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A Devon diversion from the Via Francigena – ‘The Two Moors Way’ coast to coast pilgrim challenge.

“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 KumarEarth 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!

Newly harvested fields above Winterbourne Stoke.

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, from an Anglo-Saxon calendar for August

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.

St Peter’s, Winterbourne Stoke, Register of Services 1992

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.

Church of the Holy Cross, Crediton

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.

Saint Boniface

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!

Saint Boniface Downs, Isle of Wight

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’!

GR65 – Sentier de Saint Jacques

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!

Daeheungsa is a Korean Buddhist temple located on the slopes of Duryunsan (Mountain), Haenam County, South Jeolla Province, South Korea. Daeheungsa is believed to date to the Three Kingdoms period (4th-9th centuries CE), probably established in 514 AD.

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.

The sacred Brisworthy stone circle on Dartmoor’s Ringmoor Down

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.

The mystical beauty of Wistman’s Wood on Dartmoor

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 Two Moors Way

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

Day 5: Simonsbath to Lynmouth (18 km) As one journey ends, another begins.

Suivez vos rêves, ils connaissent le chemin.

French saying

The day began in Stygian gloom shortly after 5am. It was an early start – I needed to be back home in Wiltshire and beat the Bank Holiday traffic by 6pm.

As I was cooking breakfast of spicy cheese ramyon, a shadowy figure emerged from the shower block behind the Exmoor Forest Inn and enquired if I was doing The Two Moors Way. She and her group of 3 friends had spent the last 9 days walking the route and they, like me, were hoping to reach Lynmouth later in the day. She was the first Two Moors walker I had encountered over the previous four days!

The final stretch of my walk from Simonsbath to Lynmouth took me up over the moor and ended with a series of adrenalin pumping switch back ascents and descents on a narrow path along the side of a steep gorge towards Lynmouth. Not surprisingly I didn’t see another soul between the time I left Simonsbath shortly after 6am and arriving in Lynmouth four hours later.

The upper Chains valley

I came across a deserted shepherd’s dwelling at Hoar Oak, where a magnificent oak tree, planted in 1916, marks the Devon/Somerset border. It would have made an ideal spot to wild camp I thought to myself.

Hoar Oak Cottage

After an hour’s yomping over the moor towards the little hamlet of Cheriton, Lynmouth and the sea finally came into view.

Descending towards Lynmouth

With five minutes to spare, I made it on to the Barnstaple bus that would take me on the Tarka line to Exeter and then on to Plymouth (£11.50 one way!) and thence to Carswell Farm by taxi to retrieve my car and hot foot it back to Wiltshire.

Lynmouth – Journey’s End

It seemed hard to believe that I’d covered 120 miles from Carswell Farm on the south coast of Devon to Lynmouth on the Bristol Channel in a little over 4 days.

The Two Moors Way

The amazing thing was that at the end of my walk from Carswell Farm to Lynmouth, pushing 60, I felt stronger and fitter than I had as a 22 year old, having walked the Hadrian’s Wall path (84 miles) in 3 days over the August Bank Holiday weekend in 1986! My boots though (the same ones I’d worn on the Via Francigena last year) had fared less well!

Time for an upgrade!

With my coast to coast walk across Devon at an end, it was time to take a breather and pause for reflection on the Tarka Line train from Barnstaple to Exeter.

In a strange way, walking across Devon felt like meeting up with an old friend. Much of my life in the UK has been entwined with Devon – from boyhood holidays, to close friendships, to living in the county. It was all comfortingly familiar and enjoyable – like wearing a well worn pair of bedroom slippers. But for me, it lacked the intensity of walking the Via Francigena where every day was an intoxicating new experience that stimulated the senses and enriched the soul.

Next stop Rome!

Inspired as a 13 year old by reading Laurie Lee’s “As I walked One Midsummer Morning”, I set off a couple of years later on my first long distance walk along Offa’s Dyke. I made a number of elementary schoolboy errors on the walk including failing to break in a pair of rather basic leather boots that I purchased from Milletts in Winchester. The Vango tent I brought with me, weighed a ton, even more when waterlogged and my fluorescent orange rucksack was totally porous. I compounded those errors by carrying a large number of Fray Bentos tins of steak and kidney pudding, which also weighed a ton and would probably have tasted delicious, had I remembered to also pack a tin opener! I do remember the weather being atrocious, struggling over the Black Mountains in a howling gale, soaked to the bone and wondering whether I had bitten off more than I could chew! I did make it half way to Prestatyn before my severely blistered feet forced me to abandon the walk and return home by train with my tail between my legs having failed to complete the walk!

Wild camping as a skinflint teenager is all well and good, but when you’ve got enough money in the bank to afford a bit of luxury, what’s the point of embarking on a long distance walk (or any other adventure for that matter), which takes you out of your comfort zone and involves a fair bit of discomfort? Unless you have a deeply ingrained streak of masochism in you, wouldn’t it be a lot easier not to leave the comforts of home?

Mallory and Irvine’s expedition to Everest 1924

The same question occurred to me many years ago when I went along to a talk at Dartington Hall in Devon by the Antarctic explorer, Pen Hadow. Readers of “The Times” with long memories, may remember the epic accounts he filed en route to the North Pole in 2003. His talk was absolutely fascinating and included his extraordinary expedition planning which ensured that his pack and sledge was light enough to enable him to consume/expend sufficient calories to reach the North Pole. I came away from the talk, awed and inspired by his planning skills, his dedication to the task in hand and his force of character. But more than all this, I was struck by one anecdote – growing up on Dartmoor, his nanny had been determined to toughen up the young Pen Hadow by encouraging him to roll naked in the moorland snowdrifts. She also happened to have been a close acquaintance of Captain Robert Falcon Scott RN (aka Scott of the Antarctic!) Motto of the tale? Adventure is bred into you from a young age and, however much you might try and ‘civilise yourself’ with the comforts of modern day living, if it’s in your blood, there is no escape!

As Albert Einstein once said: “I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.” Over the years my curiosity has taken me on a good few adventures – travelling to the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, attempting to climb Aconcagua (22,837 ft) in Argentina or taimen fishing in Outer Mongolia. My walk across Devon on the Two Moors Way hasn’t quite been in that league but it has been hugely enjoyable nevertheless! A fantastic opportunity to catch up with old friends, revisit old haunts and explore new areas in Devon that I was completely unfamiliar with.

Two months into my pilgrimage along the Via Francigena last year, I chanced across a sign on the side of the path between Orbe and Cossonay in Switzerland just outside an isolated refuge for youth groups and religious gatherings. “Follow your dreams, they know the path” it read. For some reason, it struck a cord. It could have been a leitmotif for my pilgrimage on the Via Francigena in particular or my life in general! Over the next few months, like an earworm, I couldn’t keep that sign out of my head. Did it have a hidden significance I often wondered to myself?

So why the sudden decision to quit these shores and move across the English Channel to France? There are a plethora of reasons, but one of them is the nagging feeling that since moving back after 15 years in Asia to live here in 2002, something has gone terribly wrong with the UK.

I look back to 2012 and the London Olympics as a high point when I felt really proud to be British. After 2012, we had the Scottish referendum, Brexit and “Partygate”. The last ten years back in the UK has been like watching something come apart in front of your eyes: the NHS at breaking point, the legal, and transport systems in varying stages of melt down, crumbling Victorian infrastructure, an increasing disparity between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. And now, of course, to cap it all, we have the cost of living crisis, with 65% of the world’s 6th richest nation facing fuel poverty this winter and having to choose between eating or heating. As Shakespeare once famously said, “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark”, or in this case, the UK!

Things can only get better…

Over the past few months an idea began to slowly germinate in my mind – why not up sticks and move to France? On the surface it was a fairly revolutionary notion with a host of reasons not to believe in the notion of l’entente cordiale: “beastly Macron”, the vagaries of French bureaucracy, a punitive tax regime, the lack of curry restaurants,the absence of British humour and the annoying superciliance of some Parisians, to name but a few.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité

On the other hand, South West France (Gascony) does have its attractions – food, wine, a slower pace of life, beaches, ski slopes and its less populated than Wiltshire – to name but a few. Pre-Brexit ( in the 12th century), Gascony was of course part of the Angevin Empire so some of it’s charm may be a curious Anglo-French mélange.

The Angevin Empire in the 12th century.

An added attraction of moving across the Channel, is that France has got more than its fair share of long distance footpaths or grand randonées as they are known. After I have completed my pilgrimage along the Via Francigena to Rome next year, I can’t wait to get my teeth into some of the classic GR routes in France, including the GR65 (from Le Puy-en-Vezelay to St Jean-Pied-de-Port), the GR3 ( through the Loire Valley) , the GR10 (which runs the length of the Pyrenees) and the GR20 (which runs the length of Corsica)

Major long distance footpaths in France

As I was weighing up the pros and cons of moving to France, I remembered a remark made to me by a pilgrim host on the Via Francigena called Pierre-Yves Lamarlier on his farm at Béthonsart, near Arras. Over supper our conversation had turned with a certain inevitability to the pros and cons of “Le Brexit”. Despite my best efforts at trying to explain why the UK had narrowly voted in favour of leaving the EU, Pierre-Yves was completely baffled by it all and went on to extol the virtues of the EU. “Of course the trouble with you in England” he admonished me wagging his finger vigorously at the end of the meal, “is that you never had a Revolution!” It was a remark to which I had no immediate riposte.

Landownership of England in 2022

Who owns England in 2022? – source Countryfile

Pierre-Yves emphasized the astonishingly high level (30%) of land in England that was still owned by members of the aristocracy who comprise a tiny portion of the UK’s population. “C’est incroyable!” he exclaimed and then went on to point out that this percentage of land ownership was roughly the same (30-35%) that was owned by the First Estate (the Church and clergy 5-10%)) and the Second Estate (aristocracy 25%) at the time of the French Revolution in 1789 before “heads began to roll” ….. It was food for thought.

Percent of Population. Percent of Land.

So as I return home on the train from Barnstaple to move in a few weeks time to south west France, it’s time to say au revoir for now until I resume my pilgrimage along the Via Francigena to Rome next year.

Home sweet home.

The last few days have been fantastic and my coast to coast walk across Devon walk along the Two Moors Way, will live long in my memory. The future though is all about dreams, because ultimately they will show you the path of life to follow.

Signpost on the Via Francigena between Orbe and Cossonay in Switzerland

Day 4: Witheridge to Simonsbath (50 km) Back to the Barle in search of Boris

We are human beings first and last. Our religion is faith in Humanity – and there can be no religion greater than that.

Satish Kumar – No Destination – Autobiography of an Earth Pilgrim

According to the Cicerone guide to The Two Moors Way, a long day lay ahead. From my campsite near Witheridge to Simonsbath was the small matter of 50km or 32 miles in old money. According to the guidebook, this would take something in the region of 15 hours! An early start seemed a prudent option.

Campsite near Witheridge.

The morning passed uneventfully. I passed a naturist holiday campsite called ‘Acorns’ that was in the middle of nowhere.”The place to be, when you have nothing on” it proclaimed. Their website sounded enticing: “Wander round the farm through three fields which have been left to grow naturally and provide an abundance of wild flowers and grasses to attract a variety of wildlife from field voles, and rabbits to foxes and deer.” My mind boggles at the thought of it all.

I walked through a lovely shaded avenue of beech trees and met a chap exercising his dogs. He had the grizzled look of a gamekeeper out for an early Sunday stroll.

At the curiously named Owlaborough Farm I came across an old roundhouse that was originally constructed in 1333. Not many remain nowadays but in the past many would have been used to thresh the grain from the chaff by horsepower – the horse would have been harnessed to a central beam and walked around the inside of the building thus driving the machinery within. The roundhouse at Owlaborough would have been used as a cider press.

Owlaborough roundhouse.

Shortly before I reached the hamlet of West Anstey, I saw a man picking blackberries from the hedgerow beside his house. We got chatting. He had moved there from Bristol for a quite life but told me with some exasperation ” there’s simply too much going on locally. I never have a moment’s spare time”. It turned out that he was also the local churchwarden.

John Morgan picking blackberries

When I got to West Anstey Common I was accosted by an aged American lady. We got chatting. She was on holiday visiting relatives in the area and hailed from a small town near Boston called Amesbury. “My ancestors emigrated from England with the Pilgrim Fathers in 1637” she informed me.

In 1637, the first English settler in the Salisbury-Amesbury region, John Bayly, crossed the Merrimack River, built a log cabin, and began to clear the land for cultivation. He intended to send for his wife and children in England, but they never joined him. The original settlers all came from Salisbury and Amesbury and were fleeing persecution by Royalist forces during the English Civil War!

Tarr Steps was heaving with Bank Holiday weekend holiday makers. Dogs were playing in the shallow waters of the River Barle. Small children with fishing nets were trying to catch trout. I grabbed a quick drink at The Tarr Steps Hotel and beat a hasty course for Withypool.

Clapper Bridge at Tarr Steps

I stopped briefly at Withypool for a cup of coffee. The cafe was located next to an old Shell petrol station from the 1950s. I noticed one of the pumps advertising petrol at 34p a gallon!

Cheapest petrol in the UK?

As I walked along the wooded banks of the River Barle, I reflected on the life of Satish Kumar, a Jain monk, who now lives near Exmoor in Devon on the Hartland Peninsula.

Satish became a Jain monk at nine. At 18, he left that way of life and walked 8,000 miles from Delhi to London – for peace. Now 86, Satish, a soul of the soil, delivers one of the most stinging indictments of modern man’s addiction to a lifestyle of making and amassing “things,” and his criminal acts of raping, using and abusing the earth to support his habit. I’m not for a minute claiming that sitting in the Hartland Peninsula, Satish has all the solutions to the problems currently facing humanity, but he certainly has some interesting insights gleaned from nearly 80 years of ‘earth pilgrimage’.

Satish Kumar

Satish believes that Mankind is a threat to nature! He was ahead of his time in focussing on environmentalism and warning of the damage that humanity is wreaking on planet earth through globalisation. 32 years ago he warned the world: “The way we live in our industrial, scientific, technological civilization is a threat. The amount of waste we create is so much this earth cannot sustain it. We go on grabbing, grabbing, grabbing for more economic growth. This is where the Hindu tradition of the Upanishads comes in; it is fundamentally a philosophy of ecology. Environmentalism is enshrined in Hindu thinking.”

Hartland Peninsula

Satish isn’t happy just castigating his fellow man for numb ecological stupor. He also wields a clear vision of what has to be done if man is to live on our blue-green earth without despoiling it. First, the trend toward multi-conglomerate corporations must end. These modern-day monsters are so big they hardly see, or feel, the life forms they crush in their pursuit of profit. But when business is small, it is responsive to its environment. Consequences of actions are visible. “Small is beautiful!” Satish proclaims is the enlightened way of the future – small towns, small decentralized economies and local governing systems with a return to fine craftsmanship as the work ethic and deeper friendships as the social norm.

Satish Kumar on Dartmoor

Over the years Satish has been vocal in his criticism of modern society and his support for sustainability. Small is beautiful is very much his mantra.

On Agriculture: “Since we have lost contact with the soil, our souls are starved.” He feels more and more people need to farm, employing three rules: 1) his methods must bring him satisfaction; 2) farming must not cause disturbance to one’s neighbor and community; 3) do nothing that will harm the soil.

On Peace: “Peace is not an absence of war. It is a positive way of life on three levels: 1) peace with yourself; 2) peace with your neighbor, community and other nations; and 3) peace with nature – returning to way of life that is in tune with nature.”

On Economics: “We must not try to save labour, we must save resources. Human labour is infinite; resources are finite. There will be jobs with things that will take longer to make. Instead of making things quickly that don’t last, make things well that will last. That is good economic growth. Everything should be a pleasure to make, use and enjoy.”

On Ecology: “We must think in terms of ‘sustainability.’ Our activities should be able to go on and on without bringing damage to the environment. Also restraint, samyama. Then ‘replenishment.’ What we take we replenish. Not replacement than you found it. Also we need to plan our cities and towns so that we can go to temple, school, shopping or work within walking distances so we don’t waste vast amounts of energy in unnecessary mobility.”

On Oneness: “My greatest inspiration comes from the Isha Vasyopanishad. It says we should see the whole universe is the body of Isha, the Creator. In every leaf, drop of water or ant, there is God.”

On walking: “Only by moving can things change and transform. And walking is movement of the body. When you’re walking, you’re transformed. Your mindset, your health, your ideas. You get new, fresh thinking.”

The River Barle above Simonsbath isn’t the largest or the longest river in the UK. You won’t catch many trout above 1/2 lb. But it is, in my eyes at least, one of the prettiest rivers in this country. The last time I ventured out fishing on the Barle was on a holiday in the early 1980s with my father. We stayed at a hotel near Dulverton which owned a stretch of the river and promised the opportunity to catch a Devon salmon. But it was early in the year, just past Easter, and my father and I had no luck. On our last day, my father suggested that we spend a day trout fishing on the River Barle above Simonsbath. The weather had taken a turn for the better, the icy wind had dropped and the skies had cleared. The day was magical, wet fly fishing in the fast flowing water tumbling off Exmoor. It was as if the first day of Spring had arrived and with the rise in temperature the wild brown trout of the Barle were on the take. Between us we must have caught ten or so fish, none of them much more than 1/2Ib in weight. But that happy day with my father fishing on the Barle remains as fresh in my memory as if it was yesterday.

River Barle near Simonsbath

My final destination for the day was in a field behind the Exmoor Forest Inn at Simonsbath. Not exactly wild camping, but within staggering distance of the bar and a final slap up meal. Boris Johnson has a house up the road apparently. Perhaps I would bump into him at the hotel bar in the evening and give him both barrels about Brexit!

Exmoor Forest Inn, Simonsbath

I arrived at Simonsbath shortly before 5pm. Knocking off 30 minutes I had spent en route buying lunch and drinks, I reckoned I had covered 32 miles in around 9 hours and 30 minutes, meaning my average walking pace during the day was 3.5 mph. Amazingly I still felt fairly fresh and half thought about motoring on until I reached Lynmouth.

In the campsite behind The Exmoor Forest Inn I got chatting to a lovely couple who were sitting out in front of their impressively large clamping tent, enjoying the late afternoon sunshine. They offered me a beer and we then started swapping anecdotes about walks we’d been on and camping kit we used. Will and Hannah live in Marlborough and Will works as a journalist on a website called ‘Outdoors Magic’ (www.outdoorsmagic.com) which features articles about the outdoors and walking kit! I felt we could have spent several hours swapping anecdotes about walking kit and long distance footpaths!

Will and Hannah

The Exmoor Forest Inn was packed to the rafters. It has a fantastic ambience and serves a great selection of food. The walls were festooned with photos of fox hound and staghound meets over the years outside the Inn.

And as for Boris? Sadly there was no sign of him at the bar. My Brexit broadside would have to wait for another day@

Day 3: Drewsteignton to Witheridge (38 km) A Pirate called Black Sam Bellamy and a village called Black Dog.

Tom Pearce, Tom Pearce, lend me your grey mare,

All along, down along, out along, lee,

For I want for to go to Widecombe Fair,

With Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,

Peter Davy, Dan’l Whiddon, Harry Hawke,

Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all,

Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

Widecombe Fair

I was packed up and on my way to Hittisleigh by 7.30am, fuelled by a breakfast of spicy Korean Shin Ramyon noodles. Apart from Goosey and Gander, there wasn’t much sign of life at the campsite when I headed off.

Breakfast at Drewsteignton

The remote hilltop settlement of Hittisleigh has a forgotten feel about it – the parish once provided the poorest church income in Devon. Somewhat amazingly, the church, which serves a village slightly smaller than Winterbourne Stoke, has three services a month including Holy Communion and two other Sunday morning services.

St Andrew’s Church, Hittisleigh

In view of its historic poverty, its perhaps not that surprising that Hittisleigh’s most famous son was a pirate called Samuel Bellamy who was born in the village in 1689 and died 28 years later as the wealthiest pirate in recorded history, amassing a fortune exceeding £100 mn!

Little is known of Black Sam Bellamy’s early life, other than the fact he was born in Hittisleigh in 1689. The woman who was probably his mother died in childbirth and was buried Feb. 23, 1689. His parents were likely tenant farmers, hovering on the edge of starvation like half of England at the time

Bellamy left home at a young age for Plymouth, becoming a ship’s boy at 13 in 1702 at the outset of the War of Spanish Succession. By the end of the war in 1712 he was a skilled sailor. After travelling around Cape Cod in 1715, he then went south to the Florida coast in search of sunken treasure. Although his known career as a pirate captain lasted little more than a year, he and his crew captured at least 53 ships. The ship he sank with in 1717 (a slave ship bound for Jamaica that he had captured from the English) , called the Whydah Gally, reportedly held more than four and a half tonnes of gold and silver when she went down with all hands in a storm!

Bellamy’s favourite weapons were four duelling pistols that he always carried in his sash. He made a dashing figure in his long deep-cuffed velvet coat, knee breeches, silk stockings, and silver-buckled shoes. Bellamy never wore the fashionable powdered wig, but grew his dark hair long and tied it back with a black satin bow, hence his nickname “Black Sam” Bellamy. Bellamy was renown for his mercy and generosity toward those he captured on his raids. This reputation earned him another nickname, the “Prince of Pirates”. He likened himself to Robin Hood, with his crew calling themselves “Robin Hood’s Men” and according to a contemporary Bellamy treated everyone on board his ship equally, including a third of the crew who were Black and formerly enslaved. These “outlaws” were thus in a sense experimenting in democracy, each having the opportunity to vote and have an equal share in the treasure.

In a famous speech attributed to Bellamy, he scorned the wealthy merchants he plundered: “They rob the poor under the cover of law, forsooth, and we plunder the rich under the protection of our own courage.” Apparently he never killed a single one of his captives. Its rather tempting to think that Captain Jack Sparrow’s character in Pirates of the Caribbean is based on Captain “Black Sam” Bellamy!

Black Sam Bellamy and his crew

Mid morning I passed the imposing Paschoe House. It is now a luxury hotel but it has a fascinating history including a connection with Uncle Tom Cobley and all of Widecombe fame!

Paschoe House

A grade II listed house dating from the mid-nineteenth century, Paschoe House was designed by the famous architect John Hayward in the Victorian Gothic style.

The Pascoe Estate was first recorded in 1611 and the original house was built in the 13th Century near the lake that you can see today. In the late eighteenth century, it was noticed to be subsiding in its position, so the decision was0 made to move the house to higher and more sturdy ground – this is where you see it today.

At some point in 19th Century, the “h” was added to Pascoe making it Paschoe.

The original Pascoe House was acquired in 1611 by the prolific Hamlyn family who also owned seats at Clovelly, Langdon Court and Leawood.

For the construction of the new house, they employed the renowned Victorian architect John Hayward who was the official architect of the Exeter Diocesan Architectural Society and who also designed Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter Prison and The Hall in the Chapel Quad (Pembroke College, Oxford University).

Paschoe remained Hamlyn property from 1611 to 1948, a whopping 337 years and approximately 6 generations.

In 1787, there are records of the well-known Devonian, Uncle Tom Cobley, visiting Mr Christopher Hamlyn (then a country solicitor) residing in the original Pascoe House to draw up Tom Cobley’s will and testament. Uncle Tom was a well-to-do yeoman of the parish of Spreyton where he owned lands and a good sum of money. It is told that Old Tom, in his 90s, was very suspicious about signing his will as both his sight and hearing were failing him. He had been to another solicitor prior to Mr Hamlyn and didn’t trust him. He did, however, trust Mr Hamlyn and happily signed his will.

Crossing the railway line at Colebrooke proved a challenge – the footpath had been closed to public access since April 2021 until further notice to complete “urgent works” to the pedestrian crossing. Nearly 18 months later, public access is still prohibited! Mind boggling!

Railway crossing at Colebrooke!

Clannaborough doesn’t have a village but it does have an impressive 13th century church.

St Petroc’s Church, Clannaborough

I couldn’t resist a quick look around St Petroc’s church. There was no electricity inside – lighting was by candles. The visitors’ book suggested that the last walker on the Two Moors who had visited the church was 5 months ago in March 2022!

St Petroc’s, Clannaborough

I stopped for lunch at The London Inn at Morchard Bishop. My ham and cheese sandwich knocked spots of the fare ( cheese burger and fries) I’d had last Tuesday at my local (The Boot Inn at Berwick St James) in Wiltshire. The burger and the service at The Boot was so awful that my friend astutely observed “This place won’t be around for much longer!” I suspect The London Inn at Morchard Bishop will outlive The Boot!

I was slightly unnerved to read on the village notice board that Morchard Bishop is the half way point on The Two Moors Way. It had taken me two and a half days to reach there and I was due to reach Lynton on Monday afternoon, catch a train from Barnstaple to Plymouth, get a taxi back to Carswell and drive back to Winterbourne Stoke by early Monday afternoon! Let’s hope I hadn’t got my route calculations badly wrong!

Two Moors Way map, Morchard Bishop.

Much of the countryside I walked through between Drewsteignton and Witheridge was pleasant but unremarkable. If I’m honest I missed the wide open vistas of Dartmoor. I only met a couple of other walkers all day – it felt almost as deserted as parts of the Via Francigena!

Heading towards Morchard Bishop

It was about 4pm when I reached the small village of Black Dog which has to be one of the more bizarre place names in tge UK. Any connection with the Hound of the Baskervilles is apparently entirely fictitious. The village derives its name from The Black Dog Inn, itself named after an 18th century landlord’s dog.

Cave canem!

A few years ago we nearly bought a house at Woolfardisworthy, a tiny hamlet about two miles from Black Dog. It was strange to think that the Black Dog Inn could have been our local if everything had turned out a bit differently!

The Black Dog Inn, Black Dog

I reached the campsite on a farm just outside Witheridge a little before six. Chatting to the farmer, I enquired if his farming business had been impacted by the dry summer. He smiled whimsically before answering: “Not really. We always get a good drop of rain in this part of Devon! The showers are 20p” he added with a grin, not covered by the £20 charge to pitch my one man tent in his field. Life is full of ups and downs I thought to myself, cursing the fact that I hadn’t bothered to bring any loose cash with me on the walk!

Day 2: Holne to Drewsteignton (40 km) A Day of Tin,Tors and an Unexpected Encounter.

Crowded places, I shunned them as noises too rude
And fled to the silence of sweet solitude.

John Clare

I couldn’t resist a quick sneak around Holne Parish church before I left. From the outside, there is nothing particularly remarkable about the church of St Mary the Virgin, but step inside and everything changes.

Church of St Mary the Virgin, Holne.

The medieval pulpit is simply stunning. Here we can see the foliage that covers, and gorgeously, the leaves rising up the outside of the arch and just at the tip, where we would expect a flower blossoming out, transforming into two lines of foliage that circle around to start again; life recycles, born again.

Beautiful gilding too, gold and silver, the silver now tarnished to black (the dark flat background is painted), with red highlights, and the inside of the arches (the chamfer, the angled bit) have little stencilled yellow flowers. How sweet is that?

The painters, masters of their art, would have created their own paints by grinding up pigment powders from mineral, plant, animal or manufactured sources and mixing them with glue or oil depending on the layer of the paint. There were at least six main layers used, from the grounding, which was the base layer after the sanding, through the primer, gilding, painting, glazing and varnishing, and each layer had one or more coats. Each coat had to dry before applying the next, and this could take weeks or more, especially in damp Devon.

One of the  church’s ‘miracles’ is the rood screen, I call it a miracle because despite Henry VIII’s attempts to purge all religious icons and the later attempts of Cromwell’s Levellers it survived.  The screen is thought to have been constructed and decorated sometime between 1480 and 1500. Along the top of the screen are many fine carvings of wheat, grapes which represent the Holy Communion bread and wine, and birds. All along the wainscot are 38 panels, each depicting a saint with two other panels on the chancel gates showing Christ and the Virgin Mary.

Rood Screen

The right hand panel of the rood screen is particularly fascinating. Here we have, from the left, St Roche who looked after plague victims and whose dog looked after him when he got the plague himself; he is the patron saint of the sick, the plagued and second-hand dealers, which seems to be a slightly arguable connection. I know of some very nice second-hand dealers…

Next is St Margaret who was swallowed by a dragon after many torments only to emerge from its stomach, as seen here, and now the patron saint of childbirth.

Last is St Bavon, who repented after 50 years of dissipation (we should be so lucky) and ended up a hermit. Often shown holding a falcon, as here…

The Two Moors Way bypasses Widecombe-in-the-Moor but by the time I reached the village it was mid morning and I’d already exhausted my water supplies. It seemed a good idea to make a short detour, make a pit stop and rehydrate.v

I’ve been to Widecombe countless times over the years but for some reason I’ve never paid much attention to the parish church which is dedicated to Saint Pancras. Other than St Pancras Station in London I don’t think I’ve ever come across St Pancras before! Apparently Pancras was a Roman citizen who converted to Christianity, and was beheaded for his faith at the age of fourteen, around the year 304. His name is Greek and means “the one that holds everything”.

Church of St Pancras, Widecombe-in-the-moor

The walk along the ridge of Hamel Down towards Grimspound must be one of my favourite on Dartmoor. On a clear the panoramic views are breathtaking. You feel on top of the world, best described as the “Thin Places” – somewhere one can walk in two worlds , where the worlds are fused together, knitted loosely where the differences can be discerned or tightly where the two worlds become one. When I was living at Chudleigh, many was the time when I would drive up and park my car at Widecombe-in-the Moor and then embark on a 25-30 mile walk across the moor, starting off along Hamel Down towards Gidleigh.

Hamel Down

I hadn’t been walking on Hamel Down more than 15 minutes or so, when one of those strange things occurs which makes you wonder whether ‘there’s a maker shapes our ends, rough hew them how we will.” In the distance I could see four people walking in a group along the ridge towards me. One appeared to be wearing a tweed cap but it was the larger man on the left of the group that caught my attention. There was something oddly familiar about his gait….

As I approached the group I could hardly believe my eyes – it was two close university friends from Wiltshire with a couple of their friends out for a walk on Dartmoor. They were also astounded at meeting me in such an unlikely setting. It seemed like a strange kind of synchronicity had drawn us together!

Emma & Gerald on Hamel Down

Just beyond Hamel Down Tor lies Grimspound. It has been estimated that some 2,000 prehistoric sites can be found on Dartmoor. Of these, the most impressive is the Late Bronze Age (1450 -700 BC) settlement of Grimspound. Apparently this eerie setting was the model for the prehistoric hut in which Sherlock Holmes spent the night in The Hound of the Baskervilles.

A massive stone wall, some 9 feet thick, encompasses a 4-acre site containing 24 circular huts. Eighteen of these huts were excavated in the late 19th century, and 13 of these were found to have evidence of human habitation. A good guess is that the other huts were used for animals or storage.

The huts are an average of 10 feet in diameter, and the walls would have risen to a height of 3-4 feet and been topped with branches and turf. The hut entrances are oriented towards the south. It seems likely that the perimeter wall, though very thick, was intended as an animal barrier, and was not used for defensive purposes.

We do not know precisely how long Grimspound was in use, but by about 1200 BC the settlement pattern was changing. The thin moorland soils appear to have deteriorated very quickly and it also seems that there was a change in the climate. Heavy rainfall reduced the fertility of the Dartmoor soil, so that it could not sustain the same level of occupation

Descending from Hamel Down past Headland Warren Farm (a 19th century farm where rabbits were bred to supply miners at the nearby Vitifer, , Birch Tor and Golden Dagger mines) I made my way to the Warren House Inn for another quick pit stop.

The Warren House Inn is a Dartmoor institution. At 1,425 feet (434 m) above sea level it is the highest pub in southern England. Located on an ancient road across the moor, it has been a stopping point for travellers since the middle of the 18th century.

The Inn is the subject of much folklore – probably exaggerated over the generations. For example, one traveller is said to have stayed there overnight and found a body in a chest in his room. When he mentioned this to the landlord, he was told: “’tis only fayther! … the snaw being so thick, and making the roads so cledgey-like, when old fayther died, two weeks agon, we couldn’t carry un to Tavistock to bury un; and so mother put un in the old box, and salted un in…”

Warren House Inn

Another relates to a visitor who was persuaded to buy a flock of sheep, after consuming copious quantities of cider. The following morning he discovered that the “flock” that he’d been shown by the locals that night was actually the prehistoric stone circles circles of Grey Wethers. The fire in the hearth, it is rumoured, has never been allowed to go out and has itself become part of the folklore of the inn. It is said that when the inn was rebuilt, the glowing embers of the fire were carried across the road on a shovel to the new hearth.

The last time I visited the Warren House Inn was back in 2019. It seems like an age ago! So much has happened over the ensuing three years. I came here with a my Belgian friend Claude and my godson Georges (aged 10) to introduce him to the joys of wild camping on Dartmoor. We camped in the valley near the site of the Golden Dagger Tin Mine. Without doubt the highlight of our brief stay was being rudely woken early the next morning by the sound of animals sniffing outside our tents. It turned out to be a pack of fox hounds who were out cub hunting and had been attracted by the pungent odour of the remains of our previous evening’s supper – spicy Korean Shin Ramyon!

Wild camping with Georges

The Golden Dagger Tin mine was the last working tin mine on Dartmoor. Tin mining was first documented here in 1809 and the mine was particularly active from 1835 to 1860. However, it was not until the 1850s that the mine became known as Golden Dagger Tin Mine. By 1892 the mine employed 41 people. Underground production ceased at the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

The mine was the scene of a tragic accident in February 1882. Working conditions in the mine were cold, wet , cramped and dangerous and many of the workers were employed on a ‘tribute’ or piece-work arrangement which meant that the quicker they worked the more they earned. This could lead to costly mistakes if corners were cut to save time and earn more money. One of these mistakes proved fatal in February 1882 during the blasting of the rock with gunpowder which led to a miner called Richard Stephens having half his face blown off. It was reported that “his head was opened up so that his brains were exposed and eyes shockingly injured.”

It was clear that the miner needed urgent medical attention and so a man was dispatched to Moretonhampstead to summon a doctor. Three doctors were called upon and all refused to attend the patient. One doctor was expecting two women to give birth and another was expecting one birth but stated that either way he would not attend until his fee had been paid. The doctor at Chagford was also summoned but for what ever reason he didn’t show up. Sadly Richard Stephens died from his injuries and three days later the inquest was held with the coroner delivering a verdict of Accidental Death.

Castle Drogo

Just before reaching Drewsteignton, perched high on an escarpment above the Teign stands Castle Drogo which has the dubious distinction of being the lasty castle to have been built in England. In 1910 Julius Drew commissioned Henry Lutyens to design a granite castle for him in what he claimed was the birthplace of his ancestors. Drew had made his fortune by importing tea from Inia cheaply for his growing chain of Home & Colonial Stores. In the process he turned tea into a drink for the masses and himself into a multi millionaire! He retired at the age of 33 and indulged in his passion of tracing his ancestry. A genealogist produced a pedigree which purported to show his descent from Dru, one of William the Conqueror’s barons. A descendant of Dru, Drogo de Teign, founded Drewsteignton in the 12th century. Drew changed his name to Drewe and moved into the completed castle in 1927. Tragically he only enjoyed the fruits of his labour for 4 years before his death in 1931. He never truly recovered from the shock of losing his eldest son, Adrian Hendicott Drewe, who died during the First World War on the front line in 1917 from overwhelming intake of mustard gas in Ypres, alongside 80-100 men (approx) from his platoon.

Julius Drewe

At around 7pm I finally made it to the Three Hares Campsite on a farm about 20 minutes from Drewsteigton. It was low key (no more than 6-7 other groups there) with excellent facilities, a lovely couple running the campsite and a pair of friendly geese called Goosey and Gander. Best of all though, it had an electric socket to recharge my phone which mercifully spared me a 40 min walk to the pub and back at Drewsteignton. Happiness is ultimately based on the simpler things in life – a tent which doesn’t leak, blister free feet and a fully recharged phone!

Day 1: Carswell Farm to Holne (41 km) West Country Tales of the Unexpected from the South Hams

I have wandered over Europe, have rambled to Iceland, climbed the Alps, been for some years lodged among the marshes of Essex – yet nothing that I have seen has quenched in me the longing after the fresh air, and love of the wild scenery, of Dartmoor.

The Rev Sabine Baring-Gould – A Book of Dartmoor

Geoff outside Carswell Farm

There can be few more idyllic spots to begin a 112 mile coast to coast walk than Carswell Farm in the South Hams. As luck would have it, Geoff Sayers, the owner of the Carswell Group, happens to be an old friend from my time working in South Korea for SG Warburg in the early 1990s. Back then he was feeding my Korean stock recommendations to hungry high powered fund managers based in Hong Kong like Jacob Rees-Mogg. Nowadays he is focussed on bringing up his young family on the family farm and managing his burgeoning business interests across Devon, Cornwall and Somerset which range from organic dairy farms, to luxury holiday cottages and also a stunning wedding venue! (www.carswellgroup.com)

As well as having the opportunity to catch up with Geoff and Zoe, starting my coast to coast walk from Carswell rather than Wembury, helped shave 14 km from my first day’s walk and reduce the distance to Holne from 55 km to a rather more manageable 41 km!

Setting off from Carswell Farm

Fortified with a piece of toast and marmalade and a cup of tea, at shortly past 6.30am we headed off towards Holbeton where I hoped to rejoin The Two Moors Way.

Carswell Farm

The walk along the coast from Carswell towards Mothercombe beach was spectacular. There can’t be many more beautiful places to farm in the UK I thought to myself.

En route to Mothercombe beach

Appearances can be deceptive. On the surface Holbeton seems like a another sleepy village in the South Hams. However, according to Geoff, film nights in the village hall regularly draw more than 100 which suggests an enviable level of community spirit.

Holbeton in the South Hams

Holbeton’s village pub, “The Mildmay Colours”, is named after Anthony Bingham Mildmay, the 2nd Baron Mildmay of Flete, who twice came agonisingly close to winning the Aintree Grand National. In 1936 he was leading in the Grand National at the 2nd last fence on the 100/1 shot Davy Jones when the buckle of the reins broke and the horse ran out. 12 years later in 1948, when riding Cromwell in The Grand National, Lord Mildmay suffered from a severe attack of cramp from a persistent neck injury which prevented him from assisting Cromewell in the closing stages of the race. He consequently ended up finishing third. In 1950, Lord Mildmay suffered an attack of cramp while swimming off the south Devon coast and tragically drowned at the age of 41. He was unmarried and the Mildmay title became extinct.

The Hon Anthony Mildmay on ‘Davy Jones’ by Sir Alfred Munnings

Rejoining the Two Moors Way just east of Flete Wood, the path crossed the busy A379 at Hollowcombe Cross and then meandered along the banks of the Erme River to Ermington. The village which was founded sometime around the 8th century, appears in the Domesday Book and even has a town named after it in Australia after Major Edmund Lockyer, who emigrated from Devon in the early 19th century and on Christmas Day 1826 established the first British penal colony in Western Australia. The settlement party comprised of 23 convicts – mostly tradesman, 18 rank & file soldiers, a sergeant, a captain, a surgeon, a storekeeper and the commander Major Edmund Lockyer, with stores for six months (including sheep and pigs)!

Major Edmund Lockyer, who lived in Ermington, Devon.

However, undoubtedly the most famous feature of Ermington is its crooked spire which sits atop the parish church of St Peter and St Paul. Legend has it that the spire was once straight. However, one day, a beautiful bride arrived at the church and the church bent forward for her. It’s thought that the timbers were still slightly damp when the spire was constructed, meaning that once they settled and dried, they buckled and bent.

Crooked spire of St Pauls, Ermington

At Ivybridge I stopped for a quick sandwich before heading onto Dartmoor up Butterdon Hill in search of Hangershell Rock. Heading up out of Ivybridge I followed the track that used to be the Red Lake Tramway – a railway line that was opened in 1910 to exploit the deposits of china clay in the area.

Some of the world’s most significant deposits of china clay are located in Devon and Cornwall and they are known as primary deposits, because the clay is found at the site where it was formed.  

When china clay, or kaolin, was discovered in England, it was realised that it was of a much finer quality than found elsewhere in Europe. William Cookworthy from Kingsbridge in Devon made the discovery in Cornwall in 1746. He experimented with various samples and in 1768 he took out a patent to use the material, soon producing items at his Plymouth Porcelain Factory.

In the early 19th century it was discovered that china clay, which is a result of the alteration of the feldspar in granite in certain conditions, could be a useful additive in the manufacture of paper. It improved whiteness, increased the weight and gave a better printing surface. It was also much cheaper than cellulose. In addition, it could be used in textiles and added to cheap cotton goods. By 1900 the clay industry was a booming business.

The opening of the Redlake Tramway 11 September 1911.

The opening of the Redlake Tramway in 1911 was nothing if not controversial. In 1905, two Plymothians, R. H. Payne, an estate agent and surveyor from Devonport, and Charles Cottier, a solicitor and property developer, conducted a survey on the Southern moor (Dartmoor) to identify the location of any clay deposits which were sufficient to support a mining operation. They found large deposits around Redlake Brook which was thought capable of producing a total of 2,250,000 tons at an annual extraction rate of 45,000 tons. This would realise an estimated value of £3,150,000, an enormous sum at the time

However, the news of the planned new clay works caused uproar, with ‘every local interest joined itself to the opposition with Landowners, District Council and Mill owners united to protest’ (Western Daily Mercury 1906).

John Allen Jnr, owner of Stowford Paper Mill, was the driving force behind this, bombarding the local press with protest letters, written anonymously, apparently claiming to have the right of disposing of the whole of the water of the Erme whilst, at the same time, discharging ‘such polluted liquor from the works as to have practically destroyed the fishing in the lower reaches of the Erme’. He complained to the Duchy of Cornwall, owners of the mineral rights but a lease enabling further surveying was granted in 1909.

In 1910 the newly formed China Clay Corporation Ltd, with headquarters in Ivybridge, built a single track, three-foot gauge, railway running eight miles from the drying sheds at Cantrell to the pits at Redlake, with a rise of over a thousand feet. The railway opened on 11th September 1911 but it was not until the end of 1913 that the works were completed and ready to commence production. However, only twenty years after opening, the deposits were exhausted, the China Clay Corporation was liquidated and the railway tracks were removed.

Track heading towards Hangershell Rock

As I walked along the old Redlake Tramway, I couldn’t help remembering a comment that Geoff hade made to me some 15 years ago when he met up with me after I’d completed a series of long walks across Dartmoor. ” But, Joe, what do you think about when you are spending all those hours up on the moors?” he asked me. ” I think it would drive me nuts!”

I replied that it was impossible to get bored when out walking because the whole experience is one of sensory overload. There is simply so much to take in and enjoy out walking, be it the ever changing weather, the vast panoramic landscapes, the flora and fauna and the footprint of history embedded in every quadrant of the ordnance survey map you are following. But there is also something else – the silence and peace up on the moors enables one to transcend everyday worries and surrender one’s senses to the ‘here and now’. Walking meditation.

Thirsty cattle on the moor.

There is something reminiscent of a Henry Moore sculpture about Hangershell Rock (where I stopped for lunch) – massive slabs of granite thrown together by primaeval forces. The doyen of Dartmoor, the 19th century curate, Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, remarked that “the granite of Dartmoor is far from homogenous, comprising many disparate materials : hornblende, feldspar, quartz, mica and schorl. Sometimes the mica is black, at other times it is white. Some granite on Dartmoor is red, pink, pure white and even greenish! He believed that at some period during the Glacial Age, there was a wash of water from the north-west over Devon, depositing clay and transporting granite.” Even by the standards of the time, the Rev Sabine-Gould was a remarkable individual. In between working as a country parson on the edge of Dartmoor for 40 odd years, he found the time to manage a 3,000 acre family estate, father 15 children and publish more than 1,400 works of literature, folk lore, archaeology and hagiography as well as being a prolific composer of folk songs and hymns, the most famous of which is “Onward Christian Soldiers”.

Hangershell Rock

The Rock overlooks one of the most archeologically fascinating areas on Dartmoor. Harford Moor has been used by prehistoric settlers to construct massive cairns, stone rows and cists, all of which lie a stone’s throw from here. The stone row between Butterdon Hill and Piles Hill, about 150 metres away to the east, is the second longest of its kind on Dartmoor.

Some way beyond Butterdon Hill I took a wrong turning. I retraced my steps, rejoined the Two Moors Way and headed towards a couple of walkers with large rucksacks on the horizon. I eventually caught up with them and got chatting. They were a German father and son on holiday from Cologne and they hadn’t got much of a clue about where they were! The strange thing was, they didn’t seem particularly bothered. ‘ Ve vill find somewhere to camp on the moor. Maybe tomorrow be vill find some shops to buy some food”. They thought they were on The Two Moors Way but I had my doubts. After a mile or so, I decided to do a U turn and head back where I’d come from. It was time to download the All Tails App and find out where I was on Dartmoor!

After I’d successfully refound the correct route, I passed Huntingdon Cross, on the edge of Huntingdon Warren, a giant rabbit farming enclosure which provided meat and fur from about 1800 to 1930. Rabbits don’t burrow into boggy ground so shallow trenches were cut and covered by stones with soil and turf on top, with drainage ditches built around the perimeter. During the early 19th century the warren was worked by a man called Thomas Michelmore, his son and a grandson. They lived in the Warren house on the edge of Huntingdon Warren – lovely in the height of summer but no fun in bleak midwinter. You would have to have been as hard as nails to have lived the life of a rabbit warrener up here!

Huntingdon Cross

I descended from the moor towards Scoriton and headed towards my destination for the evening, Higher Michelmore Farm near Holne. Ok I admit it wasn’t exactly ‘wild camping but it was close to a pub that was open in Scoriton where I could recharge my phone, post my blog and grab a couple of pints of diet coke!

Before heading off to the pub at Scoriton, ut time to try out my new piece of kit – my Jet Boil Flash stove. I’m glad to report that it more than lived up to its billing. Water was boiled in under 5 minutes and pasta carbonara contentedly consumed.

Evening meal

I probably ended up walking around 45 km – by the end of the day my muscles were telling me that I might have overdone it a bit! One thing is for sure – I’ll sleep well tonight!

And so to bed!

The clock is ticking

Via Francigena

The clock is ticking and there are now less than 3 weeks left before I set off from St Peter’s Winterbourne Stoke to St Peter’s Rome on a 1,600 mile journey into the unknown to help raise funds to repair the leaking roof at St Peter’s Church, of which I am the Treasurer. The walk will take me via Salisbury to Winchester along the Clarendon Way, thence to Canterbury along the Pilgrims’ Way and across Europe to Rome along the Via Francigena, an ancient pilgrim route that has been in use by English pilgrims to Rome since the Dark Ages. It is an exciting prospect, but also, if I’m to be totally honest, a rather daunting one!

So why am I embarking on this slightly bonkers venture? I am 57, have never walked more than 300 miles in one go in my life, and my training over the last 6 months for the journey ahead has comprised nothing more strenuous than a bit of light gardening and a couple of daily dog walks! It is hardly the sort of training regime that would set Bear Grylls’ pulse racing!

Medieval pilgrim

The simple answer to that question is that St Peter’s Church needs some urgent repairs to its roof and we currently don’t have sufficient funds in the kitty to afford them! Parts of the roof leak, and although it is probably not in danger of imminent collapse, without urgent attention, the condition of the roof is only likely to deteriorate further. Hence the decision to set up the Raise the Roof Appeal and embark on a 1,600 mile charity walk.

So why go to all the effort of raising funds for St Peter’s? Well, apart from having been married in the church to Olivia in 2015 and living adjacent to the church, there is the little matter of history, a subject dear to my heart. So let’s delve a little deeper into the history of St Peter’s Church and help explain why I am going to the extreme lengths of trying to raise the funds necessary to keep it open as a place for regular worship, weddings, christenings and funerals and as a communal hub for a range of village activities for young and old.

St Peter’s is a Norman church whose origins predate the Norman Conquest in 1066. Mentioned in the Domesday Book, when it was held by King William, in 1066 St Peter’s was held by Queen Edith. She was the wife of King Edward the Confessor and sister to the last Anglo Saxon monarch – King Harold., who famously died at the Battle of Hastings with an arrow through his eye. Some historians believe may that it was Queen Edith who may have created the Bayeux Tapestry. So St Peter’s has royal connections!

Queen Edith

According to the Domesday Book, in 1086 the population of Winterbourne Stoke (or Wintreburn as it is called) totalled 50 individuals comprising 15 villagers, 15 small holders, 11 slaves and 5 freedmen.

Winterbourne Stoke in the Domesday Book

Although little survives of the original Norman structure of the church, St Peter’s can boast an impressive  and distinctive 12th century Norman doorway which gives some idea of the importance of the church during that period. 

In 1825 the church featured in William Cobbett’s ‘Rural Rides‘ when it was described as ‘ a church sufficient to contain two or three thousand people’ . This was probably a printer’s error with two to three hundred people being a more accurate figure for the congregation at that time! In 1851 two services were usually held each Sunday in summer, one each Sunday for the rest of the year: in summer the morning congregation totalled around 110 adults, the afternoon one around 150 and  around 70 children attended Sunday school.

Sadly, like many small rural churches, congregation numbers at St Peter’s have dwindled steadily over the last 200 years since William Cobbett’s day and nowadays services are limited to once a month. But the church is still used regularly for ‘hatches, matches and dispatches’ and plans are afoot to develop it into a communal hub so the village can use it for a range of communal activities. Hopefully my walk to Rome will provide the spark of ignite fund raising activities and ensure that St Peter’s can remain open for regular worship for many more years to come. As an old Chinese proverb goes, ‘the journey of a thousand leagues begins with a single step’.

St Peter’s Winterbourne Stoke

Day 3: Winchester to Alton (34 km) Divine Providence

There’s a divinity that shapes our ends

Rough hew them how we will’

Hamlet Act 5 Scene 2

As I embark on the first stage of the Pilgrims Way from Winchester to Alton, here are a few more thoughts about that ‘mysterious’ incident that occurred a few weeks ago that I referred to in a previous blog and whose significance initially eluded me.

It was a Saturday morning and as I was doing some weeding in our garden near the church yard, I heard a bit of a commotion. A chap ,staying at the campsite, had found a wounded bird in the church yard and was debating with his young son as to what was to be done.

Peregrine Falcon

It turned out that the bird was a young peregrine falcon which had been wounded and was bleeding from the mouth. As Olivia examined it, she noticed that it had a ring on one of its feet which said ‘If found, please notify the British Museum’.

Bizarre. We did eventually manage to get the falcon to the Hawk Conservancy Trust at Andover but for some reason the bird remained on my mind. A few weeks later I got an alert on my Facebook page that there was a special exhibition at the British Museum commemorating the 850th anniversary of the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170, whose shrine at Canterbury I would shortly be walking to along the Pilgrims’ Way. Peregrine (as in peregrine falcon) means pilgrim in Latin. Strange coincidence? Divine Providence? Who knows, but it sometimes makes you think that there are signs in nature that are worth observing and that the chances of a ‘pilgrim’ falcon from the British Museum landing by chance in the churchyard at Winterbourne Stoke are pretty darned slim!

Becket ‘Miracle Wndow’ at Canterbury Cathedral

I had a fantastic view of the Cathedral as I sat eating breakfast this morning in the Mercure Wessex, which was a definite upgrade on the White Hill Campsite at Pitton. Although there were no spicy korean noodles on the breakfast menu, the ‘Full English’ was a more than adequate substitute!

The ‘Full’ English!

I think the last time I was in the Wessex was when my parents brought me here nearly 40 years for Sunday lunch from WinColl to celebrate my 18th birthday!

View of Winchester Cathedral from the Mercure Wessex as I ate breakfast

Having collected my pilgrim passport from the Cathedral I couldn’t resist quickly dropping in to the church of St Swithun-upon-Kingsgate, a place I must have passed on countless occasions over the years but, until today, have never visited. The church forms part of the original city walls and is dedicated to St Swithun, whose tomb is in the Cathedral.

Church of St Swithun-upon-Kingsgate

Swithun was a 9th century bishop of Winchester who legend has it, requested his body be buried outside. However, roughly a hundred years after his death, the decision was taken to move his remains into the Cathedral on the 15th July 971. On that day there was a torrential downpour, signifying the Saint’s displeasure at his remains being moved. Thus the legend was born that if it rains on July 15 (St Swithun’s Day) forty days of rain will follow.

St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain

For forty days it will remain

St Swithun’s day if thou be fair

For forty days ’twill rain nae mair

Saint Swithun

Heading out of Winchester my second stop of the day was the church of St Swithun at Headbourne Worthy, where some scholars believe St Swithun was born.

St Swithun’s Church, Headbourne Worthy

No sooner had I entered the church, than a sonorous voice welcomed me from within. Intrigued, I ventured up the aisle and made the acquaintance of the Revd Paul Bradish ( the Rector) and the Revd Jemima Lewis, his curate. It almost seemed as if they had been expecting my arrival. I explained my pilgrimage to Rome and they kindly formed a huddle and prayed for my safe passage to Rome. It was a very unexpected and touching moment.

Revd Paul Bradish and Revd Jemima Lewis

Following St Swithun’s Way, which at times morphed into the Watercress Way, the Itchen Way and the Pilgrims Way, was at times confusing, not helped by the plethora of signs which didn’t always correspond with the route shown in my guidebook! The end result was that I went ‘off piste’ on several occasions during the morning. Thankfully none of the diversions proved too costly.

A plethora of footpaths run through Itchen valley.

I did have one slightly hairy moment during the late afternoon when my map reading skills went pear shaped. I’d used up my monthly data allowance and couldn’t access any GPS data on my phone. As a result I ended up on the side of the busy A31 dual carriageway, wondering whether it was worth taking the risk of walking along its narrow grass verge to my final destination for the day at Alton. Thankfully I was dissuaded from executing this rather reckless plan by a lady I met who was out walking her dog. She was mildly horrified when I outlined my plan to walk along the A31 and suggested that I take a 4 mile detour through Chawton Park woods that would keep me out of harm’s way. It proved to be eminently sensible advice which I followed to the T, and helped take me safely into Alton. Sadly, my unplanned detour through Chawton Park woods meant that I wasn’t able to visit Jane Austen’s house at Chawton, just outside Alton.

I was able to plot my course for much of the morning with the help of a compass and a sight of line to the River Itchen, whose gin clear waters I followed towards Alresford.

River Itchen near Alresford

Walking along its banks and watching the reeds gently swaying in the current, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Pre-Raphaelite image of Ophelia lying drowned in the river – a strangely uplifting image of death. In the painting, Ophelia is surrounded by colorful flowers and plants, symbols of life and continuity, and her body seems to be one with the water, perhaps signifying the concept of returning to the earth when one dies. Earth to earth, dust to dust.

Ophelia – John Everett Millais

After a brief lunch stop in Alresford, I decided to drop in to the pilgrim church at Bishop’s Sutton, which my guidebook suggested might have a pilgrim stamp for my passport. Sure enough there was indeed a Pilgrim stamp and what is more there was a tin beside it on the table, marked ‘For Pilgrims’. Intrigued, I gently praised it open. And what was inside. Miracle of miracles, the answer to my prayers – Club chocolate biscuits. It was a day of Divine Providence!

On the surface, the small village of Ropley which I passed through, has all the attributes of rural perfection. Rose bedecked thatched cottages line the main street, road noise is inaudible and there is an all pervasive atmosphere of bucolic tranquillity.

But all is not as it seems, and in the last few years the village has been the scene of a double tragedy. In 2002 Ropley hit the tabloid headlines following the brutal murder of a wealthy widow and her daughter, who were discovered brutally bludgeoned to death in their million pound mansion in the village. A 25 year old man subsequently turned himself in to the police and confessed to the horrific murder. As one local resident succinctly put it ” You might expect this in Birmingham or Manchester, but in a sedate residential place like Ropley, with its up-market appeal, you don’t expect this to happen.”

The murderer, who was the grandson of the deceased, was an Old Etonian professional golfer who was being treated on anti-depressants. During his subsequent trial the court heard that Christopher Francis, had seemed “quite normal” when making dinner at his parents’ home only minutes earlier.

After saying he was popping out to buy a bag of rice, Francis drove the short distance to his grandmother’s £1.5 million Victorian home, Wykeham House in Ropley, Hampshire.

There he launched a ferocious attack on the two women, Elizabeth Francis, 84, and her 54-year-old daughter, Teresa, using a house brick and one of his grandmother’s kitchen knives. Then he returned to his car and drove 20 miles to a police station in Southampton where, covered in blood, he announced to officers: “I have just killed two people.”

In 2014 tragedy struck Ropley once again this time in the guise of a massive blaze which gutted the Norman church of St Peter’s , destroying it’s roof and bell tower

Fire at St Peter’s Ropley.

The good news is that, thanks to a major fundraising effort, the Friends of St Peter’s Ropley have raised £500,000 and the church is being completely restored. It gives me hope that we’ll be ultimately successful in our attempts to raise £20,000 and repair the church roof at St Peter’s, Winterbourne Stoke.

Restoration work at St Peter’s Ropley.

I did have one slightly hairy moment during the late afternoon when my map reading skills went pear shaped. I’d foolishly used up my monthly data allowance and couldn’t access any GPS data on my phone. As a result I ended up on the side of the busy A31 dual carriageway, wondering whether it was worth taking the risk of walking along its narrow grass verge to my final destination for the day at Alton. Thankfully I was dissuaded from executing this rather reckless plan by a lady I met who was out walking her dog. She was mildly horrified when I outlined my plan to walk along the A31 and suggested that I take a 4 mile detour through Chawton Park woods that would keep me out of harm’s way. It proved to be eminently sensible advice which I followed to the T, and helped take me safely into Alton. Sadly, my unplanned detour through Chawton Park woods meant that I wasn’t able to visit Jane Austen’s house at Chawton, just outside Alton.

Jane Austen’s house at Chawton

I eventually made it to Alton and, after some confusion on arrival (I wasn’t booked in to stay the night at the Alton House Hotel!), checked in to my room for the night. With its peeling wallpaper and decrepit bathroom fittings, my room looked as though it could benefit from a serious amount of money being spent on it! But at least it was quiet, clean, conveniently located and, most importantly, there was hot water in the bath at the end of a long day’s walk.

As I hit the sack for the night I reflected on my day’s walk; the unexpected prayers for my safe passage at Headbourne Worthy, manna from heaven in the shape of Club biscuits in a tin at the church at Bishop’s Sutton. Perhaps they were linked to the mysterious Peregrine Falcon which appeared in the churchyard of St Peter’s, Winterbourne Stoke. A case of Divine Providence? Maybe The Age of Miracles is still with us after all!

Safe arrival at Alton – famous for its watercress.

Kit list – keeping it light

Fully assembled kit

Ok this blog post is a bit geeky – it’s about what kit I’m taking with me and what I’m leaving behind. I’m indebted to two people for most of the ideas that follow: Brian Franklin, who lives in the next village (Shrewton), is a veteran of many long distance pilgrimages and is about to set off from Canterbury to Lausanne having completed the Via Francigena from Lausanne to Rome last year. The other is, author and journalist, Harry Bucknall, who completed the Via Francigena in 2012.

Jonathan ‘kitted up’

Boots: Meindl Respond Mid GTX. Lightweight, goretex with some ankle support

Boot liners: Boots active gel

Sandals: Birkenstock Eva (150g)

Socks: Injinji toe sock liner + hiker × 2

Hiking shorts: Karpos Rock Bermuda

Hiking Trousers: Rohan stretch bags (250g)

Briefs: EDZ Merino ×2

T shirt × 2 inc 1 long sleeved (Rohan Trail shirt (235g)

Outer shell: Mountain Equipment Paclite Garwhal jacket (345g)

Leggings: Berghaus Paclite (265g)

Inner layer: Uniqlo ultralite jacket (235g)

Sleeping bag: Alpkit Cloud Cover (450g)

Sleeping bag liner: Eurohike silk (109g)

Sunhat: Jack Wolfskin (85g)

Travel towel: Lifeventure Hydro Fibre ultralite (98g)

35l dry bag: (70g)

10l compression bag: (80g)

Map case: Ortlieb

Rucksack: 40l Atompack Mo (800g)

Savon de Marseille olive oil soap (150g)

Wash kit + medical kit: (250g)

Pen knife: 15 blade Mountain Warehouse (130g)

Camera: Canon G16 with 10x zoom + charger (500g)

Washing line + safety pins (35g)

Phone charger + spare battery pack (150g) + solar battery recharger (140g)

Travel plug adapter (35g)

Waterbottles: 2 x SIGG 1l (2.2kg)

Tent: Terranova Laser Competition 1 (1.1kg)

Sleeping mat: Thermarest Neo Air Xlite (350g)

Lowe Alpine fanny pack


Travel bath plug (10g)

Locstop storage bags × 3

Pilgrim staff/thumb stick

2 x iron keys of St Peter (85g)

Maps/guidebooks: OS/IGN/Kummerly Frei + GR145 Topoguide Canterbury to Reims (in French)


The above kit totals 8kg (including 2.2kg/2 litres of water). I plan to post the maps to poste restante addresses in France and periodically post maps, which I have used, back to the UK.

I debated long and hard about whether to take a tent and sleeping mat. In the end I decided that the extra weight (1.5kg) was worth the peace of mind and flexibility for the French section of the Via Francigena particularly with the ongoing Covid 19 situation. I only plan to use the tent ‘in extremis’ when no other accommodation options are available!

I’ll also be using the TopoGPS app, the VF and Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome(CFPTR) apps, IGNrando app and Canon camera connect app to transfer photos taken with my camera to my phone/upload to my blog. I plan to transpose information on accommodation locations from the Lightfoot/VF and CFPTR data sheets onto the maps.

Why am I taking maps (and a compass!) rather than just using a GPS app? Call me a technological dinosaur,but I prefer looking at larger scale hard copy maps with topography details rather than at a mapping app on my phone.

My focus is on travelling as light as I can and reducing the risk of injury and blisters!

History of the Via Francigena

People have been making pilgrimages to Rome since the fourth century when , with the Edict of Milan in AD313, the Roman Empire became Christian, unleashing a veritable flood of pilgrims anxious to visit the tombs of Saints Peter and Paul in the city. These early pilgrims were aided in their undertaking by the well-maintained infrastructure of Roman roads and the network of mansiones (inns for travellers) at intervals along the way, as well as by the frequent termae (Roman baths) to be found in many places along the route.

Gradually, however, the numbers of pilgrims swelled to such an extent that the existing accommodation no longer sufficed, and as early as the fifth century, dedicated pilgrim ‘hospitals’ (places where hospitality was offered to travellers, both the sick and the well) began to be built. These early pilgrims had no linguistic abilities, as they were able to convey their needs in Latin (a language spoken only by clerics). As early as the ninth century, phrase books appeared, with the most important everyday vocabulary provided in the languages of the countries or areas the pilgrims would pass through.

Pilgrims along the Via Francigena. 12th-century bas relief from the Duomo di San Donnino, Fidenza

However, with the Barbarian invasions of the sixth and seventh centuries, pilgrim life became much more difficult. Roads and bridges ceased to be maintained, inns and other accommodation were not kept up, and in areas no longer under Christian rule pilgrimage became increasingly dangerous, with pilgrims beset by bands of robbers, barbarian invaders and pirates during sea crossings, to say nothing of storms, wild animals, lack of food and sickness, and the pilgrim was not at all sure he would reach his destination, let alone return home in one piece.

All these trials and tribulations are well documented in writings from the sixth century onwards, and many pilgrims wrote accounts of their experiences, recounting the everyday happenings as well as the dangers of the route. One of the earliest of these was the English monk Gildas the Wise, who went to Rome in AD530. The two journeys made by St Wilfred, in 666 and again in 673, are also well documented, while the first ‘tourist guide’ to Rome, the Salzburger Reisebuch, was produced as early as the seventh century and listed all the places a pilgrim should be sure to visit. The Einsiedler Manuskript of AD750 went a step further, providing the pilgrim, in addition, with ten ‘tourist walks’ round the city to take in the principal sights of ancient Rome.

Sigeric and the first guidebook

The first real ‘guidebook’ to the Via Francigena route from Canterbury – and the one which has had the greatest influence on subsequent pilgrim journeys – was made at the instigation of Sigeric ( known as Sigeric the Serious!) Archbishop of Canterbury, when he went to Rome in AD990.

Sigeric’s time as Archbishop coincided with the struggle for control of England between Anglo-Saxons and Danes, which generally meant that the Danes had to be paid off in order to prevent them from causing trouble. There is a record of Sigeric being one of the group of advisers who persuaded King Ethelred to buy off the Danes in 991, and there is also evidence that Sigeric had to take similar action himself in 994 to prevent Canterbury Cathedral from being burned down.

Like all his predecessors, he went to Rome to receive his pallium – a white woollen stole/scarf with six black crosses on it that formed his seal of office – from the Pope.


Sigeric went there with a considerable retinue, in 79 daily stages, spent 3 days in Rome, during which he dined once with the Pope and visited 23 churches, and then set off back home again. On the return journey, he asked his secretary to write up a description of the route, the result of which is a list, in Latin, of those stages and where they spent the night (the manuscript is now in the British Museum)

Manuscript of Sigeric’s journey to Rome in the British Museum

This ‘guidebook’ became the basis for future journeys to Rome made by pilgrims from Britain and places along the way, and fixed what is sometimes referred to as the ‘Sigeric route’, the one which has become known today as the Via Francigena.

Statue of Sigeric the Serious in Glastonbury Abbey

One of the first people to remedy some of the practical difficulties of this route was the Merovingian Queen Brunhilde who, towards the end of the sixth century, organised repairs to the Roman road system in her domain, from the Channel coast down to Therouanne, Arras and beyond. Although it is now a tarred road for the most part, this route still bears the name Chaussee Brunehaut (‘Brunhilde’s Road’ ), and modern pilgrims follow or shadow it for a considerable part of their journey through northern France.