Chapter #5: Road to Renewal

Allium triquetrum

It’s late April and, as we ascend wooden steps into Heane Wood, the life of the woodland is emerging from dormancy with a rude burst of colour, sound and smell. I have two co-pilgrims with me for this final stretch. Rasheeqa is a forager and herbalist, so within minutes we’re chewing on three cornered leeks and collecting garlic mustard leaves for lunch. I crouch low to the ground, senses attuning to the undergrowth. Upright again, my eyes adjust to the range of visibility. The woodland, though a small pocket, feels vast and rich.

Crossing a stile out of the woods into open fields, we step into bright sunlight. I turn to the sky and close my eyes, orienting my face towards the sun by warmth. I can hear nesting rooks on the other side of the fields. As each car approaches, they crescendo then fade with its passing. Their feral symphony, unheard by the drivers,  continues as my attention moves on.

Glechoma Hederacea

We stop for another rest, luxuriating in the easy walking, bountiful fields and pilgrim conviviality. I stir a handful of ground ivy into a little kettle. As the earthy brew diffuses into my body, the word renewal stews in me; a prism through which to peer out at my surroundings and maybe, if angled appropriately, to look back into the dark pool of my own consciousness.

The word feels like a leaf dropped into water, its overlapping contexts eddying gently outwards. Renewal as the search for stories that brings me here. Renewal as the shape-shifting grief patterns of recent years. As the flowering of the season around us. As the re-enchantment of the land that walking makes manifest. As post-Brexit cultural regeneration. As the window of recalibration briefly offered by the pandemic. As the systemic transition from modernity to who knows what. Renewal as the very act of pilgrimage itself, putting one foot in front of the other until I reach a destination which, of course, isn’t a destination but another point of departure.

Plantago Major

Rasheeqa has made a pilgrim tincture of plantain, to counter inflammation of the feet, nettle, to help circulation and mugwort, for visionary dreaming. These three  herbs are named in the Old English healing spell known as the ‘Nine Herbs Charm’ – mucgcwyrt, wegbrade and netelan. Plantain was known as waybread in old English because it grows best on trodden paths:

And you, Waybread, plant-mother!
You’re open to the east, yet mighty within:
Carts creaked over you, women rode over you,
over you brides bellowed, over you bulls snorted!

You withstood it all—and you pushed back:
You withstood venom, you withstood air-illness,
you withstood the horror who travels over land.

I am struck by how the plants in the spell are addressed personally as animate beings, as respons-able entities, as allies in the struggle against the nebulous ‘horror who travels over land’, and realise how far we have come from such a foundational understanding. I place plantain leaves in my boots to stop my feet swelling and becoming painful.

Ingesting plants from the landscape we pass through, laying them on my skin, I approach an altered sense of human-ness, one that responds to environment, one motivated by sensing rather than making sense. Maybe it is the time of year and the elation of Spring, but my body feels more resonant. It seems to hum at the same frequency as my surroundings. I write the words ‘wild belonging’ in my notebook.

Fagus Sylvatica

We sleep on the bell-ringers platform in the church at Barham. Waking early to the sun streaming in through stained glass, I muse on the day’s walk to Canterbury. The city has been one of Europe’s major pilgrim destinations for more than a thousand years, and it is likely that the route I have been following these months is one that committed European pilgrims would have trodden between Canterbury and Santiago De Compostela. This is not my final destination, but there is a wall painting in the cathedral that I want to see – a depiction of the life of St Eustace that inspired Russell Hoban to write Riddley Walker. Towards the close of the novel, the main character has a pilgrim epiphany in the ruins of Canterbury Castle:

‘I cud feal some thing growing in me it wer like a grean sea surging in me it wer saying,


The only power is no power.

The words walk with me still.

What if we really tried to let go of power? How could we go about disinvesting in modernity’s urge for human domination over a subordinated nature? What would it look like – this re-alignment of humanity within planetary cycles of relinquishment and renewal?

What would it feel like?

The day’s walking is relatively short so we can make time for waymarking rituals. My other co-pilgrim, Adam, is a musician and yoga teacher. He’s also an electrician and solar expert but that won’t help us today. Mid-afternoon, we are walking through lush bluebells that carpet Trenley Woods on the edge of Canterbury, when suddenly the flowers disappear in a marked line, as if a spell has been cast. Rounding the corner, we come into the presence of a huge beech tree, whose bark is covered in the arborglyphs of generations of lovestruck youth and godstruck pilgrims. There is magic here, whatever we mean by magic, so we burn some sage and I sing a song that I think of as magical because it finds its way into the lives of people I sing it to, and because that’s how it found its way into my life. It includes the line ‘Let grief be a falling leaf at the dawning of the day’, words that hold within them everything I am trying to say here. A few weeks later Adam is asked to sing it at a wake.

Corylus Avellana

We reach Canterbury cathedral too late to be let in, but the gate guard takes pity and nods us through. We enter the cathedral just as the final strains of evensong are fading. It’s enough to feel the acoustics of the place, the sound of the organ reverberating in the caverns above. Even my hazel staff tapping on the floor sounds celestial. As I listen to its echoes, I remember there is a decision I must take. According to tradition, pilgrims to Canterbury throw their staff into the sea at Whitstable, seven miles away, but the act seems to mark an end that I don’t really feel. I understand, now, a pilgrim’s relationship with their staff. An alchemical reaction has taken place these last few months: this is not just a tent pole, chin rest, and bramble clearer, but also a quietly insistent teacher, reaffirming its woodiness in my sweaty hand, clacking against pebble, thudding on dry earth, locked into an ungainly but relentless collaboration with the rhythm of my feet, when rhythm is all that is left. 

Artemesia Vulgaris

My feet crunch the pebbles underfoot and I look out onto a rolling brown sea. The end of my pilgrimage is a mysterious sand formation known as The Street, an ancient tidal pathway that stretches for a kilometre out into the Thames estuary at Whitstable. The tide is in when we arrive, and I need to leave before it goes out again, so the Street is neither visible nor accessible. I’m used to this kind of non-event at the end of pilgrimage; it warns me not to celebrate an ending without understanding that it is also a beginning. I’ll come back one day soon, when I can walk out into the middle of the sea at night, surrounded by stars and water, and think about where this road to nowhere goes next.

And so to mugwort, the dreaming plant. What do I dream of? What visions appear? It’s easy to imagine systemic renewal, less easy to place ourselves within it, or move towards it as an individual. We can gesture towards such goals by using less plastic, avoiding flying, or trying not to drive a car so much, but surely we mostly understand now that these small changes fall hopelessly short of the mark. They can only be rituals to ward off the darkness, to help us feel some agency. The best I can hope for is that we might collectively re-orient ourselves towards a way of being in the world that welcomes grief in, acknowledges entanglement, exercises care, foregrounds slowness, practices togetherness and seeks renewal.

Renewal isn’t about the new. It’s about being able to revisit the familiar, the old, the ancient, even, with the benefit of what we’ve learnt in the meantime. Nor is it a new idea to revisit our relationship with the land. Yet pilgrimage allows us moments to step towards a more ancient future, and holds fleeting spaces for us to re-imagine our place in it all over again.

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