About half-way through a recent 6-day pilgrimage, (lead by Richard Dealler of Mary/Michael Pilgrims Way), I learnt a new word. Spriggan. It was used by our overnight camping host and transformational healer, Annie Turner, to describe the sparks of light coming from the fire in the pit, a warm and welcoming focal point for weary pilgrims to gather around after a full day of contemplative walking.
A little research and I have discovered that a spriggan is a nature sprite or changeling in Cornish folklore. Not a particularly savoury character by some accounts, to be found guarding hoards of ill-gotten gains. Used to describe sparks from a fire, then I can easily embrace spriggans as nature spirits dancing in the flames. It occurred to me that, as pilgrims, we were not unlike spriggans: little beings of light breaking free to sparkle in the darkness before finally evaporating into the ether.
The Node StoneBe still, for this is sacred ground,A place to stand and pause. Reflectupon the pathway here –The lessons learned, the gifts received.Be still, and listen to the voiceThat sings a song of unity,Blessing the journey still to comeWith love and deep humility.
12 pilgrims in all set off on that journey together: a dolly mixture assortment of backgrounds and eccentricities, such as artists and photographers and, not surprisingly the majority of people from various caring professions which includes a homeopath, a psychotherapist, an Alexander technique practitioner, a few musicians and healers, an ex-lawyer, a songstress and one couple. And me. Then there is Christoffer, the backup team: driver, cook and provisioner for the duration, a cauldron of bubbling energy. He scolds us when we left tea bags lying around the camp, woos us with poetic observations or serenaded us with soulful sounds skilfully bowed from his violin strings. He also fills our bellies with welcoming, tasty curries and vegetable stews flavoured with foraged herbs. We could not have done without Christoffer.
This is not just a walk-and-camp holiday as a couple of participants had thought it might be. The word ‘pilgrimage’ in the title is a bit of a give away. Walking in silence and sharing this intense experience of internal and external journeying is part of what constitutes the difference between a ‘walk’ and a ‘pilgrimage’. But due to the nature of silent walking, we rarely get to know our fellow pilgrims over and above what they do for a living. For instance, I can’t tell you about family matters or how many children other people might have had. But that doesn’t seem to matter. Just being with other people and experiencing their essence overriding words is enough, understanding a power in people being together, body and soul, in the natural environment. When we do talk, other than the daily natterings, what is slowly revealed, skilfully guided by Richard and Christoffer, are mirrors of our own thoughts and feelings as most of us manage to summon up the words to share deeper aspects of ourselves to each other.
The week is not without its moments of tension that spontaneously erupts and ripples through the group from time to time. Richard’s experience in working with offenders of domestic violence meant that these troublesome niggles were ‘aired’ and dealt with in the group circle sessions. But it wasn’t all heavy and introspective either. There are many, many light-hearted moments too and a lot of joyful banter and much laughter. Singing and bright conversation. Poems recited and musical instruments played. So that by the end of our time together we felt more like a family of friends, embracing our differences and sharing our truths, than a band of weary pilgrims.
Then there is the walking. Lots of it. About 60 miles following the Mary earth energy line across the hidden parts of the west Cornish countryside to visit quiet country churches, holy wells, hill-top markers, stone circles and standing stones that accent points along the Line. What should have been familiar territory for me often felt like we were walking in a foreign land, tacking across it, this way and that, in Mary’s gentle, energetic field. A couple of themes begin to emerge. For one, there is a definite heart vibe going on: everywhere you looked there are shapes resembling hearts, even heart-shaped puddles. The other theme is a cross, like the cross of St.Piran (a black cross on a white background), the patron Saint of tin-miners (and of Cornwall). They were on rocks on the beach, like the one I photographed at Nanjizel….too big to put in my pocket. The turn stile on the path leading to St Piran’s Well, in the gardens of Bryher Cottage, Perranwell was in the shape of a St Piran’s Cross. (Or were they kisses?)
When we came to St Michael’s Mount, I was invited to try out my new Chakra Walk on the group. Realising why I had been prompted to throw my coloured silks into my bag at the last minute, this seemed like a good way to elevate our visit above just a tourist experience as we tuned in with Mary once again on the Mount. (you can find a report about it on the Mary Michael Pilgrim Way Facebook page)
Then there is Richard, our steady leader and pace setter. I knew the moment I met him, we were all in safe hands. A special red-coated leader, often a sweater skirt tied around the waist, ready to hand out the blister plasters or dispatch a casualty or two in a taxi to the next camp when the need arose. As it did on a couple of occasions. Once when a ‘gent’ got one of his new boots stuck between a couple of granite boulders whilst crossing a stile, falling backwards into a bed of stinging nettles and leaving his foot wedged at a precariously twisted angle. The sort of thing you see on ‘you’ve been framed’ only it wasn’t very funny at the time. After untying laces and a lot of wriggling and a bit of man-handling, the boot is finally freed from its stoney vice together with its occupant. Luckily with no more harm done other than a pilgrim who was a little bruised and shaken by the event.
As we settle into the rhythm of the days, ‘about half an hour’ becomes a measure of distance to the next resting stop / the first lunch break / the second lunch break / the day’s destination. Creases of anxiety are gradually ironed out as stresses in the ‘outside’ world get left behind and concerns such as time and distance become blurred, responsibility happily relinquished and the focus placed on simply following our leader. His quiet, even step, leading the crocodile of pilgrims along the path. Then just when I was beginning to feel like I could go on for another week at least, all too soon, we had reached our destination: Come to Good, an atmospheric little Quaker Meeting House near Playing Place on the Fal estuary. Then as suddenly as it had all begun – in the rain – that moment had arrived to say goodbye – in the rain. Goodbye to our fellow foot travellers and go our separate ways once more, splintering away from the community of pilgrims to scatter across the country and breaking the spell.
Summing up that experience? For me, it has been quite cathartic. At many points along the way I was very close to tears, and on some occasions not able to control them from flowing at all. The experience: a richly woven tapestry of poetry, chanting, early morning Qi Gong (a form of Tai Chi), a few tears spilt, a bit of gentle snoring and a little toning (or droning from me). The sound of Skylarks and mesmerizing kinetic wind turbine sculptures: moments that turn into memories. I ached in my gluteus maximus and had a coffee withdrawal headache for the first day, but once I got into my stride, quite literally, I took off and flew! Like a butterfly whose wings are a little tattered at the edges. I think we have all fluttered our wings a little more and I, for one, wouldn’t have changed a thing. I am a little wiser and more nourished by the pilgrimage community. “Basic human contact – the meeting of eyes, the exchanging of words – is to the psyche what oxygen is to the brain. ……….” Martha Beck. Thank you fellow pilgrims.
If you would like to experience one of these for yourself, Richard is in the process of organising the next pilgrimage.
Dartmoor Summer Solstice Pilgrimage, 4 days (tbc) from 19th June. Contact Richard, firstname.lastname@example.org.
For a taster, here is a lovely film about last years’ Dartmoor section of the Mary Michael Way made by Rachel Cornish who was with us on the this years’ Cornish section.
But don’t take my word for it. Here are some of Richard Dealler own words (which he has kindly let me reproduce here) in his poem, Cuckoo Calling. He was reminded of it when we heard those distinctive cuck-oo, cuck-oo notes whilst walking in the middle of the Cornish countryside, a true harbinger of Spring and new beginnings. Thank you Richard.
I walked in search of the cuckoo,
Around Bickleigh and Cadleigh,
Up the valley of the Dart.
I wandered into an old world of marshy meadows
Where cuckoo flowers abounded
But their namesake was absent.
Most unexpected was the heronry,
Where birds vulture-like perched and looked me in the eye,
As if spotting the silvery glint of a tasty morsel.
I got lost, missed an unmarked path,
And ended up knocking on the door
Of a cottage at Little Silver
Where a person 5 feet tall
Would have had to stoop to enter.
Back in Bickleigh, a fading poster
Pinned to the bus shelter, caught my eye.
It advertised Awakening Albion,
A walk from Cornwall to Norfolk
From shore to shore
Between Beltane and Summer Solstice.
It spoke of pilgrimage and community,
Two words close to my heart.
The incongruity of speaking to one of the pilgrims
As he neared St Austell.
In my mind he was garbed in medieval robes,
With staff, gourd, scallop shell – and mobile phone.
Part of me longed to up sticks and go
To break through to a different life.
Leave the washing up in the bowl, the lawn unmown,
My own message pinned to the door,
“Away on pilgrimage.”
To re-awaken in me that joy of days and weeks
When walking was my life,
The pace and rhythm so unrushed
That my senses like a fairy tale princess kissed, revived,
And where, a long, long way from home
I heard the cuckoo call.