Updated: Jan 4
This Autumn, I went on a really a long walk.
On the 4th of September, I departed London with a group of 27 pilgrims to walk to the UN Climate Conference, COP26, in Glasgow. The aim: listening to the land.
We walked 500 miles over 7 weeks. Mostly we camped, occasionally we slept on warm village hall floors. We sang around campfires, argued over porridge and were slowed down by blisters, complaining muscles and bad knees. We were fuelled by peanut butter sandwiches and variations on vegetables with lentils which we supplemented with hot, greasy chips whenever possible.
As we walked, we listened - to each other, to the people we met along the way and to the changing landscapes we walked through. What would it mean to listen without expectation?
We began the walk along the Ridgeway in West Oxfordshire in the unseasonably sweltering heat. Our packs laden with thermals and fleeces I thanked my last-minute decision to bring a pair of shorts and begged suncream from fellow pilgrims.
“The fields here are so wide
that my heart, it shrinks inside
to see the land so bereft”
– The ridgeway song, Helen Melon, fellow pilgrim
The houses were grand and luxurious as we walked through the home counties. Into the Cotswolds the flat landscape becomes more rolling, smattered with delightfully picturesque English villages, and giant, baked fields of grain. The hedgerows dripped blackberries at every corner, like enthusiastic vendors on a busy intersection they jostled for our attention. No pilgrim was left without a snack!
Leaving the chalk of the south behind at Uffington we finally turned north, the landscape becoming baked clay earth. The journey became steadily more urban, and the weather turned colder as we continued up through Moreton in Marsh, beyond Stratford on Avon, through Birmingham, and past Lichfield. In Stoke on Trent we received a beautiful blessing from the priest at the local cathedral before feasting on the best full English of my life (featuring Staffordshire oatcakes).
Everything was becoming damper and more dramatic. Between Pendle Hill and Carlisle it rained for 11 days solid. Our gentle, sunny start seemed long ago as the weather and terrain began to test our resolve! Whilst camping in the grounds of Browsholme estate, our kitchen tent blew away in a storm and many of our provisions were lost to the rain.
The day we crossed the Shap fell stays etched into my memory. The weather was abysmal: a yellow weather warning. Ideally - stay inside. So, we walked. We walked through gale-force winds, flooding, and torrential rain. It was too cold to stop for longer than a minute or two so we gulped down soggy sandwiches crouched under a farmers stone wall whose shelter we shared with some shivering sheep. At this point, I realised the ventilation zips on my waterproof had been open all morning and I was soaked. I looked at one of the sheep and, for a brief moment, I swear we shared the knowledge that today was just one of those days you had to get through. Was I beginning to get this ‘listening’ business or was hypothermia setting in? Time to move - we soldiered on. Heads bent to the wind we did what we always do at challenging moments, we sang to pass the miles. Idle chit chat wasn’t possible today – talking over the howling rain required elevating your voice to just below a scream. At the final mile, we met disaster. The ford was completely flooded. Some more sensible folks turned around and went the long way round. Three of us, however, did what you should definitely not do. We forded the very fast flowing, waist-deep river. It was hairy. We clung to the steppingstones with one arm and used our poles to keep us from being pulled under. One slip and you would be swept away. ALL OF US MADE IT! We walked the final mile freezing and triumphant, deeply relieved that today was one of those special occasions we were blessed with a roof to sleep under and radiators. There was also an award-winning chippy in town.