May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields and,
Until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.
Canon Matthew Rushton at Rochester Cathedral sent us on our way with this popular Irish blessing as we set off to walk the first day of the new 70-mile Augustine Camino that culminates at the Shrine of St Augustine in Ramsgate, Kent.
We began on the ancient pilgrim steps leading to the shrine of St William of Perth, the Scottish saint murdered by his adopted son in 1201 just outside Rochester, while making pilgrimage to Canterbury.
Our walk coincided with the launch by the Archdioese of Southwark of its new pilgrimage page designed designed to cater to the growing demand. Pilgrimages to Lourdes, Canterbury and the Holy Land also feature. And now Pope Francis has authorised pilgrimages to Medjugorje, one there cannot be far down the line.
According to our leader, Andrew Kelly, the founder of the Camino Augustine, The latest statistics from the Santiago Pilgrim Office show that more than 300,000 pilgrims pilgrims walked at least 100 km to the Shrine of St James in 2018 and more than 6000 of these were from Britain. "In Italy the Via Francigena is increasingly popular. It is now possible to walk from Oslo to Trondheim along St Olav's Way and here in Britain there are many new pilgrim routes including the St Thomas Way from Swansea to Hereford," he writes.
Alan Franks, who joined our pilgrimage, has been on others including one to celebrate the centenary of Hubert Parry's setting of William Blake's Jerusalem, organised by the British Pilgrimage Trust. Many of the trust pilgrims, like about half those who walk the Camino, are not religious, but perhaps following spiritual "paths" inspired by nature and landscape.
The Augustine Camino is overtly Christian, with its own chaplain, Father Simon Heans (below), who is manager of the Shrine of St Augustine and National Pugin Centre in Ramsgate, Kent, recently improved by a Lottery grant and where there is a programme of events marking St Augustine's Week at the end of the month.
"Having been a long-distance walker for decades I appreciate above all, the change of perspective that accompanies arriving on foot. In place of the stress of driving, walkers arrive tired but happy, ready to engage with the local community and the local attractions," says Kelly.
The camino takes in Catholic and Anglican churches and other places of interest – such as lovely out-of-the way pubs for lunch. St Andrew's church in Wickhambreaux and the chapel at St Nicholas Hospital, Harbledown are among the places taken in on the camino. As well as Rochester, it goes via Canterbury Cathedral and crosses but does not follow the well-known Pilgrim's Way. Inspired by the well-trodden Camino de Santiago in Spain, it would normally take five days. We did just the first leg, ending at Aylesford Carmelite Priory, and taking in some impressive views.
"The Augustine Camino is an attempt to recreate a walking pilgrimage tradition in England," says Kelly. He said that to make it authentically in the actual steps of a route such as the Pilgrim's Way, much of it would sent walkers along the busy A2. Instead, we set off across fields and country by-ways, slowly leading the roar of traffic outside Rochester behind.
We enjoy the chance so sing as we walk, to pray and indulge in the licence to talk about subjects such as relics and roods, ending at Aylesford Priory, founded by the Carmelites on their return from the Crusades. It is here we get our "pilgrimage passport stamp" and stop for refreshment in the medieval tradition of pilgrims down the ages.
"Here in Kent we have something truly unique – not just a network of rights of way that allow easy access to our park-like countryside but some of England’s most important sacred buildings which show the marks of the Reformation and the extraordinary renewal that has taken place in the recent past," says Kelly.
Listen to Bernadette Kehoe's report for the BBC Radio 4 Sunday Programme on the Augustine Camino (about 12 minutes in).
Find out more about the Augustine Camino at http://augustinecamino.co.uk/. Pics by Ruth Gledhill/The Tablet