It wasn’t my idea to walk to Rome. Last Christmas Eve I was drinking wine and sending greetings to my Camino friends. It’s a long list. When you walk across the wilds of Europe with a stranger, a bond forms which cannot easily be broken. You walk the Camino and something happens to you. And when you share that experience, the bonding is very strong. I hadn’t even reached P, the US management consultant, when he called me from his home in Orange County, California to say Merry Christmas.
I met Paul last year in Condom on Day 32 of the Via Podiensis. We met again a few days later and he joined our happy group of pilgrims as we approached the Pyrenees (Nohan, Francoise, Christophe, Margot, Claude & Marie and Coco who fell out of her bunk in Aire sur l’Adour. And we often met Ferdinand, the pilgrim ghost). By the time we reached St Jean Pied de Port we were a large group and we drank a lot of wine over a couple of days before we went our separate ways. Nohan, Margot and I met the following morning before dawn and set off on the Camino Frances over the Pyrenees, leaving Paul behind for a rest. We met a new set of pilgrims bound for James the Apostle in Compostela. After 3 days we arrived in Pamplona, my destination. I was taking siesta when Nohan woke me up and said Paul had just arrived. He had chased us like a madman through the midday sun so we could have one final meal together. And next day he came with me to the bus station for my bus to Bilbao.
On Christmas Eve, Paul suggested we walk along the Via Francigena from Canterbury to Rome. I said I would walk from my home in Weybridge and would meet him in Canterbury. I live close to the Pilgrims Way which runs from Winchester to Canterbury so it would be daft to miss the opportunity to follow it through the beautiful countryside of south east England. Anyway, every pilgrimage should start from your home. Paul said he would come with me from Weybridge. It was too late to back out.
In past times, the route between London and Rome was a busy one. The Romans built roads to England and we are still using them. Later, the apostles Peter and Paul were martyred and buried in Rome. That might have been the end but in 337 the Roman emperor, Constantine converted to Christianity on his deathbed. Soon, pilgrims were travelling to Rome.
In modern times, people have rediscovered the traditional pilgrimage. The beautiful Camino, with its many pilgrim hostels and cafes, is a popular and rewarding experience. The Via Francigena is a different matter. Few people have the time or inclination to walk the whole way. The route through France and Switzerland is vague and the few pilgrims who make the journey tend to follow in the footsteps of archbishop Sigeric who logged the 79 stages of his trip from Canterbury to Rome in 990. It’s better in Italy where the route is signposted and there is pilgrim accommodation along the way. The majority of pilgrims therefore only walk the Italian section.
However, we will not be the first pilgrims to start our walk to Rome from Weybridge. In 1975, a Jesuit priest called Gerard Hughes made the pilgrimage and wrote a book about the journey. I’m grateful to my neighbour Jane for giving it to me when I returned from Compostela. He was the chaplain at Glasgow university and starts the preface by saying:
“This is a book about two journeys. One, on foot from Weybridge, near London to Rome in the summer of 1975, lasted for ten weeks. The other journey is spiritual, and still continues. It was to find direction in this second journey that I undertook the first.”
It is not clear why he started in Weybridge. He describes taking the train from Glasgow to Weybridge, spending the night with his friends, Mr and Mrs Anderson, and then saying Mass in the morning at St Charles’ Church before setting off on his walk. Being a Jesuit priest, he did not bother to visit Canterbury; instead he marched due south, bound for Newhaven and the ferry to Dieppe. From there, it is a straight line to Vezelay, the final resting place of Mary Magdalene, and on to Italy.
In the next blog I’ll describe our probable route and what I’m packing for the journey. But I’m unsure how you prepare for such a walk.