The word ‘peregrination’ comes from the Latin peregrinatio meaning a journey through life; a pilgrimage; the act of travelling abroad or from place to place, a course of travel; the condition of living as a sojourner in a foreign land; a systematic going through a subject, writing, course of study etc It is also the root for the English word ‘pilgrim’.
Pilgrimages remain popular, partly as a way of recovering the past. Recently a group of pilgrims walked from St Paul’s Cathedral, London to Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, to mark the 1000th anniversary of the returning of St Edmund’s body to the shrine in the Abbey of St Edmund.
The shrine of St Edmund was one of the most important pilgrimage shrines in England in the Middle Ages. King Canute was the first of many kings who revered Edmund and went on pilgrimage to his shrine. Others visited the shrine in the hope of healing – for body and spirit. It was important for people to draw close to the physical remains of saints, as though some power resided in the bones themselves.
Pilgrimage was about ‘shrine-seeking’ – reaching a sacred destination in the hope of healing or as penance for sin – but it was also about the journey. Pilgrimage as punishment, at a time when the church as well as secular courts meted out punishment, was sometimes the equivalent of banishment while some pilgrims devoted their lives to travelling, living as strangers or sojourners in a constant search, the travelling rather than the destination providing the meaning for their journey. Today’s walkers, reviving the ancient pilgrimage and mercantile routes are also propelled by these two urges – to reach a destination but also to find significance in the act of walking. Feeling the earth beneath your feet, travelling by your own effort you are very much in the present moment and aware of the world around you, but you are also connected to the thousands of pilgrims and travellers who have walked that way before you.
Throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, devout people made pilgrimages to shrines holding the relics of saints, and the landscape was criss-crossed with a network of pilgrimage trails. The ‘Camino’ to Santiago was one of the most important, equivalent to a pilgrimage to Rome or the Holy Land for its spiritual benefit, and is now a popular walking trail and recognised as a UNESCO European Cultural itinerary for its historical importance. The gathering and starting places to Santiago were themselves important, and the routes took in many other shrines that were worthy in themselves of pilgrimage. On the south coast of France the seventh-century abbey of Saint-Gilles which housed the relics of the hermit St Giles was the starting point for the way to Santiago de Compostela via Montpellier, Toulouse and the Somport Pass; it was also a port of embarkation for the Holy Land (silting in the Rhone delta means it is now some way from the coast). The twelfth-century ‘Pilgrim’s Guide to St James of Compostela’ mentions the shrine of St Giles (‘the blessed Aegidius’), claiming it is this saint ‘who comes most rapidly to the help of the needy and the afflicted and the suffering who call on his aid’. The pilgrimage route known as ‘St Giles Way’ starts in Le Puy – where I took the photograph of the fountain at the beginning of this article – from where another of the routes to Santiago also starts.
Medieval routes and ways were also used by merchants; St Giles Way is part of the ancient historical route from the Paris area to the Mediterranean, a section of which is known as the ‘Regordane’. This route was used in prehistory, and there are reports from the first century BC of tin being transported from the Isle of Wight, the journey from the Channel to Saint-Gilles taking less than a month. The Grande Randonnee network of walkers’ routes in France allows walkers to trek the length and breadth of France. A ‘Grand Rondonnee’ (GR 700) has been devised that takes walkers from Le Puy to St Giles, but doesn’t always follow the ancient track. A company called The Enlightened Traveller arrange accommodations and baggage transfer for walkers, encouraging them to follow the old route – which at times is still visible as a stony track the width of a cart, at other times a faint mark through a field.
In September, Tim and I followed the St Giles Way – as closely to the old route as possible – south from Le Puy. It was rather different from our usual walks: instead of shunning towns and keeping to the high ground, we were following an ancient route that linked villages, townsThe south gate of the medieval town of Pradelles
and castles, finding a passable way through the mountains of the Cevennes in south France. The walking wasn’t easy, but it was about getting from one
place to another rather than the challenge of reaching the summit.
Our journey followed a route shared sometimes with modern roads and the railway since it passed through the only gap through the mountains.
In some areas farmers obstructed the ancient track, hoping eventually to incorporate it into their fields. In one place the track was obvious – low stone walls on either side with old paving stones in between, although now overgrown, but the farmer had erected an electric fence at one end. Undaunted and determined to assert our rights to walk this ancient way, we crawled underneath it.
Talking with other walkers, we discovered that there is no legal public right of way on footpaths in this part of France, which made us realise what an important right that is in England. Walking around our village in England, we get fed up with paths overgrown with nettles and brambles, but we know that we have the right to cross a field where a public footpath has been marked (even, sometimes, through someone’s garden!).
It’s worth knowing your rights – and responsibilities! – as a walker; details are provided here: http://www.environmentlaw.org.uk/rte.asp?id=207 . At all times walkers must keep to the legal limits. These limits are made clear on the Definitive Maps and Statements which you can check at your local authority’s office or local library. The important thing is to keep walking these paths responsibly, to maintain them for future generations. They are as much a part of our heritage in this country as our buildings !