The Parish Church of St George the Martyr, Waterlooville

While I was going through some old photographs in readiness for the recent party I came across the following article that I had written in late 1999 for publication in All Saints Catherington magazine. I thought that it might also be of interest to the members of St George’s.

One morning in July, while enjoying a second cup of coffee after breakfast, a letter arrived from Hampshire County Council giving details of a joint millennium project with L’Association Les Chemins du Mont St Michel, to reopen a middle ages pilgrimage trail from Winchester to Mont St Michel, a distance of 155 miles.  A limited number of places were still available on an inaugural walk, which was to take place between the 15th and 29th September.

Well I thought, that sounds interesting, perhaps I could do that and incidentally it seemed a good way to try and raise money for two charities in which I had an involvement – The new Parish Hall at Catherington and the Blendworth Centre.

To cut a long story short, I applied and having been only slightly economical with the truth concerning my past walking experience, or lack of it, was allocated a place.  Having undertaken a number of training walks to improve my stamina and successfully completed the 16-mile familiarisation day; I was ready for the walk itself to begin.

Fifteen walkers formed the formal group that started from Winchester (12 from Hampshire, 2 French and 1 French Canadian).  Formalities commenced with breakfast in the Great Hall, where the Bishop of Winchester and numerous dignitaries joined us.  We then went on to the cathedral for a blessing by the Dean after which the walk itself began.  The formal group was joined by some 90 additional day walkers and on arrival in Bishops Waltham a reception was laid on for us in the Bishop’s Palace, which was a sign of things to come in France.  Two fairly easy days followed, firstly to Southwick and then on to Portsmouth, where we received a blessing from the Bishop in the Garrison Church.  We then had an overnight crossing to Cherbourg and coach to Barfleur, being the port that pilgrims would have used in the Middle Ages. Surely it couldn’t have been this comfortable several hundred years ago?

In Barfleur we were introduced to the further 15 French, who were to make up the official group of 30 and walk with us to Mont St. Michel.  Formalities commenced with the unveiling of a plaque at the end of the harbour and numerous lengthy speeches, which helped to work up an appetite for a sumptuous lunch, washed down by generous quantities of wine.  Fortunately that day’s walk was restricted to a gentle afternoon stroll of some 8 miles along the coast to Saint-Vaast-la Hougue, but with day walkers once again increasing the number to well over 100.  This number was to be the average for the walk through France, with many of the day walkers completing the whole walk with us, although making their own accommodation arrangements.

The path itself then followed down the coast, before turning inland to Montebourg and Ste-Mere-Eglise.  Across the marais to Carentan and Saint-Sauveur-Lendelin and then on to Coutances.  Through pretty hilly countryside to Ver and La Haye Pesnel before reaching St-Jean-le-Thomas.  Finally down to Bec d’Andaine a Genets in readiness for the crossing of the sands to Mont St. Michel.

Accommodation provided en route varied from small hotels to activity and religious centres and finally gites, which provided hostel style accommodation, often in mixed dormitories.  Not necessarily what we have grown accustomed to, but rather better than that provided for the early pilgrims.

We had a number of experienced long distance walkers with us, which greatly helped the inexperienced walkers like myself.  Correct clothing is essential, especially good waterproofs and boots on the days when persistent rain is experienced.  Those that had the biggest problems with blisters often seemed to have inadequate footwear, especially in the ankle deep mud that was fairly common in places.  Footpaths in France are not so well marked as in this country and in Normandy often consist of sunken lanes, which could be blocked off by farmers.  Although we were lucky, only having to make a detour on two occasions, those seeking to undertake such a walk by themselves could be less fortunate.

Local hospitality was generous, with lunchtime shelter and end of day receptions, with drinks, always being provided.  The opportunity to travel slowly along footpaths and back lanes through pretty countryside and look around lovely churches in small villages on the way was a definite bonus.  Visits to Coutances and Avranches, where we were shown the Mont St. Michel manuscripts, dating back to the 8th Century, also stand out as highlights, but the unforgettable experience was the 5 mile walk across the sands to the Mont on St Michael’s day, when there were between 700 and 800 walkers.  We were frequently stopped, while the route was scouted ahead by the guides, but this did nothing to detract from the image of the Mont looming closer as we squelched through mud and small pools and crossed the thigh deep rivers that barred the path.  Eventually we reached the causeway on the other side and, after being washed down with fire hoses, joined the monks for Vespers in the Abbey, which was followed by a formal reception.  A truly wonderful day, which was further enhanced the next day by a guided tour of the Abbey, when we had the opportunity to walk round the flying buttresses on the roof and visit chapels that are not normally open to the general public.

Why did we undertake this modern day pilgrimage?  Motives seemed to vary from being a personal challenge, a fund raising opportunity, the chance of doing another long distance walk or of following paths, which were walked hundreds of years ago.  Few seemed to be undertaking a pilgrimage as such, although some of the French did see the crossing of the sands as being symbolic of the parting of the waters and crossing to the promised land.  What we all had in common was the sharing of a wonderful experience and the development of a special camaraderie with many new friendships being developed amongst the group.  It is easy to imagine a similar spirit developing among the pilgrims of the past.

Incidentally, the two charities for whom I was walking benefited to the extent of nearly 5000 from the hard work of the many who raised sponsor money on the back of my walk.  Little did I think that one small letter would have such an impact!

David Cavey



Christmas Edition 2010

A Modern Pilgrimage - with a difference