A Pilgrimage to Sulis Minerva.
The idea of pilgrimage is always one that has fascinated me; there is something very sacred about taking the time out of day-to-day life to devote to making a journey. As a teenager I studied Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and was swept up as much by the act of travelling to a place of reverence as the characters and their raucous stories.
In a world where we travel a hundred miles in an afternoon and think nothing of popping down the road by car to our ‘local’ sacred site, which may actually be 20 or 30 or even more miles away, so few of us know how it feels to walk 100 miles or more, or the effort, energy and the determination that takes even for someone as blessed as I am with good health and the use of my legs. Yet, it was a more common occurrence to our ancestors for whom often, walking was the only means of transport.
As pagans, we often talk of the act of journeying as being central to our spirituality. Whether we track the inner paths of meditations, the shamanic journeys of healing and divination or the perfectly orchestrated journey of a well planned ritual for a rite of passage or celebration, the language of the journey is common to most of us. But, how often do we make a journey that is consciously and actually walked, step by step and moment by moment, a journey that may last a few days, a week, a month or even longer; surrendering ourselves completely to where that journey may take us and the challenges that may be encountered along the way? Of course there are many ways to create this kind of journey but as I discovered this week, a long distance walk is particularly powerful.
When my friend Sophie asked me at New Year if I would like to walk the Cotswold Way with her in the coming May, a 102.5 mile route that stretches from Chipping Campden, down and across the entirety of Gloucestershire, to Bath in Somerset, my immediate reaction was ‘YES!” quickly followed by a feeling of trepidation and the wondering of what I had let myself in for. I was a casual walker, easily capable of 7 or 8 miles without a problem, but I knew that that was not going to be adequate for this kind of journey where a pace of 10 -16 miles needed to be maintained every day for 8 days. Not only that, but we decided very early on not to use the services of a sherpa to carry our bags. We were going to do this properly; carrying everything we needed was an important part of the journey.
For both of us, the Cotswolds are a sacred place. The escarpment that stretches from the Midlands to the south of England has been a backbone to much of our lives. For me, it links the Cotswold stone of my childhood, the bedrock upon which I now live, a significant part of my life for the last decade, and the ancestral land of my mothers line deep into Gloucestershire and Somerset. We knew that to make a pilgrimage along the escarpment following that line down to its natural end in Bath where the steaming red water pours from the rocks into the roman baths at the shrine of Sulis Minerva, who became our constant companion en route, would be powerful.
Having trained extensively this spring, we both had a fair idea that we could cope with the maximum daily distance of 16 miles. But, we had no way of knowing whether we could cope with it day after day without actually doing it. In the event, the repeated distance, carrying of a pack and the hot weather we were blessed with for the first three or four days became a recipe for blisters, sore feet, and a not insignificant amount of pain and it seemed to be so for many of the other walkers we met on route. We quickly realised that this too was a part of the journey and that the pain became a devotional act, a sacrifice to the gods of the landscape through which we passed and in sympathy with the many ancestral feet that had walked the path before us. We soon understood that pilgrimage is not supposed to easy and the satisfaction and achievement of reaching the end is in direct proportion to the trials experienced along the way.
We were overwhelmed too with hospitality, folk seeming to understand on some level the importance of what we were doing. We met friends, and relatives who took us in, fed and watered us, shared supper or a drink and walked with us along the way. Other walkers on the same journey became our companions and whilst we were all walking for very different reason, there was a shared understanding, each became an important part, the journey being as much about the people we met as the landscape we walked through. In Sophie’s words we “had one the most fabulous and memorable weeks of our lives. We giggled and sang our way along the Cotswold Way repeating the mantra that ‘pain is only sensation and will arise and pass away’, when the pain in our feet was hard to bear. We walked through blazing sun and howling gale, climbing up and down the escarpment time after time. We walked through bluebell and garlic filled woods, regaled by birdsong and the wind in the trees; over hill forts and long barrows covered in cowslips where we stopped for the odd extreme knitting session; crossed trunk roads and the M4 and finally arrived in Bath where we made offerings to Minerva at her spring,” tears running down our faces as we cast the traditional offerings of money into the blood-red waters, breathing the warmth and steam of her sanctuary whilst tourists snapped pictures and milled around oblivious. For most, the traditional end to the Cotswold way is the Abbey, but for us it was here, in the caves beneath the city.
Having completed the journey and today resting at home, I am left with a deep impression of the power of the pilgrimage. Its ability to challenge and focus us, provide a medium for the outward expression of an inner devotion to ancestors and landscape. I know that I will do it again and I know other pagans who are helping to resurrect that tradition within our religion where it is sadly lacking. For me it has been the ultimate experience of learning to walk this sacred land in a way I had not experienced before and one I hope that others might be inspired to explore.
With thanks to Chris Hastie you can see the route from our GPS tracks here
Very many congratulations to Sophie too, who raised over £1300 for Prostate Cancer UK. You can still sponsor her here