Don’t leave me this way
I can’t survive
I can’t stay alive
Without your love, no baby
Don’t Leave Me This Way – song by The Communards (Album – La Via Dolorosa)
I’ve always had an eclectic love of music which ranges from Gregorian chant, classical, jazz and English folk music to Ska (The Specials) and Punk (The Jam/The Clash). However, the musical genre which attracted my enduring love during my post adolescent years were ‘The New Romantics’ epitomised by the likes of Soft Cell, ABC, Depeche Mode and China Crisis.
I can remember travelling on the Silk Road from the Taj Mahal in Agra, up the Great North Road to Lahore and over the Khunjerab Pass into Xinjiang Province in the footsteps of the great Sinologist Aurel Stein in 1990. As I travelled along the Silk Road across China to Beijing, I can remember being accompanied by the songs of China Crisis. Doubtless my subversive sense of humour was lost on the travellers on a bus to the Labrang Yellow Hat Monastery in Xiahe Province near the border with Tibet, when the bus driver agreed to play my China Crisis cassette on the bus’s loudspeaker system for the entire 8 hour journey!
Music and religion have always been close bedfellows. The Communards were another band I loved, particularly the high octane voice of Jimmy Somerville, formerly of Bronski Beat. It wasn’t until later that I came to appreciate the talents of their synthesizer player, Richard Coles. Their song I loved most was ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way’ from the album ‘La Via Dolorosa (Latin for “Sorrowful Way” or “Way of Suffering” is a route through the Old City of Jerusalem that is believed to be the path Jesus walked to his crucifixion.)
If I’m being brutally honest, music was a form of escape when I was younger. It enabled me to form my own little bubble, escape from the realities of an unhappy childhood and avoid having to make contact with people.
This morning I was struck by the transcendental ethereal quality of music as I attended the service of readings and lauds in the basilica in the Abbey of Saint Maurice. Of all the services I have attended over the last two months, this was the most beautiful and the one which touched my soul.
A number of people have asked me about my motivation for going on a pilgrimage. Are you on a spiritual journey? Are you bored of lockdown? Are you keen on long distance walking? Are you trying to find a meaning for your life and is this walk nothing more than a glorified midlife crisis?
The main purpose of my walk is to raise money to repair the roof of St Peter’s Church, Winterbourne Stoke but there is an element of truth ( as my father was wont to say) to all those other questions.
Neither of my parents were particularly religious. They never went to church, even at Christmas. My mother was roundly dismissive of the Church of England, largely due to the traumatic experience she had suffered during the War when she had been evacuated from London during the Blitz to a Rectory in the West Country. There she had been fed, she claimed, on gruel and confined to a small unheated bedroom while the Vicar and his wife enjoyed log fires in their drawing room and hearty meals in their dining room!
At prep school I sang in the choir. At Winchester I attended services on a daily basis. But I never really got into religion. With hindsight I am glad I avoided the ‘God Squad’ as they were known at school, as I would have inevitably crossed the path of the John Smyth.
John Smyth, who was a QC and friend of the current Archbishop of Canterbury, The Most Rev Justin Welby, enjoyed a privileged position at Winchester College in the late 70s and early 80s. He was an evangelical Christian and entrusted with the spiritual care of Wykehamists who wanted to explore Christianity in greater depth prior to Confirmation. This entailed visiting Smyth’s house outside Winchester where he would routinely engage in sado-masochistic rituals with boys along with the school captain of cricket, Simon Doggart. A number of my contemporaries were subject to this abuse and were emotionally scarred for life. A number tried to take their own lives. I thank my lucky stars that I didn’t sign up for his ‘extra Sunday Service’ because if I’d done so, I might not be writing this blog now!
My stay at the Abbey of Saint Maurice was a strangely uplifting experience. When I checked in to the Abbey at 5pm yesterday afternoon, I was joined by another person. His name was Timothe. Originally from Reims in France, since 2013 he’d been travelling around Europe moving from Abbey to Monastery on a daily basis. He would earn pocket money by doing odd jobs like painting or mowing, but he was essentially leading the life of a penniless tramp. As he checked in, I heard Timothe protest that he was penniless and couldn’t afford the CHF30 nightly charge for a bed. I saw the canon (Cyrille Rieder) surreptitiously slip Timothe a CHF10 note and pat him on the back.
On Saturdays Swiss supermarkets close at 5pm. I had failed to appreciate this when I headed out to buy food after checking in to the Abbey. 30 minutes later I returned forlorn, hungry and empty handed!
No sooner had I recounted my sorry tale than Timothe invited me to join him for supper. He had bought some spaghetti, a tin of tuna, some bolognese pasta and a couple of cans of beer, all of which he generously offered to share with me.
It was humbling to eat supper with Timothe. Here was somebody who was virtually penniless yet he was willing to share his supper with me to ensure I didn’t go hungry. The ultimate Good Samaritan.
At breakfast this morning, Cyrille Rieder gave us a lengthy explanation of the history of the Abbey of Saint Maurice.
Cyrille explained the background to Maurentius’s martyrdom along with his fellow soldiers in the Theban Legion. The Abbey has the distinction of being the only Abbey in Western Christendom with an unbroken 1,500 year tradition of Christian services.
No sooner had breakfast ended than we were led over to the Basilica to participate in the 7.30am service of readings and Lauds.
No sooner had the service finished than I approached Cyrille and asked about the curiously shaped pulpit ( it looked like a Celtic cross) and the inscriptions on the inside of the door including those in Korean and Chinese.
Cyrille explained that the pulpit dated from the 8th century and that the inscriptions on the inside of the main door to the Basilica, were designed to show examples of other Christian martyrs who were willing to sacrifice their lives for their beliefs.
When I walked long distance footpaths from the age of 15, I walked to escape from the pain of an unhappy childhood. I walked alone and my only accompaniment was music. Wherever I walked I would pack my trusty Sony Walkman cassette player and load up my rucksack with the New Romantic hits of the late 70s and 80s. By listening to music I could escape from my own troubles and I could avoid connecting with anybody else. Music was a shield.
The morning walk to Martigny was straightforward if uninspiring. The VF mostly hugged the side of the main road to Martigny. Apart from some apple orchards on the outskirts of Martigny, there was little of note to set the pulses racing.
I had two things on my agenda when I reached Martigny. Firstly find somewhere to spend the night and secondly to view the Gustave Caillebotte exhibition.
Sadly there was no time to visit the Caillebot exhibition nor the extensive Gallo-Roman remains in the town, including the impressive amphitheatre.
A chance meeting in the town square with a Swiss pilgrim called Nilde had convinced me that I needed to hasten on to Sembrancher, half way to Orsieres.
I had tried to find cheap accommodation in Martigny but the Protestant church was closed and the Italian Catholic priest told me that his church had no beds available for pilgrims.
As I hovered in the centre of Martigny with a sandwich (that I’d bought with my last remaining Swiss Francs) and wondered what to do next, a diminutive lady beckoned to me. “Are you a pilgrim on the Via Francigena?” she enquired. I replied that I was walking from a small village near Stonehenge to Rome to raise money to repair the church roof.
Nilde told me that she lived in Martigny and that she had walked the Via Francigena to Rome in 2017. I told her that I was thinking of spending the afternoon walking to Orsieres. She smiled at me and then waved her finger at me. Wad I nuts? The path through the forest to Orsieres was steep and treacherous. I would be far better off breaking my walk at Sembrancher, she advised.
Wilde’s advice seemed eminently sensible so I contacted my old friend Georges for a recommendation of where to stay in Sembrancher. Within minutes he had replied – I had to stay at the Gite des 3 collines.
Without hesitation I called the gite. The propriétaire answered the phone. Normally they didn’t accommodated large groups but if I could arrive by 5pm, he would make a special exception and let me have a bed for the night. Scarcely had the words left his mouth than I accepted his offer, glanced at my watch and motored out of Martigny towards Sembrancher.
The Via Francigena App classifies stages according to difficulty. Of the 100+ stages I had completed in England, France and Switzerland, all had hitherto been classified aa either ‘Easy” or “Medium’. The stage from Martigny to Orsieres was?different – it was classified as ‘Challenging’.
Shortly after leaving Martigny I got a hint of what the rest of the stage to Orsieres was likely to be like. The path was narrow and vertiginous, obstructed with frequent landslides and with the path severely rutted with tree roots.
This was going to be no ‘Teddy Bear’s Picnic’. I was just thankful that I wasn’t undertaking the stage in my previous day’s zombified state!
For the next 2 hours the only respite from the arduous walking, came when I passed through a small hamlet with some murals of Napoleon crossing the Alps on the walls if a garage and a roadside cross seeking salvation for humanity.
Much to my relief I did eventually make it in one piece to Sembrancher although in places it had been ‘touch and go’.
On the evening of my final day’s walk for this year, it strikes me that I haven’t had a burning desire to bury myself in music over the last 8 weeks. Instead I’ve been happy to listen to the sounds and songs that surround me and to proactively make engage with complete strangers. It’s been a curiously uplifting and life enhancing experience. I moved on from the Communards and ‘La Via Dolorosa’ to Katrina and the Waves and ‘I’m Walking on Sunshine’
And as for the spiritual side of things, well maybe Nilde’s appearance abd good advice today was just a pure coincidence, but maybe, just maybe a greater force was at work….