An Unlikely Pilgrimage
From Harold Fry to Robert Louis Stevenson
Posted by Mark Armstrong 26th March 2013
When out in the Wiltshire countryside last year creating walks and making notes for the High Point Holidays' Wonders of Wessex independent walking holiday, I had the urge to just keep on walking. For what purpose or reason I don't really know; maybe a reconnection with mother nature or just an innate sense that the walking was doing me good. The idea that walking somehow is good for the 'soul' and not just in a physical, chemical sense is not a new one.
Journeys for a spititual, moral or cultural reason have been carried out by humans for thousands of years. These pilgrimages are being retraced by thousands today as well as individuals forging their own personal journeys for whatever reason; in search of grace, in flight from unhappiness or in remembrance.
In this frame of mind I was drawn to Rachel Joyce's novel "The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry". The main character, Harold, a retired brewery salesman, goes out to post a letter to a dying friend, whilst his wife is hoovering upstairs. But on impulse he sets out on a journey from his home in South Devon to Berwick-Upon-Tweed, the northern most town in England. Harold believes that by making his walk he can save his friend, but in reality the walk is saving himself from what his life has become. Not only does the book set out to demonstrate the restorative nature of walking but also celebrates the impact that kindess from perfect strangers can have. It was a very enjoyable, easy to read novel.
I would not recommend Harold's route planning though, sticking to main roads, or his lack of equipment and appropriate clothing (no boots, map, compass, waterproof or phone!)
Several of High Point Holidays walking holiday paths use sections that are part of old pilgrimage routes. St James' Way is the pilgrimage route to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in north west Spain, where tradition has it that the remains of St James, the apostle are buried. It became one of the most important Christian pilgrimages in medieval times. It was customary for those who returned from Compostella to carry back with them a Galician scallop shell. Historically, most of the pilgrims came from France and so traditional starting points are Paris, Vezelay, Arles and Le Puy. Many of our self guided walking holidays in Burgundy come into contact with Compostella trails, including our Secret Burgundy walking holiday. In 2002, Cluny was integrated into the official European pilgrimage route linking Vezelay and Le Puy. Many pilgrims start much further away, but will often pass through the 4 main French starting points. High Point Holidays also has a Monk's Trail walking holiday which visits the historic towns of Tournus with its Romanesque abbey and the remowned site of Cluny with its historic monuments. Cluny grew up around the Benedictine Abbey founded by Duke William I of Aquitaine in A.D. 910. The abbey church was the largest in the Western Christian world before the building of St Peter’s of Rome.
Many long distance trails originate from ancient bridleways and herding routes. Once they encompass an historical significance, they often become marked as a particular way or trail. One such route is the Huguenots trail or the "Sur les Pas des Huguenots." An era of persecution began after the King of France, Louis XIV, revoked the Edict of Nantes. Two hundred thousand Huguenots sought refuge in the Protestant lands of Europe and around the world. The 1,600 km international trail follows the historical path taken during this exile. Starting in Poet Laval, in the Drome, this trail crosses Geneva, Switzerland, Baden-Wurttemberg and Hesse, going all the way to Bad Karlshafen. Our new Drome Provencale walking holiday follows part of this route.
It was a 19th century writer's desire to explore the countryside of the French Protestants that led to a well known trail bearing his name. On 22nd September 1878 Robert Louis Stevenson set out on foot from Monastier sur Gazeille in the Haute Loire with his donkey, Modestine. 12 days later he arrived at Saint Jean de Gard having followed ancient bridleways and drove roads. He wrote an amusing account of his journey, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. The Stevensons Trail (or GR70) goes through Auvergne, Cevennes and Languedoc-Roussillon through Haute Loire, Ardeche, Lozere and Gard departments. The last 2 days of our Tranquil Auvergne Trail follows part of this famous route and you don't have to bring a donkey.