the audience’s attention after generous servings of wine at lunch, really caught my attention. Ian Holdsworth, an Anglican priest, talked about his sabbatical year when he walked to Santiago de Compostela, and how that ignited his interest in restoring the historical significance of the Camino in this country, and re-establishing a route through middle England connecting several St James’ churches, thus linking Northampton with Portsmouth, where a ferry can be boarded to northern Spain, to resume the journey to Santiago. Check out his webpage here
I liked his distinction between a pilgrimage of journeying (where it is the journey that counts) and a pilgrimage of destination (where the arriving is the key thing), and I applauded his acknowledgement that the most important consequence of pilgrimage is how it changes us as people when we get back to where we started (ie home). In other words, pilgrimage is all about leaving your front door, travelling to a distant place of spiritual or personal significance and returning to your starting point with a new pair of eyes. To quote T.S.Eliot again: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring, will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time” (Little Gidding Quartet).
Historically, we know for certain that Julius Caesar made the journey from Rome to England in 57BC, but apart from the verification that he had passed through certain locations (eg. over the Grand St Bernard Pass) exact details of his route are not known. Nor, too, are the details of the route taken by St Augustine when he travelled to Rome to recieve the pallium. We do know, however, that the Via Francigena was first mentioned in the Actum Clusio in 876, a parchment held at the Abbey of San Salvatore al Monte Amiata, Tuscany. At the height of pilgrimages in the 14th century, when holy years had been proclaimed (thus enhancing the spiritual benefits of such journeys!), droves of people from all over Europe made the journey to Rome.
It wasn’t until Sigeric the Serious who, having received his pallium in Rome, set off back to Canterbury, making notes of his return journey. His account is held in the archives of the British Library, and has become the object of recent academic research, thus helping to re-establish the route for modern pilgrims. Associations like the Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome are working hard to foster a growing interest in such ancient, but forgotten, routes of pilgrimage, and hope that, one day, the route to Rome will develop into one of the well-trodden routes like the Camino de Santiago.
In true medieval fashion, I will begin my journey on August 29th outside my own front door, and cycle the 10 miles to St Hugh’s in Buckden, to receive a blessing for my journey after the first mass. My route will then take me to Medway near Gillingham, then on to Canterbury to attend Evensong at the Cathedral and receive a blessing from one of the Canons. The Via Francigena has a ‘kilometre zero‘ outside the Cathedral, and it is from this point I will begin the route to Rome, heading for the ferry at Dover. From Calais the route goes as follows:
Calais-Laon-Reims-Langres-Besancon-Lausanne-Grand St Bernard Pass-Aosta-Vercelli-Piacenza-Lucca-Siena-Rome. As a broad outline, this looks fairly straightforward, but the fascination will be discovering the smaller, insignificant places in between, and seeking accommodation in wayside monasteries, religious houses and hospices that will be sympathetic to the plight of the pilgrim. The infrastructure will be nothing like the Camino de Santiago, but it is travellers like me (and thousands to come in the future) who will help to pave the way to the growth of the network.
My trusty guide along the way will be the excellent Lightfoot Companion Via Francigena Canterbury to Rome by Babette Gallard, which gives extensive background notes to many of the places on the route.