Pilgrimage is in vogue at the moment. The numbers of pilgrims arriving at Mecca and Santiago de Compostela grow every year. Robert Macfarlane, intellectual pilgrim par excellence, recently published The Old Ways, an inspiring celebration of pilgrim paths around the world. In an article about the growing popularity of pilgrimage he quotes Rowan Williams acclaiming ‘a whole generation of new pilgrims’.
Why is pilgrimage still attractive? The image of the pilgrim with staff and badge is surely a medieval hangover. How can it belong in our high-speed internet world of non-religion, physical comfort and instant gratification? For me it started in 1387. On Wednesday 17 April that year, once darkness had fallen at about 8pm and the gates of the walled City of London were locked, a company of sundry folk sat down together in a Southwark hostelry to eat good food and drink strong wine. The next day the host of the inn led them out of the yard and off on a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral, to pray at the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket. Along the way they told stories. These pilgrims were, of course, the creation of Geoffrey Chaucer, and the stories they told form one of the greatest works of literature in the English language: The Canterbury Tales.
On 17 April 2012, exactly six hundred and twenty-five years after those fictional forebears, I found myself with another compaignye, eating good food and drinking strong wine in a Southwark hostelry. We were a group of modern pilgrims, planning to recreate the Canterbury Tales: walking from London to Canterbury, staying in medieval pilgrim towns, telling Chaucer’s tales along the way and raising money for the National Literacy Trust.
The idea had come from wanting to hear all the stories in one go. The poem only really comes alive when the tales fit together: the stories and their narrators jostle for attention; themes are picked up, twisted and dropped. When the stories are read in isolation the sense of a multi-voiced, rambunctious group can be lost, and so the idea followed to place the tales geographically along the road to Canterbury.
Chaucer’s pilgrims stayed in the Tabard, which was a real inn in Southwark, although it changed its name to the Talbot in 1669 and was sadly demolished in 1873. Just next door, however, the hauntingly atmospheric George still stands. London’s last remaining galleried coaching inn put on a medieval meal for us in a low-ceilinged room overlooking Talbot Yard. Twenty-four of us sat down to become of one another’s felaweshipe, dressed according to the sartorial notes in the General Prologue.
Among the group were teachers, actors, academics, journalists, civil servants, theatre directors and even a trainee doctor of physic. Everyone had a character and was assigned the appropriate tale. As Harry Bailly, the host of the event, I was organising accommodation and vitaille along the route.
We drank ypocras, a medieval spiced wine that had been steeping for several weeks; it tasted like mulled cough medicine and the high nutmeg content gave people hallucinations. The guest of honour was Professor Helen Cooper, the country’s foremost Chaucerian scholar. She addressed the company with a beautifully crafted preface to our walk, bridging the gap expertly between those who knew the poem well and those who were still ‘in outer darkness’.
Inspired by Professor Cooper, and perhaps the nutmeg, we met the next morning below the blue plaque in Talbot Yard at the very spot where Chaucer’s pilgrims would have gathered. As far as we knew, such an exploit had never been attempted before. It was raining, but that seemed appropriate for a poem that opens with April’s shoures soote. Undaunted, we set out with anoraks and sprung walking poles, through the throng of damp commuters, heading south-east out of London on the sixty-five-mile walk to Canterbury.
The first stop was Thomas à Watering, an ancient stream, where Chaucer’s pilgrims drew cuts to select their first storyteller. The Thomas à Watering is now under the Thomas à Becket pub on the Old Kent Road, which is famous for the boxing ring where Henry Cooper fought and trained. Appropriately, the battle-weary Knight was up first and we went inside the historic watering hole to hear his story of the Theban love triangle between Arcite, Palamon and Emily.
The first day was a sixteen-mile trudge out of London, along the bleak Old Kent Road. There were moments of relief, however. Greenwich Park was a welcome break and we stopped for a picnic lunch and the Miller’s Tale, hearing how Absolon kissed Alison’s naked ers ful savourly as we tucked into flapjacks and brownies.
Most of the country between London and Canterbury was thickly forested in the 1380s. Pilgrims would have followed Watling Street, paved by the Romans in a straight line from Dover to London, but Watling Street is now the A2 and mostly very unpleasant walking. Luckily for us the Roman paving had become so dilapidated by the late fourteenth century, and the highway so dangerous, that pilgrims frequently adopted parallel routes. We therefore felt justified in avoiding exhaust fumes whenever we could.
The Reeve told his tale in front of Severndroog Castle in the heart of the ancient Oxleas woodland, and the Cook scratched his ulcerous mormal in Danson Park.
Any walk throws up serendipitous encounters but our unusual endeavour seemed to unlock even more than normal. We were merely passing William Morris’s Red House in Bexleyheath when we got into conversation with the curator and were immediately treated to an impromptu after-hours tour. Morris was obsessed with Chaucer and built the Red House as near the pilgrimage route as he could. His design for the 1896 Kelmscott edition of Chaucer was a masterwork, and references recurred throughout the building. Apparently he even swore in Chaucerian expletives.
Dartford was our first overnight stop. That evening the Wife of Bath disclosed what women love moost. The next morning we crossed the M25 and threw off the last of the London sprawl.
We walked between Kentish villages along field-side paths, and stopped for the Shipman’s Tale in the garden of The Ship pub. One of our most unusual stopping points was the extraordinary Darnley Mausoleum, a huge white-stone pyramid tomb in the heart of Cobham Woods, which appears through the trees as you approach like a mirage. The Prioress told her brutal tale of a murdered schoolboy with the aid of a specially prepared sock puppet, using a zip to kitte his throte.
Shortly afterwards we arrived in Rochester, the Castle and Cathedral looming like monoliths as we bridged the Medway. Chaucer wrote himself into his pilgrimage and that evening we heard his tales. When his character begins a rym dogerel about a knight called Sir Thopas, Chaucer the author, with self-deprecating wit, has the Host cut him off mid-verse: ‘Thy drasty rymyng is nat worth a toord!’ As a palliative, Chaucer then tells the long- winded prose tale of Melibee, which is hardly better.
On Friday morning, after hearing the Monk’s Tale beneath Rochester Castle, we set off along the shore of the Kentish marshes. The path passed right through a massive brood of chickens, which was the only place to hear the story of Chanticleer, the gentil cok. The Nun’s Priest got through the farmyard fable despite a deafening chorus of purling hens, who, growing bolder, began to peck inquisitively at our legs.
Wending past St. Mary’s Newington and over the railway line we heard the Doctor of Physic’s Tale in the car park of a Sittingbourne General Practice and pushed on to Bapchild, where there was once a holy well dedicated to St. Thomas. We looked for the well but it is now a South East Water pump.
Helen Cooper described the Pardoner as ‘perhaps the pilgrim who comes closest to being evil’. He delivered his sinister story in an intimate and atmospheric circle on the grass, with the remains of Tonge Castle motte behind him, doubling as the hill where his three thieves seek Death. The Host condemns the Pardoner at the end of his tale because he has the gall to ask the assembled company for money. In contrast, our real-life sponsors had been extremely generous: we had by then raised over seven thousand pounds for the National Literacy Trust. Of course, we were supporting a charity whereas the Pardoner was pocketing cash for a kiss of his bogus relics.
The third day was the longest walk – twenty-one miles – and the final push to Faversham was tough. After dinner in the Sun Inn the Merchant told the tale of January and May, with a full-cast dumbshow involving cross- dressing, rude balloons and shenanigans behind a sheet.
In the morning we visited Ospringe, next to Faversham, where the Maison Dieu, a medieval wayside hospital, still stands on Watling Street. Pilgrims stopped here in the Middle Ages, and Chaucer himself would almost certainly have stayed there as a senior international diplomat on business to Dover. In these resonant surroundings the Second Nun gave us the life of St. Cecilia.
Leaving Faversham behind we made our way to the village of Boughton under Blean and The White Horse pub, where the pilgrims are overtaken in the poem by a Canon and his Yeoman. The Canon soon disappears when the Yeoman exposes him as a crook and a swindler, and the servant is left behind to tell a tale in his place. We were joined by the Canon’s Yeoman, who told the tale as a news report with a cardboard television over her head.
The end was in sight now. The final day was just twelve miles’ walking. We heard the Manciple’s Tale outside St. Nicholas Harbledown, a medieval leper hospital, and then descended to the main Canterbury road. There we were greeted with a sight that must have stirred pilgrims’ hearts for the last eight hundred years: the cathedral, scene of St. Thomas’s martyrdom, heart of the Church of England, rising shimmering and white from the city.
When Henry II made his pilgrimage of penance to Canterbury in 1174 to atone for the murder of Thomas à Becket he stopped at St. Dunstan’s Church and ‘put of his Shooes and Stockins, and went bare-foot to Beckets Tomb’ (Burton, Wonderful Prodigies, 1685). In memory of the King we also stopped at St. Dunstan’s Church, sat on a low wall and – to the surprise of passers by – eased off our boots, exposing blisters and aching feet to the cool pavement stones. Then we too walked barefoot into Canterbury.
‘Lordynges everichoon,’ says the Host, ‘now lakketh us no tales mo than oon.’ And he invites the Parson to tell the very last story, which we heard beneath the towers of Westgate, on the boundary line of the medieval walled city. The Westgate is a thoroughfare and the Parson gathered a small crowd, accusing the citizens of Canterbury of lechery and foul language.
The final walk down the High Street was momentous. Our feet felt every municipal brick; shoppers parted for us; we bunched together, a barefoot, mud-splattered band of walkers, unused to crowds. We turned left down narrow Mercery Lane and finally, exhausted, perceived the extraordinary Cathedral Gate, with a massive bronze Christ bending to greet us with open palms.
We were borne by Cathedral staff into the precincts – ‘Canon Clare is expecting you’ – and, boots back on, were taken into the Cathedral. We passed through the nave, the size of which was truly awesome after days of paths and hedgerows, and down into an intimate space in the undercroft, where we were welcomed as pilgrims. It had not been a religious pilgrimage but Canon Clare’s prayers of thanks in the Chapel of Our Lady marked its conclusion in an unexpectedly spiritual way.
At dinner in the Pilgrim’s Hotel that night we voted on which tale had had best sentence and moost solace. A hush settled as the results came in. In a dramatic turn of events there was a dead heat between Chaucer and The Knight, who shared the prize.
Our course was almost run but there was one last thing to do. Back in our hotel, on a roof terrace below the glowing flank of the illuminated cathedral, we gathered to hear Chaucer’s Retraction, which concludes both the poem and Chaucer’s career. It was a memorable moment under the stars, very quiet and moving, which brought the project to a still and thoughtful close.
Standing there in the dark, having taken part in something significant, the enduring attraction of pilgrimage was understandable. Meditative passage through a physical landscape allows a reconnection with nature as well as the self. As Will Self puts it, ‘thought [can] unspool from my arachnid mind and silkily entwine with the places I go’. The desire for that experience is as prevalent now as ever. As Rowan Williams says: ‘Place works on the pilgrim … that is what pilgrimage is for.’ Even as an unfinished work, The Canterbury Tales reflects this process of self-discovery.
When we set out from London the enterprise seemed like a literary escapade, infused with the riotous fun and bawdy humour of the first tales. Arriving in Canterbury, however, was sobering, and the poem reflected this in its change of tone. When the Parson tries to preach at one point the Shipman decrees ‘he schal no gospel glosen’. Yet at the end the whole company hears the Parson’s sermon wol gladly, as if realising that their journey has not only been to Canterbury but also towards the Heavenly Jerusalem. One could almost imagine Chaucer deliberately leaving his masterpiece unfinished as an open invitation to future pilgrims and storytellers. I like to think we took up the offer.