Saturday, 15 September 2007

Back from a pilgrimage

Just back from the Medieval Trust pilgrimage to Walsingham. It hurt.

There were quite a few surprises. One was that the night we'd all been dreading - sleeping under an unfinished thatched roof, part of a reconstruction of medieval building materials - was actually the cosiest. We were laid out like sardines in a tin, loose straw scattered below our straw-filled mattresses, and thatch above, snug as bugs in a rug. Don't underestimate the insulation value of straw. By comparison, our nights in a barn and a church were freezing.

Another surprise awaited us as we came into Walsingham; we were pestered by touts selling relics, herbs, religious tat.  (Other re-enactors - this isn't the  welcome that awaits  normal pilgrims.) Now I hadn't really thought all twelve of us had bonded over the four days (most of us knew only two or three of the other participants before starting the walk), but I know I was responsible for a couple of squabbles - but faced with this barrage, we closed ranks impressively. One of the other re-enactors noted to me the day after that she felt thoroughly left out!

Surprise number three; mulled beer for breakfast. (St Peter's Honey Porter with extra honey works a treat. I don't actually like that beer much cold; add more honey and warm it up and you have anaesthetic enough for at least three miles!) Beer at eight in the morning shouldn't work, but it did. Thoroughly recommended as a Boxing Day pick-me-up for inhabitants of the twenty-first-century.

Personally, I found the pilgrimage extremely difficult even though it was only 10 miles or so  each day for four days. Medieval shoes give little support to the ankle, and you've only got three or four millimetres of leather between your sole and the path. Blisters at once. Then the lack of sleep, with many of us getting only a couple of hours and lying awake most of the night through cold, discomfort, or listening to other people snoring. Then the clothes; three or four layers of wool above linen form a portable sauna; no chance to strip down (and for women, not even the chance to take your headdress off; medieval society enforced head-coverings for all mature women).

Another surprise was the understated beauty of the Norfolk landscape. Some of the nicest stretches were along the Marriotts Way, a cycle track that uses an old railway track. At some points you're walking an embankment above marshes; at others, in a dapple-shaded cutting below overarching trees, protected from the sun. Towards Walsingham, one minor road ran past a number of lightning-struck oaks just beginning to grow again, leafy boughs contrasting with the stark white of the old wood. At Pensthorpe, I heard cranes fly past in the morning - as noisy as the USAF planes that overflew us the night before.

I must admit to feeling relief rather than achievement when I arrived in Walsingham. It had been hard. But the next day, when we got given our pilgrim badges in the ruins of the old priory, I felt quite tearfully proud.

Link to the account on the Eastern Daily Press website.

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