Radlett to St Albans: A Pilgrimage
This #YearofPilgrimage walk was hard. It was only six miles or so, fairly flat, done in about 4 hours, but it felt a lifetime.
The worst was the field with the sheep.
It shouldn't have been this way, but somehow it was, and I was thwarted at every turn.
According to the British Pilgrimage Trust route, the path across this field veered left before following the river to the right and across a bridge. According to my map, though, the path veered right and approached the bridge head-on. Clearly, there was some discrepancy.
However, that wasn't the uppermost concern in my mind as I took shelter behind another withered tree. To call this a path was generous. I was traipsing along what was basically a ditch running along a line of trees. This ditch then veered very definitely to the right, and not to the left. Oh well, I sighed, it was clearly an established route across this field – the line of trees seemed deliberately placed to offer some kind of minimal shelter from wind and rain, anyway.
So I followed the line of trees until it stopped and the path ran out across the open field. After a few metres, though, the path hit a wide, deep puddle; a puddle so vast, I thought I'd reached the river early. I found one signpost for the footpath, but the next sign was on an island in the distance. Again, I mourned the lack of a staff for this route, but honestly, I needed a ferry more than a staff.
I tracked further and further to the right, hoping to find dry land, but most of the field had turned from grass to marsh. I expected to see faces in the water, fingers reaching out to drag me under.
The sheep in the next field could see me getting perilously close, and every woolly head was turned in my direction. How dangerous, I wondered, are startled sheep? How dangerous is a farmer who thinks you might be about to startle his flock?
It turns out sheep will generally run away rather than face confrontation, and as luck would have it I found a shallow enough patch of marsh just before I reached their field. It was a hairy moment.
Alas, this wasn't the end of my tribulations. The rest of the field was taken up by more marsh, designed to frustrate my progress. I stopped every few metres, to assess where I could go next, and very nearly broke down. My glasses were coated in water, so I couldn't see three feet ahead, I was cold, wet-through and increasingly aching. What chance did I have of getting anywhere?
Finally, I made it to the actual river crossing, and a dry patch under a railway bridge.
After that, I swore off fields and mud. If there was a chance of getting onto a real road, I promised myself, I was going to take it. Tarmac might not be part of the authentic medieval pilgrim experience, but I was willing to embrace a little modern technology by this point.
Of course, the path then ran straight into another field, and I was soon fighting again for every step, picking my way through sunken tractor ruts and not daring to slow down enough to look up and check my direction – that's when your boots get sucked off your feet!
The second worst part was the field immediately after the East European stablehand drove me off private land. Here was another path that had been submerged under a river. The walk through sucking mud felt endless, I was dragging half the field out on my boots, and I could feel both wind and terrain dragging my pace down. Later, I called this the field of death: I found myself chanting “Don’t let me die in this field”, over and over. Luckily, this one matched the map and I was able to escape.
From the aerial view, it looks as though you can avoid the field of death altogether by cutting up a curving footpath and then along a nice straight road, toward the River Ver. I can report from experience that attempting to do so is a mistake.
This was a section of the BPT route I wasn't convinced by. There are stretches where, when I compared the route to satellite images, the designers seem to have optimistically joined a few points on a map together in the hope that there's a way of walking between them. Or possibly the mapping software has put straight lines in place of real, winding paths. (Disclaimer: in general, I should have had more faith in the designers).
But I was more willing to trust the satellites, so I headed through an open black gate and up the curving footpath towards the River Ver, and Drop Lane. This was easy going, I thought, and I should make good time. With the open gate and no signs prohibiting entry, I thought I'd be allowed to walk this way. And even if not, on the good walking surface I could do three miles an hour easily, so wouldn't be around long enough for anyone to notice.
I nearly made it too.
The path ran by some horse paddocks, and in the distance I could make out a man in a high vis jacket. Pretty soon, just as I got onto the last long bend leading me back onto the BPT route, he'd cut across the paddocks and intercepted me.
“Hello?” He called, with an Eastern European accent, “are you alright?”
“Yes,” I said, cheerily, hoping to dispel his curiosity.
“This is private area,” he told me, blocking the path. “Didn’t you see the signs?”
“No,” I said, truthfully, “isn’t there a footpath through here?” I pointed off behind him, but he didn't take the hint to let me pass.
“No, is another farm. Let me drive you back out to the path.”
“I can walk,” I said, turning back to show my willingness to leave. Obviously, I didn't want to get into his car; my mother taught me not to accept lifts from strangers, and besides, I was on a pilgrimage – using a car would be cheating!
“Is better I drive you,” the man said, still sounding friendly enough, but also with a tone that suggested he wasn't offering me a choice, “before my boss gets mad.” Oh dear, I thought, he's very keen I get off this land. He's not just being helpful.
I kept smiling as we got into his 4x4, feeling a bit like the stereotype posh, privileged English traveller who's wandered into something he doesn't quite understand (a sort of Bertie Wooster) and manages to wander blithely back out unharmed, despite the carnage wreaked around him. At least, I was hoping to get out unharmed...
“Have you come from Radlett?” the man asked as he drove.
“Where are you going?”
“Oh, wow. Is far,” he told me, while I wondered if this story sounded more plausible than, say, a plan to come and steal a horse. It crossed my mind that had I been someone else – someone less, say, white, well-spoken, bespectacled, or obviously ill-equipped for trekking across countryside – I might not have had such a friendly reception.
“It's about six miles,” I said, as if that was nothing. To be fair, the Abingdon to Oxford walk two days earlier had been more than twice as long.
“Oh yes.” Except for this bit, where I'm being escorted off the estate I now realised I was possibly trespassing on. I felt like mentioning a pilgrimage might be pushing my luck; I already sounded fairly implausible, even to myself.
“This is the gate you came through?”
“Ah, yes, thanks!” I couldn't get out of that car quick enough. But he let me go, and I assume never mentioned any of this to his employer.
Instead of using their nice, smooth road, I headed off into another quagmire of a path, and onto the field of death.
Eventually, I made it into the urbanised centre of St Albans, and, after navigating a few more submerged paths and parks, turned a corner to find myself at the bottom of a hill leading steeply up to the cathedral. I was soaked, sore and starving, so the prospect of a roof over my head at last, somewhere to sit, and the special St Albans bun on offer in the cafe was very welcome.
I felt a sense of achievement, sitting and writing this in the cafe, but I was glad not to be out on the walk any more.
I really want to write something positive about this experience, but it's a struggle. Looking back, I'd say I enjoyed myself, I'm glad to have done this journey, and I was thrilled to be walking up that final approach through the old Abbey gardens to the cathedral door. But I'm also aware that my account of the day sounds like I had a horrible time, and I know why it sounds like that; in the moment, it was pretty horrible. But you have to go through some adversity in life, I suppose, and adversity makes the reward that much sweeter. Maybe that's the life lesson from this particular journey.
There was a lot of trekking across random fields and paths that were not paths at all. I don’t mean that they were muddy rather than slightly paved, or a bit rocky, I mean they were barely visible tracks across bare fields, or sometimes entirely submerged. When you’re struggling through mud, the walk doesn’t give you time to think. You aren’t reaching a meditative state; you’re fighting on through wind and rain, battling for every step. You can’t transcend, as pilgrimage is supposed to allow for. The monkey chatter doesn’t quieten down and let you think: the monkey is bashing cymbals and shouting “Don’t let me die in this field!”
I think the biggest lesson I've learnt from this weekend of pilgrimages to Oxford, London and St Albans has been that March is too early in the year for such journeys. I should have paid more attention to the opening of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales:
'Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote/ The droghte of March hath perced to the roote […] Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.'