Nearly there…

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Packed and ready to go. When will this bundle of 7.5 kilos begin to feel like 100?

Suddenly it has hit me. In 48 hours I won’t be in Kansas anymore (well, Lincolnshire). I will be en route to the start of the longest walk of my life. It has been strange having A-level and GCSE results days go past, seeing how my classes have done but knowing that I won’t be back in the classroom in a few weeks. Instead, all is new and a little unnerving… but incredibly exciting as well. Some recent experiences and thoughts, from the practical to the contemplative.

What am I taking with me?

To be honest, more than many peregrinos (Spanish for pilgrim) because I am planning on quite a bit of sleeping out under the stars. I’ve still got the pack in at a reasonable and very comfortable weight. The list of kit for anyone interested:

  • Osprey Exos 48l bag
  • Outdoor Research Helium Bivy
  • Thermarest Neo Air Mattress
  • Sea To Summit Spark II S/bag
  • Medical Stuff: ibuprofen (vitamin “I”) / plasters and stuff I personally need such as catheters / alcohol wipes / spare antibiotics
  • Cleaning stuff: Lush solid shampoo / household soap / toothpaste + travel brush (no deodorant… run other pilgrims, run!)
  • Clothes: not much – 3 x lightweight walking t-shirts / lightweight fleece / underwear / socks / zip off trousers / sun hat
  • Z-Packs Cuban Fibre Poncho (amazingly lightweight – can be used as groundsheet)
  • Electronics: iPad mini / Kindle / Sony compact camera / iPod nano (mostly for pedometer) + accompanying power leads / convertor for Europe.
  • Cooking: Solo Stove small pan / meth burner / matches / ultralight frying pan / homemade seasoning / coffee / plastic mug, plate and spork
  • Medium size Trek Towel
  • Notebook and a few pens
  • Prescription Sunglasses / Case + actual glasses (contact lenses for emergency breakage)
  • Money Body Pouch Thing – Passport / Cash / Insurance details / Credencial (pilgrim’s passport)
  • Water 2 Go filter bottle
  • Spare waterproof bags for grocery shop + wash bag

I think that’s about it. I could certainly trim it down (kindle AND an iPad?) but have tried to get the balance between the kit I think will enhance the journey and the whole lightweight philosophy. I guess I can always post stuff home if not being used.

How has the physical preparation been?

Wonderful – five months of subtle discovery. I don’t think I have quite got myself in peak condition due to a few bouts of illness, but a few 25-30km treks have been done in under 6 hours recently with no blisters or excessive physical strain. Since working with the element earth in a more intensive and focussed way, I have been exploring the many incredible footpaths of South Lincolnshire / Rutland, and I cannot overstate the many gifts this process has brought me: a greater sense of place; noticing the seasonal changes in now familiar locations; stronger connections with Awen, and outright “spiritual experiences” on a couple of occasions. Whether that is a flow of chemicals to the brain, or something other, it has been received with gratitude.

So, why am I walking more than 500 miles this September?

I wonder how many times this will be discussed on the pilgrimage trail with others? A few years ago I travelled to the Amazon rainforest to partake in a series of ceremonies within a Shamanic tradition. I have realised that the reason I am headed for Spain is similar to the reason I headed for South America. Both that journey and my upcoming one have seemed akin to a “threshing floor” – it is time to take stock of life, let go of baggage. Through stripping everything back for a time from the complexities of modern living I think that we can and should attempt to connect to the present moment and recognise what is serving us and what is not. I am also always on the lookout for experiences that might put you in the way of beauty and can engage with questions that lie beyond all of the distractions and fluff so prevalent in our culture (for example, see the BBC in its glory for a spectacular showcase of what I mean).

In truth, I have no idea what will happen, how it will be, if I will finish it and what effects the experience will have. Like anything that I look back on in my life and recognise as having been worthwhile, it feels risky.

Why a Christian pilgrimage route for a Neo-Pagan bard like yourself?

Actually, historically the route across Northern Spain was made by Pagans within the Roman Empire long before the legend of St James became the lure of this trail. They travelled to Finisterre (the end of the world) on the Western coastline of Galicia, which is where I intend to finish my outer walk. There are sites along the way that I wish to visit – from the woods near Pamplona that hid covens in the 16th Century, to the rock formations in Galicia which were – apparently – Druid temples millennia ago. But I also look forward to seeing the Christian heritage along the way and meeting may people of all different faiths (and non) who are drawn to walk this path. One thing I have been bad at since “going Druid” is talking openly about it to others. I hope that I can get used to doing so amongst others who are likely to be walking their own spiritual path.

What will I miss? Is there a compromise?

Of course – taking a road seems to logically mean not taking another one. In approximate order of what I’m going to miss the most:

  1. My wife – without doubt, I would choose to travel with my best friend at all times if I could. As much as I would love to dispense with electronic technology all together, I think Face Time will frequently be used and appreciated! I already can’t wait for her to come out and meet me.
  2. My cat – sad or what! particularly when I’m fairly sure she won’t notice I’m gone.
  3. Hot water dispensed by convenient taps in house – I could probably extend this to many home comforts, but this is the one that I think will be most missed.
  4. Seeing my garden and the Welland Valley change throughout September – since walking a Druid path I have been awakened to charting changes across the wheel of the year. Having begun at Samhain, this will be the “missing month” until next year.
  5. Parts of my job – whilst I could rant on about the downsides of being a teacher in  2016, there is so much that I love as well. Starting out with new classes and welcoming back your Y11s/Y13s was always so enjoyable… still, maybe a cold San Miguel at the end of a beautiful day’s walking next Thursday will convince me that it’s not so bad after all!

Two more sleeps (naps excluded) and a few final arrangements to make and it is – I hope – Buen Camino! I hope to update the blog not too frequently, but certainly before the end.

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Avebury, Glastonbury, Becky Falls and Cornwall : Spiritual Preparation

My pilgrimage on The Camino is now under a month away and alongside some physical slog to get the muscles in a worthy state, I thought it would be good to do some UK exploration to start to focus on my intentions for Spain. Here’s where we travelled:

  1. Avebury

I have driven through before but never stopped. In my view, the site is far more moving and easy to connect to than Stone Henge, its near neighbour. The reasons seem obvious: despite English Heritage’s pot-holed car-park costing £8, this is the final dealings you need to have with any modern apparatus before going to spend time with the stones. Stonehenge’s cloak of tourism and its barriers, shuttle buses and glitzy cafe shroud anything deeper for me. And of course with Avebury you can get up close at any point around the huge circle. There is undoubtably a special energy to this place (see lady dowsing above!) and whilst it will always be speculation to try and pin down historical reasons for what and why these sarsen stones were erected here, it is not hard to feel in touch with the ancestors and their reverence for the land around them – hopefully not to romanticise too much.

An unexpected joy was what I will ignorantly call “The Clootie Tree”. I am not sure if there is any wider significance to the tree amidst the stones that carried hundreds of prayers in the form of cloth and ribbon, but to me it stirred up and then made still a beautiful pool of peace inside. Since walking a Bardic path I see more and more expressions of “old” spiritualities still breaking through the modern consciousness. Little rituals and signals that an undoubtably Pagan spirit that was either co-opted or suppressed by Christianity still lives on in these lands.

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2. Glastonbury

After the June OBOD gathering, this town has become a special place for me, as it has for many before. It was where my spiritual meanderings coalesced into something concrete, performing my first Pagan songs at the Eisteddford and more importantly meeting The Setantii Grove who reached out and gave me so much warmth and welcome. It was wonderful to come back so soon and introduce my wife to just some of the incredible spiritual heritage and present spiritual activity of the place. Here are some pictures from our stay:

This is a place that is so imbued with spiritual heritage and contemporary New Age spirituality that anyone with Pagan leanings must be affected in some way. If my Bardic Path could in one way be simply described as “the search for Awen”, this place allows it to flow, and like last time, I could tangibly feel creativity stir and managed to write a new song that I hope will fully take shape and be played to an audience at some point down the line.

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3. Becky Falls, Dartmoor

After Glastonbury we headed West. Planning to sleep out wild-camping in Dartmoor we first visited the majestic Becky Falls. It is a waterfall, running over huge boulders through a deep forested valley. Away from the coffee shop, petting zoo and kid-infrastructure, it is a cathedral for any Druid. There are paths where you can get away from the crowd and spend time with the society of the forest. We spend considerable time here and both agreed that it was one of the most stunning places we had been in the UK – not for the “size” of “scale” of any of the natural features, just for the energy of place. The “money tree” photographed below yet another sign of ritual activity in the land, not deemed Pagan even by its makers, but a sure sign of the enduring need for ceremony, symbol and union between us and the land.

 

4. Cornwall

Final stop was the South-Western end of things in England. We camped near Mevagissey, enjoying the Cornish coastline, beer and chips on the beach and the terrifying roads that luckily were dealt with in the trusty Volvo! A great end to a journey that allowed much thinking about the longer journey ahead and a reminder that these islands hold so many doorways to move through into other realms of mind and Spirit.

Peace to you all.

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“I must start where I stand…”

“I must start where I stand. As children, we used to be told that if you dug a really deep hole, you’d come out in Australia. I think in some ways this is very true. If any of us dig deep enough where we stand, we will find ourselves connected to all other parts of the world.” 

Soil and Soul, P1 (2005)

One book that changed my life is Alastair McIntosh’s Soil and Soul. I read it when so much of the Theology syllabus at Cambridge University seemed inane and pointless. The book worked the slow, ember-like magic that delivered fire into my soul and smouldered there for years, even when the initial flames had died down. I have re-read it a number of times and it has always brought me back from the brink of surrendering to soullessness. It is a book that on one level documents a grass-roots political campaign in Scotland to reclaim an island from a Laird, and another campaign to protect the Hebridean islands from corporate destruction. Yet on a more universal level it illuminates how poetry, politics, ecology and theology interrelate in ourselves and in the wider sphere of our communities -local and global. It is McIntosh who first introduced me to the idea that to relate positively to the rest of the world, we need to dig deep first and to know our roots.

Human roots always run deep, but for now I live in Lincolnshire and have done for more than a decade. It is now through walking a path of Druidism that I am starting to acknowledge the recent roots that I have laid down here and to nurture them. I work ritually in the land and walk the footpaths of the Welland Valley. When possible I sleep under the vast skies of the East. This in turn brings inspiration – more intense and more frequent connection to Awen which has in turn unleashed a new energy in my song-writing and poetry. I can see clearly how much of my former assumptions have muted this flow over the last decade. In sleeping out in the woods just eight miles from my front door I sense myself perhaps being able to understand farther fields with greater clarity.

It is now a more distant journey that I want to document in this blog. In two weeks time I leave my eleven year career in secondary school teaching. Despite a fast paced, promotion laden whirlwind of professional life (that’s what we all want, right?) I end it spiritually, physically and mentally exhausted. Now, looking beyond the strict accountability measures, the neo-liberal indoctrination we serve our youth, and vicious exam grade driven culture – beyond all this, I am looking for something simpler. In just six weeks time I fly south to start the 600 mile walk from St-Jean-pied-de-Port in the Pyrenees, to Finisterre on the Galician coast of Spain. It is known popularly as the Camino-de-Santiago, or The Way of St James and tens of thousands walk it every year.

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The long journey ahead

This is now known as a Christian route but this pilgrimage was made by Pagan believers long before the medieval Catholic custom was established. I walk to “the end of the world” in order to answer a call of Spirit to break loose from society’s ties for a while, to meditate, contemplate and chase Awen evermore. I am working deeply with the elements on the Bardic Grade of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, the order of which I am a member, and I am seeing this as a journey of fire, inside and out. I guess I will be writing about a whole host of things: from people I meet to good tips for any who may make this or other journeys. I will possibly bore with political rants and amateur philosophy, but I hope that there will be enough to stir a few thoughts, even if they are in disagreement with what I write. I want to unashamedly go in deep with my motivations for this journey and leave no stone unturned in making the most of this experience.

With peace.

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Pilgrims walking The Way