“To be a pilgrim is to be on a path of adventure, to move out of our comfort zones, to let go of our prejudices and preconditioning, to make strides towards the unknown.”
Satish Kumar – Earth Pilgrim
Barely a week has passed since Lammas Day (1 August). In this part of Wiltshire, on the hillside above our house in Winterbourne Stoke, the harvest is in. The days are beginning to shorten, and despite the wall to wall sunshine, it feels as if the year is on the turn. As a man, I met while out on my dog walk this morning, presciently observed “We could be somewhere abroad”. Indeed – sunflowers wouldn’t look entirely out of place in this sun bleached landscape of gently rolling hills and distant vistas. What a topsy-turvy world we live in!
There is an old country proverb which runs: ‘After Lammas Day, corn ripens as much by night as by day.’ With the mercury on track to hit the mid 30s this week, it may not seem much like autumn at the moment, but in Anglo-Saxon times, the season of autumn began shortly after Lammas on August 7th – a date calculated by its position halfway between the summer solstice and the autumnal equinox. The link between autumn and harvest is one thing which makes the Anglo-Saxon view of this season quite different from our modern perspective. Think of autumn and you might think of reddening leaves, dewy chilly mornings, darker shorter days – probably not of harvesters working under a blazing August sun. But in Old English, linguistically speaking at least (the Old English name for autumn is hærfest), autumn and harvest are indistinguishable.
Harvest time was traditionally marked by harvest suppers, (or sometimes churn suppers, named after the big jug of cream that might be offered), which were traditionally hosted by the local farmer. Harvest suppers brought together the community of people who’d helped bring in the crops as a way of saying thank you and celebrating a successful growing year.
In Winterbourne Stoke, the Harvest Thanksgiving Service (which nowadays takes place in October rather than August) was traditionally one of the best attended church services of the year. As recently as 1992, 80 villagers attended the Harvest Thanksgiving Evensong Service at St Peter’s Winterbourne Stoke! Last year, Harvest Thanksgiving Service attendees at St Peter’s had dwindled to just 16, of whom only a handful were from the village.
Followers of this blog blessed with a good memory, may recollect that it was about this time last year that I embarked on a 1,600 mile walk from St Peter’s, Winterbourne Stoke to St Peter’s Rome, to raise money to repair part of the roof at St Peter’s Winterbourne Stoke. Over an 8 week period, I managed to walk a little under 1,000 miles along the Via Francigena, ending up at Bourg St Pierre in the Swiss Alps, a few miles from the Great St Bernard Pass and the Italian border. In the process, thanks in no small part to the generosity of many of the readers of this blog, we succeeded in raising nearly £9,000 to fund the roof repairs at St Peter’s, Winterbourne Stoke, which are due to take place later this year.
My original plan was to complete the remaining 650 miles of the Via Francigena to Rome this year. However, for various reasons, those plans have been put on hold, meaning that I probably won’t be able to complete the pilgrimage to Rome until next year at the earliest. With limited time available this year for long distance pilgrimages, there is a small window of opportunity in late August to complete a 117 mile “mini-pilgrimage” on the Two Moors Way from Wembury near Plymouth on the south coast of Devon, across Dartmoor and Exmoor to Lynmouth on the north Devon coast. The route takes me close to Crediton, the birthplace of Saint Boniface, the patron saint of Devon and one of the most influential Englishmen in the history of Europe.
Described by some historians as “The greatest Englishman of all time” and “the Englishman who has had a greater influence on the history of Europe than any other Englishman”, Boniface was born in Crediton, Devon in 675 AD. Originally known as Winfrid or Winfred (“lover of peace”) he became a Benedictine monk and subsequently embarked on a life as a European missionary, becoming one of the truly outstanding creators of the first Europe, as the first apostle of Germania, the reformer of the Frankish church, and the instigator of the alliance between the papacy and the Carolingian royal family.
The connection between Saint Boniface, an Anglo-Saxon 8th century missionary and the origins of the Via Francigena, may on the surface seem to be somewhat obscure. But there is one. When Sigeric the Serious embarked on his epic journey to Rome in 990 AD, which subsequently became the basis of the route of the modern Via Francigena, he was probably retracing the footsteps of Saint Boniface, who embarked on the same journey from England to Rome in the early 8th century to receive his pallium from Pope Gregory II.
Boniface first left for the continent in 716 AD. He travelled to Utrecht where Willibrord the “Apostle to the Frisians,” had been working since the 690s. He spent a year with Willibrord, preaching in the countryside, before returning to the continent the next year and going straight to Rome probably along the Via Francigena (he wrote a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury asking him to “forbid ‘matrons and nuns’ to travel to Rome because many of them perished and few kept their virtue” which hints at an already well established pilgrim route in the 8th century!), where Pope Gregory II renamed him “Boniface”, after the (legendary) fourth-century martyr Boniface of Tarsus and appointed him missionary bishop for Germania. He became a bishop without a diocese for an area that lacked any church organization. Boniface would never return to England, though he remained in correspondence with his countrymen and kinfolk throughout his life.
Through his efforts to reorganize and regulate the Frankish church , Boniface helped shape the Latin Church in Europe – many of the dioceses he founded remain extant today. After his martyrdom in Fulda, Germany in 754 AD , he was venerated as a saint in Germania and England. Today he is still venerated today by German Catholics. Boniface is celebrated by historians as a missionary, a unifier of Europe, and is regarded by German Roman Catholics as a national figure. He may also be indirectly responsible for the modern tradition of Christmas trees – during one of his evangelising missions in Thuringia, Boniface, is said to have cut down an oak tree sacred to the pagan god Thor. An evergreen fir tree grew in its place, which he said symbolised the everlasting nature of Jesus. In 2019, following in the footsteps of St Piran, the patron saint of Cornwall, Boniface was formally adopted as the patron saint of Devon.
I have a personal connection with Saint Boniface – my maternal grandmother used to live in Ventnor on the Isle of Wight in a place called Saint Boniface Court. It was named after the nearby Saint Boniface Downs, near where the spot at Pulpit Rock at Bonchurch where Saint Boniface is supposed to have preached a fiery sermon to the locals in 710 AD just a few years before he left England for the continent. The down which towers above Bonchurch is named in his memory and the legendary Saint Boniface Well is located there. The Isle of Wight was the last part of England to be converted to Christianity and this was only achieved in 686 AD when it was annexed by the Wessex King Caedwalla. My grandmother’s favourite expression, which she routinely invoked during times of trouble, was “Have Faith!”. I suspect that never in a million years would she have dreamt of my embarking on a 1,600 mile pilgrimage from Wiltshire to Rome and setting off on a Devon diversion which will take me close to the birth place of Saint Boniface in Crediton!
In the past, whenever I have been about to embark on a major life changing adventure involving a move to a new country from the UK , I have tried to take a bit of time off for a challenging walk to stiffen the sinews and clear the mind! In 1986, prior to a move to work in the UAE with HSBC, I walked the length of Hadrian’s Wall during the August bank holiday weekend.
In 1989, prior to moving to live and work in South Korea having completed a year of Korean studies at SOAS in London, I walked the Sentier de St Jacques (GR65) from Le Puy-en-Vezelay in France to St-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the Pyrenees, following the French section of the pilgrim route to Compostella. The walk did wonders for my ability to converse in French, but my Korean sadly ‘withered on the vine’!
As I was nearing the end of the walk, I tried to count up to 10 in Korean and failed miserably! I’d been speaking French for the previous month and had completely forgotten all the Korean I was supposed to have learned over the previous 12 months. This, I thought, was unlikely to play well with the powers that be at the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, who had generously paid for me to learn Korean for a year in the UK at SOAS! So, panic stricken, in a desperate attempt to get my Korean up to speed before reporting for work in Seoul, I returned briefly to the UK, hurriedly packed a rucksack and hopped on the next available plane to South Korea. I spent the next few weeks travelling around the south west of the country in South Cholla Province near Mokpo, where, armed with letters of introduction (소개서) to the head abbots of several Buddhist monasteries which my Korean professor at SOAS had kindly given me, I gradually managed to get my rusty Korean up to scratch!
Apart from the Saint Boniface connection with Sigeric the Serious (which is admittedly a bit tenuous!), the only real link between Devon and my 1,600 walk from Wiltshire to Rome along the Via Francigena, is a personal one. Devon has always had a special place in my heart. Over the years I have been a frequent visitor to the county, lived there for a while near a village just south of Dartmoor called Chudleigh, and have spent many happy times roaming and yomping across the moors from dawn to dusk as well as embarking on a number of trout fishing trips on the moors.
So what is so special about Dartmoor? Satish Kumar, the self proclaimed ‘earth pilgrim’ and former Jain monk, who lives near Hartland Point in north Devon, eloquently expresses the magic of Dartmoor:
“My life is an unending pilgrimage – I have no destination. Touching the earth – being connected to the soil, being mindful of every step – is how I practice eco-spirituality. Walking in the wild is my meditation. Walking in nature is my prayer, my peace and my solitude. Breathing, I inhale the air, which sustains me and connects me to all life. Dartmoor is my temple and my church – a glorious cathedral of nature – that is millions of years old. It was formed by the powers of geological time and the generosity of nature. I come here for the breath of fresh air, the smell of the wet grass, the coolness of water and the purity of rocks.“
What better way then to spend a few days R&R prior to a move to live in France than to walk The Two Moors Way ( a 117 mile long distance path which runs across Dartmoor and Exmoor from Wembury Bay near Plymouth to Lynmouth) over 4-5 days* during the long August bank holiday weekend, from 25th – 28/29th August ! Averaging 25-30 miles a day over arduous terrain, it seems like a fitting challenge for an unfit pilgrim approaching 60 about to embark on a major continental journey into the unknown in the footsteps of Saint Boniface nearly 1,300 years ago !
(NB The Two Moors Way coast to coast walk has only once been completed in under 4 days by civilians – see blog extract below!)
The guidebook that I’ll be using for the walk (Walking the Two Moors Way by Cicerone Press) recommends that the 117 mile walk is undertaken in 11 stages. I will be attempting to complete it in 4 stages! Rather confusingly an earlier guide to The Two Moors Way that I have used in the past, claims that the coast to coast path is 105 miles long! Either way, even if the weather is set fair, it represents something of a challenge!
In order to keep my itinerary as flexible as possible and enable me to wild camp where necessary, I plan to travel light (keeping my rucksack weight to under 10kg) and carry the bare minimum of equipment including a lightweight tent, sleeping bag and mat and basic provisions (mainly Korean ‘Shin Ramyun’ noodles + cheese slices!) to keep me going for four days on the trot. My only luxury is a new camping stove (called a Jetboil Flash) which claims to be able to boil 150ML of water in under 100 seconds!
So some 36 years after I set off on the coast to coat walk along Hadrian’s Wall on a long August Bank Holiday weekend in 1986, the clock is ticking down to another coast to coast walk, this time across Dartmoor and Exmoor. The mind is certainly willing, but will the flesh be strong enough? Well, in a little under 3 weeks time I should find out as I head off on my 117 mile walk from Wembury towards Lynton! I’m looking forward to being an “earth pilgrim” – embarking on another adventure, moving out of my comfort zone, letting go of my prejudices and preconditioning, and making strides towards the unknown. Firstly in south west England (Devon) and then on to south west France (Gascony!).
All funds raised from the walk will go towards the Friends of St Peter’s Church, Winterbourne Stoke, ‘Raise the Roof Appeal’ – details can be found by cutting and pasting the Just Giving Link below! I will also (if I’ve got the energy left!) be attempting to keep a daily blog which I hope to update during the course of the walk.
A 3 day crossing of the Two Moors Way by Ben Keates and Tom Ayres
A friend and I had completed the Three Peaks Challenge last year and decided we wanted to up the stakes and do the impossible so we researched treks and challenges and came across the route called ‘Two Moors Way’: an 102-mile route passing through Dartmoor and Exmoor with vast field and farmland in the middle section. We decided to make the challenge a coast to coast, meaning we started at Wembury on the south coast of Devon, adding a 15-mile trek to Ivybridge where the Two Moors Way starts.
Neither of us were experienced walkers and we didn’t have much map reading experience but we did complete the whole thing by use of a map, compass and guidebook.
We had a total of 117 miles to walk and set ourselves a three-day window to achieve this. We did the trek completely unsupported and carried all our provisions including camping gear and food and water. Our backpack weight started at 12kg each which really took its toll. We hoped to complete 40 miles a day but straight away this seemed massively unachievable. We found the barren land on Dartmoor a huge task and difficult to navigate.
Day 1 we dipped our toe in the sea at Wembury at 5am and stopped at 10pm that evening in Dunston Down. We had completed 37.5 miles. Unfortunately we were on very high ground and woke at about 1am to find we were caught in a lightning storm. We made a decision to leave our tent and bags and try to find shelter. We walked to the local village [Widecombe] about ½ mile away, onto lower ground. We knocked on a house door and were allowed us to sleep on the floor, then set off for day 2 at 4.30am. The weather was awful and it rained until about 11am when we stopped in a village to refuel. This part of the challenge became the hardest and I hit a real low point; having only completed 11 miles in 7 hours things didn’t look good, but after refuelling and a short rest we set off for the afternoon. The weather dried up and we had a very successful afternoon completing 18 miles in the first 6 hours, we then pushed as hard as we could until dusk, and stopped in the village of Morchard Bishop. We ended up chatting to the landlady at the London Inn about where we could safely camp; fortunately she took pity on us and allowed us to sleep in the pub’s outhouse on the skittle alley. It was great to get in the dry, but we were 7 miles short at the end of day 2: we had a long way to go on our final day.
Day 3 we set off at 4am knowing if we wished to complete the task we had 46 miles to cover. We pushed through hard and had to make up a lot of time. We ate ration packs on the move and had to get 30 miles done to meet our partners at Withypool. They replenished our first aid and water 16 miles short of the finish (incredibly we made it there by 2.30pm, completing 30 miles in 11 hours). We swapped our heavy bags for rucksacks for the final stretch and applied half of Superdrug to hold our wrecked feet together. Again once rested up we had our final 16 miles to hobble which brought us in to the coastal village of Lynmouth, the finish line, at 10.15pm!
We had completed the challenge in 65 hours! We had around 60 active hours over the three days running on around five hours sleep. We took around 240,000 steps and burnt around 9000 calories each day with approx. 9000 metres of ascent and descent. The challenge really took its toll and the mental and physical aspects were such a battle. According to records we were the first civilians to complete this coast-to-coast trek in three days.
The charities we did it for were both close to our hearts and have had an impact on our families:
We Hear You – cancer counselling (located in and supporting Frome and surrounding area)
Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation