With temperatures nudging 30c and hot enough to melt tarmac, it is high time I set off on my first ‘Pilgrim’ walk. For my research, I have decided to focus my attention on the St. Michael’s Way – a 12 mile coast to coast route in West Penwith from St Uny Church in Lelant in the north to St Michael’s Mount at Marazion in the south. I have chosen this path, not only because it is on my doorstep but also, by becoming familiar with it and learning about how a ‘walking with awareness‘ pilgrimage might function, it will form the basis for a point of departure later on. What might I learn from this first excursion? What sensory delights await my attention? Much of the route is familiar to me as I have already walked sections of it from time to time. My intention is to approach this venture without any preconceived ideas and with an open mind to see what unfolds rather than anticipate an outcome. However, what should have been a straightforward walk from a to b, in the event it turned out to be a journey of self discovery and was to prove I was woefully ill-equipped for what actually happened.
You can see a map of the route here.
Keen to get going, I gather together a few essential items into a small rucksack to sustain me along the way, patch up my shorts with the material from one of the pockets and hope my new walking shoes will not give me too much trouble, but pack the blister plasters just in case. It was to prove providential.
Sunday, 14th July, 2013
In these current heat-wave conditions, I am keen to get as much of the walk done as early in the day as possible, so as soon as the night begins to lose its inky darkness, I jump into the car and set off for my starting point at St Uny Church. Driving through the early morning stillness and seeing the blood-orange red orb in the sky lifts my spirits. However, as I approach the north coast, I am plunged into a dense white fog which hugs the coastline.
Leaving the car by the church, I set off into the cloud of white fog with a feeling of excitement for my new adventure. What were muddy pathways only a couple of weeks ago have been transformed into dry, dusty tracks. However, the moisture-laden air clings to my hair and my eye lashes making my eyelids feel surprisingly heavy, and it isn’t long before my clothes are drenched and my legs bathed by the dew from the overhanging verges and running down into my shoes. I had assumed I would not be needing my mac and waterproof leggings! It was at this moment that it dawns on me that this journey is going to be all about the lessons I might learn along the way.
Lesson Number One: Never Assume Anything / Always Expect the Unexpected! (that’s two)
The ambient temperature is already quite warm so I know it won’t be long before the sun burns through the fog and I will be dry once more. I am surprised how bright the colours are in this creamy light: the soft yellow flowers of the evening primrose appear even more primrosey. It’s a pity, however, that I am denied even a glimpse of the view. Tantalizingly, I can hear the swooshing of the sea only yards from me as I track along the shoreline. It sounds so close, I know it is high tide and I calculate that the sea will be low by the time I reach St Michael’s Mount. This means that it is likely I will be able to walk across the granite-cobbled causeway without getting my feet wet. (again).
It feels good to be out and walking at this time of day whilst most folk are enjoying a Sunday morning lie-in, being the first person to break through the dew-laden threads thrown across the path by some busy nocturnal spiders. Every now and again I catch the scent coming off a plant I pass by and hunt around to see where it is coming from. The elder flowers smell particularly sweet and delicious as do the heavily laden flower bunches on the palm trees. The constant buzz of flying insects grows to a crescendo as the day wears on and as the heat intensifies it causes the Monterey pine cones to crackle loudly.
My first encounter is with an early morning dog walker. She appears out of the mist from the beach at Carbis Bay where she sees me examining the map obviously looking a little lost. Taking pity on me, she kindly offers to show me the way to the next marker post. She says she has never known a fog like it. It turns out that together with her husband, she has travelled the globe in search of places to take the perfect photograph, the latest being a trip to the North Pole to photograph Polar Bears! She lets me take this picture of her.
Now back on track, and up the road towards Knill’s Monument where I take this picture of the way marker against the sun, still low in the sky forming a beautiful mandala like a stained glass window.
Reaching the obelisk at the top of the hill with John Knill’s coat of arms (2 rampant lions surrounded by 8 swords?) and his ironic motto, nil desperandum, it is here that I take the wrong path.
From what would have been a magnificent vantage point on any other day, my view is obscured by a thick layer of fog that still hangs in the valley below. As beautiful as it is (think Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich, and you get the picture), I have the sensation of being in a foreign land, reminding me of glorious mornings in the Tuscan hills. It is impossible to make out familiar landmarks and without any visual clues my usual good sense of direction is severely tested. I am unable even to place the sea behind me because I cannot see it and whichever way round I turn my map, I have to admit I am totally disoriented.
Lesson Number Two: Make sure you have adequate navigational aids. (If I had been thinking straight, I could have used the position of the sun to guide me. Hindsight is a wonderful thing!)
With Knill’s motto ringing in my thoughts, I forge ahead blinkered by my ignorance. Leaving the monument behind me, I decide to take the left-hand fork in the path ahead, the most well-worn path. Wrong choice! Thinking about it later, I figured that the most well trodden path would more likely lead me back to a conurbation. Thus I find myself on the outskirts of Carbis Bay once more, and spend another hour trying to find a way out of it. I spot an elderly couple in a car and inquire in my most charming manner if they know where I might find St. Michael’s Way. They look at me as if I am from an alien species, say they are in a hurry, can’t stop and speed away. Deciding not to take the short cut across the field that warns ‘Beware of Bull’, I finally stumble upon my way marker, half obscured by vegetation, and with some relief, once more rejoin the track.
Lesson Number Three: Trust what your dowsing rods are telling you! Once I knew I had gone wrong, I did not believe the direction the rods were telling me to go in, to my cost, as it turned out. I won’t be so dismissive next time!
By the time I reach the half-way point at TrenCrom, I am well on my way with only a minor unplanned detour putting another mile or two onto the journey. I find a granite trough under a shady tree and decide to take a rest and an early elevensis. I take off my shoes and administer the plasters whilst sending David – who is looking after my dogs for the day – a text to find out how they are doing. He suggests I use the gps signal on my phone. Now why hadn’t I thought of that? I had forgotten too I also have a compass app. Boy, do I feel stupid.
Lesson Number Four: Learn from your mistakes! Getting lost was completely unexpected, and something I had not prepared for. My inadequate attempts at navigation have been highlighted because there is a valuable lesson to be learned from this experience.
Now, with a clearly visible means of knowing exactly where I am positioned in the landscape, and with sightings of the Mount with every brow of a hill reached, my destination is getting increasingly closer and I am well and truly on the homeward stretch. I drop into The White Hart at Ludgvan to refill my water bottles, (though I could have downed a pint of lager with ease), the final leg is literally downhill all the way. I notice the glint of sunlight reflecting off what appears to be many cars at Marazion.
Strangely, I am not prepared for what happens next. This has never been designed to be a route march or a test of endurance but having moved through the landscape at a leisurely 2 mile an hour pace, allowing plenty of time for stops and starts, and largely in my own company for the past few hours, I suddenly come up against a fast-moving, solid wall of metal and noise going in opposite directions which is the A30. Instantly, I feel very small and vulnerable. This sudden assault on the senses seems particularly violent. Yet, behind the wheel of my car, I am part of it! For a split second, I know how it must feel to be a wild animal meeting this for the first time. The combined heat coming off the tarmac and reflecting off the cars is intense, adding to the onslaught of extreme sensations. Somehow, I have to find a gap in this liquid metal flow in which to negotiate a crossing. My judgement of the speed of trajectory seems momentarily to be impaired but I manage to weave myself across and continue on my way with a renewed respect for our hidden creatures, eager to put some distance between myself and the noise and heat of traffic.
On through the bog at Marazion Marsh along the boarded walkway (just as our ancestors would have done), across the railway track for the last time, and into the nature reserve that runs along the Red River, the Mount looming ever larger. As I emerge onto the road leading into Marazion I am thrown into a throng of humankind making its way into the town. ‘Obby ‘os drumming is coming from that direction and any plans to go to the Mount today are immediately shelved.
Lesson Number Four: Things don’t always go to plan, but that’s OK. (Improvisation is the mother of invention).
Going against the flow of people, I head the other way to the old railway cafe next to the beach, find a seat in the shade and wait for David (and the dogs) to rescue me. My visit to the Mount will have to wait for another day.
To Recap and Conclude:
In the coarse of writing this post, I concluded that the lessons I have learnt on this, my inaugural pilgrimage walk, could easily be applied to life. In the same way that the life line on your palm symbolizes a personal route map of your life, each journey will be a unique experience for that individual. This has been a seminal experience for me and despite the many setbacks, I don’t think it could have gone any better or I could have wished for a better learning opportunity.
In establishing some ground rules for life:
- Make sure you have adequate tools to navigate a meaningful path through it
- Assume nothing and always expect the unexpected
- Follow the light
- You may take the ‘wrong’ path from time to time – maybe because it is the easiest path to follow – but sooner or later, you will find your way back to where you want/need to be
- Listen to what your guides, teachers and helpers have to tell you and notice the signs and signals that are gifted to you
- Learn from your mistakes – every now and again, it is good to feel humbled
- By slowing down your pace, you will be more aware of the beauty of things around you – often the things we most take for granted. It says STOP, LOOK, LISTEN on the railway crossing sign
- Be prepared (flexible enough) to make decisions to change the course of your life. Often these changes happen for a very good reason, though you don’t always know it at the time
- It’s alright to read the map upside down if it gets you there.
- Remember, Nil Desperandum!
Of course, I anticipate this list will be added to in future walks. If you can think of any glaring omissions, dear follower, I would love to hear from you.
The making of a book:
Just as a book has a beginning, middle and an end, so too a ‘pilgrimage’ walk takes a route from A to B. It is not necessarily a linear path but one that may take diversions, planned or otherwise. Sometimes the path might go around in a circle like a maze.
To celebrate this walk, I plan to make an informal ‘collage’ book like the one I made on the Writing for Creative Practice course recently. One of the facilitators wrote about it in her blog: Tactile Academia (and a picture of my book!)