Reflecting is a vital part of taking a walk. It helps to embed or integrate the walking experiences – where I have been, and what I have learned – in the hope that any changes wrought will last.
Most of all, though, I failed to comprehend that the best things in life aren’t things that are visibly sexy on the surface. They don’t scream for attention, and they rarely invite adrenaline. Rather they come from quiet commitment, respectful engagement, and a love of something greater than yourself.
Before a sitting meditation I start by acknowledging or noting any issues which are bothering me, either to clear my mind, to problem-solve, or create focus. Then I try to simply sit. I have been doing that for years. As a result I sometimes come up with creative ideas, solutions and greater understanding, or at the very least a recognition of patterns of behaviour.
Walking is a kind of meditation and the more I walk, the more I realise it’s the pilgrimage itself which presents the learning – simply by starting, trekking, and getting to the end of it.
I have habits that I try to pretend aren’t there, aren’t really so bad, or that I can’t help. These come to the fore when walking a pilgrimage. It is in the planning and facing of the realities of the land and the practicalities of accommodation and food which bring me face to face with myself.
A cross by the roadside in Spain (Via de la Plata) with an inscription by Pablo Neruda. May 2017
Is walking pilgrimage synonymous with being religious?
I do not follow a recognised religion. I was christened into the Church of England by my parents and had to learn tracts of the bible overnight for reciting in primary school the next day. Joining in assembly every morning at secondary school was obligatory, and I sang and read lessons during services; went on a Sunday School holiday; and spent years in the Girl Guides where Christianity was important.
I was steeped in it – the tenets of it seem to be in my soul (or my cells). Religion provided me with a moral and ethical language at the time when I was learning to speak, and I have discovered that it is hard to shrug off.
I might be on a mission to get rid of the destructive part of what I was taught in those early years: I was encouraged to feel guilty; it was assumed that I had Original Sin; and I was told that I was bad in my core, like every other human being. Perhaps I take ecumenical walks to give myself the time to recognise the impact of this and to let go of such negatives.
Nowadays I visit churches sometimes, and I certainly respect believers, but I do not take communion. I have read widely, listened and discussed with friends, but I cannot follow a Faith which seems to exclude or criticise people for being the way they are or believing what they do.
So, I do understand why people keep asking me why I walk pilgrimage. After all, historically it was a religious practice.
Thereafter, his (Bruce Chatwin’s) religious faith became subsumed in his nomadic theory: he believed that movement made religion redundant and only when people settled did they need it.
This question is asked of Guy Stagg who wrote The Crossway. Personally, he knew why he had set out – it was primarily for his mental health – but he repeatedly asked himself, ‘Why pilgrimage, why not just a nice trek?’ The astonished monks asked him too, as he battled through the alps in the middle of winter. Not having been satisfied with going from London to Canterbury he decided to go on to Jerusalem no less.
Tim Moore in Spanish Steps, Travels with my Donkey asks himself, why he is doing the barmy thing of finding, caring for and walking with a donkey along the camino in Spain when he is not religious.
For me, it is a walk but with added zizz! There is an in-built beginning, middle and end; it’s a project all in itself, and it is so much more than a wander round my local park.
it is essential as a reunion with oneself and with others. It’s almost a phenomenon of resistance: walking does not mean saving time, but rather losing it, making a détour to catch one’s breath!
In Chinese Medicine I was delighted to learn that there are a number of different ways to describe the spirit or soul. In Icelandic there are more words for snow than we have in English; in the Orient the parts of ourselves which relate to spirituality, to nature or to our innate relationship with other people are as important as our physical and mental aspects. Although the spirit is amorphous, hard to define, it is something I have a tangible sense of, particularly when I walk in nature. Although sometimes I am content to ‘be’, at other times I become curious and try to understand this puzzle.
When I sit and meditate in my Shiatsu room in Edinburgh I can simultaneously be in Tibet or Japan or China. I don’t know why that is or how it happens and I ponder on these things as I walk. I privately think (well, not so privately now!) that at least one explanation is that I was a nun and a monk in former lives. It is the best explanation I have come across so far. The feeling I had, for example, when I crossed the sands, barefoot, to Mont Saint Michel was real – I ‘knew’ I had walked there before.
What is ‘knowing’?
We have discovered in the last 100 years or so that our physical cells destruct and reconstruct, so the ones I have now shouldn’t be the same ones I had when I was a baby, never mind the ones my mother or grandmother had. And yet we know that we share genetic material.
There is a theory that there is a collective knowledge which accumulates from the generations which came before. It could be this wisdom which tells me where to go to find what I seek, and what has got me here in the first place. However, current scientific methodology and outcomes deny me entry into this collective unconscious. It insists that I enter through the portal of logic and I am not sure that logic is the right way into that sort of understanding.
I have an intrinsic sense of the English phrase, ‘I know it in my bones’. My bones are made up of cells and therein lies my genetic material, yet in every text I read about pilgrimage something inside me recognises it. I seem to share the centuries of that collective knowledge, it is familiar.
* . . . live inside the bone and have long branches which allow them to contact each other …
There is my DNA and my body. There are my mind and my thoughts. There is my self, my soul, my spirit. In my work and my walking I am enquiring into the connections and (re)discovering dissociations between these.
It’s all about love
The more I listen to myself as I traipse, and to my clients in the Shiatsu room, the more I think that what we all seek is the connection to LOVE. It sounds like a familiar new-age thing to say, it is straight out of the ‘all you need is ….’ 1960s, but I keep coming back to it.
I have a hunger for that ‘something for which we search’. And I know it isn’t just me, because when I tell folk what I do, they say, ‘Oh, I wish I could do that’ or, ‘I have wanted to do that for ages’. Or maybe they too have already started!
I seem to be part of a contemporary pilgrimage movement in which it is possible that we are seeking ways to integrate, comprehend and connect our-selves, personally and in community.
Pilgrims walking the Via de la Plata, Spain; Tourists flocking to the Sacre Coeur in Paris, France.
In addition to all this, I notice a compunction to move on, to save my soul, to find, to seek. The ‘thing’ I am looking for is at the same time inside me right now and just ahead of me. It is that towards which I reach or walk. It isn’t new. Everything I have done in my life so far is part of this instinctive movement towards being purer, ironing out the creases. That’s what I believe we are all doing wherever we are.
I know that inside me lies this knowledge just as tangibly as I know my organs are there. I recognise that I am part of a continuum, a humanity of seekers. What is necessary is the time and space to better hear what is happening, and that is hard to find when I am at home looking after people and my surroundings, doing what most of us do in our adult Western lives.
The answer, it seems, lies in introspection. Without trying to be precious, I go quietly back inside myself when I walk to hear the still, small voice.
But it takes intentional steps to change our pace and encounter one another as pilgrims on a journey along with Way. In our time of frenetic political intensity, within a culture addicted to speed, we need to hear and heed the call of this step by step pilgrimage.. Wes Granberg-Michaelson https://sojo.net/articles/all-are-pilgrims
And so it appears I am descended from the ascetics and hermits of my history. I’m reborn into the liberated 21st century. I am, at one and the same time, part of a shared community -walkers and pilgrims, fellow monks and nuns, a group with shared values – and I am alone for to ponder.
Some things are proving intractable and I expect that’s why I have to keep on doing it!
Clean Language practitioner and author of Words That Touch, Nick Pole
I am walking the St Magnus Way on Orkney, and this is one of the blog series – 25th May 2018. Below, you can find links to all the others (introduction, transport, accommodation, resources etc). The overall walk is 55 miles over 5 days plus a visit to the island of Egilsay where St Magnus was said to have been murdered and, initially, buried.
Last night I camped in the site just outside Birsay. I walked past the Man’s Well which was part of today’s route quite by chance on my way to have supper at the Barony Hotel. The water of the well was said to wash the body of St Magnus before he was canonised. Nowadays it is used for brewing ale and mixing with whisky at New Year! Mons (Norwegian) and Mansie (Orkadian) are both variations of the name Magnus, whereas it is thought that the Man of the Well’s title is the Norse version.
Barony is a working mill famous for its Beremeal, and I had bere bannocks in the cafe in Kirkwall on my final day. Bannocks (this link will take you to a recipe) are a sort of flattish quick bread with the consistency of scones and they were made with flour from here.
Under the aqueduct by the mill wheel runs the lovely Boardhouse Burn (small river) which drives it, lined with shining marsh marigolds. I negotiated more of Orkney’s famously person-proof gate locks, crossed over the almost hidden boardwalk (not ‘under the boardwalk’!) and sloshed around in the soggy ground. I was making my way, through another tight kissing gate, back into Birsay village where the only public toilets of the day’s hike are to be found.
As I waded once again through stinging nettles, I recalled the idea of a nettle shirt. It was called a celice (1) back in the days, and is a way to cause oneself suffering as ‘a self-imposed means of repentance and mortification of the flesh .. often .. worn during Lent.’ Sported by Abbess Teresa of Avila, (‘a remarkably capable abbess who reformed the Carmelite order’ (2)), this is another example of my many Christian references, things which spontaneously come to my mind when I am on pilgrimage. What with the barbed ring above and this notion, it seems that I am again concerned with the idea of choosing hardship as a way of … well, what?
A number of answers come to mind: being good, becoming a better person, proving one’s worth, deserving a prize….
In his book, Metamorphosis (3), David Gallagher discusses the fairy tale in which a sister picks and tramples nettles (thereby stinging her bare hands and feet) to sew shirts for her brothers to change them back from swans to men after they were cursed. In the version I read and reread as a child, the girl cannot speak whilst sewing. The villagers therefore become suspicious and start to burn her as a witch. As a result of being singed to death, she doesn’t completely finish and so the youngest brother retains a swan’s wing instead of his left arm. Gallagher theorises that, “..the partial transformation is a coded religious message that women should continuously courageously strive and be virtuous in society and support their male counterparts.”
So not only does it seem that my early reading habits allowed me to confuse religious advice and folklore, but the Brothers Grimm and the like (who wrote the stories) might have either been purposefully threading morals through their work or doing it unwittingly.
When I was about to leave for theVia Sacra (Austria) I asked the customary question: what is my focus for this Way? What came to mind was the phrase ‘to atone for my sins’ which surprised me because I am not a Christian now (although I was raised in that tradition and went to a Church of England (CoE) primary school), and I reject the idea of Original Sin.
My known reasons for making a pilgrimage are many: spiritual development, yes; time away from my busy life; a place for contemplation and meditation; and more. I can only notice, on account of the topics which arise as I trek, that the concepts and ways of thinking which come from the bible and church teachings are insidious. Instilled at an early age, and reinforced as they are constantly in the world around me, they are still ‘live’, and consequently they need to be reassessed, to be addressed.
Why? (I ask myself again). Because if there are powerful belief structures which underpin my way of thinking then I need to know what they are. If this way of thinking is the cornerstone of my attitude to work, the foundation of my choice-making; if it is this which supports my interaction with others but I am unaware of it, then I will be basing my life on, and sending out powerful messages about, something which I might more mindfully choose not to.
Am enormous black cow (which looked like a bull to me) sat in the corner by the kissing gate. S/he took absolutely no notice of me, its belly spreading out comfortably on the grass. Men worked on the right, their overalls at their waists; a little girl was shooting hoops against the house wall; I visited the St Magnus’ Kirk and read The Ballad of St Magnus pinned on its post (which I did not like), and admired the view of sea and sand from whence I had come, as directed by the St Magnus Way website.
It was a blowy stretch across the dunes, reminiscent of parts of my Normandy grande randonee. Oh dear, I was hungry already and had almost no supplies with me. I hoped Twatt (a ribald name if ever I heard one) had a shop. It wasn’t very easy to find the markers here but I knew the basic direction I was going in and the route description helped.
Then up a small hill I went and onto the first road of the day, but hey, after yesterday, road was okay for a bit. It was gentle: the cows looked at me and me at them. The views were vast.
From high up I could see a tractor going backwards. It was surrounded by what looked like midges from a distance,but was in fact a swarm of gulls.
When technology teaches you a lesson
Every time I took a photo with my phone, I saw incoming emails and was fielding them accordingly. I was getting annoyed. Looking back at my notes, I wonder why I just didn’t ignore them until later. Guilt – that’s the answer! Comments from others about the amount of time I am away from home trigger my natural guilty thoughts along the lines of, ‘I ought to be responsive, responsible, working’. I have an open ‘ought’ channel!
Despite becoming aware of this years ago, ‘ought’ still plays a large part in my life – like a leaping, prancing devil, it taunts and prods me. Getting away into these quiet environments with my feet on the ground, allows me to identify the interface between ‘ought’ and ‘want’, to look that fiend in the eye. (A devil is traditionally a ‘bad’ thing, but in this case it is something waking me up and alerting me to a necessary change.)
In Shiatsu we believe everything ultimately shares the same source (we call it Ki, a Japanese word for an Eastern concept), and that’s my explanation for being able to hear someone else’s thoughts (you know when you phone and the person on the end says, I was just thinking about you). Yesterday I had fancied I could hear the sheep chatting with each other. Is that even possible? If yes, then perhaps my phone was listening in to me!
Lucien Levy-Bruhl, a French philosopher, calls this ‘participation mystique’ (mystical participation) and it occurs beyond our logical, rational thought processes. It is like a ‘sense’ that we have but seldom use now , but it can be increased by usage, like a muscle, if we choose to exercise it. (4)
Anyway, bit by bit my phone just stopped charging, leaving me without the means to take photographs (having forgotten that on my last walk a similar thing happened for a different reason and I resolved to bring my camera the next time!) Day by day it caused more problems and I spent valuable time trying to right them. It was not until my train journey home when I sat next to a woman who insisted she use her own charger, that I started to identify the root of the problem and by the time I was home the phone was back to full speed! Coincidence?
‘I came greatly to value that solitude and self-reliance and was at peace in a landscape that was neither empty nor quiet. All around me I felt the ghosts of an immense past, I heard their whispers and I smiled when they walked by my side…’ (5)
It was possibly the deadness of the phone which made me let go of that guilt and, instead, focus on the walk. It did warn me. I took no heed. It warned me again. Still I continued to allow myself to be distracted, until it only gave me an hour or so of charge at a time and meant I could not communicate with anyone (see the Orphir to Kirkwall walk) or record my delightful surroundings as much as I wanted to.
I observed my environs as I tramped on: a random cliff lay beside the road with nesting gulls; here were the first horses, but as yet no donkey except in the book I was still enjoying before falling asleep.
One singularly unimpressive and rather diminutive stone stands in a field on the left at this point – the Strathyre Mans Stone.
‘Jutting skywards from Orkney’s gentle landscape are a number of ancient standing stones, each a stark reminder of our prehistoric heritage. First cut from Orkney flagstone and erected before the Egyptians had begun constructing their pyramids, Orkney’s stone sentinels have withstood rain, wind and sun for thousands of years. ….To our modern minds, the society of Neolithic man is difficult to comprehend – a society where everyday life, religion and ritual were inextricably linked.’ (6)
A bus slowed and the driver gestured, the face communicating, did I want on? Noooo!
I was amused by a flock of black cows with brown and white offspring (well after using swarm for birds, a flock of cows was no surprise!). Two birds I fancied I hadn’t seen before flew by – one tiny with an ill-matching loudness which started with an emphatic tongue-behind-the-teeth sound; the other with wings where the black ends are much wider than the narrower part that is nearer its body – it squeaked and swooped at top speed.
After a while on the tarmac, I had a good idea and made a most successful boot to shoe change. Hiking boots are not made for road walking so my feet appreciated that and it was just about warm enough.
Growth was the set-theme of the day (again from the St Magnus Way website). I wondered, does growing always mean getting older and becoming more adult, or is it spiritual growth which in my case may be to become more childlike?
There were more standing stones on the edge of a loch – they looked as if they were at home in their natural environment, probably a result of longevity; There was inevitably a cold wind down by the water. Yes, they all warned me: everyone I had spoken to had mentioned the wind – everybody!
Snippets of dreams where I was dancing with another younger woman swayed in and out of my mind. We were tied together by a thread – the image intrigued me.
I carried on along an eternal, straight road (this is real life btw, not my dream). It was not quite the Spanish meseta and maybe not even Roman. For perhaps the first time I sang out loud: The Long and Winding Road by the Beatles. I once walked with someone who sang to me – those were happy days.
Thank the Lord for chocolate. And for the people who gave me a flapjack (cake) yesterday. I loved them. Still the king cups shone by the side of me, providing the missing sunshine.
Did you know that the inside of lamb’s ears is pig-pink and that they chop off their lovely wiggly tails? Shame on them. (Oops there I go again. I expect there is a very good reason).
There is both unexpected and inescapable growth in self-care when taking a pilgrimage – indeed you cannot progress without it. I must look after my feet and fill my belly. When I sit and write, I forget those things – it’s hard to extricate myself from the laptop – but when I walk I have no choice.
Off road again, I wondered whether to go back to boots. I was at the head of the Loch, me and the caterpillars which had possibly followed me from Egilsay.
Growth (see how the theme has lodged and reappears, how I thought, then walked, then thought, then…). Growth: learning to hold the unnecessary or unwanted away without resentment. Which is harking back to the guilt of course.
I took a small break (without lunch, worst luck) and mini-meditated instead. I took lovely deep fragrant breaths, but a Shiatsu School Edinburgh idea interjected. I sat with my knees out to the sides, soles together, to ring the changes with the hip position, to be different from all that forward moving activity.
Oh, I think excitedly, I could write a St Magnus Way book. I could spend the 5 weeks between the French teaching weekends penning it in the Autumn. Another ‘good’ idea! I got very excited.
Then I was on a typical St M path again. Could I see the way? No. Could I see the bog? Yes! The boots won the day. It was altogether too wet, bumpy, harsh-heathery and possibly sporey-caterpillary to risk sandals.
Cows had obviously been lying in the mud given that their tummies were caked brown. It was really hard going and I recommend you wear long trousers if you want to try it. There was petrolly, peaty water in the channels made by the farm machinery. Birds insistently squeaked and tweeted, and then I heard the one with the wings described above and it woolf-whistled at me!
Who said a pilgrimage should be easy? Surely, I thought, the point is how I cope with adversity. Growth, you see.
Then there was a thundering and a mooing, and all the adult bovines in the paddock I was walking past closed ranks with the calves in their midst to protect them.
At Hilldyke the farmer had the WD40 out and the cattle were still lowing in my wake. A group of calves were up close by the fence of the field as I made my way downhill with a misty view. I was being bombarded by small, black insects on account of the lack of wind, but somehow the turbines were happily spinning away anyway. It was sort of too dark with sunglasses but too squinty without.
On the whole The St Magnus Way is well signposted with its very small black and white logos. They are not Spanish-Camino-yellow but pretty efficient, so that with your eyes peeled you can find them, although the Route Description (pdf download) is needed to supplement.
Away from the, it must be said, unusually pretty corner, I decided to walk on and the setting was once again utilitarian: barns and houses – more low-lying grey abodes presumably built like that to avoid the worst of the gales.
breezes loosely captured can connect us with the very edge of the infinite
Charles Moore in his foreward to Junichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows
Later: trees (there aren’t normally so many here due to the wind), and flowers, and a VW in a field.
There’s a sense I often have that nature has its own colour scheme. Here the floral show is immaculate: the juxtaposition of colours, the relative heights, and the arrangement rival any church display
I was getting a little weary, maybe because of being hungry, and I found myself wondering why my pal Magnus went all round the houses. After all, there’s no hill and it doesn’t look like a bog. Surely he would have gone as the crow flies. Ah well. More road walking.
The sheep are all different colours according to the farm. The cerise-rinse sheep reminds me of that book….
My hands were a tad sore from holding and prodding the baton yesterday. Ditto my shoulders, but luckily not the right hip which had been a problem from my old dancing days. I could feel it first thing this morning, but not now thank goodness.
I walked through Beaquoy, a collection of houses, pronounced, so Kiersty kindly told me, beck-woy.
In the distance the hills were still topped by mist. Yep I reckon that must be Dounby over there, I thought, and these are definitely midges (yuk), although I have found a new use for the scarf with the annoying tassles that get caught in the rucksack when I try to do it up: I can use it like a horse tail!
Not long after this I arrived at my destination and the first building I noticed was somewhere to eat. Twatt hadn’t yielded any shops or cafes, just dwellings, and I was famished. I had heard the sound of kids playing before I got there – a nice welcome.
According to the conversations I had had with locals, Dounby seemed to be best known for its co-op. I spotted home-grown potatoes showing their heads under the string in a garden, the memory-laden smell of cut grass an actual pavement under my feet Hooray! I had got here without serious injury before the tea shop shut… oh no, no, the tea shop was closed. Never let it be said that a closed sign stopped me when I was starving after a long day’s hike!
Dounby – host of the annual West Mainland Agricultural Show and home of the Church of Scotland minister whose idea it was to start this pilgrimage in the first place:
I had that same sense of embarrassment coming into a civilised area with unshaven legs, and into the cafe with my massive pack and muddy boots that I had had before, but the staff were kind and helpful. They let me in and fed me but I think it was because they heard my tummy rumble.
I had a nice plate of fresh crab sandwiches with crisps and grapes whilst listening to ‘I tell you what you want, what you really, really want’ on the radio. (There were plenty of gluten free options).
I took the chance to have a look through local leaflets and found info on some of the places I will be going to. It was a pity I missed the Kirbuster Museum – it has a putting green; I liked the creative combination of Judy’s Fabric and Jokeshop; the Hill of Heddle is home to the motor cycle scrambling on Sundays – I hoped I wouldn’t have to walk there then; and there is an Orkney Men’s Shed which I am sorry not to be the right sex for as it sounds fun. I could not find a St Magnus Way leaflet at the campsite in Stromness, nor here. I did, however, spy a recipe for Rhubarb and Lentil Curry in The Orkney Advertiser which I might well try when I am back home.
At the first sight of the Milestone Church the sun came out.
I had popped into the pharmacy to find out about tetanus. Having had no recent jab, I wanted to know the symptoms, just in case my elbow (see above) was infected. Of course they wanted me to go to the medical centre, but I had been bathing it in tea tree oil from the very start and keeping it clean. There was no sign of anything being wrong and I had no internal fever or heat.
I wanted to meet the man who had started all this and the girl in the shop told me where the manse was, so before pitching camp, I set off on what turned out to be the next day’s walk: back to Quilco, then right to North Bigging (needing to ask for directions along the way).
This little critter came running and snarling at me and I am sorry but I laughed at him.
A man came into the garden rounding up his hound but there was no friendliness, nothing even approaching a friendly buen camino.
There was an option to go up a hill, but I am afraid I didn’t do that. Afraid of what? Growth? I said hi to a Shetland pony, happy with my tummy full. I realised that what I feared was another long stretch of the long and winding road before I could knock on the Curate’s door. I must have been tireder than I thought. It was sunny and a bit of a climb.
When I walk and start to feel my back straining, I remember to hold those there pelvic floor muscles up and pull my naval to my spine, focusing on the core, especially when I am pooped and I can feel my innards heavy inside me (given that I am at the age when these things start to happen).
It was a bit of a disaster: I found the house – grand it was – but it was deserted. I left a phone message and waited in the garden, had a little sleep in fact and it was hot. Then I walked back a bit until I found yet another person to ask and it turned out I had been at the wrong place, probably Hollardyke House. On I went until I found a house with a sign saying ‘Manse’ with kids playing in the garden. How silly of me! So, I did meet David McNeish and he was most welcoming and picked me up at the main road 10 minutes later and dropped me at the church, given I had done that part of the walk for tomorrow already. He said it was no problem to sleep beside the church.
The public toilets were next door to the hotel (above) and because the church was closed I had to use them for my ablutions – except in the middle of the night. The next day I realised that there might have been security cameras spotting me while I dropped my drawers – Oh dear, I really hope not!
The St Magnus Way website has excellent resources although one needs time and forethought as well as a working phone to download and listen. I expect some folk would be better organised than me and love to do this as they walked.
I am walking the St Magnus Way on Orkney, and this is one of the blog series – 22nd May 2018, my first full day on the islands. At the bottom of this post you can find links to all the others (introduction, transport, accommodation, resources etc). The overall walk is 55 miles over 5 days plus a visit to the island of Egilsay where St Magnus was said to have been murdered and, initially, buried.
It was a fitful and very cold night with the engine of the ferry droning in the distance and the birds whining overhead. The rain drummed on the tent roof and I certainly needed the (borrowed) blanket from the campsite sitting room. I woke early to strike camp for the first time and was mighty glad to have my cup of tea before walking back through a deserted Stromness to the ferry terminal. I only just made the 6.10am Stagecoach ‘by the skin of my teeth’.
It was already light and so I enjoyed the short trip to the outskirts of Kirkwall: flat green fields and the occasional hill flashed past and I ate a cracker, some pecans and lettuce (for my French readers, no, this is not normal British breakfast fare!) The day brightened a little but it was hat-gloves-and-everything-I-had-that-wasn’t-packed weather. When the sun shone for a few seconds it was really warm! A cuckoo called.
The second leg of the journey (by local bus this time) was to Tingwall, and I was deposited at the top of the small road. If it is a safe place, the drivers of Orkney buses will stop anywhere along the route when you flag them down or make a request. It was only 15 minutes walk to the jetty where everything was closed at that early hour.
It was a much smaller ferry to Egilsay, stopping at Wyre and twice at the more popular Rousay where 21 passengers got off. We all watched with admiration as the scarlet mail vans reversed at high speed down the steep and narrow ramp onto the boat. 5 minutes later they zoomed back onto dry land. It was a moment for the bag and news to be exchanged, and this happened at each docking – obviously something they do every day.
I chatted to 2 sisters who were on Orkney for the folk festival, and the one who lives in Germany kindly lent me her wireless phone charger which helped a little. Unfortunately I disengaged from it quickly as they arrived at their destination and left my lead attached. I only realised later that evening when I received a text (I had happily given them a card with my details on it because they wanted an air bnb in Edinburgh). How kind they were! They left it at the Ferry Hotel in Stromness for me to collect a week later.
So, what’s the Magnus saga?
Earl Magnus Erlendsson and his cousin, Earl Hakon Palsson jointly ruled Orkney. After a dispute they agreed to have a peace meeting on the island of Egilsay, but Hakon broke their agreement. He arrived with three times more men than he had said he would and promptly ordered his servant to kill Magnus. When the poor man refused, Hakon demanded that his cook do the deed. Orkneyjar takes up the story:
‘Magnus made three suggestions that would save Hakon from breaking his oath by killing an unarmed man. The first, that Magnus would go on a pilgrimage and never return to Orkney, was rejected, as was the second, that Magnus be exiled to Scotland and imprisoned.’
Hakon ordered that his cook carry out the crime. He was loathe to do it, and it is said that Magnus forgave him before he did so. It was for this reason that he became a martyr and, consequently, a saint. The murder was supposed to have taken place at the ruined church with its unusual round tower (0. 5 miles from the jetty). His remains originally lay where there is a monument erected on Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) land a little further away. Later, so it is related, his bones were taken on a journey to the West Mainland and it is this route which part of the pilgrimage follows.
The tiny island of Egilsay
Egilsay lies north east of the West Mainland. There are a scattering of farms and some valuable RSPB sites. The beaches are spectacular. I alighted from the ferry with a couple of walkers who told me that there might be a community centre which serves teas. Otherwise, there is almost nowhere to shelter, just 6.5km squared of smooth fields with a single main road zipped up down the centre. There are swathes of protective irises planted to attract the corncrakes who nest on the ground, and kingcups (marsh marigolds) galore.
The ruined church itself sits in the middle of a sloped field not more than 10 minutes clambering over fences away from where the ferry comes in. Perched there with only blue sky surrounding it, one can imagine it hosting any number of dramas down the ages. With a stepped, gabled wall and plain, arched window at one end; and a blunt cone of a tower at the other, there is no shelter except a rather out of place old school desk and battered chair in an arch. Once the others had left, I wedged myself in a corner, leant back and shut my eyes. Still, I imbibed the energy of this ancient place with the sun on my face. I fancied I could hear the cries of children, the fervent sermonising of the ministers and prayers of the blessed from the past.
I dawdled among the graves, reading names and dates as you do, appreciating the old and the really old stones. No-one disturbed me. There are signs with historical information for tourists, but otherwise just the sound of the sea and of course the birds who are the principal inhabitants of this isle. My rucksack and I went off to explore.
Oh, it was glorious to be going slow again! I had such a peaceful time wandering around, loitering on sands and by roadsides, watching bird antics and trying to work out what type they were. I met two policemen who I was told, later, were there to check for gun licences – they were having lunch on the beach; I called ‘hello’ to one working farmer, and was given a lift by another who stopped beside me on the road and asked if I was going for the return ferry – that was when I lost my watch! He told me he came from Buckinghamshire in England and has stayed ‘for the space and to get away from the rat race’.
It’s an island of tricky gates (the kissing ones are only just possible to fit through with a rucksack), but there were lapwings squeaking attention, sounding like someone blowing between two blades of grass; my old friends, the hairy caterpillars, like soft porcupines creeping between stones; hovering skylarks constantly thrilling; honking geese straining their necks and leaving greeeny-white cylinder-shaped turds behind them; oyster catchers with their classic Balenciaga black and white stripes; fields of dandelions and daisies and all manner of delightful things which the rare yellow bumble bees clearly adored.
On the ferry on the way back I asked if I might stop on Rousay. The sailor worked out that it was a quarter of the distance and so would cost me an extra £2.25. For a reason I cannot now remember I decided not to, even though I knew there was a pub there where I could have a cup of tea and charge my mobile.
I was calm inside when I stepped foot on the West Mainland again, but it wasn’t to last. I trekked to the Wildlife Centre – shut; I wondered if Kiersty lived further down that road but when I turned on my phone, it died; So I laboured in the other direction, beside the extremely busy thoroughfare to Evie – 3.1 miles (5 kms); I stopped at the school and asked a man collecting his kids – he kindly gave me a lift to the cafe but it was shut, and then to the post office which wasn’t; I must have looked and sounded slightly strange because it took the post master a while to soften, but slowly soften he did – he kindly took my phone and charged it behind the counter; I was able to find Kiersty’s address – yes, it was where I guessed it might be! I texted her; I started to walk back – and had to stop every 5 minutes to rest I was so exhausted.
And…then… she came to rescue me.
She was so welcoming and friendly even though we had never even spoken. She showed me Betty’s Reading Room, she took me home and cooked for me and gave me a glass of wine and a comfy bed. The next morning she lent me thermal underwear and a high vis jacket. She was great craic – what a gem!
Via Sacra pilgrimage from Vienna to Mariazell, Austria. 10th October 2017. Day 6. The second half of Stage 3.
On foot with my backpack. It was 6 hours of spectacular climbs, rushing rivers, scary footbridges, and astonishing views, all in sparkling Autumn surroundings.
Route: Türnitz (Gasthaus ‘Goldener Lowe’ where I spent the night and had breakfast), 2.5 hours to Falken Ravine, then Ulreichsberg, Ebenbaueralm, and Annaberg.
‘If we are peaceful, if we are happy, we can blossom like a flower, and everyone in our family, our entire society, will benefit from our peace.’ Thich Nhat Hanh.
As I left Türnitz at 8.15am with its prettily decorated houses, I was minded of some early reads which have walking in them and which I still have a clear sense of. My mother read to us and gave us books throughout our childhood, and I am very grateful for the enjoyment she encouraged. ‘Mary Jones and Her Bible’ was one I often returned to for some reason.Mary (16 December 1784 – 28 December 1864) was a Welsh girl who saved her pennies and then, at the age of fifteen, walked twenty-six miles barefoot across mountainous countryside to buy a copy of the Welsh Bible because she did not have one. I think it was her determination which impressed me, and it was a rare true story of a young girl’s strength.
Then there was ‘Heidi’ by Johanna Spyri. Heidi was another girl with spunk (though fictitious this time), who also lived in the mountains, not in Wales (UK) but in one of Austria’s many adjoining countries, Switzerland, where I was headed at the end of this trip. I had not thought about these tales for many years, but now I wonder what effect they had on me at an impressionable age.
I followed the River Traisen out of town and focused on the tiny lovely things around me: a small, darting bird, dark with a white throat; dams and pools with fish just visible in slow motion under the surface; tiny waterfalls; the sun on the back of my neck; a quarry creating a natural bathing pool; the water jostling and stressing in its rush; trunks and stalks blackened from the old year.
I was living a real life folk tale: First traverse the land…
…visit sacred places along the way….
… Ford the river five times (twice the socks and boots had to come off, 3 times it was a matter of balancing precariously on the tips of rocks which weren’t submerged and hoping I would not topple because once I start to go the weight of the rucksack takes me all the way!)
Carry your worldly goods on your back looking carefully for signs.
There will be obstacles on your path.
Finally climb the Three Sacred Mountains (this is truely what they are called) and only then will you…. what? Achieve enlightenment / win the heart of your true love / be forgiven?
My heart sang as I watched the leaves meander to the ground which was itself glowing golden and bronze; as I observed the white waters cascade and crash between dark green rocks.
As I hike, I am constantly reflecting on what I am about, travelling through countries, going on foot wherever I can. Why am I drawn to this life? And I wonder if it might be that it is easier to do this in foreign countries rather than at home; in a place where no-one knows me and I seem to be easily welcomed. In Spain, for example, they said yes when I asked to stay, and let me sleep on the floor and then gave me an apple to take away with me in the morning. Simplicity. Nothing expected from me except human courtesy and attention, although I always offer Shiatsu.
I have an urge to do this, to keep on walking, treading ancient pathways, like The Sisters of Mercy, a non-cloistered institute where the ‘walking nuns’ cared for the poor outside a convent; or the blind practitioners of Anma (Japanese folk massage, linked closely to Shiatsu) ‘who were often nomadic, earning their keep in mobile massage capacities…. in the 19th century’ (ref. Wikipedia). It seems that another woman I read and re-read about in my childhood, Helen Keller, interceded on behalf of these practitioners after they were banned from practicing during the Occupation of Japan after World War II, and managed to overturn that edict.
As I climb higher, there are the deep blue mountains in the distance. I take one of those videos entitled ‘here’s some of my silence!’
It was a steep descent out of the forest and then a climb back up to Annaberg, perched high on a mountain of its own, where a funeral procession was reaching the Pilgrim’s church. In 1985 I arrived in a Sicilian mountain village by bus (many years before my walking days) in the middle of a wedding, and in Naples a week before I had almost interrupted an ordination ceremony for bishops in the only open venue due to the Holy holiday. However, this was the first funeral.
Most bars and cafes were closed for the village event and people were in traditional Austrian dress playing folk music. After a cup of green tea and a slice of cake, I made my way down the other side taking one of my short-cuts to save my tired back which meant crawling through undergrowth and squeezing under barbed wire – a bad idea which I do not recommend.
The Junges Hotel did not seem to have the booking. Strange. Until it transpired that I was not at the youth hostel, but at a much more expensive establishment next to the ski lift. As always I was treated with immense kindness. I was bundled into a van, and driven up the way I had just come, past the church again, and down (in fact only a small way from my original forest exit earlier) to the right place.
What a setting! Green slopes, grand trees, spire towering above in Annaberg.
There was no-one at reception although crowds of children played behind the building. I sat and waited and was eventually assigned my bed. The kitchens were full of preparations for the evening meal so I could not use them (although one kind man did pass me a flask of hot water over the counter). The wifi was intermittent, and what a lot of energy such large school groups create. As I was the only solo adult traveller and, moreover, in a dormitory of my own, they did not know I was there so in the end I had to ask them to quieten down in the corridor (2am), but they were very well mannered and friendly in response.
Via Sacra pilgrimage from Vienna to Mariazell, Austria. 8th October 2017. Day 4. On foot with my backpack. The second half of Stage 2.
My route: Starting just outside Sankt (Saint) Veit an der Gölsen, Staff (approx. 800 metres), Wiesenbach (approx. 600 metres), Vordereben, Lilienfeld Stift / Monastery.
I wanted to be clear about my reason for this pilgrimage before I started and it surprised me to realise that I was doing it to ‘develop my soul and atone for my sins’. At least, these were the words I heard in my head when I asked myself the question. I am not religious (although I was bought up firmly in the Christian faith) but this language definitely comes from that tradition. It is now understood that terminology and ideas laid down in infancy are prevalent through life, tricky to shake off. Whilst I subscribe to some Church of England core beliefs such as kindness, the notion of being born a sinner is one I struggle with. That gave me something to ponder as I wandered.
The first three days had been quite hard in terms of terrain, blisters, wind and rain. I got lost a lot, but the landscape I was walking through was so beautiful I forgot all about those tribulations. Given my aim in walking, it was fitting that I was to find myself at the door of not one but two monasteries (see day one) where I attended a number of Masses, sitting quietly, interested in the ritual, and absorbing the atmosphere.
Today was a grand day.
After a good breakfast, and having recovered from the previous day’s struggles, I made my way back down into Sankt Veit an der Gölsen where I had failed to find accommodation the evening before. My plan was to visit the Austrian market which the kind people who had helped me (see Via Sacra, Day 3), had been setting up their stalls. I had been promised traditional dress and local food.
I was close to the central square and stopped to ask the way from a woman with a dog. She spoke some English and asked me what I was up to, what with my backpack and all. Then she offered to walk with me towards Mariazell, so I changed direction and set off up the steep hill with her. (I am getting better at being spontaneous and accepting the invitations as they present themselves!). We had a lovely conversation and she told me stories about her two sons and said, ‘getting a dog was best thing I ever did to avoid a nervous break down!’ It gave her an excuse to get out of the house on a Sunday morning, she said, and walk in the beautiful countryside.
We traversed the pine forest which turned to beech and that was where we parted company. The pine part is a dark olive/seaweedy type of green, whereas the beech trees are a brighter spring green and they let more light through. As we came to the edge of the darker section it was like standing back-stage in the wings, looking onto the lit stage. It was interesting to note the inadvertent change in mood as I moved from one to the other.
My thoughts turned to memories of a previous shared hike, the delights and problems, acknowledging my part in the relationship difficulties: my bad habit of unhappily holding on to slights, not finding it easy to let them go. I found myself turning these things over and over with my footsteps, ‘maybe if…’, ‘perhaps if…’, but then caught myself at it, drew my attention back to the present, one step at a time, heel, toe, heel toe, heel … and that allowed me to see more of my surroundings.
I was making my way along flat paths which stretched into the distance. The wind was strong and it was cold, but fine. In fact as the hours went by, it was decidedly good and I was not lost – hooray.
The Gutenstein Alps are a mountain range in the Eastern Alps of Austria, and the northeasternmost part of the Northern Limestone Alps, reaching heights over 1,000 metres.
Downhill from Staff then up again to Weisenbach I went, taking the steeper option described in the leaflet as ‘a very rewarding mountain trail with two successive ascents’. I followed the effective red and white markers towards Lilienfeld Monastery, my destination. The leaves shone, the wild cyclamen peeped out from between tree roots, and there was peaceful thinking time. Autumn leaves drifted all around and I had the luxury of making very slow progress because the stage was short.
Suddenly in the middle of nowhere (11.15am) were the first two Via Sacra signs of the day, 2 hrs after leaving Wiesland.
It started to spit with rain and I stopped to cover my belongings. A dream from a few days ago flitted into my mind: A man and I settled down with our children (his and mine, 2 families together) to sleep. When the baby cried I left her. I tried not to anlayse it.
The recent fantastic bodywork I had exchanged with Alice Whieldon at the Shiatsu congress in Vienna slid into my mind. Walking gives me time, you see, to ponder and remember important things, to mull them over and observe them from different angles.
For two days I had been unable to wear my shorts but it was a shade warmer and that meant air around my legs. It also resulted in scratches but it was worth it.
Some of the wild flowers were familiar from British hedgerows, and others we have in our gardens. The geology was interesting: striations reminiscent of herring; and the sheer size of one huge crag was awe inspiring (too dark for a photo).
The path wound through a seemingly abandoned settlement where a zimmer frame stood at an angle in the middle of the farmyard as if a UFO had just dematerialised its owner and left it standing – a curiously poignant image. Then a car drove in – it was the first person I had seen in three hours.
On I calmly traipsed until the need to stop to search for the next sign. A great squarking and squeaking gave me quite a surprise.
I gobbled a quick sandwich in the drizzle, in the silence, and watched a single bird of prey swooping over the landscape. There was a chill meaning the trousers had to go back on.
Note to self: Add a thermos to the luggage if walking in October anywhere east of Lyon.
It was 3.5 hours to Wiesenbach Gasthaus. I was feeling very quiet after my silent walking and people could not hear my soft voice. I tiptoed through. It was very slow service and the truth was that I did not want to talk to anyone. I felt peaceful inside myself and welcomed a seat in the warm with a cup of green tea and yummy zucchini (courgette) cake. The smoking and fried food caused stinging eyes. Ah! of course the smells were all about Sunday lunch – they serve very large portions with lots of carbs in these places.
Once back in the fresh air I was completely surrounded by steep wooded slopes and it was all very pleasant indeed.
In fact towards the end of the walk I did get a trifle lost and chose to roll with the backpack, under two make-shift fences which I had previously tested for electricity. Then I made my way down the slope and got to a farm, stooped to pick up a windfall apple and promptly got a shock. The farmer pointed down the road and there was a Via Sacra sign which took me to my destination.
In Austria when you arrive somewhere or pass friendly people on the path, they say Grüss Gott meaning good day or more literally, may God be with you. (Thanks Sabine for clarifying).
I arrived at the Cistercian Abbey at 4pm for the night. The monks reside in long, low stone buildings with port-hole type windows, one per cell, opposite square pools of water.
I was initially told that there was no room. You can imagine my heart sank, but I said I was a pilgrim and they gave me a bed in a 3-person room with a beige velour sofa and access to a toilet/shower room 5 minutes walk away (a long journey in the night).
Vespers was in the Baroque chapel. The nine monks dressed in white habits were joined by a smaller man in black who came in late. Most were elderly looking with tonsures except the one younger man with a skinhead of Scottish red hair. He continually adjusted his neck and wore Vans (trendy trainers). Another sported a sweat band around the perimeter of his bald head, had specs and a beard, and rested his hands comfortably on his belly.
There was no Gregorian chant as at Heiligenkreutz; it was mostly spoken in Latin with some German, and there were periods of silence. They turned in unison to face the altar, a ritual back and forth, sitting and standing, bowing and straightening, and every now and then one turned the pages of a huge prayer book. They took it in turns with call and response.
For 8.80 euros I was served a cheese toastie with an egg on top, a small red wine, cake and peppermint tea. It was a very early night as the monks rise in the small hours for worship.
Via Sacra pilgrimage from Vienna to Mariazell, Austria. 7th October 2017. Day 3. Starting just outside Kaumberg and walking to Sankt (Saint) Veit an der Golsen, Austria. On foot with my backpack. The first half of Stage 2.
My overnight accommodation in a secondary building separate from the main house was cold and dirty. Having arranged for breakfast at 7am, I braved the cold morning across the small yard and attempted to enter via the backdoor. It was locked. When I looked up, all the upstairs curtains were closed and the house silent. I scoured the perimeter and discovered there was no way out. There were some huge rabbits in stacks of tiny cubes, a series of hutches with wire fronts; a great deal of rubbish and minor farm machinery; and the back of the gates which I knew opened onto the road. I had no choice but to return to my dormitory, wrap myself in my sleeping bag and wait. On the third attempt the door opened and I was welcomed into a completely contrasting environment: a warm, clean and bright pub bar with many large wooden tables (I was the only guest) and served with a wondrous breakfast of hot bread rolls, homemade jam, yummy butter, tea, juice and then a boiled egg! Both the lady and gentleman of the house were friendly and kind and with a full tummy I was ready to leave at 8.40am.
It was a very short dander to the town and I arrived at almost the same moment that crowds of walkers were collecting, it being a Saturday morning. Not one of them appeared to speak English or understand my German, and all were too taken up with greeting friends to be helpful. However, I did eventually find a helpful woman behind a stall who pointed me in the right direction and, at the top of a steep flight of steps, I came across the town church with beautiful views.
The hiking crowds were ahead of me, lively and chattering with a guide (reluctantly indicating with a shrug of a shoulder where I should be going), and there followed a long steep climb, arduous both physically and mentally. A cold, cold wind invaded my layers and some spitting rain wetted me as we wound our way through farm land. As I skirted a field I watched kids at play while their mum worked at fencing. It was soggy and muddy underfoot but not too bad.
Araburg Aussichtstrum (observation tower) sits at 799 metres and was built in the 12th century. It continued to expand into the 17th century and during the first Turkish siege of 1529 it was a refuge for the local population. Araburg also played a role in the religious wars between Catholics and Protestants. In 1683 it was destroyed during the second Turkish siege and since then has been ruin. It is a hostel and although the shop and cafe were open, the accommodation was not. I was glad to climb staircase after rickety ladder for the view from the top, but it was vertigo-inducing and impossible with a rucksack so I left it with my poles at the midway point. Half an hour later I had to retrace my steps to find the said poles which I had forgotten in the toilet.
As I continued (no need for a cafe stop an hour and a half after breakfast), I passed people who did not look at me or say ‘hello’- a great contrast from previous pilgrimages. In my notes I wrote that it was the ‘hardest climb I have ever done’. Day 3 of a walk can be the hardest and today was challenging in various ways: the path was not clear, the weather gloomy, and the thoughts and memories sad. Sometimes, I reflected, you just have to sit down and weep. As I rested at the foot of the hill there was an extremely loud wailing siren sounding for I knew-not-what reason, but it mirrored my inner state of mind.
If you happen to have a similar sort of a day, and arrive in Ramsau (a pretty stone village further along the Golsen river down at 470 metres) at lunchtime as I did, perhaps you will also need to eat ‘apfel strudel’ to cheer you up. Maybe you will also then slowly recover and dry out with the aid of hot tea. If you are as lucky as me, you could be seated by 3 generations of sweet males sitting at the next table: one in his highchair who will offer you his book to read and the others who speak English, recommend a hiking app to help you find the way, and eventually the world will seem a better place again.
And so I set off feeling somewhat brighter and the sun came out and I meandered along a cycle path with the chain-saw-sound of forestry around me.
The leaflet I was following states six hours of trekking to Stankt Veit an der Golsen (371 metres) and suggests you go on a further four but that is too far for me in one day, so once again I divided that stage into two.
I arrived in Sankt Veit with very little energy to spare, only to discover that the single place to stay at this time of year was unexpectedly shut due to bereavement. I was in the middle of another adventure – it was nearly dark and I was stuck. Time for some deep breaths.
I spotted some people outside a cafe and stopped to ask them where I might stay for the night. They were setting up for a special Sunday Austrian market the next morning. Within minutes they were bringing me a free half pint of wine and were all on their mobile phones searching for me.
After a few sips I remembered that I had stopped at a bar the day before and a very willing woman had taken the time to print out a list of bed and breakfasts. I handed this over to my new-found friends and by the time I had enjoyed my drink in the evening sun, which helped to calm my perturbed spirit, I begun to trust that all would indeed be well.
Not long afterwards I was bundled into a car with a young woman and her little brother, driven out of town (up a hill which I honestly do not think I could have climbed, I was that tired), introduced to the inn owner, and received a translation of the breakfast and room details (it was very expensive by my normal standards at 35 euros but I was immensely grateful for a roof over my head). Once again I had ‘landed on my feet’ or, as the Americans say, ‘lucked out’. Oh, the kindness of strangers!