We strode out in step with Chaucer's pilgrims

Tony Kelly joined barristers, accountants and the homeless on a march to Canterbury, and despite the blisters, everyone enjoyed it

HE HAD purple blisters, I had swollen calves, and we had both joined the queue for treatment. I first met Laurie on the Friday evening, as we sat side by side with our feet in bowls of warm water. Around the room, Christ-like figures in white, such as nurses, doctors and chiropodists, soothed and massaged aching feet. We didn't know each other, but that didn't matter. We both knew that we were pilgrims on the road to Canterbury.

Two days later I caught up with him again, over a bacon sandwich in the village hall at Detling. By now Laurie's position in the group had become established: he would stride ahead with his Walkman, every now and then relaying the latest cricket score. Laurie was a barrister and a judge, with a wife and kids and a comfortable life in west London. So what had prompted him to leave all this behind for four days of the toughest walking he had ever done?

"As penance for my sins, to get away from the wife for a weekend, and to do something for others for a change instead of just being a selfish bastard," he told me.

Everyone had their own reasons for making this latter-day Chaucerian journey. Ostensibly we had been brought together by St Martin-in-the- Fields church in Trafalgar Square, to raise funds for its work with homeless people who drift into London and end up sleeping rough near the church. But the crowd of around 100 "sundry folk" who gathered outside the church on a Friday morning in May, after a hearty brunch in the soup kitchen downstairs, were every bit as diverse as Chaucer's 14th-century travellers.

We, too, had our friar, our priest, our "doctor of physic"; we had modern- day merchants (if that is what you can call corporate financiers) and sergeants-of-the- law. Like Chaucer's pilgrims, we even had our own cook. For all I know we may even have had a wife of Bath. We had gardeners, archaeologists, students, healers, accountants, nurses, plus several homeless and unemployed people who had been helped by St Martin and wanted to put something back. For four days the pilgrimage made us all equal. You could be sleeping on a hard floor next to a homeless person or a judge and you would not know the difference.

A few words from the vicar, and we were away, marching through Charing Cross station and across Hungerford Bridge, past Big Issue sellers and a beggar shivering beneath a blanket. "Can you spare any change?" he called out and nobody could. My first ethical dilemma: is there any point in raising pounds 300 for charity if you do not respond when need is staring you in the face?

From Waterloo via the Elephant and Castle we came to the Old Kent Road. How strange it felt to be pounding the pavements of London in Gore-Tex boots, breathing in Friday afternoon traffic fumes, and that was through choice. As we passed the Thomas a Becket pub (the first sign that we were on an old pilgrim route) I fell into conversation with Richard. "That St Augustine's got a lot to answer for," he said, in a reference to the first Archbishop of Canterbury, the 1,400th anniversary of whose arrival in England was being celebrated that same weekend. Richard was a saxophonist who used to play with the Pogues, and an advocate of Creation Spirituality, the New Age Christianity that claims to liberate us from Augustinian guilt.

After tea and biscuits in Lewisham, we were soon out in the suburbs, with their manicured lawns and streets with names such as Pasture Road and Verdant Lane. On foot, it was surprising to discover just how small London was. Four hours after leaving Trafalgar Square we were on our first footpath; the forgotten sound of birdsong replaced the roar of cars. Soon we reached leafy Chislehurst, where a long, climbing road of mock-Tudor mansions with BMWs on gravel drives looking across to a golf course (what did the homeless pilgrims make of this, I wondered?) led to Scadbury Park, and a nature reserve alive with butterflies and wild flowers.

Swanley, a grim Sixties new town beside the M25, would not normally be a welcome sight, but after 17 miles of hard pavements it was a relief to arrive at the parish church and be greeted with vegetable lasagne and a service. I slept on the floor in front of the altar, and woke at 6am to aching shoulders and a chorus of snoring.

Once you have crossed the motorway, everything changes. Early the next day we climbed on to the North Downs, and soon we were following the ancient Pilgrims' Way through fields of rape and barley, past conical oast-houses and white-timbered mills and postcard villages beside the river Darent. Wherever we went, there was a genuine and touching welcome. We were invited into a garden in Stansted for coffee; given a ploughman's lunch in the village hall at Trottiscliffe (pronounced "Tros-ley"); and before we knew it we had covered another 18 miles and could see our next destination, the 13th-century priory at Aylesford.

The evening sun was turning the priory buildings honey-gold as we relished our first showers. But I foresook the comfortable option of renting a room for pounds 16.50 for another worthy night on the floorboards.

The next day was soon upon us. At Hollingbourne church, the Girl Guides prepared our Sunday lunch and I glanced around the churchyard at my fellow pilgrims. There was Robert, his face weatherbeaten from too many nights on the street, a DKNY cap on his head and a carrier bag containing his few possessions, including books to identify wild flowers along the way. There was Tim, a trainee Roman Catholic priest who had been making his own personal pilgrimage when he decided to come along with ours. There was Mallie, who must have been in her seventies, and Simeon, a seven-year- old boy walking with his Dad. And there were Martin and Bill, relishing their roles as the queens of camp with their shaved heads and earrings, kilts and tight leggings, and heavy innuendo about erecting their tent. No one batted an eyelid; even the solid church women who made our tea pretended not to notice.

At Charing, an olde-England village of timber-framed houses, we slept in the village hall, showered in the cricket pavilion and drank local beer in the Royal Oak. That night there was a poetry reading in the churchyard, which included everything from Chaucer and T S Eliot to Monty Python. The final day went past in a flurry of meals - brunch in the churchyard at Wye, a huge afternoon tea at Chartham, then a three-mile "family walk" along the river to Canterbury for an early supper in the Friends' Meeting House. I walked the final stretch with Errol, learning about the challenges of being both homeless and black. Charities staffed by white volunteers had shown unconscious prejudice; eventually St Martin had helped him to find a flat. "Last year I did this walk because I wanted to give something back to St Martin," he told me. "This year I'm doing it because it was such fun."

Canterbury cathedral loomed up through the apple blossom and suddenly there was a new spring in our steps. Of 71 miles, the last one was the easiest. I stumbled in to a warm welcome, a cup of tea, ratatouille pancakes and a foot massage beneath a birch tree. Then we made our way to the cathedral to give thanks for four heady Chaucerian days, of laughter and fellowship, walking and talking, and listening to Canterbury tales.

canterbury fact file

The eighth St Martin-in-the-Fields pilgrimage for homeless people will take place from 22-25 May 1998. There is a minimum charge of pounds 20 to cover food, basic accommodation, luggage transport and coach travel back to London at the end of the walk. You need to take a sleeping bag, good walking shoes and waterproof clothing. For further details or registration contact 0171-930-9194.

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