Saturday, 7 July 2012

The footsteps of pilgrims

I'm planning a trip to northern Spain and France, which brought me to read about the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, or The Pilgrim Trail.

Two recent interests connect me to this route: walking and the Achurch scallops.

I've been developing a book of drawings and thoughts about walking since January. As I write and draw the book, the ideas of walking as a symbolic action have become quite prominent. The idea of the pilgrim, walking a route that thousands of others have walked over centuries, as a personal journey, as a statement, but also as a physical accomplishment of travelling under one's own steam. The physical nature of walking is what really interests me and is always hardest to convey through drawings and writing, it is the sensory experience of a walk, being out in the elements and feeling the terrain under your feet, that makes walking an especially profound way of travelling, for me.

I've just started reading Robert Macfarlane's lovely book The Old Ways. The idea of routes that have been trodden by others over thousands of years, like the Camino de Santiago, inspires a strange connection with strangers one will never meet, and a sense of being a part of the continuum of history, through the simple act of treading of paths. Macfarlane writes that his guiding spirit for his book is Edward Thomas, poet and essayist, and the first chapter looks at Tracks and this idea of walking over history:
"To Thomas, paths connected real places but they also led outwards to metaphysics, backwards to history and inwards to the self."
The reason for a pilgrim to walk a route rather than merely travel it is fundamental to the experience described in that sentence.

The other interest is the scallop, or rather one particular scallop. Whilst creating the river map for Rosalind Stoddart last year (which I have written about in a number of previous posts, including Reaching Conclusions and Riverlands ), I walked with the two other Jos (Jo Bell and Jo Blake-Cave) along the River Nene to the church in the village of Achurch. Attached to a post just outside the church I found a scallop, the one I sketched for the map and shown above, with the words PILGRIM TRAIL and a cross painted on it in red. A little further along in the hedgerows I found another one.

I don't know who put them there, but it did inspire me to read about the scallop as a symbol for the Pilgrim's Trail.

The scallop seems to have two meanings. One relates to the idea of things washing up on the shore, the way that individual shells might travel, taken by the ocean, and all eventually ending up on the same coast, attracted to the shore by the very rhythms of nature (or God?).

The other meaning is symbolised by the grooves in the scallop. Each of the grooves represent the different paths that pilgrims take, but all converge at the point of the shell, like pilgrims from around the world all ending up in the same place such as Santiago de Compostela.

The history of the Santiago de Compostela and how it became such a revered site (the city became the third most holy site in Christendom after Jerusalem and Rome) is also fascinating and based mainly on unsubstantiated rumour and legend! But we all know that faith does not need facts to be real.

The Sainthood of James is worryingly tied up with bloody tales of faith wars and division, but the more innocent symbol of the scallop still intrigues me. The idea that modern Christians still walk the same paths as those people so many centuries ago, who had very different beliefs and understanding of the world than we do today, and still converge onto the same point as they did, is fascinating to me. And even though I am not a follower of a particular religion, I could also follow those footsteps, see the same sights and feel the weight of history, and see what the path might reveal to me.

Well worn track to the River Nene
To the see the whole of my map of the River Nene, click here.

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