Chaucer revisited: the priest's tale

This is the year for travelling religiously, writes the Reverend Katharine Ruwens
Click to follow
The Independent Travel
I met cathedrals early in life, and at a young age began to get the hang of them and to grow to love them. The secret is to be brought up in Salisbury, a city dominated by the 404ft spire of its magnificent cathedral. Inside the vast nave we learnt childhood accommodation of adult habits on a grand scale: services observed at waist height, and everything being loud and out of reach - the music, the marble pillars, the prayers.

Fortune has thus been kind in providing me with an acute sense of belonging to England's heroic religious heritage. This year, happily, tourists get a chance to share in it, as a result of a coincidence of anniversaries.

It is a good thing that St Augustine chose not to mess with Pope Gregory the Great. He and his monks had travelled as far as Gaul. Weary, they wanted to be released from their obligation and return to Rome: after having been "encouraged by letters from Gregory", Augustine landed in Kent in 597 to begin reconversion to Christianity. (The Romans first brought Christianity to England, but under the Anglo-Saxons the country had reverted to paganism.) Hence 1997 is a year of celebration, marking the 1,400th anniversary of his arrival, and an equal commemoration of the death of St Columba on Iona. St Columba didn't have a particularly easy journey of it, either, on his route from Ireland, what with recalcitrant monks and shipwrecks.

English Heritage has designated this year a time of celebration of the country's Christian traditions. We are invited to follow in the footsteps of the early Christian fathers - along the way meeting some mothers too, among them Queen Bertha and St Hilda. Special events around the country include an exhibition of medieval imagery at the Bar Convent Museum in York, and tile-making demonstrations at Cleeve Abbey in Somerset. The highlight of English Heritage's year is on 25 May, when the Archbishop of Canterbury opens a pounds 1m museum amid the remains of St Augustine's Abbey in Canterbury.

Over the next six months, the holiest of English cities will host exhibitions of paintings and photographs and a display of relics of St Thomas Becket, including the Becket chasse, or casket, acquired by the V&A last year. The Dean of Canterbury is not anticipating miracles. He is, however, expecting much toing and froing, and even more visitors than usual, when the pilgrimage season gets under way.

As Chaucer's pilgrims got the urge to go on pilgrimage in April, "when the sweet showers fall", so, too, will the chapter and choir from Canterbury Cathedral set off for Rome in April. There they will sing, and share in worship at holy places - San Gregorio al Celio and Santa Maria Maggiore. They are not the staff-and-cockleshell variety of pilgrim, as they are travelling there by the fastest means available, on a scheduled flight from Heathrow.

Shortly afterwards, a group of 50 will reverse the itinerary, and a handful of walkers will be among them when they start from Rome on 18 May. They are travelling through Italy and France and will be joined by a further 400 pilgrims when they reach Canterbury Cathedral on 26 May, the feast day of St Augustine.

The massed ranks of pilgrims then take four routes to Derry in Ireland, to arrive on 9 June. The journey's end is the city founded by St Columba, today seen as a place of reconciliation. The route will take the pilgrims through great cities and places of urban and industrial deprivations, as well as more conventional places of pilgrimage, such as Whitby Abbey (left) and Lindisfarne Priory. This pilgrimage is not seen as an exercise in nostalgia, but as a treading of the Christian faith through cities and suburbs where the main religion is not necessarily Christianity - such as Leicester, with its large Hindu and Muslim communities.

We live in days of high speed travel, and in many ways barely skim the surface of our world. In making 1997 a year of pilgrimage, Britain's Christians of the four nations hope to make present generations more conscious of the faith and the way in which Christianity has formed us and our world.

The writer is priest at St John's in Waterloo, London.

Bar Convent, York (01904 643238): medieval imagery 7 April-7 September.

Cleeve Abbey, Somerset 01984 640377 01823 272033): tile-making and storytelling, 20-26 September.

Whitby Abbey (01947 603568), open 10am-6pm, 22 March to 31 October, 10am-4pm from 1 November.

Lindisfarne Priory (01289 389200); access only at low tide, across causeway.

English Heritage Souvenir Map 1997, available free by calling 0171-973 3434.

Comments