My walk from Almeria to Santiago de Compostela (the Camino Mozarabe) last year is one of the best things I’ve done. The longest Camino within Spain, it gave me the time and space to think, it allowed me to see some amazing places at a walking pace, and it enabled me to meet (in person and virtually) the friendliest and most helpful people that a pilgrim could hope to encounter. I don’t regret my choice. But as I walked, I started to feel that I should walk from a place that I’m deeply connected to – the traditional kind of pilgrimage, which starts at the pilgrim’s front door. At the end of my Camino in Finisterre, I met a Dutch guy who had walked from his home in Germany. Then I remembered that the church in the village where I grew up, Cherhill, was the church of St. James the Greater. Plans started to multiply in my brain, but eventually I settled on the idea of walking from Cherhill to Canterbury this year – with the idea of continuing from Canterbury on the Via Francigena to Rome in sections over the coming years. I sent off for a Via Francigena pilgrim passport, which I intend to use (if only I can find places that have stamps. St. James’ church and The black horse pub in Cherhill don’t have stamps, neither does the Italian restaurant where I had dinner in Marlborough).
I came down to Cherhill in Wiltshire for a family gathering at the weekend, with the intention of setting off on Monday or Tuesday. But I wanted to deal with the unfinished business of transferring my last Camino journal from Facebook to this site. It took me days instead of hours (and I’m still not happy with the navigation but at least the content is on WordPress now).
I’m excited about the differences between the walks – On the one hand, I’m on familiar territory, speaking in my native language. On the other hand, this is off-piste Camino-ing, at least until I reach the traditional Pilgrim’s Way that connects Winchester to Canterbury. And I’m doing it in an unplanned sort of way – I don’t have a detailed plan of which paths to walk, which towns to stay in. There is no network of albergues, and no army of Camino angels. I am also unsure if the trip will be a discovery. In Spain, I found it easy to find novelty in the landscapes, the history, the food and wine, even the light. Will find myself walking through lots of homogenised, sanitised. branded and packaged, suburban sprawl, England on this trip? I hope not.
When I started packing my rucksack at home this morning, a steady rain was falling and I thought I was totally out of luck, but as luck would have it, the sun came out shortly before 11:00am. I took photos with my mother and my niece before putting on my rucksack and adjusting my walking poles.
I haven’t lived here since I was 17, so things have changed – fields have been turned into houses and the people in the houses have changed. This was already happening in the 1970s, and I can remember playing with friends in the sites on which their fathers were building, which then became their houses. We’re not very creative with the naming of things – The street that runs the length of Cherhill is called The Street, a house that was the Post Office is called The Old Post Office, and a very old house made in the traditional style of the area, with thick, chalk, walls and an overhanging thatched roof to protect those walls is called Chalk ‘n Thatch. I stopped to visit my father’s grave at St. James’ church, which dates from the 12th Century. The priest who conducted his funeral speculated that it might have been the first Catholic mass to be celebrated there since the reformation.
From the top of The Street, I followed the Sustrans Cycle Route 403 to Yatesbury. This path away from my village doesn’t afford the best view of the village’s most famous features; the White Horse (a late 18th Century chalk figure on the hill) and the Landsdowne Monument. Nonetheless, I climbed a bank to take a snap. (The best view is the one that my childhood friend Matthew took from the top of the monument when it was being repaired. The second best view is from Pickfords’ farm).
As I approached Yatesbury I passed the pill boxes; machine gun emplacements that indicate the former importance of this site. It was once a military airfield.
Yatesbury airfield’s history goes back to the First World War, when pilots were trained here. It was used again in the Second World War. When I was 16 or 17, the disused runway is where my father tried to impart the art of changing gears, reversing around corners, and parallel parking. During one lesson, I saw The Timelords/KLF filming of the video for Doctorin The Tardis. That was a big deal for a kid who thought that nothing ever happened around here.
At the other end of the village, I passed the organic farm and the Shumei Natural Agriculture farm. It’s hard to believe that there are Japanese farmers producing kabocha pumpkins and other great veg. just a short walk from my childhood home. In the past, I’ve chatted and toured the farm with its Mt. Fuji flowerbed and messages for world peace but I didn’t dawdle today.
After Yatesbury, my walk took me to Avebury, the world-renowned prehistoric stone circle. Perhaps it was a site of pilgrimage, thousands of years before the christian era. Here I enjoyed a little picnic in the stone circle.
I wanted to send a stone from here to Michel Cerdan, whose Camino de Piedras project uses stones as “silent witnesses” to the history of people who moved back and forth across Spain – voluntarily and involuntarily. Not one of the large sarsen stones that make up the Avebury circle, of course, but a flint; the stone that the builders of Avebury shaped into sharp tools. Flint comes up to the surface on the paths around here – glinting black against the white of the chalky earth. The local church, another St. James’, has a decorative pattern in flint in its walls.
I guessed that I might not be allowed to prise a flint out from the centre of this site of archaeological interest, but I found an even better spot to pick one up. I described it to michel as follows:
I wanted to send you a stone for the Camino de Piedras exhibition. I should have told you before that I grew up very close to one of the capitals of piedras – Avebury stone circle. Unfortunately, I couldn’t send you one of the huge, standing stones from Avebury. But I decided to send you a piece of flint, which is very easy to find in the chalk soil. As you know, flint was used to make tools by the prehistoric people who built Avebury. I found this flint at the point where the path from Avebury to Marlborough intersects with the prehistoric Ridgeway path. It is immediately next to an area of outstanding geological interest – Fyfield Down.
I’m not sure if you can find the geolocation data in the attached photographs? In the last photograph, you can see an obelisk on a hill. That is the Landsdown Monument (Cherhill monument), which is situated on the hill above my village.
Fyfield down is an otherworldly landscape – large sarsen stones scattered all over. Unlike, Stonehenge, whose builders imported bluestone from Wales to make their monument, the architects of Avebury were more ecologically conscious; early pioneers of the movement for local sourcing
After Fyfield, I passed through horse country – there is a famous stable at nearby Beckhampton. Then I passed by Marlborough golf course and cricket club before reaching its long, red brick, market square.
In keeping with the “off piste” approach, I had not booked a room for the night. (I’m carrying a tent in case I need to sleep outside at some time). I looked online and saw that the cheapest available room was at The Bear. I’m not impressed with what £55 gets you in Marlborough. Unless I can do better in the coming days, this short walk to Canterbury may wind up costing me as much as my two month adventure in Spain. Most disappointing of all, though, was to be told “By the way, we’re doing karaoke from 9pm tonight.”
Fortunately, karaoke time is over and I must sleep now. I’ve booked an Airbnb in a place called Kintbury for tomorrow night. I’ve never heard of it. How small the diameter of my sphere of familiarity is.
Kintbury is a stop on the Bedwyn to Paddington line. Robert Harris lives there.