This Pilgrimage was all about water.
We started from Frome, and followed the course of the River Frome northwards. Sometimes at a distance, sometimes right by its banks. Along the way was a lot of water.
St Mary’s church was surrounded by it. Built out on a lake, and accessed by a bridge, it was a restful place to stop and eat. Before moving on, and discovering a downside of so much water – mud! The path – fenced off on either side at this point – was ankle deep in glutinous green, thick and sticky mud. Annie found a way across the fence and avoided it. After all, if the people responsible for the path wanted us to stay on it, they should maintain it better. I couldn’t argue with that, but it was too late to act on that insight. I was already carrying a pots worth of clay on each boot.
There are better uses for water than making footpaths into swamps. As in fonts. All the churches we passed had one – some were locked or in use, preventing us from checking directly, but it can be said with some degree of certainty that the fonts were there. Fonts are as integral to a church as an alter and a pulpit. The receiving of new life into the church (whether new-born or newly re-born) is a vital part of the church’s ministry; the sacred water a symbol of the spiritual cleansing of the soul.
We came across another good use of water when we reached Tellisford. Here (as at several other places along the Frome and the Avon) a weir has created a deep pool. Add a broad adjoining meadow and a hot sunny day and you have a perfect place for swimming and picnicking. We stopped to rest and watch adults, children and dogs variously swimming, splashing, laughing and barking.
Beyond the weir we took a diversion to our overnight stop. The hospitality was warm and welcoming. The water our host provided was cold and welcome. I drank a full glass straight down.
Next morning we shouldered packs and headed back to Tellisford to pick up the pilgrimage where we’d left off. Pausing to look over the picturesque bridge, where another traveller pointed out brown trout lurking in the shadows of the bank. Then up to the churchyard of All Saints where – it being Sunday - we celebrated communion. We had a Nakd bar for our bread and water (what else?) for our wine. Our memories served us for liturgy and the daily Richard Rohr reading, emailed to our phones, provided the sermon. It more than sufficed for an act of worship – though perhaps I shouldn’t have tried to conclude with a hymn, especially as I couldn’t remember the words.
On again, beneath gathering clouds that promised yet another aspect of water. We took refuge from the first shower at Iford Manor – coffee and cake being a better prospect – but it couldn’t be avoided altogether and as we proceeded, we got damper. A diversion through soggy woodland to find a well was less than successful: there were no signs, no proper path and the GPS trail terminated in a pile of brambles. In compensation, we did see a deer, and a bird-of-prey (a hawk?) flew over our heads and off into the trees. There had once been a Carthusian Priory down by the river, so a well was not unlikely, but it was not proven either.
The well was unnecessary. The woods were wet enough without it.
Past the Castle at Farleigh Hungerford, which we first saw from a balloon, a year or two ago. Then on to Freshford, where the Frome flowed into the Avon. The joining of waters, sharing together and growing as a result. Annie dipped her feet in the water: on the far bank, a cow did the same, while swans cruised gracefully by.
So we were walking alongside the Avon now, and then onto the towpath of the Kennet and Avon Canal. Water as transport, a highway for people and commerce.
Crossing the river by the Dundas Aqueduct (water over water) the on-off drizzle decided to stop messing around and do a proper job of soaking us. We sheltered for a while beneath a tree, but the rain was hammering through the leaves and we still had a long way to go. There was nothing for it but to get wet. And wet we got.
Squelching along the canal towpath in wet boots wasn’t too bad, but climbing up the final hill at Calverton was the hardest stretch of the route. The rain, having satisfied itself that we were properly drenched, moved on, allowing a little sunshine to come through the trees in Bathampton Woods. But the path was rough and progress was slow, with slippery wet stones and tree roots to watch out for at every step. However, yesterday’s mud had been washed off my boots.
Back down to the canal for the final stretch. But we were struggling now. Wet feet threatened to produce blisters, and we hadn’t had a proper meal that day.
Then a spiritual Oasis in the desert: physically, a narrowboat on the canal, run by Canal Ministries, and a friendly invitation to stop, sit, and be prayed for. Refreshment comes in many forms.
Renewed, we stepped out again. Down through Sydney Gardens, across Pulteney Bridge, and finally, Bath Abbey. Journey’s end. The centre of what had once been the town of Aquae Sulis, right next to the ancient Roman Baths of Sulis Minerva: Celtic and Roman Goddesses celebrated in one temple, built where the hot mineral waters bubbled up from below. Hot water for bathing, relaxing, blessing. It must have seemed like a miracle to those who first discovered it.
Hot water is still a miracle. Not that we had access to the baths, but it was only a short bus ride home to a soak in hot water – not provided by the springs but by our boiler. Less of a miracle in its production, but still miraculous in its beneficial effects. A blessing, however come by.
Water is so many things. Used in blessing, too much of it has us cursing, but without it there is no life at all. A play-place for children, a workplace in the past when barges were the major transporter of bulk good. A refreshing drink, a rich environment for wildlife. A shaper of landscape. Symbolically, a spiritual cleanser, sign of the Holy Spirit.
Water flows. It falls from the sky or bubbles up under pressure from below ground, but then it flows. Sometimes gently, almost imperceptibly. Sometimes rushing, roaring, falling over rapids and falls. But always flowing, always moving, always seeking to find its way to the sea.
Along the way it provides many services. It provides homes and habitats, gives life and brings growth. It sustains and plays, it carries barges and pleasure boats - but always it flows. That is its nature, that is what it must do to be. Where it does not flow, where it cannot move, it becomes dead and stagnant. It must flow to live.
I take that as a metaphor for spiritual life. Our souls must be allowed to flow, to move, to seek their way to God. Along the way, they can be many things to many others. We can provide life, bring joy, help others in their work, even bring beauty into the world. But we must flow. We can flow together, and share in the journey, as rivers join their strength, as pilgrims travel together. But we must flow, and move ever closer to God.
This was our Pilgrimage of Water.