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How I plan a pilgrimage walk

How I work out the route taken medieval pilgrims.

Firstly, my initial research has confirmed that pilgrims walked from A to B; be it a holy place or shrine in medieval times. I often visit the site to see what I can find on the ground. Often I cycle between the two points to get a general feel of the area and see what lies between. Then I do more research into the places along the route - the churches, historical buildings, religious ruins and names on the map.

Wherever possible I use public rights of way and use roads/lanes as a link to the footpaths. I then highlight the route on the map, whilst generally a roughly basic straight line, I do bear in mind the places close to the route, which are more than worthy of including in the route. The majority, I believe, the early pilgrims made a slight detour to include that church, well or significant religious site on their way. A St. Mary church is always a good indicator of being on a pilgrim route. Early maps help to highlight the route and some have “Pilgrim Way” marked on them.

But it is the actual walking that crystallises the route.  For as you walk you observe the places passing through and beside the path that enrich and confirm the route. A wayside cross, pilgrim marks on a church or a medieval painting of St. Christopher - Patron Saint of Travellers - again confirm the route.

Over the centuries the medieval routes and roads are now major tarmaced highways. For instance, many pilgrim routes lay following a Roman Road. These are now major roads and one has to use the nearest  rights of way. For instance the popular medieval London to Chichester Pilgrim route was simply to follow the Roman Road - Stane Street, from London Bridge to Chichester. Today most of it is a major road, and not conducive to pilgrim walking.

Having walked it all on foot, visited all the churches along the route, I then do more research into the places I have seen along the route. This enhances the route, making it more meaningful and correct. I often learn of new information, so I return and see for myself another aspect of the route’s history. For instance on my St. Thomas of Canterbury pilgrimage walk from Bramfield, near Hertford, where he had his first living, via Pilgrim’s Hatch and Brentwood to Tilbury. I kept to paths gently aiming for the pilgrim ferry at Tilbury, from Brentwood. But is doing so I later discovered I had missed the house the pilgrim’s stayed at in Great Warley, before Tilbury. It is still there and known as “Wallets’, as it is believed the pilgrim’s left their wallets there before crossing the Thames. I found no reference to this and it was a local who wrote and informed me.

So it is all a learning curve and I returned and walked to “Wallets” and discovered much more; two St. Mary’s church’s, one had been dismantled and taken to Yorkshire, but the gravestones were stacked up along a wood’s edge! Then you walk into a church and see the village plaque and see scalloped shells and know you are on the right route.

Revd. John N. Merrill - 31/7/2018

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