27 May 2017
Twenty years ago today I was in the middle of a long walk across England, following the pilgrimage path of the Wife of Bath character from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
On 29 May 1997, while I was at Dorking, I learned that Anna Apostolidis was born in Washington, D.C. My great-niece, Anna was the first person born into the new generation of my family. I sent her a postcard and promised to bring her to England on her twentieth birthday. The time has arrived! Off we go tomorrow to recreate the pilgrimage, with some assistance from a car and two other companions, my sister Kathy and my niece Jeannie (Anna’s grandmother and mother).
I kept a journal on my first pilgrimage, which I edited and submitted to a publisher. It didn’t get me a book deal, but through that effort I met Kit Ward, who became my agent. She suggested that I turn my non-fiction travel narrative into a novel and Paradise Walk was born.
For the purpose of this blog, I’m going to present my 20-year-old narrative, along with some current comments and pictures. Off we go! (I'll put my original text in blue.)
Picture: The path near Chawton (Jane Austen's house) in 1997.
Introduction: “Wan that Aprille...”
April Fools Day, 1997. Eighteen inches of snow fell overnight. I was up to my neck in the Canterbury Tales and, frankly, not a happy pilgrim. The flowers of May seemed far away; England seemed far away; I had just discovered, too late, that I didn’t like the Wife of Bath; and I was locked into walking across England in six weeks time because I had blabbed about it so much that now there was no way out without looking like an idiot. Fear stalked me in the final weeks of preparation—fear of physical pain, fear of being injured, but mostly the fear of embarrassment. What if I couldn’t do it?
At the age of forty-one I wanted to mark a year that was a turning point in my life by doing something completely different; something that was physically challenging but also meaningful in some way. My father had died a few months earlier at the age of eighty-two, and as I reflected on his life, I realized that the middle point had been the year I was born, when he was forty-one. While my walk may have been part of some mid-life crisis, I was not so bold as to identify it as the middle point of my life, because I was also revisiting a lot of Jane Austen, and she died at forty-one.
I hadn’t read The Canterbury Tales since high school, but the Wife of Bath character seemed like a great framework on which to hang my adventure. I remembered her as a big, earthy, adventuresome woman, a sort of proto-Feminist character (and not unlike myself, I thought). A walk from Bath to Canterbury seemed doable in a month. I sketched out a rough route and timetable, wrote a proposal to take a sabbatical from my teaching position, and laid plans through the winter for a long walk to begin in the middle of May.
In retrospect, the logical way to begin preparing for a long walk is probably to do a lot of walking, but being a sedentary creature by both inclination and habit, I did most of my preparation by reading. The first book was the greatest disappointment; when it came time to reacquaint myself with the Wife of Bath I found that I didn’t like her. The things I had remembered were still there, she was big, earthy, and adventuresome, but Chaucer made all those things into jokes. She was, in fact, the antithesis of the model woman of the medieval period. She was also a book burner, the victim (and practitioner) of spousal abuse, and told a story about a rapist-knight in King Arthur’s court. As I had planned my trip around her, this was something of a disappointment, but the tale did provide me with an opportunity to incorporate the Arthurian sites of southern England into my route, and I still had a fallback position in Elizabeth Bennet.
There was no question about what I thought of Jane Austen’s heroine, because I have started each of the last twenty-five years by reading Pride and Prejudice. Most recently I read it as I sat with my father in his last days. Pride and Prejudice is like an old friend to me, and as Jane Austen’s life was largely lived along the trail between Bath and Canterbury, I thought that Elizabeth Bennet could provide a good counterpoint to the Wife of Bath.
These were the things on my mind as I bought several maps and began to plan a walk that would take thirty days. The route would incorporate several of the great medieval pilgrimage sites: Bath, Wells, Glastonbury, Shaftesbury, Salisbury, Winchester, Westminster, Canterbury; all the places mentioned in Canterbury Tales: Southwark, Deptford, Greenwich, Rochester, Sittingbourne, Boughton, Harbledown and Canterbury; several of the King Arthur Sites: Bath/Badon, Glastonbury, Cadbury, Broadchalke, Winchester; and the Jane Austen sites of Bath, Winchester, Chawton and London.
As a weaver and a traveller, Dame Alison would have found herself perfectly situated at Bath. From nearby Bristol she would have departed for her voyages to the continent. By the fourteenth century regular connections made it possible for a woman to travel in company to the coast of Spain, where the Wife, along with thousands of other English pilgrims visited the shrine of Santiago de Compostela. On a voyage to Rotterdam she could have made her connection down the Rhine to Cologne to see the relics of the three kings. And after visiting Rome she would have sailed from Venice for her three trips to Jerusalem. Chaucer mentions her visits to each of these places. Though he doesn’t mention any English pilgrimages besides Canterbury, she would also certainly have visited those important sites in her own neighborhood, Wells and Glastonbury, as well as those a bit further afield. Her own route would almost certainly have been more direct to London than mine was, and we know that she rode a horse rather than walked. Chaucer describes her as a good horsewoman, riding astride at a time most women rode side-saddle, and the earliest picture of her, in the Ellesmere manuscript, shows her comfortably sitting on the back of a horse, a whip in her hand, spurs on her feet
I tried to get in a bit of a walk each day in the weeks before I left, but one thing or another generally got in the way, though I did make a walk of about two miles along the bike path in Woods Hole several times. I bought two good pairs of shoes, each of which cost more than any pair of shoes I had ever owned. The French Mephistos were touted as the best walking shoes by everyone I asked, and those and a pair of Nikes would, I figured, meet whatever surface came along. I wore one or the other of them constantly for several weeks and had them comfortably broken in by the time I left.
My pack was heavy with the extra shoes, a laptop computer (with a battery charger and electrical adapter), a medical kit, and several pounds of books and other research materials. I brought only one change of clothes. During the time that I was making these preparations, I read two books that greatly influenced the way I was thinking about my walk. The first was Hilaire Belloc’s classic, The Old Road, the other was A. Wainwright’s Pennine Journey. I also read The Canterbury Tales in a verse translation, a prose translation, and began to struggle through the original Middle English.
Belloc would become important from Winchester westward for a few days, but Wainwright began to effect me immediately. Wainwright is pretty much the doyen of English long-distance walkers. He wrote some forty guide books on the subject and pioneered several routes, including a coast-to-coast walk from St. Bees Head to Robin Hood’s Bay. (When I told people that I was going to walk across England, the first response was usually: “Are you going with a group?” The second question was “Are you doing St. Bees Head to Robin Hood’s Bay?”) When I began to consider making a walk, my friend Gaby Kaye gave me a copy of Wainwright’s book, A Pennine Journey: The Story of a Long Walk in 1938.
Wainwright effected me in three ways: his description of himself as a walker made me realize how much I did not know about what I was doing; he made me very afraid of bulls; and he made me reconsider again my evolving position on the Wife of Bath. The truth is that Wainwright, while a stylish writer, is also a sexist pig, and his musings on women made me ponder again what Chaucer was up to, and how much the attitudes of English men had evolved in five hundred years.
Wainwright wore a flannel suit on his walk, complete with vest & tie; he carried no other clothes, and slept in his suit at least twice. He walked some twenty miles a day, in the process climbing, crossing, and descending ridges of 2000 feet. He knew his pace so well, he claimed, that after a careful study of the map and the landscape, a quick glance at his watch would tell him his exact position. Clearly Wainwright would not be my model. Because I could walk two miles in my lunch hour, I presumed I could walk eight to ten miles a day without a problem—given that walking would be my primary occupation on this trip. I rejected the advice of my brother and other detractors that I ought to walk eight to ten miles a day for a few weeks before setting out. I had no idea what my pace was, I wasn’t sure I was going to even wear a watch, but I did share Wainwright’s love of maps. His comments about women goaded me on. Three different times he says women lack imagination, he never “witnessed genuine enthusiasm in one of them.” (Sometimes there was the “pretense of it” but the “divine spark” was missing.) According to Wainwright “it is the comparative deficiency in intellect that makes woman’s claim for equality with man pathetic.” Women are “strangers to dependability” and “have not the rigid standards of men, nor the same loyalty.” It comes as no surprise when Wainwright confides that he finds his own company “vastly entertaining.” I liked Alison, the Wife of Bath, better for having read Wainwright. What English women have had to put up with!
Old friends Joan and Ron Gould offered me a base of operations from their home on Paradise Walk in London, a cellular phone to use in case of an emergency on the road, and a ride to Bath to get started. I flew from Boston to Heathrow on the 14th of May 1997 filled with enthusiasm and trepidation.