Friday, 7 January 2011

The idea of the 'grand tour'

This Christmas, after 40 years working in education, I retired and took the pension. It all came about at fairly short notice, so I haven't yet got used to the idea. I say 'retirement' - but it's really only partial retirement since I'm staying on at the university on a half-time workload. Nonetheless, I feel it has to be marked in a special way - and for me that's a grand tour of Italy.

The idea for this came from a book I read which left a lasting impression. It was Hilaire Belloc's Path to Rome written in 1902. In the book, he recounts how, on becoming a Catholic, he made a vow to walk on pilgrimage to Rome. I thought this was a splendid idea and I loved his 'freestyle' approach to the walk - his lack of preparedness and willingness to 'ad lib' his way across Europe. Indeed, this inspired me to undertake a much shorter pilgrimage myself some four years ago.

The wife, my three boys and me.

My family lives in Surrey - a few miles from the the North Downs long distance footpath. This was once the Pilgrim's Way - a medieval route taken by pilgrims from Winchester cathedral to that of Canterbury. My own walking pilgrimage (in 2006) took me from my home in Ewell to Winchester along the North Downs Way and from thence to Portsmouth via the Pilgrim's Trail. Here I caught the ferry to Cherbourg in France and, backpacking for 10 days, I made my way along (yet another) old pilgrim route to Mont St Michel.

The pilgrimage was a wonderful experience and I retain very happy memories of the walk. I loved the rhythm of walking all day long with a bottle of red wine stored in my haversack and a baguette peeping out the top, of stopping off in small villages to pray in ancient churches, of reading long lists of the dead on lovingly cared-for war memorials (immensely sad), of the sights and sounds of the Normandy coastline, and of engaging conversations with helpful locals. And finally - the piece de résistance - of walking with others across the vast expanse of sands of Mont St Michel bay to the great abbey itself.

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