I joined a weekend pilgrimage [pictured above] with the British Pilgrimage Trust, a charitable trust with a modern-day take on the ancient art of pilgrimage.
After a night in an Airbnb in Frome and meeting a group of 20 complete strangers over coffee the next morning, we set off — pilgrim staffs in hands [pictured above].
It was a long haul, covering some 12 miles per day, although the bucolic countryside of the Avon Valley helped to distract from the burgeoning blisters.
After two full days of walking, we arrived into Bath and took the waters to conclude a pilgrimage devoted to the goddess Sulis Minerva.
So how did I feel at the end of the weekend? Underwhelmed.
The idea of weekend alone with my thoughts in nature really appealed. But the practicality of the pilgrimage itself started to grate, especially after we arrived really late at our overnight stop on the first day and having run out of water.
If you’ve got a group of people paying £150 a head to join the pilgrimage, you have a duty to cover the basics and look after people.
Maybe, I was expecting too much. As one of the walk leaders told me over breakfast:
“It’s about giving our pilgrims an experience. Whether they enjoy it or not, it’s still an experience.”
I’ve deliberately waited a couple of months before pitching and placing an article about my experience. It will be published in the new year.
Meanwhile, I’ve had time to think back over the weekend. Did I bring my own stresses or preconceptions to the pilgrimage? Or is this type of group experience simply more Scout camp than spiritual journey?
Read my article and decide for yourself. Here’s a preview:
We finally made it to Iford Manner on the Somerset-Wiltshire border as night fell, tired and hungry, for an al-fresco take-away dinner and homemade cider.
Bedding down en masse on sleeping mats in an outbuilding that night, I pulled the sleeping bag around me glad to rest.
This pilgrimage lark, I was coming to realise, was no walk in the park.
A pilgrimage should be about the journey, not the destination. But it was only when I spent time alone in Bath afterwards that I actuallly found the sense of peace I had been looking for all along.
I’m not planning to re-book. Maybe I’m just not cut out to be a pilgrim after all.
In Sherwood Forest all paths lead to the Major Oak.
The 900-year-old tree towers over the green shoots of the forest like an elder statesman on the bright spring morning of my visit.
Meanwhile, a crowd of appreciative onlookers snake a meandering trail from the visitors’ centre to gaze upon the place where the Britain’s best-loved outlaw and his band of merry men allegedly made their home.
Sherwood Forest was the largest of 90 royal forests created by William the Conqueror and once covered most of Nottinghamshire north of the River Trent.
From the 12th to 14th century, when the Sheriff of Nottingham enforced a strict forest law to protect the king’s livestock, Sherwood became home to numerous highwaymen.
They hunted for animals and robbed passing travellers along the erstwhile Great North Road — now the present-day A1.
The Major Oak is my starting point today to follow a new interactive audio trail, In the Footsteps of Robin Hood.
It retraces the trail blazed across the Nottinghamshire countryside by the character that has evolved from medieval folk tale to TV action hero via various incarnations on the silver screen.
Joining me to follow in the footsteps of Robin Hood’s is John Charlesworth, an expert in local history, who acted as a consultant to the development of the trail.
“Personally I believe Robin was a real outlaw, not just a fictional character,” says John.
“In the 1220s, a Robert Hod appeared in court in Yorkshire and was made into a fugitive from the law. He is the original Robin Hood.”
The trail is based around seven key sites, forming a triangular route from Sherwood Forest via Nottingham Castle in central Nottingham to Clumber Park near the town of Worksop.
There are also three new walking trails marked off the main route, all of which are designed to help explore the rural reaches of the East Midlands through their connection to the Robin Hood story.
At each of the locations a crossbow-shaped interpretation unit adds context to the truth behind the Robin Hood legend via audio-visual material.
For the car journey between the sites, you can buy the CD commentary from local tourist offices and check the accompanying map; alternatively download it as a podcast to your iPod and bike your way round following the Sustrans National Cycle Route.
From the Major Oak, John and I retrace our steps through the 450-acre forest, following flower-strewn woodland paths and passing heathlands alive with birdlife.
We emerge from a clearing into the attractive village of Edwinstowe, home to a slew of places to stay and eat on the fringe of Sherwood Forest.
From here we take to the car, driving through the rural heart of Nottinghamshire’s Robin Hood country while John explains how one of the original medieval tales, The Gest of Robin Hood, is the basis for the legend as we know it today.
The fable tells of Robin’s rivalry with the Sheriff, the legend of splitting a silver arrow with his mastery of the longbow and the eventual pardoning by King Edward.
It even includes references to his merry men, including Will Scarlet and Little John, but Friar Tuck and Maid Marian are absent, likely to be latter-day additions as the legend evolved.
Heading northeast from Edwinstowe, the next stop is Rufford Abbey, founded in the 12th century by Cistercian monks and later transformed into a country estate for several wealthy local families.
Legends suggest that, while Robin famously robbed the rich and gave to the poor, he had an uneasy relationship with the Church of England and the abbey’s crypt, located in the expansive grounds, still contains ancient manuscripts and tapestries with records from Robin’s day.
The next stop, Clumber Park, was formerly a major deer-hunting park, where Robin would have hunted in defiance of forest law.
The country house was demolished in 1938 but the park remains with its Gothic chapel, wide-open spaces and expansive lake.
As we stroll along a serene avenue, where lime trees sway gently in the breeze, John explains how, before the current hit TV series, the Legend of Robin Hood had been a favourite of cinema audiences.
The American actor Errol Flynn played the outlaw with verve in the 1938 classic The Adventures of Robin Hood, while a new film, starring Russell Crowe is currently in production.
There was even a 1960’s Canadian cartoon series, Rocket Robin Hood, which finds Robin living on the Sherwood asteroid in outer space.
“For me Errol Flynn portrayed Robin Hood best, with great fencing and a superb musical score, but I do have a sneaking fondness for Robin and Marian (1976), staring Sean Connery and Audrey Hepburn,” says John.
“It has a more poignant feel, portraying Robin as a man out of his time.”
Our last stop is Cresswell Crags on the trail’s northwest spur, where Robin is alleged to have hidden while fleeing the Sheriff of Nottingham with a bounty on his head.
Under forest law, outlaws could be take dead or alive and Robin would have hidden in the dark, dank chambers of the caves to escape both the Sheriff’s men and locals seeking to betray him for a bag of silver.
Back in Edwinstowe village we end our journey with a stroll around the churchyard of St Mary’s where, according to the legend’s happy ending, Robin and Maid Marian were finally married.
“For me the way Robin reflects our modern-day issues is what makes him such a fascinating character,” says John as we say our farewells.
“Robin can change with the times but the core of the story remains timeless.”
What did you think of this story? Post your comments below.
This story was first published in Ink in-flight magazines in 2007.
As a seafaring, island nation, we have traditionally looked to the sea as our defence in times of war, our trading link with the wider world and a source of natural resources.
This link provides the basis for the SeaBritain 2005 festival, a year-long programme of events and festivals based around the theme of Britain’s maritime history, culminating in the Trafalgar Weekend (21-23 October) with events throughout the UK and the Channel Islands.
“The sea touches our lives in countless ways,” says David Quarmby, Chairman, SeaBritain 2005.
“Being surrounded by sea has defined our history, our culture, our national psyche, how as a trading nation we have prospered, and the kind of recreation at which our nation excels.”
The Battle of Trafalgar was a defining moment in British history, whereby Admiral Lord Nelson saw off the invasion threat led by Napoleon, against a combined fleet of French and Spanish ships.
He may have been fatally wounded by a sniper’s bullet on October 21, 1805 – you can still visit the spot where he fell on board Trafalgar – but his legacy lives on. Particularly, that is, in Portsmouth, the festival’s hub city.
Portsmouth is where Captain Cook arrived after circumnavigating the world, Captain Bligh of Bounty fame sailed from its harbour and Lord Nelson himself set sail in his flagship vessel, HMS Victory, in 1805 for the Battle of Trafalgar.
Today the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard is home to some naval big-hitters, including the restored HMS Victory, the oldest commissioned warship in the world.
It also houses Henry VIII’s warship, the Mary Rose. This was raised to the surface in 1982 after 17 years of salvaged operations and now restored to its Tudor glory.
But the festival, and wider links to our maritime heritage are not confined solely to Portsmouth.
As the festivities get underway, we profile six of Britain’s best coastal cities for messing about on the water this spring.
Maritime heritage and Liverpool’s history are inextricably linked, a fact recognised by Unesco’s decision to award the Liverpool waterfront [pictured above] its World Heritage status.
The abundance of merchant’s houses reflects the city’s erstwhile status as a major commercial port, while amongst the warehouse conversions, the Merseyside Maritime Museum today traces the links between the city and the sea.
Liverpool has designated 2005 ‘Year of the Sea’ as part of its Capital of Culture 2008 countdown. As such, the 25th annual Mersey River Festival will be the biggest ever this summer from June 10-13.
But if culture doesn’t float your boat, don’t worry. The Albert Dock has some of the city’s best shopping, while Mersey Ferries still ply the famous ferry cross the Mersey.
The redevelopment of Bristol’s harbourside over the last ten years has re-established the city’s links with the sea.
This year also sees the completion of a conservation project to restore both Brunel’s iron-hulled ship, the SS Great Britain and the Victorian dockyard it was built in, to their original Victorian glory.
The Bristol Harbour Festival runs 31 July to 1 August this summer with a slew of family events.
Meanwhile, if you fancy something more active, the Severn Way is the longest riverside walk in England and terminates in Bristol.
If you prefer getting in the water than admiring it, the World Heritage Roman Baths in nearby Bath have reclaimed the steaming dipping pools for public use after years of restoration.
The redevelopment of Cardiff Docks has seen a run-down area transformed into a ‘little Covent Garden by the sea, especially since the opening of the Millennium Centre last November.
The Cardiff Bay Regatta (July 28-29) kicks off this summer’s Cardiff Harbour Festival along the waterfront, while Nelson Week has family activities, such as visits to the tall ship Tenacious.
Further afield, Wales plays host this year to two major maritime festivals: the Swansea Bay Summer Festival in June with the Welsh Power Boat Grand Prix; and the Cleddu Waterway Festival in Milford Haven.
Meanwhile, Wales continues to act as a magnet to adrenaline-seekers trying new sports such as kitesurfing and coast steering, especially around the Gower Peninsula and the Pembrokeshire coast.
With the Atlantic crashing in on the beaches of Cornwall and the heart of Britain’s burgeoning waterspouts industry located along the coast, the South West is natural seafaring territory.
This year, the National Maritime Museum Cornwall in Falmouth hosts a major surfing exhibition from July 1 to December 1 in its Flotilla Gallery, celebrating Britain’s surf culture.
Newquay, the home of British surfing, boasts the Extreme Academy for the pick of adrenaline adventures.
Otherwise, nearby Plymouth Hoe is rich in maritime heritage as Frances Drake’s favourite bowels green and the National Maritime Aquarium Plymouth has the deepest tank in Europe.
The Northeast’s cultural hub has transformed its waterfront in recent years with projects such as the award-winning Gateshead Millennium Bridge and the Sage Gateshead performing arts centre bringing new vibrancy to the area.
This summer the city will launch its own River Festival, the main event of which will be The Tall Ships’ Race, whereby 120 tall ships will drop anchor in the Tyne before setting sail across the North Sea to Norway.
The Northeast also features some of the best coarse and game fishing in the UK, not to mention great bracing walks, accompanied by seaside vistas, along the spectacular Cleveland Way walking trail.
From the Tall Ships on the River Clyde, to the erstwhile Royal Yacht Britannia now berthed in the port of Leith, just outside Edinburgh, Scotland is also celebrating its maritime heritage this year.
This year’s Edinburgh Military Tattoo, running August 5-27, has a strong nautical theme, while the Scottish Traditional Boat Festival, held in Portsoy Harbour, Aberdeenshire, from July 2-4, features one of the largest collections of traditional boats in the UK.
Meanwhile, the Glasgow River Festival celebrates its second year in 2005 with events along The Clyde. Special events will take place over the weekend at venues along the waterfront and on the river itself, including Glasgow Science Centre, The Tall Ship at Glasgow Harbour and the SECC.
This summer will also see further completion of the Waterfront Edinburgh project, one of Scotland’s largest urban regeneration schemes to transform derelict land around Granton.
What did you think of this story? Post your comments below.
This story was first published in Hotline magazine in 2005.