On Saturday the 9th of March, thirty-one pilgrims (and one canine pilgrim companion) met at St Helen’s Church in Abingdon, ready to walk the twelve miles to Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford. Much like the Canterbury Tales, our party was diverse; there were students from across the UK and across disciplines and stages, porters, academics from far and wide and members of the public (one of which who had run a half marathon the very same morning). As a BYOB (Bring Your Own Beliefs) pilgrimage, there were also a range of reasons for pilgrimaging present among our group. This was the start of the Oxford Medieval Studies Pilgrimage Day 2019, a day that would engage with the practice, literature, history and revitalisation of medieval pilgrimage.
At St Helen’s we handed out pilgrim badge replicas, kindly funded by the Oxford Pilgrimage Studies Network, to each of our pilgrims. Beautifully recreated in pewter by Lionheart Replicas, the original badge dated from the fifteenth century and depicted two pilgrims, one male and one female, ready to set out on their walk. After some quick ground rules, some advice for how to make the most of a pilgrimage and a rousing reading of the opening lines to the General Prologue of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales from Rebecca, we set off on our journey.
Although the preceding week had been plagued with rain and wind, the day was miraculously sunny with only the occasional gusty spell, the perfect walking weather. Our next stopping point was only five minutes away: the Abingdon Abbey buildings. The curator of the buildings, Tim Miller, led us around the surviving buildings of the Benedictine Abbey, including Unicorn Theatre, the Long Gallery and the Chequer. Tim was an excellent guide for us, bringing the stories of the abbey and its uses to life and showing us the most impressive parts of the building, such as the beautifully painted remains of a Tudor room partition decorated with roses and pomegranates.
After leaving Tim, we then had a long walk ahead of us. We walked through the grounds of Radley College and across the countryside until we reached the picture-perfect village of Sunningwell and its church, St Leonard’s, at just past midday. This was our lunch stop, many of the pilgrims pausing to eat their packed lunch in the sunny grounds of the church or enjoying some hot chips and a pint at the local pub. This church is now mostly fifteenth century, but the village and its association with Abingdon abbey traces back far further. It also features a stunning seven-sided porch at its entrance, the victorian stained glass of which was designed by J.P. Seddon.
We then moved off again, quickly looking at the well after which the village took its name. The landscape was a little steeper as we climbed Boar’s Hill, but the view on the descent of Oxford’s ‘dreaming spires’ was worth it, and we then arrived at St Lawrence’s Church in South Hinksey. Father Ben Drury kindly gave us an history of the church and pointed out the distinctive minstrel’s gallery and the little private window for viewing mass.
We then set off on the last part of our walk, trekking over the train lines and the river, then through the outskirts of the city to Christ Church Cathedral – our pilgrims had made it home! We rounded off the walk with Rebecca reading from the Book of Margery Kempe, a moving passage describing how she reaches the English shore after a stormy passage, before our pilgrims dispersed for a well-earned rest.
The last order of the day was a talk from Dr Guy Hayward, co-founder of the British Pilgrimage Trust, at St John’s College. Guy talked about his experience of pilgrimage, its history and how he is working to revive the practice in the UK – the perfect reflective end to the day with the lasting message that we should all work to bring pilgrimage back. If you would like to walk a pilgrimage to Oxford, we encourage you to check out the BPT website http://britishpilgrimage.org/portfolio/five-ways-to-oxford/ and let us know how you get on!
Some feedback from our pilgrims:
‘Talking with people about their different life experiences was enlightening’
‘I think it was great. The highlight for me was doing a journey together with people from different walks of life.’
‘Well co-ordinated, well supported, very friendly. Had a lovely day. One to remember.’
‘Really enjoyed it, would love to do more’
We would like to say thank you to the OMS Small Grant at TORCH for their support, and that of the Oxford Studies Pilgrimage Network. We would also like to say a special thank you to Guy Hayward, Tim Miller, Fr Ben Drury and Robert Culshaw for helping the smooth running of the day, and, of course, our brilliant pilgrims.