What does pilgrimage mean when you don’t adhere to a particular religious tradition? Can we find ever find ourselves when we travel, or will we be forever searching?
Victoria Preston has roamed far and wide in her 30 years advising corporate and government clients around the world. She is an associate fellow at the King’s Centre for Strategic Communications, and her latest book is We Are Pilgrims: Journeys in Search of Ourselves.
- What is secular pilgrimage?
- The animal urge to move, particularly in the spring
- Balancing solitude and traveling with others
- Places that resonate through the ages
- Does the search for art and beauty create the desire for pilgrimage?
- Being ‘hefted’ or rooted to a place and the meaning of home
- Can we ever find ourselves on journeys?
- Recommended travel books
You can find Victoria Preston at WhyPilgrim.com
My book, Pilgrimage, Lessons Learned from Solo Walking Three Ancient Ways, is out now.
Transcript of the interview
Jo Frances Penn: Victoria Preston has roamed far and wide in her 30 years advising corporate and government clients around the world. She is an associate fellow at the King’s Centre for Strategic Communications, and her latest book is We Are Pilgrims: Journeys in Search of Ourselves. Welcome, Victoria.
Victoria Preston: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a joy.
Jo Frances Penn: Let’s start with the definition.
How do you define pilgrimage, particularly as someone who doesn’t belong to a specific faith?
Victoria Preston: Personally, I define it as a journey with a personal driving purpose, to a place of shared meaning. I really went round and round the houses on this when I started researching my book. I think this idea of a place of shared meaning helped me focus down.
Of course, people say, ‘We go on our annual pilgrimage to Oxford Street to do Christmas shopping,’ and I thought, ‘No, I’m definitely not writing about that.’ That’s not a thing.
Actually, when I was working in the London Library on the book, I had a place that I liked to sit every day and I could look into Mason’s Yard and I could see people coming on walking tours of London, to a nightclub that had once hosted, I think, Jimi Hendrix or somebody like that.
I thought, yes, well maybe they feel themselves to be on a pilgrimage, but I’m not writing about that either. So, for me, that helped me to narrow down what I was thinking about and hoping to write about. And it was really about intention and about places meaning.
Jo Frances Penn: Actually, you mentioned the London Library. I wrote three novels in the London Library. Isn’t it a wonderful place to work?
Victoria Preston: I adore it and I miss it so much right now. I can’t tell you, I miss everything about it, the people, the book stacks, the staff, everything.
Jo Frances Penn: Yes. It really is serendipity in the stack. I remember it well.
I wanted to ask you, the book has got so much in and one of the things I thought about at the moment, so the early crocuses and the snowdrops that were emerging here in the UK, and spring is coming and you note this animal urge to move, which I just thought was brilliant because I feel that, the moment kind of going crazy in this lockdown.
How have you experienced this ‘animal urge to move’?
Victoria Preston: When I was younger, I had what you would recognize as itchy feet. I had a really, really terrible desire to get going, and most strongly in spring.
Chaucer really understood that. In the opening of Canterbury Tales he talks about how in spring and when April showers pierce the droughts of May, then people do long to go on pilgrimage. And I think we do long to get into the natural world at this time of year and we anticipate it. We can feel it rising like sap in our bodies and desperate to get out there. And no more so than this year, I would say.
Jo Frances Penn: It’s interesting, the phrase ‘itchy feet.’ Obviously, we’re both British and I use that term as well, but I’ve had feedback from Americans and others that that is not a term that people use in other countries, which is interesting. Exactly. Just to be clear to people, this is not a foot disease. You mean wanderlust or something like that.
Victoria Preston: I do. And actually, in the book on the topic of feet or foot, in the book I look at the Blackfoot tribes of North America to try and understand the very origins of pilgrimage because the first site that I discovered in my research is the earliest site, was this site in Southern Turkey, Gobekli Tepe, which is about 12,000 years old.
Which we understand is when small bands of hunter-gatherers came together because there was an advantage in cooperation where you have very, very large herds. And in fact, the rituals of the Blackfoot people of North America, and those rituals only died out in the late 19th century, where they’re in competition for most of the year because there’s scarce resources.
But when there is an abundance, you have a much better catch if you work together. If you think about those David Attenborough films of orcas working as a group or wolves working as a group to surround a huge herd or shoal, or a flock of birds and actually really make the most of it.
And in a way that’s when we start collaborating around that abundance, we all benefit. We can put surplus aside for more lean times. And then typically, a great feast of Thanksgiving takes place, and at those places of Thanksgiving, ritual structures begin to be built. I would say, for me that is the seed of the idea of pilgrimage.
Jo Frances Penn: Oh, that’s interesting. Because you mentioned the collaboration and people coming together. And yet for me, I like being on my own. I’m a real introvert and the last pilgrimage I did was alone.
There’s the balance between being alone and, as you say, being with other people like mass events, mass religious events. And all of these things are, as you say, an abundance of many things.
How have you balanced being alone and then being with people in your pilgrimage?
Victoria Preston: My starting point for this book was really around a pilgrimage to Rome with a very old friend, and we traveled in tandem. So, we traveled together, but during the course of the day, we walked separately and we’re very different heights, so I’d start with that.
And also, I like to hang around and do birdwatching and took my binoculars as an essential piece of equipment. So, I would stride ahead and look for falcons and nightingales and so on, and then my friend, Constance would make her own time and then we would wait for each other. It was a very, very nice way to travel.
But I’ve done a lot of solo traveling for work actually. And so, there’s something about traveling on your own, which is that you kind of want to share it with somebody in the moment, and I think I miss that when I’m traveling on my own. I want to turn around and say, ‘Look, isn’t that amazing? Listen to those nightingales. Listen to that Italian cuckoo with a different accent to the English cuckoo.’ All of those things you can talk about when you get back, but in the moment, I think it’s good to share.
Jo Frances Penn: That’s interesting. The Italian cuckoo, that’s brilliant. Do they really have a different call?
Victoria Preston: Absolutely. They’re undeniably cuckoos but they’re just very different tonally to the English call.
Jo Frances Penn: Have you sensed that difference in people as well?
On the way to Rome, do you notice the difference in pilgrims between British pilgrims like ourselves and pilgrims from other cultures in the way that they approach it?
Victoria Preston: Yes, it was a very interesting trip for me because one of the great things about doing a pilgrimage or making a pilgrimage is, obviously, you can’t leave yourself behind because, as Alain de Botton says, ‘You always take yourself on holiday.’ There’s no getting away from yourself.
But I think you travel with a different version of yourself when you are on a big trip like that. You’re taking a different you with you. And one thing that was so glorious about that walk was we bumped into a group of two young Italian men and a young female Lithuanian lawyer, and the five of us walked for a day and spent it, hung out for one evening and then went our ways.
I just turned 60 at that point, and that reconnection with a different version of myself was absolutely heartening. It’s just such a joyous thing.
And, really, those young Italians with their total… one of them, in particular, complete joie de vivre, it’s the complete joyousness at his own existence was so refreshing. Actually, so un-English as well. So, yes, it is different.
Jo Frances Penn: I’m a secular pilgrim as well. I love religious history and stories and scripture, but I’m not a Christian or any other religion, and I wonder if the experience of faith is different on a pilgrimage than people like us who are secular pilgrims.
For example, you talk about the mass humanity experiences like the Kumbh Mela or the hajj to Mecca where there are just so many people of faith flocking together.
Did you notice anything like that?
Victoria Preston: I would say two things.
One is that if you walk along a pilgrim route that has been established for a very, very long time, you realize you’re just another pair of feet walking along that route and that you are part of greater humanity.
I think that feeling of being connected to a bigger humanity is very humanizing and it takes you out of your own ego. And I think that is partly what happens on these big collective religious pilgrimages to some people is that they’re sort of liberated by that connection to a larger humanity.
From a secular point of view, I didn’t put it in the book, but we lived in Alberta for a while, and it’s just a stunningly beautiful place. I went out and took a lot of photographs while I was there, and I went out one day down the Cowboy Trail, which runs north-south along the eastern flank of the Rockies.
So, you’ve got Prairie to your left and the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to your right. And at one point, I just had to stop the car and burst into tears. I just thought this is unbelievably beautiful. And then how can I have no faith when I live in this amazing world and see this beautiful landscape? I was sad that I wasn’t a person of faith in that moment.
Jo Frances Penn: You mentioned in the book there are places where heaven and earth are closer, and it sounds like that was one of those places where the veil is thin.
Were there places that were more traditional pilgrimage spots along any of your investigations where you also felt that way? Any man-made places as well as nature?
Victoria Preston: I think in Delphi, in particular. Of course, Jerusalem is full of the faithful and the history and all of those things. But when I went to Delphi, I got up very early the next morning so I could see the site before it filled up with people who come up for the day.
I went onto the slopes of Delphi, this Delphic site, and I thought, ‘Yeah, well, okay. I’m not really feeling it.’ And then a little walk, a little way down the hill and there is a much older Temple of Athena Pronaia further down the hill, and you go in there and you just think, ‘Wow, now you really do feel it.’
This is a Bronze Age site. People built this in a very weird place, miles from anywhere, miles from civilization, right away from the bigger center in Athens and so on. Why did they choose this place?
I went back to have my breakfast in a cafe in Delphi and I asked the guy, ‘What’s going on here? Why are we all coming here? What is this feeling?’
He said, ‘It’s just the way it is. There’s nothing you can do about it.’ Just how it feels. And he was right.
Jo Frances Penn: Jerusalem is a great example to me. I love Jerusalem, but for the art and culture. I don’t think I’ve ever felt touched by anything spiritual because it feels like it’s a big tourist center in some way whereas you go to somewhere that’s more natural, as you talked about, and feel something spiritual.
Delphi is ancient. No one really worships there now. No one adheres to that religious sense. And as you say, there’s something there that connects to something deeper.
I sometimes think it’s because of the number of people who have been there and almost left an impression over time.
Is that something you feel?
Victoria Preston: Absolutely. Jo, I totally agree with you. I think you’re absolutely right. It seeps into the stones somehow.
When we get out of lockdown, there’s a wonderful place in England. My favorite, my absolute favorite place for pilgrimage in England is a tiny little 7th-century chapel in Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex called St Peters-on-the-Wall.
It’s built out of the old stones from what was a Roman Fort on the coast there. And it’s very remote. It’s on the edge of a peninsula, which has a tidal estuary, the Blackwater estuary. And it’s just exquisite. You go in there and you feel it’s a tiny place and you feel this 1,000, 1,500 years’ worth of spirituality just kind of seeping out of the stones. It’s something. It really is something else.
Jo Frances Penn: I live in Bath and I often look up at the Abbey. So, looking at the Abbey, you’ve got the medieval aspect, but then you’ve got the pagan site of the Roman Baths. And before that the pagan Brits with the goddess of the water.
I feel the same way about the stones being used in these different religious ways over time, which now it’s quite cool. They’re actually going to heat the church with water from the ancient spring.
I love that connection between the ancient and the new, and the pagan and the religious. It sounds like that church is something similar.
Victoria Preston: It is. And it’s more grandiose or more elaborate level, I would say, that the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. Of course, we can’t go there right now, and not because of COVID, but this is a very, very special place.
There was originally a temple to a pagan god of thunder, and then there was a temple to Roman god Jupiter, and then there was a Christian church there. And then in the 8th century, the mosque was built. And at one point, it straddled both Christianity and Islam.
Both co-existed on the same site, and then ultimately the Christians allowed the Islamic institution to take over, but they still welcomed Christians in. And one of the reasons for that is that there’s a shrine to St. John the Baptist there. The head of St. John the Baptist is meant to be buried in this shrine. And so, Christian pilgrims come and also a lot of Shia pilgrims come from Iran and so on.
You were allowed in and you feel welcome and you don’t feel like you’re imposing as a non-Muslim. You don’t feel like you’re imposing. And the place is just absolutely glorious.
This polished smooth, the courtyard of the mosque, the outdoor area is almost silken. The stones are silken through the bare feet of worshippers over the course of 1,200 years. It’s quite a place. It’s quite something.
Jo Frances Penn: I find that I particularly love Gothic cathedrals because of the eye is taken up with the architecture. I love the sparse lines. And, of course, a lot of the mosques are very elaborate and beautiful and colored and the tiles and the writing and very beautiful in a different way.
Do you think this search for art and beauty also makes people want to go somewhere on pilgrimage?
Victoria Preston: Absolutely. Chaucer knew that. By the time Chaucer is writing Canterbury Tales, the people who are in his tales and on their way to Canterbury are going for a number of reasons. One is that the cathedral was so wealthy then and so rich.
In a sense, it was the only opportunity for ordinary people to see the enormous wealth that was held by the wealthy who were the sponsors of the cathedral.
I had an experience. I was traveling in Ecuador with my son when he was about 11 and we were in Quito. We went into this church in Quito, which is very famous. I didn’t even know about it then, it’s just everything inside is covered with gold leaf. Everything. And it’s very overwhelming.
Sitting in the pews in the church were these incredibly impoverished indigenous people, very poorly dressed. Obviously, extremely poor in this gold church. And I felt a big sense of outrage and it’s like, ‘What is going on here?’
But actually, if you look at it the other way around the church provides, and I guess the same is true with all temples, they provide a place of enormous richness of art and wealth to everybody. They’re free. You don’t have to pay to go in. At least you didn’t when they were first made. You don’t have to pay to go in. They’re open to everyone.
They’re, in a way, museums have sort of superseded that as places where we go to look at the best of things. Think about English cathedrals. You had the best music. You had the best orators. You had the people of ideas giving sermons, and so on. And anybody could go in.
You didn’t have to have land or money or anything. You could go in and you could see the best craftsmanship. I think that’s one of the great gifts that religion has given to the human race.
Jo Frances Penn: Oh, I totally agree. I was actually talking to my husband about the Sagrada Familia, which, of course, is 100 years of building and we might not see it in our lifetime, but it’s such an incredible building. I think I would much rather have a Sagrada Familia or another Canterbury Cathedral or a Bath Abbey than another block of flats.
I think it’s that assessment of, would I be willing to be poorer in order to build another cathedral in my town? People were meant to tithe to the church and give that in order to build these incredible buildings to the glory of God. And we don’t do that anymore. We generally don’t do that anymore, and yet the Sagrada Familia to me is the one that is being built in our lifetime.
Victoria Preston: To be fair, let’s just think about Norfolk, the Norwich Cathedral. This is a Norman cathedral. The Normans have taken over the ruling of the country. They’re taking down all the wooden churches and they’re importing all the stone from France and building these kind of wonderful churches in the middle of big trading centers like Norwich or like Bath.
They’re establishing their own primacy in the country through these demonstrations of wealth, and they’re taking a cut of all the traders who want to trade in Norwich in order to build it. So, it’s a form of enforced taxation. You didn’t get to have a choice.
I did look at the figures because I went to Cologne, which is amazing by the way. It’s completely mind-blowing the church in Cologne. But you see how much it demonstrates the connection between faith and trade. And Cologne had to have a cathedral because Cologne was such a big trading place on the Rhine and they had to have the Magi.
They helped out the guy in Milan who had the relics of the three Magi. And they said, ‘Okay, we’ll come and help you with this battle. But we want the Magi here because we have to have this very, very prestigious set of relics in order for our cathedral to have the proper status that our city of Cologne deserves as a major trading center.’
So, it’s a kind of double-edged sword really, how we get those beautiful cathedrals. Somebody pays, not always willingly.
Jo Frances Penn: Yes, exactly. You mentioned relics there. I love religious relics. I’ve written several books that feature relics, and I find them fascinating.
Of course, at Canterbury, there were a couple of relics of Becket, but they’re outside…obviously, the Anglican cathedral, which I find quite interesting in that they’re in this tiny little Catholic church outside the walls now.
And as you mentioned, it would have been gold and over the top back in the Catholic day, and now it’s more austere in the more Anglican sense.
Did you see any interesting religious relics in your travels?
Victoria Preston: Yes, one of my favorite trips in my life actually was with my friend Miriam, who is a Slovakian politician who sits in the European Parliament and she’s a devout Catholic. She and I met up in Beirut and then we got a lift up to the Kadisha Valley to the Monastery of St Anthony and we stayed there for a few days.
There were relics all over it. There were little casements of relics in the chapel and all over the place. It was an incredible place. And then when we came to leave after a few days of meditation and just walking in the hills and thinking and talking, I said, ‘Let’s talk to the people who run the place and see if we can get out of here.’
So, we said, ‘Can we get a bus into the nearby town?’ ‘No, no, there are no buses.’ ‘Do you think we could arrange a taxi to take us to the nearest town?’ ‘No, no, there are no taxis.’
And you’re clinging to the side of a mountain. You’re really in the middle of nowhere in this very remote monastery. And I said, ‘What are we going to do?’ And she said, ‘I’m just going to pray.’ I said, ‘Great, let’s see how that works. That is a good test of your faith, Miriam.’
Anyway, she did pray. And actually, few hours later, her friends showed up. I said, ‘Did you call him?’ She said, ‘No, we don’t have a signal.’ We had no signal, no phone signal. It was far too remote.
Anyway, her friend turned up, Fritz, and we jumped in the car with him. And then we had this most incredible journey at night through the Beqaa Valley down to Baalbek where we were going. And it was just extraordinary. And I think it was a beautiful night, very, very clear and we could see Mars from the ridge of mountains where we were as we came down into the valley.
Mars was hanging, and it looked like it was really hanging low in the sky. I knew it was an optical illusion, of course, but it looked like it was hanging down into the Beqaa Valley. And we were going to go and see these very early Roman temples at Baalbek, and you could feel why it was in the ancient world, that there was this great looking up to the sky for a sense of belonging to the universe and the great maker and so on.
I think that experience was a window for me into why in the ancient world the gods were really in the sky, because there was the moon and there was Mars, so strongly.
Jo Frances Penn: That’s lovely. What a lovely image. And yes, maybe her prayers were amplified by the holy relics in the monastery.
Victoria Preston: She’s just the most fantastic person, I promise you.
Jo Frances Penn: You mentioned that your souvenir objects in the book, which have the power to transport you to places once visited. I love that because I’m a minimalist. I don’t have many things. So, I was like, ‘Ooh, what things must you have?’
Could you share a couple of your souvenir objects and why we attach emotional meaning to objects?
Victoria Preston: I have a couple of them right next to my desk. They’re my daily objects. And actually, one is a piece of dried root twisted and the other is a jawbone of an antelope, half a jawbone of an antelope, very bleached with the teeth very wobbly.
I picked them up off the ground in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve when I was there a few years ago doing a piece of work. I was interviewing a group of women who did not want to be relocated into a settlement. The Government of Botswana wanted to resettle their indigenous people into villages and, understandably, not everybody wanted to do that. I simply couldn’t get a way into what was really going on.
One of the things, I said, ‘There’s nothing here. You’re in the middle of the desert. What keeps you here?’ This is through an interpreter. And they said, ‘We’ve been to that settlement. We didn’t like the taste of the water.’
I was like, ‘You’re in a desert. Water is such the most important thing. The things that mean something in a place.’ And I thought, I’m totally out of my depth here. I don’t really understand the sense of place these people have.
I picked up these two objects and I took them away with me and over the years, and it’s 15, 16 years ago now, I look at these things and I try and get from them what it means to have a sense of place. What my friend in Yorkshire calls being hefted.
In Yorkshire they say sheep get hefted to a particular piece of moorland and they hate to be moved. It’s very distressing for them.
And in a way, we’re all like that. And this was a key for me into pilgrimage, why we go to particular places, because we’re somehow hefted to them. We may not even be able to explain it, but they draw us to them.
So, that’s why I have them. I’m still trying to figure out how it works, that whole sense of place, but there’s the two objects that help me.
Jo Frances Penn: That’s really interesting because this is something I struggle with all the time, which is a sense of home. And this pandemic time, this pandemic year, this is the longest I’ve ever spent in one place. I’ve moved in a lot of my life.
My family always moved and I’ve lived all over the place and I’ve never really felt like this is home. And so, is that what you’re trying to find as well?
Do you want to be rooted or hefted in one place or are you happy being a wanderer?
Victoria Preston: That’s a great question. What I would say is that there’s a paradox.
Felix Fabri who was one of the early pilgrims whose work I read in researching the book, he’s a 15th-century Swiss monk and he decides he wants to go to Jerusalem. He’s never seen the seas. He’s terrified. He’s more terrified of drowning than he is of dying from any other cause.
Just before he sets off, he says that homesickness is never greater than in the days and hours just before we leave home. But in my view, this is just a taste of what is to follow, as soon as we set out, we’re pulled back.
Actually, if you look at Homer’s ‘Odyssey,’ which I’m sure you have, and this is a great travel book. It’s not seen as a travel book but it is really a great travel book because it has so much in it, about what it means to set off on a journey and what it means to be away from home and then what it means to come back.
His wife, of course, is waiting for him on Ithaca, the Island, and waiting and constantly sewing and unpicking his shroud in order to keep the suitors at bay.
My brother was on a huge transit life, sailed across the Atlantic. My sister-in-law was worrying the whole time. And then I called him when he arrived in Antigua and I said, ‘Do you realize that my beautiful sister-in-law has been picking and unpicking your shroud the whole time you’ve been away worrying about whether you’re going to drown at sea? And you must understand that when you go back, that as the person coming home, you have to think about not only your home but the people that you left behind and that you come back to.‘ This pull and pull back. You must feel that Jo, too.
Jo Frances Penn: Yes, I do. My husband is not someone who feels it and I’m always pondering on whether this is something we’re born with, whether we’re born with this wanderlust and people like us and the people I have on the show and the people we meet on our travels have this. And some people don’t have this.
The struggle is understanding the other perspective because even the time you’re away. That pilgrimage walk I did to Canterbury, I was only gone like eight days, a six-day walk on one either side, and for me it felt like the longest period of time in my last year because we have been at home so much.
And yet my husband, he wasn’t waiting, unpicking my shroud. It wasn’t quite so dangerous! But he was like, ‘Oh, hi. You’re back. It’s only been a week.’ And I’m like, ‘It felt like a much longer time.’ And it’s almost like time changes when you are away from home.
Victoria Preston: I loved listening to your account, by the way, I’ve found it of resonant. I did a walk from Canterbury to Dover, so the first leg of the Via Francigena and I was only away for one day and I actually left home in London, took the train to Canterbury, went to the cathedral, and then walked to Dover. Quite a long way as it turns out.
Then in Dover, caught the fast train back. When I arrived back at King’s Cross with my walking stick, I felt like I just landed out of the Kalahari Desert. And I’d been away for one day. But in that one day, I had met somebody. I had knocked on the door of a farmhouse for walkers. I ran out of water. It was incredibly hot.
I crossed through a village in Kent where three men were taking an old diesel engine as part of their hobby and they offered me a ride into the next village on this old diesel engine like a train, until one of them told me the whole story about his son dying. And so, by the time I came home, I had been on an epic pilgrimage in the space of that 14 hours. So, I totally get your eight days, monumental trip in eight days.
Jo Frances Penn: It’s very encouraging really that you can have such an experience in one day because again, we’re recording this in pandemic times and travel seems to me so important in so many ways and yet almost is impossible.
I can’t even see my mum in Bristol, which is not very far from Bath. I can’t even go that far. I can’t even walk very far from my home.
What have you felt about travel in this year when we haven’t been able to go anywhere and have your thoughts changed at all?
Victoria Preston: Every single day I fantasize about putting on my backpack and my walking boots and walking to Stockholm where my son lives with my two grandsons and his wife. And I just think, well, I speak to them through FaceTime and so on. I know that I’m not allowed to do it. Of course, I’m not doing it.
But I think about it every single day. I think, well, when I was 18 or 19, whatever it was, I hitchhiked from London and I just set off with a bag. Why can’t I just do that? Why can’t I just basically set off to Sweden?
I’ve had COVID. I had it in January. Not very nice. I have some immunity, but, of course, it’s morally wrong and I’m not going to do it. But I think about it every single day.
Jo Frances Penn: I fantasize about somewhere different all the time. The other day I was talking to someone in Vienna and I was like, ‘I think I’m going to come to Vienna. That’s going to be my next trip.’ And then I’ll talk to someone else and I’d be like, ‘Oh, no.’ And now I’m going to go and see that church you mentioned, Bradwell, whatever it was called.
Victoria Preston: Oh yes. You must go and see it. It’s so wonderful. It’s just so absolutely wonderful that place.
Jo Frances Penn: It seems like the bucket list is getting bigger and bigger and yet smaller and smaller because, for example, I might walk to Glastonbury because that seems like I could do that because it’s not that far. It’s only two days walk probably if I have some big days and it’s like, ‘Well, there you go. I could do that rather than walking to Sweden,’ for example.
Victoria Preston: There’s a really nice walk from Glastonbury to Wells Cathedral, actually, a day walk which I think the British Pilgrim Trust run. I actually went with them early last year. They’ve got a mapped route that you can follow. It’s a very worthwhile thing and particularly if you’re down in the west country anyway.
Jo Frances Penn: Indeed. So, the book has the subtitle of Journeys in Search of Ourselves.
Do you think we ever find ourselves on the journey or is it a different version of us every time?
Victoria Preston: I think it’s a different version of ourselves. And by the way, I don’t think we ever really get there, quite honestly. I was thinking about this question earlier and I thought when I was doing the research, I met all these different characters in the London Library, largely through the books on the bookcases, Mark Twain and Richard Burton, the explorer.
I met some fantastic people. And, of course, one of the people who features in the book is Jack Kerouac. He goes off to be a volunteer fire watcher in the Cascade Mountains one summer to get away from himself. He’s waiting for On the Road to be published, and his publisher can’t decide because the book’s got so much controversy within its pages.
He goes off to a incredibly remote place. He’s a practicing Daoist. So, you know, Daoism pilgrims take place on mountain tops. So, he goes off to the top of this mountain and he spends six weeks up there on his own looking for relief from really from himself and relief from desire.
And the longer he’s up there, the more desperate he is to get relief from desire. He’s got a big desire, even though that desire is relief from desire, and he never really gets there. He walks out of this little hut in the middle of the night and he stares out at the mountain opposite, which is called Hozomeen, and this is his daily view.
Hozomeen, Hozomeen. The most beautiful mountain I’ve ever seen. And every time he thinks of it, he thinks of the void, which is what he’s really craving for, his despair gets worse and worse and he just cannot wait to get out of there. So, do we find ourselves? No. But it’s still worth trying.
Jo Frances Penn: It is and worth writing about when we get home.
Victoria Preston: Yes. Absolutely.
Jo Frances Penn: It’s a way to capture the journey. From your book, you obviously love research and there are loads of brilliant detail about all these different places. I highly recommend the book.
Apart from your own book, what are a few books about pilgrimage or travel that you love and recommend?
Victoria Preston: I highly recommend Homer’s ‘Odyssey,’ because I think it’s a great friend for life. You buy that. I’ve got the Everyman Edition here and I go back to it time and time again. It’s poetry for one thing and it’s also full of ideas.
I wanted to recommend a film, in fact. Werner Herzog’s 2019 film about Bruce Chatwin called Nomad which conveys that paradox we’ve just been talking about of restlessness and the desire for home. I think it’s a great insight into perpetual traveling.
And then, of course, Eric Newby’s classic, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, mainly because we can spend an awful lot of time getting ready for big trips and packing and unpacking and should I take this?
Eric Newby decides he’s going to cross with his friend the impossible mountains of the Hindu Kush. And he does a week’s climbing course in Wales, and that’s all that equips him for this big journey, but it doesn’t stop him. I think that is great. It’s very empowering and it makes you brave reading that book.
I think on pilgrimage the very un-PC Hilaire Belloc, The Path to Rome written in 1902. What I love about that book is you start reading it and you are almost immediately on the pilgrimage with him, and it is just fantastic. You are with him every second of the way until you get to the very last page.
The other one that I go back time and again, and it actually belongs to the London Library, but I can see that I’m the only person who’s ever checked it out since it first appeared on the New Books shelf, it’s called A Buddhist Pilgrim at the Shrines of Tibet, written about the same time as Hilaire Belloc’s book.
It’s by Gombojab Tsybikov and it’s translated by Paul Williams, published by Brill in Boston. And it is the account of a scholar, a minority Buryat scholar who was a Buddhist and at the behest of the Russian Geological Society traveled right across central Asia to Tibet to get an insight into Tibet at a time when non-Buddhists were forbidden to go there. It’s just fantastic. It’s just so wonderful. It’s such a wonderful book.
Jo Frances Penn: I just have so many more for my reading list off these interviews!
Jo Frances Penn: Where can people find you and your books online?
Victoria Preston: I’ve got a blog called Why Pilgrim, which I tend to write on every week. And then We are Pilgrims is my Instagram account.
But really the Why Pilgrim blog is where all of my ideas flow out, and I typically do that every week. And then my book is available from the Hurst website. It’s also available from Waterstones, Amazon, of course, and all good bookshops.
Jo Frances Penn: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, Victoria. That was great.
Victoria Preston: Thanks so much for inviting me. I really enjoyed our conversation.