Category Archives: Virtual journeys

Virtual journeys – a pilgrimage to St Peter-on-the-Wall

St Peter-on-the-Wall

The restrictions are starting to come down around the world now. Soon we can start to think of roving further than the local park. Whilst we still remain generally confined, here is another, short, virtual journey for you to enjoy.

In June 2018, during that very long, very hot summer that we experienced in the UK, I needed to get away. My relationship with my partner of four years had suddenly ended not long before and I thought that some sort of pilgrimage might help me to see things in a better light. Where was I to go?

I am actively interested in The British Pilgrimage Trust and searched their site for suggested routes. I only had a few days. Their routes page has some lovely suggestions – do you know that 2020 is designated the year of British Pilgrimage (sigh)?

The route I selected was a three to four day walk in Essex called The St Peter’s Way. This pilgrimage leads you from the heart of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Essex, from the oldest wooden church in the world, St Andrew’s, Greensted, to Ongar Castle all the way to one of Britain’s most ancient and remote churches – St Peter’s-On-The-Wall, which has attracted pilgrims over the flat expanse of saltmarsh at Bradwell for over a millennium. I had arrived from London via the Central Line, taking it to its terminus, and then a taxi to Ongar.

The route follows in the pilgrim footsteps venturing through some of the most spectacular countryside in Essex – and it is good – through ancient woodland, over commons and hills, and down to the salt marshes on estuaries – Maldon Sea Salt anyone? – and coastline.

I walked across some of Britain’s most fertile farmland, weaving my way along the wildlife-rich River Roding, via the 12C church at Blackmore, and from the fragments of the lost Writtle Forest toward the bird-rich waters of Hanningfield Reservoir. I paid my respects to the rescued 14C Mundon Church where I found a pair of birds trapped inside (and shooed out), and the skeletal limbs of the Mundon Oaks beckoned me toward the sea.

Mundon Church

Passing a wedding reception in a lovely field setting, I walked through the village of Tillingham where I stopped to watch a gentle game of cricket on the green. The last few miles were very hard. It was so hot and the marshes induced disorientation. I had to use the sea wall as a guide, until eventually Saint Peter’s lonely shrine appeared in the distance. This church was built by a Lindisfarne monk, Bishop Cedd in 654 incorporating the Roman bricks and stones for the Saxon Shore fort, half of which still remains, the other half having been consumed by the sea.

The weather throughout was gorgeous, and so hot that I just slept out in my sleeping bag in woods, or overlooking the sea. At St Peter’s I settled down into what I think must be the pilgrim shelter, listening to the soft singing of a group from the Othona community, who welcomed me in to join in their prayer. For the rest of the evening and night I was alone, watching a beautiful sunset, except for a family of hares out to graze. I watched amazed as the male engaged in a hard fought battle with a stoat. I cannot remember who won.

Hare

In the morning I walked to a local town and caught a train back to Liverpool Street in London. Were my troubles solved? No. But I had an extraordinarily good walk in a part of England that may often be dismissed by walkers. I thoroughly recommend it.

Follow my route via this Google photo album.

Download a route guide here.

Finally, I wanted to say thank you to all those who have recently made small donations via the Donate button on the blog. You are very generous and I hope that you continue to enjoy the content of the site. Many of these donations go towards the cost of site hosting and the growing cloud storage costs for the pictures and other content. We remain the world’s leading site for content relating to Patrick Leigh Fermor which was my goal when I started this site back in 2010.

A video of the church.

Virtual journeys – Istanbul to Edinburgh

One of my favourite posts is about Owen Martel’s journey from Istanbul to Edinburgh. Posted in 2012 I have always enjoyed this video; I guess it lets me imagine myself on such a long, epic walk. Maybe it does the same for you too.

His video is an all-time favourite and it brought the excellent band Darlingside to my attention with their beautiful song “The Ancestor”. Their harmonies are superb.

The crazy Owen subsequently walked for seven months across the US pulling a cart.

Part of a series of posts to help you escape during the Covid-1 lockdown/travel restrictions.

A Lockdown walk to see the Micheldever bluebells

Bluebells in Itchen Wood, 23 April 2020

First of all I hope that you are all well, and those that you love. We must all be having differing experiences of the lockdowns in our various countries. Some may not have them at all. Others may be under much tighter restrictions than we have here in the UK. I have a friend in Milan who must be into his seventh week or more (don’t you find that getting a grip on time is such a problem?) and they really can hardly go out.

In the UK we are seeing the end in sight – we hope – and perhaps are learning how to adjust our behaviours, and understand better what our instructions mean we can and can’t do. There has been a strong emphasis on taking daily exercise. Here in Winchester we are fortunate that it is a very small city (a population of just 45,000), and we are surrounded by beautiful countryside. For many it will be within not more than a 5-10 minute walk, and we have no major developments of apartment blocks. Most people have (now very clean) air and space.

Nearby we have Micheldever Woods (with its smaller cousin Itchen Wood next to it) which is famous for its bluebells at this time of year. We are discouraged from driving to exercise spots, and I wanted to see the bluebells even in these strange times. So, on St George’s Day, 23 April, I set off late in the afternoon to walk through the beautiful Itchen Valley, past the villages of Easton, Avington (pop. 72), and Itchen Abbas, and up onto Itchen Down to approach Itchen Wood from the south. It was a stunning day. Very warm sunshine, the ground hard and dusty in places (it is only April!). The pretty villages had well-tended gardens. Hand-drawn and painted rainbow pictures, our symbol of hope in our National Health Service (which has done a magnificent job), were in many windows.

There were few people about, but a lot of cyclists taking advantage of the quiet roads and the beautiful countryside to take their exercise. A brand new telegraph pole gave out a strong smell of creosote, a smell that always takes me back to my childhood; the smell of recently maintained fences each summer. I stopped in the beautiful, bucolic Avington Park with its large lake, and the elegant house that was once the home to the Shelley family.

Sometimes I heard families talking in hushed tones behind hedges in their green gardens. An occasional ladder propped against a wall for some essential maintenance task that perhaps could wait until tomorrow, or even the day after that. The birds seemed especially happy singing and chirping to each other, constantly crossing my path. The only other noise was the sound of farm machinery at various places; reassuring that some economic activity is still taking place.

Avington House and park

After about 3-4 hours of walking, passing hares out for their evening socials, I reached Itchen Wood, which is mainly a beech wood, managed by the Forestry Commission to encourage healthy timber and excellent conditions for the bluebells. I decided just to stay there for a while. I have always preferred this smaller wood to it’s larger neighbour Micheldever Wood. In normal times the car parks there would have been full, and cars are parked along the roadside, with many families walking out to enjoy this marvellous blue and green sight. Most miss the smaller Itchen, even at busy times, where it is possible to find peace.

On this occasion I was essentially alone. I did spy one or two other walkers or runners, like ghostly figures some way off in the dappled evening light. Birds sang and I just rested, enjoying the purple-blue carpet all around me, inhaling the subtle perfume of these amazing flowers. I stumbled across some white flowers and had to get closer. Were these some sort of ‘albino’ bluebell? Later research tells me that they indeed were, being quite rare, only one in 10,000 bulbs being albino.

Angel on my shoulder, Itchen Down, 23 April 2020

Eventually I made my way back home via a slightly different route. Looking back the sun was slowly setting and I took more photos, capturing an image of an angel, hopefully looking after us all. My dinner was a can of cold beans (the walk was planned in haste and I grabbed what I had at hand!) as I sat on the edge of Itchen Down overlooking this really beautiful valley with, perhaps, the finest chalk stream (it is a significant river, but we call it a stream) in the world. The trout certainly think so.

As dusk fell I revelled in the fading light and then the darkness. I enjoy walking at night. I dipped back down to the now silent road that runs through from Winchester to Alresford, and joined a path that has many boardwalks to take me across a wide reedy marsh that contains many pools and tributaries of the river until they all join as one before Easton, the closest village to Winchester. In the dusk light I could see many bats flying fast and sure to wherever they were going. Most other birds were now silent. Yes, there was an occasional owl call. Venus was bright in the western sky and was there to accompany me all the way home, slowly descending on its downward arc.

As I crossed onto the small minor road that runs to the south side of the river, there was some excitement amongst the sheep near Avington house. What it was I do not know. With just a mile or so to go I pressed on in the dark, past pretty brick cottages with bright orange-yellow lights, shining out through leaded windows, never seeing the families within. I really was the only person abroad. It was thrilling. Occasionally I was illuminated by house security lights that would pop on, casting my giant shadow across the road, or sometimes on to a house wall opposite making me look 12 feet tall.

Finally I came to the barrier of the M3 motorway, took the underpass and was greeted by an illuminated sign to drivers telling them to keep journeys only to essential ones, a reminder that our life has changed so much so fast. I had crossed from country to town by taking that tunnel. Stopping at the petrol station I bought some beer to have once at home. A policeman was there to buy a snack. We spoke. I asked how things were going and if he and his colleagues were well. He told me it was all fine and the the people of Hampshire were doing what they were told with very few problems. ‘Normal’ crime was way down. There were two police cars. The other was driven by his colleague. Patrolling is now done by social distancing and that means two cars per patrol to keep each officer separate from the other.

The few hundred yards home passed quickly as I walked up what used to be Winnall Down, now a housing estate. The windows of the fire station were covered in children’s rainbow pictures of thanks to all the workers in the NHS who have risked their lives for us.

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I never meant to write so much. It was just meant to be a quick introduction to the photo album which catalogues this short journey. Many of you enjoyed the pictures I posted of my long walk on the Ridgeway last autumn, so I thought that you might like this. Perhaps a little escapism. Excuse the selfies, this album is also for my children. That is my ‘apocalypse beard’. It will go when all this is over. The pictures were taken only with my Samsung smartphone and my technique is pretty much point and shoot. Sometimes you get lucky. I may make up a few more albums to share from my long walks if you wish, so please send me your comments.

The photos can be found here in this Google album. Keep safe and well.

And here is a bit of a map of the route from my Strava.

Finally, a short tour of the grounds of Avington park which shows some of the route. It is a beautiful part of the world.