Publicity - An Accidental Jubilee byAlice Warrender

Alice has written freelance articles and spoken at several charity and book club events. Please use the feedback page if you would like to get in touch regarding interviews, articles, talks or events.

 

Catholic Herald 11.01.13

If Life is hard, you may need to walk to Rome

It was the morning of July 12 2011. I left Canterbury Cathedral in the pouring rain, with my belongings on my back and a shepherd’s crook in my hand. I was off on a pilgrimage to Rome along the Via Francigena, a route tracing the stages recorded by the 10th- century Archbishop of Canterbury, Sigeric, on his return from Rome.

I walked alone through England, France, Switzerland and Italy. Crossing the Alps over the Great St Bernard pass at 8,000 feet and the Apennines over the Cissa pass at 4,000 feet. It took 82 days in total. For the first 30 it rained every single day. I would walk on average seven hours a day, covering between 15 and 22 miles. My longest day was 26 miles and shortest nine miles. I had six rest days in total, met very few other pilgrims, kept my vow of not contacting friends and struggled endlessly not speaking a foreign language.
I was on a self-indulgent pilgrimage to work out a journey for my life ongoing. I chose the Via Francigena because it was not as popular as other pilgrim routes such as the Camino de Santiago and I wanted to be alone. 
To be able to do something in a very similar way to how it has always been done – one foot in front of the other with your belongings on your back – is rare in our world, where the advances in technology make day to day processes supposedly easier and easier. Walking is one of the few things you can do without concentrating. Therefore the mind is free to work overtime at finding the answer to difficult questions. Somehow the process of thinking and reflecting is aided by the motion, simplicity and pace of walking. The legs become like a metronome and settle the thoughts to an even pace so as they can become clear and ordered. Two things are made startlingly clear by this activity. First, walking hour after hour is exhausting and takes it’s toll on one’s soles. Secondly, thinking things through clearly and establishing clear answers or paths to follow takes a very long time. Suddenly the pilgrim is battling against the pain, exhaustion and monotony of walking hour upon hour, day after day, as well as the need to keep the simple activity of walking going long enough to come to some conclusions. 
Unlike on bicycle or horse back there is no release from walking. You can’t freewheel downhill or sit down and keep moving forward. And unlike running, where you become so exhausted you just have to stop, it is unlikely that any determined person reaches a point in walking when they cannot put one foot in front of the other. Yet I almost reached defeat when lost in the mountains. I was so utterly exhausted I had to link my hands under each knee alternately and lift my legs one at a time in front of each other. Without doing this I was incapable of lifting my foot high enough to keep climbing at such a steep angle. I drew in breaths so deep my throat hurt and my skin stung with sweat. I stopped. My chest welled up with fear and I just did not know if I could go on any more.
As the pilgrimage progresses and the pain of the feet and the mental struggles of the mind persist, the vulnerable pilgrim begins to open themselves up to a wonderful side of life, which the routine, anxiousness and impatience of modern life shuts out. The more arduous the journey becomes, mentally and physically, the greater need the pilgrim has to believe that something outside of themselves is going to get them to Rome, the shrine they set out for. By believing in something greater than yourself it helps to hand over the anxiousness caused by the pain of the feet to someone else and to ask for guidance and help in searching for answers to questions. This belief is validated in the extraordinary coincidences which happen along the way. The kindness of people very early on, ushering me into their house to give me coffee, insisting on finding me somewhere to sleep and giving me smiles and hugs when I craved human contact, gave me confidence to trust others along the way and not to judge them with a suspicious eye. 
I listened to my conscience and kept my wits about me but, by not judging others, I saw a wonderful side of human nature that came for free and in abundance. All I had to do was to give generously in smiles and manners on both the good days and the bad days. 
I was beginning to realise this journey was not about getting to Rome. Rome was where it would end, if I got there, but this reward would only come if I listened and learned on the way. There were many times ahead when I gave myself the option of going home and many, many days I lost belief in reaching Rome. But every night I packed my bag and every morning I walked on.
It is hard to justify why the simple act of walking day after day is so enriching until you go and do it. Time alone in thought is personal and will be interpreted by others in different ways. But all I can say is that the simple act of a pilgrimage, walking through foreign lands and relying on the good will of others and belief that it is worth continuing to your goal, will give you a reward beyond description but firmly instilled inside you forever more.
Back in London, where the pace of life is more often than not dictated from the outside rather than the inside, makes clear thought difficult at times. 
There are two activities which make it easier, both proven as a consequence of walking to Rome. One is Mass. With a day off in Besançon I had to go to Mass. It is not that I expected to get an answer, but by being in church, where no one judges you, I can let everything go and give in to the depth of my feelings. I found that by the time Mass was over I felt a lot better than when it had started. For me, this process only happened during the service, sitting in a church when nothing is going on did not have the same intensity about it. The second activity is walking. Walking anywhere at anytime, the pace dictated by the speed of thought as if your legs are attached to mind not body. A pilgrimage combines the essence of these two activities as for some metaphysical reason a pilgrimage has a power from outside you which gets you through it and makes you view life in a very simple form where existence is given the importance it deserves and human fulfillment is recognisable. 
If you need to feel better about life and be reminded that it is a gift, go and walk the path that thousands of others before you did.

An Accidental Jubilee, by Alice Warrender, published by Stone Trough Books, is out now, priced £15

 

Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome April 2013 Newsletter 

In May 2011 I went to Stanford’s, the travel bookshop, to buy a map on pilgrim routes to Rome. There was no such thing and the woman helpfully told me that the first English guide book on a route, the Via Francigena, from Canterbury was currently being published and should be on the shelf in September. This sparked a desire inside me to walk to Rome and on the 12th of July the same year I turned my back to Canterbury Cathedral and was on my way.

My aim in keeping with the CPR website is to inform, encourage and assist those making a pilgrimage to Rome and so I will stick to the helpful tips rather than tell you too much of the adventure which lies ahead. For anyone who asks if I would recommend it I would say ‘you need to make that decision in your mind’, as you need this determination to stick at it. There will be good days and bad days but you need them both for the overall reward of a pretty long walk.

Unlike the Camino to Santiago the Via Francigena is a less popular poorly way marked route but this gives you a raw experience. I chose to walk alone so as my mind was free to think, of course it was desperately lonely at times but taught me to pick myself up and not revert to relying on others. Being alone opened up opportunities where perhaps being with a group would not have but took away those shared moments of amusement, worry and questioning whether to turn left or right.

I did very little pre planning perhaps to my detriment although I think it helped in letting fate lead me into stranger’s houses and stopped me being apprehensive about the landscape. Being here today you are already doing more pre planning than me who only after my return have come across a few people who have walked a similar route. Hopefully my lax approach will confirm to you that walking to Rome is possible to accomplish with no training and few pre booked places to rest.

Before leaving I wrote down all the stops from Sigeric’s itinerary and had a spreadsheet with distances between them so I could pass through a place knowing how long it would be before I would reach civilization again and coordinate at what point I was going to stop for the night. Although carrying a credit card and a telephone that didn’t accept calls but which I could call out on I existed with very few aids. My pilgrim passport was essential for getting me nights at religious accommodation and Italy has some rules that, no matter what the circumstances, people abide by. Needing a conventional passport to stay anywhere is one of them.

I met few people in the three months I walked but when I did I enjoyed admiring the kit they had. So much so I began a list of luxuries I could have done with having. These include, a waterproof map cover, a breathable waterproof coat with a neck tie on the hood, a waterproof bag cover – yes as you’re begin to realize the rain does fall and the wind sure blows! – Gel insoles, and I’d never admit it but a kindle and a GPS could make for easier times.

I relied heavily on my compass particularly at moments when I had walked myself into a bearing-less state deep in forests. I took the opportunity to walk cross-country as often as possible, avoiding roads and even more obvious footpaths at times. Not once was I stopped or questioned as I cut my own path through vast arable fields or occasionally across other people’s gardens. Walking in the height of summer, from July to October, often I would cross dry riverbeds ignorant to the fact this was the very stream I was supposed to be following. Never did I find myself with the right map and would strongly recommend taking or buying along the way topographic maps of the area you intend to cover. I carried all three of the Light foot guides and the most useful part of them was the small map on the back tracing the journey from Canterbury to Rome which I would push in the face of people I tried to communicate with whilst in search of a bed. To get a guide that tells you every compass bearing, every turn from Canterbury to Rome is surely impossible so for that ambition I admire Paul Chinn but to rely solely on his lightfoot guides is a mistake not worth making particularly if it were my feet talking.

I have no doubt most pilgrims can find something in their bag to throw away and lighten the load in the early weeks but the things that remained firmly in mine were a swiss army knife, a stop watch, a camel water pack, a rosary and an arched backpack so it didn’t rest hot on my back. Other vital bits of kit needed at certain stages are sun cream in the mountains, mosquito repellant in the Poe valley, a swimming costume for the volcanic lakes and several good books for month three when anything to take your mind off the monotony of walking becomes essential.

Unless you are made of something most people aren’t your feet will hurt. The tips I would give are changing your socks every two hours even if you don’t have blisters and always having a roll of Elastoplast to strap up sore ankles and put in place before blisters appear.

It took me 82 days to reach Rome, I would walk on average 7 hours a day covering between 25 and 35 kilometers. My longest day was 42 kilometers and shortest 15.  The most frightening things I came up against along the way were, the Alps – where some describe them as beautiful I would say they are enormously terrifying and being face to face with a wild bore was slightly disconcerting. Having a walking stick is essential particularly when it comes to warding off stray Italian dogs, inner courage is needed to ignore the wandering eyes of Italian men, and an ability to calm ones imagination when staying in ancient buildings alone.

I paid for very little accommodation along the way. France was full of concerned women who beckoned me into their houses feeding me and giving me a bed for the night. It was often possible to stay on the floor of village halls having seeked out the Town Mayor but beware there is not an edge of comfort so a bedroll could be worth taking. Switzerland was expensive and lacked the goodwill of others I found in France. Throughout Italy I relied heavily on the church. However small the town, village or hamlet a knock on the rector’s door will ensure a hot meal and a roof over your head just don’t expect it to be clean.

I wrote my book An Accidental Jubilee in the hopes that what I had experienced along the way would inspire others either to take the small time out in the large scale of things and walk in thought for three months or at the very least pass on to others the grit and determination to stick at one path for the unknown reward at the end.

It is hard to justify why the simple act of walking day after day is so enriching until you go and do it. Time alone, in thought is personal and will be interpreted by others in different ways but all I can say is that the simple act of a pilgrimage, walking through foreign lands and relying on the good will of others and belief that it is worth continuing to your goal will give you a reward beyond description but firmly instilled inside you forever more.

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