In October 2020, I walked the Pilgrim’s Way from London to Canterbury on my own, just before the second UK lockdown. In this interview, I discuss the pilgrimage with Kevin Donahue from Sacred Steps Podcast.
You can watch the video below or here on YouTube, you can listen here or on your favorite podcast player, and there is a transcript below with lots of links. Go to SacredStepsPodcast.com for more episodes.
Kevin: Buen Camino, Pilgrims. And welcome back to the Sacred Steps Podcast. On this show, we’re walking virtually alongside pilgrims and authors, connecting a community of pilgrims from across the globe.
I’m Kevin Donahue, pilgrim, backpacker, and author of Sacred Steps of Pilgrimage Journal. On today’s episode, we’re walking virtually alongside English author, Jo Frances Penn, a fiction writer with more than 20 titles to her credit.
Jo set out alone from her home near London during a break in the COVID lockdown to complete Britain’s Pilgrim’s Way from London Southwark Cathedral to Canterbury Cathedral. An unlikely pilgrim, Jo had never before attempted a solo multi-day hike like this. Of course, Canterbury Cathedral is one of England’s most revered shrines and the pilgrim pathway to the church, called The Pilgrim’s Way, is one of my upcoming pilgrimages.
Navigating alone during the pandemic, Jo found the strength to overcome her fears as a solo pilgrim. She’s here on the podcast to share her insights on the transformative power of pilgrimage on today’s episode of the Sacred Steps Podcast. Jo Frances Penn, welcome to the Sacred Steps Podcast.
Jo: Oh, thanks for having me on, Kevin. I’m excited to be here.
Kevin: You have completed a walk that is near and dear to my heart, The Pilgrim’s Way, from London to Canterbury. And that’s really what first drew me and I said, “Who is Jo Frances Penn?” She has these great photographs and this great blog about these walks and I’m so excited because it’s a journey I wanted to take. You’ve written 20 books to your credit. And I said to myself, “I want to be Jo Frances Penn when I grow up.”
Joanna: Well, I think as I’ve been saying to you, just before we started recording, once you start writing books, you tend to get a bit of an addiction. Pretty much all my thrillers are written from my travels. So for example, I know you have been to Santiago de Compostela as part of your Camino. And that features in my first thriller Stone of Fire, which is about the tombs of the apostles, which was part of your pilgrimage, right?
So, I find myself writing about everywhere I go, and the places where I live, and also the places that I visit on my travels. And so yes, I have a few books now. It’s been a decade, actually as we talk, it’s almost exactly a decade since my first book came out. And I’ve been writing ever since. I’m quite addicted.
Kevin: Well, congratulations. I want to ask you about your pilgrimage. And we use that term I think generally here because you are a distance walker, you’ve done some runs and such, but setting out on a multi-day hike. This was kind of outside the box for you, Jo?
Joanna: Yes. Well, I should say I don’t run. I do ultra marathon walks. So I do 50k ultra-marathon walks in a day, 100k in a weekend, and I’ve done multi-day organized by other people. So I’ve done a lot of walking organized by other people, but what happened obviously in 2020 was there was this pandemic! I was meant to go to Japan, which we have a mutual interest in Japan. And that didn’t happen.
And I was like, “Do you know what? I really need to write a book in England. That needs to be my next book.” And I’ve wanted to do the Camino de Santiago, the Frances route particularly, which obviously is the long one, 40+ day one. I’ve been wanting to do that for probably 25 years. But then you realize that if you’re going to do a big one like that, you have to start with the smaller ones.
So I looked at England and decided that The Pilgrim’s Way would be firstly, a really good training walk, heading towards the Camino Frances. But also, I could do it on my own, because the comfort zone of planning within your own country is actually much, much easier than planning in a foreign country where people speak a foreign language.
And also, I wanted to write another book. So I got an idea, Thomas Becket was martyred 850 years ago, and so 2020 in England was Becket 2020. There were all of these events. I know you were meant to come, right?
Kevin: I was. It was the Year of the Cathedral, Becket 2020, 800 years since the tomb moved, 850 years since his martyrdom. So great timing for you to make this walk.
Joanna: Yes, exactly. So I thought, well, I could go to all those things. Of course, all of that got cancelled, but I could still do the walk on my own. There was a brief period between the end of lockdown one and lockdown two. We’re now in lockdown three as we record this, but I thought it would give me the inspiration for another book.
So I’m actually starting to write Day of the Martyr, which will be out sometime in 2021.
[Note from Jo in Sept 2021. This book became Tomb of Relics, and while it opens in Canterbury and is based around a relic of Becket, it encompasses far more.
And I’ve visited Canterbury, but I thought if I walk there that will be far more of an adventure. Also, I should tell you, even though I’m not a Christian, I am spiritual and I certainly had a few spiritual experiences on the route. But also I have a Master’s in Theology from the University of Oxford.
I love Gothic architecture. I love taking photos. So you’ve got Southwark Cathedral at one end, Canterbury Cathedral at the other. I mean, it really is a wonderful journey through nature and also great cathedrals. So I think all of that meant that it was a good time to do it. And I was also desperate to get out of the house, desperate to be alone. And, walking a pilgrimage in pandemic times is kind of meaningful, I guess.
Kevin: So, first of all, let me say, a shout out to my good friend in the UK, Andy Bowl, he would be very proud that someone, you have taught me to say Southwark Cathedral. I’ve almost got it down because in the States, we look at that word, and it is not the English pronunciation, so…
Joanna: No, it’s not Southwark.
Kevin: Okay, guilty as charged. But we’re getting better at that. For those of you who are interested in the Becket Pilgrimage, this year, the National Museum in London will also have a Becket exhibit that starts in April 2021. And it’ll be running through much of the year. So if you didn’t get a chance to take in some of those year of Becket 2020 exhibits, they are going to manifest themselves in April 2021. So make your way over to the National Museum as you may be able. I wanna talk to you about [inaudible 00:08:32].
Joanna: Yes, just on that, sorry. It’s at the British Museum just to be clear.
Kevin: Oh, the British Museum?
Kevin: Well, there you go. We’ll fix that in the edit.
Joanna: It’s very important because everyone, you know, the British Museum, if you’re coming to London, it probably is in the top five places you should visit. If you love history, you love religion, you love culture. It’s amazing.
I’ve written a number of books inspired by the British Museum. Crypt of Bone was based on a relic exhibition there, and of course, there will be some relics of Becket at the new exhibition. So as you say, highly recommended.
Kevin: Absolutely. So you started your walk in London, and you followed the very traditional route that pilgrims would follow starting at Southwark Cathedral, making your way to Canterbury Cathedral. This you did it alone.
You’ve been very open about some of your initial concerns and fears in making the walk, all of those things that we talk about metaphorically, we pack in our backpack, we pack our fears. What are some of those that came up for you that maybe you were a little apprehensive about as you started your journey?
Joanna: Well, I think the first fear for me was getting lost because I had never navigated. Well, not since I was a Girl Guide, I know you were in scouting I think you mentioned. And so I haven’t really navigated for a really long time.
I love walking, but we walk a lot on the Kennet and Avon Canal, which is like, as long as you’re next to the canal, you can’t really get too lost. So this was a big deal.
Now there are some fantastic guidebooks. So the Cicerone guidebook for The Becket Way or The Pilgrim’s Way has the whole route in. But I also had OS Maps, which you can buy, and you can plot your route. So I also went on a navigation weekend to kind of get that sorted and I did only get lost a couple of times, but not very lost.
So it’s one of those, you know, the fear beforehand is never quite what it is on the way, so getting lost was one, fear of obviously, illness because this the pandemic is raging. And I wore masks in public places, but really, I spent most of it on my own, to be honest, there were very few people around in general, even in London, London was quite empty. And so that was quite weird in a way.
But there’s fear of pain, obviously, if you’re walking on your own even, I mean, I should be clear, this is not a wilderness walk, this has some nature in but you’re never far from civilization, you could probably always call an Uber at some point, and get to somewhere where they could pick you up.
So this is not a dangerous walk in any way. But I’m still a woman on my own. And I got a lot of comments on Instagram from other women saying, “Are you scared?” Not at all, this is a very safe route. It’s well-marked, and most of it is actually the North Downs Way for a lot of it, it really is an easy route. And then of course the fear of pain, when some of the days were very big, one day was 42k, which was probably the biggest day, the first day. [You can find the detail of my six-day walk here.]
Kevin: No, thank you. That is a big, big day.
Joanna: It was pretty epic. I mean, most days were between 25 and about 32km. But yes, but actually it was fine, I only got one tiny blister on my little toe. And so the fears I had were very physical-based around what might happen or I was carrying my bag and it hurt too much. And I’ll tell you one thing, especially Americans, would worry that there aren’t enough coffee shops, there definitely were not, it was not enough coffee on the route. And I didn’t carry a stove, because I just thought, “Oh, there’ll be enough coffee on the route,” and there wasn’t. So there’s a little tip.
Kevin: Well, and then you also mentioned this route is connected with the cities that have grown up around the route, not only were they established in hopes of hosting and servicing pilgrims, but the modern evolution of life in the UK, and the development that’s transpired. You talked about your first day because it was a big day. I don’t think many people have gone out of their way to make it from along the route to Dartford. But that was a part of your walk that you said really resonated with you.
Joanna: Yes. And I wrote in my article about this that people do not walk The Pilgrim’s Way to go through the gritty estates of southeast London. I mean, there were some really horrible patches of that first day. But I felt like it was very important to walk the whole way.
Even though it was not an act of faith for me. It was certainly an act of pilgrimage and you’re meant to have some pain.
And this was mental pain as you’re walking down one of the busiest roads out of London, the Old Kent Road. So that first day I wanted to do the 42k because it would get me out of London, but basically, a lot of it was this gritty, urban pavements traffic. There were a few amazing spots. So before we get to the Crayford Ness, there’s also the Lesnes Abbey, which is a 12th century Abbey.
Kevin: 12th Century?
Joanna: So, yes, founded around the time. And in fact, the nobleman who founded it helped Henry II hire Becket as Archbishop and it’s got these wonderful ruins overlooking the modern city of London. So that’s kind of on the way. Oh, there’s a coffee shop there. So I was very careful to find these places. But then you get onto The Thames Path at a really horrible gritty place in London.
In fact, that was possibly the place I felt most unsafe was these urban estates in the southeast of London. And then there was this moment, so I was tired, I just got lost and ended up on this dual carriageway, which is horrible. And I was tired. This was at about 38k on the first day. It was heading towards dusk, so I was like, “I have to hurry up. I have to get to the hotel before dark.”
And I walked out of…I kid you not …an industrial estate with these cranes, and the rubbish tips, and ugly, noisy place, onto this ancient salt marsh called Crayford Ness headland, which you can’t build on, because it’s been a salt marsh for thousands of years.
And there’s a sunken forest, these ancient timbers coming out of the water, the bird life, and you could stand with your back to this industrial estate and look out on nature. And I had a very spiritual moment there. And there was an urban fox who came out and I just was like, “Wow, I’m on my own here with this ugliness and this nature,” and it just felt like I was transported because of the power of nature. [I talk about this in This Too Shall Pass: Thoughts from the Pilgrim’s Way]
I think we can all say that whatever our spiritual belief that nature can transport us, and I felt that by looking back in time with the call of the Canada geese, and the skylarks were trilling, and skylarks are just beautiful here. And I felt very close to whatever you might call God after that day.
And then, of course, I had to walk into the horrible outskirts of Dartford. But I felt like my pack lifted, my spirits lifted. And then the sun was setting. And that’s why we do this, right? I almost got on the train, I almost skipped that spot, because I was so miserable. And then it was just beauty. So you must have had places like that on your walk there on the Portuguese, for example.
Kevin: Yeah, I think there are places where, especially as a solo walker, you know, if you’re walking with someone, sometimes just the company can lift you. And whether you’re talking and sharing, or you’re walking in silence with someone, that companionship can be a great lift when you need it the most.
But as a solo walker, I agree, there are moments where the sun hits your face a special way. And when I’m walking, I’m hoping to see something that’s fresh to me something I haven’t seen before. And in many ways, those images conjure up other memories, I was walking in Portugal, and you mentioned walking along a canal, it’s very easy to navigate, right? Water on the left, you stay on the right, you’re good to go. But I was walking along the river in Portugal and as I was walking, you know, I grew up in a small town with a river. And I was passing through a small town right on the river. And the connections that you make mentally, I think, lend themselves to other greater connections, spiritual connections, being open to new relationships with people, or whatever it may be. So I agree with you that the moments that we have walking, whether it’s with others, or alone, often inspire our thoughts and warm us and they’re a big part of pilgrimage.
Joanna: Yes, and it’s funny because I took a lot of pictures over that trip. And I could not take a picture of that moment. I did take some pictures, but they were all ugly. And I didn’t want to share an ugly photo of what was, for me, a beautiful moment. But it’s so interesting, as you say, sometimes it’s not the expected things that make you feel that way. There’s definitely the internal pilgrimage, obviously is more important than the external pilgrimage. But equally, everyone likes to get some nice photos. And it was so interesting at that moment, I mean, my other moment, well, we’ll come to it at the end. But that moment, it was like, “Wow, that’s surprising.”
But the thing is, if I tell you now that that point on Crayford Ness was where I felt that, you might walk the same way and not feel the same way. And I think that’s important, too. Everyone has different sensations at different points in the journey. And that’s just as important. And it’s interesting, you say walking with other people, someone offered to walk with me that day and I said, “I don’t want to. I actually want to be on my own.”
And one of the fears, I think, is that you have to face when walking alone is yes, I’m going to be lonely. And I mean, at one point on the trip, I did sit down and have a cry. And if my husband had been there, I would have cried a lot longer and he would have carried my pack but as it was in the end, you just get up and carry on. It’s like you know, your website, what is it, One Step Then Another?
Joanna: You know, that is exactly the point and if you’re on your own, well, no one’s going to pick you up, so get up and carry on.
Kevin: We’ve spoken to so many pilgrims who have…everyone has moments on these long walks where you feel physically exhausted and you’re mentally drained and maybe spiritually feeling low or even defeated. And you find within yourself the strengths that, but for this experience, you may not have been in touch with and I think you make a great point, you know, a heavy pack is one of them. And that’s certainly part of it.
The other though, is how you go through and overcome that obstacle. So I find that to be such a rewarding part of the experience of walking and finding new strengths within myself. It’s experiencing that moment when you decide, “I’m strong enough to do this.” That becomes such a greater part and a greater self-awareness because you made the journey, right?
Joanna: Yes. And it’s funny. I mean, another challenge for me, I think, and this is something I realized on the route because again, this is not a wilderness walk. But actually, after that first day, if you do the 42k on the first day, and you get out of the urban landscape, the next five days or six days, depending on how long you take, are pretty much rolling hills, countryside fields, little towns, little churches, little villages, and quaint English orchards and oast houses, which are these Kent houses, that people might not know. And they’ve got these little conical white turrets on and they were for drawing hops. So you’ll see those along the walk, and very beautiful landscape fields and stuff.
But for me, one of the challenges in those parts was boredom. As in, I would walk 30k through lovely fields. But what I discovered is that for me, and that was very important for the mindfulness of the journey and everything, but I did get quite bored. And when you’re navigating, you can’t listen to anything else or do anything else. So I found one of my challenges was like, “Wow, I really would love to see another person or something else other than another field.” I think this is really important. You’ve done some really long walks. I don’t think people admit to boredom enough, do you know what I mean by that?
Kevin: Yeah, absolutely. And I actually think the boredom is good, because you get into this forward motion process because your body is just going and pulling you through the route, you get a mental space, and your mind starts to wander and drift. And who knows, sometimes it’s about “Why is this mud puddle right in the middle of my way?” Sometimes it’s about the beauty of the reflection in that puddle of water.
And depending on where you are, you could walk that same route 5 times or 100 times, and you may not have that same mental experience. And I think that’s one of the things that as I’ve been doing more distance walks, I really find myself trying to create that mental space that allows me to almost zone out, you get bored, and then that gives you the mental space to be able to really experience the things that aren’t in front of you, but that you’re carrying with you, whether that’s the thoughtfulness of the process, spirituality, or whatever it may be.
So I really enjoy those moments. And you mentioned being along The North Downs Way in Kent, the garden of England, right, so there’s definitely some parts there. I am so fascinated. My route is going to vary a bit from yours because I’m going to continue north along the Thames to Rochester because I want to go and make my way down the Medway. And you actually went through the traditional route which continues through Aylesford.
Joanna: Oh, Aylesford which is a 13th-century Carmelite monastery, and you can actually get your pilgrims stamp there because they…I think they even have a relic and you can stay there outside of pandemic times. I really wanted to stay there but I couldn’t because it was closed for the pandemic. Obviously, they have monks, old monks there who you can, in fact, that you can certainly still visit. So I just add there. And actually, you can do the Aylesford route and then add on going up to Rochester and back down again. So I did consider that but I wanted to do it within the six-day period but yes, I think that would be really interesting because Rochester Cathedral is obviously a very important place.
Kevin: Yeah. Well our guest today is Jo Frances Penn, we’ll link her route as well as some GPS routes because you were talking about the OS Maps, you can also download the OS app, so that you can map out your route there, as well as the Cicerone book “Following The Pilgrims Way.” So we’ll put those in the show notes below. Jo, I want to talk to you, and just expose your experience arriving in Canterbury, because as someone who has this destination in mind, I’m so excited and anxious to hear the experience of people who make the walk, who go through the physical hardship and pain of the journey, and then arrive in Canterbury. I’d love to hear your perspective on arriving and being in the cathedral after your walk.
Joanna: As you say, it’s a really big moment. But what’s so funny, and part of me, kind of expected there to be one of the pastors at the gate welcoming me, giving me a blessing, and saying, “Welcome, Pilgrim.”
Joanna: Yes, “You’ve done really well, pat yourself on the back. Brilliant.”
Actually, nobody cares.
So you’re walking into Canterbury along The Pilgrim’s Way, like, practically every street along the way is called The Pilgrims Way. And you’re like, “Okay, I’m here.” And fact, I checked in and I was going to recommend, stay at the Canterbury Cathedral Lodge, which is inside the grounds, and the grounds are protected. They have their own police, their own constabulary. So you can’t get in there at night, unless you’re actually staying at the Canterbury Cathedral Lodge. It’s quite expensive really, but it’s well worth it, because you can sleep in a room looking at the cathedral, which was brilliant.
So I arrived, and no one said anything. And I checked in and I was like, “Oh, I’ve walked from London.” And the woman said, “Oh, what time did you set off this morning?” And I’m like, “No, it took me six days.” She worked there, and she didn’t even know about the pilgrimage and I was like, “Okay then.”
I put my pack down, had a quick shower, and then Evensong was starting. So this is another recommendation, try to time your walk so that you get there in time for Evensong. I’m getting chills actually remembering it because I got there early. I went in. So this was October, it was cold. And this is a huge gothic cathedral, massive ceilings and it’s freezing. I walk in and I’m pretty much on my own for about 20 minutes before the service starts. Because of the pandemic, social distancing, there were only a couple of chairs in the whole nave in this…or biggest church basically, and the choir came out to practice. And there were, I think, 12 men, that the choir all spaced out over in front of the choir stall. And they sang in Latin and practiced for the service.
So it wasn’t the service of Evensong, it was the practice for Evensong. But it was this incredible moment of human sound resonating in this house of God. And it was so special. And I felt like it doesn’t matter what anybody else thinks of my journey. I’m here in this space. And this music is transporting me and this is a spiritual moment. This is a connection to God and the human voice, obviously, and I felt then very much the whole theme of my pilgrimage was transience and impermanence.
So every note that the human voice sings, going up to the arch above, was transient, disappeared in a moment. Like we disappear in a moment, like we walk along and every step and then we’re gone again. And yet the permanence of nature, the permanence of this 1000-year-old Cathedral, and the permanence of the faith, I guess, in whatever you believe in, that was a moment that really transported me.
So I was really tired, and hungry, and that obviously, impacted those moments, but truly Sung Evensong is magical. Canterbury Cathedral is the seat of our Archbishop. It’s the most important Cathedral in the Anglican faith. And so we will call it High Anglican, so I don’t know if you have something similar in America, but it’s not Catholic, but it’s still pretty up there with things in Latin. So, and then I stayed for Evensong and that was lovely, too. But it was the moments with the choir singing that were the most special, and I mean, you’ve obviously visited these cathedrals at the end of the pilgrimage, Santiago de Compostela. You know what I mean with that experience?
Kevin: Yes, I was just going to mention for those who aren’t familiar with Evensong from the Canterbury Cathedral or for any of the English cathedrals. Canterbury, actually Number One Cathedral puts out on their social media, they do have a YouTube channel. So if you’re listening to Jo explain, and you want to experience it, maybe we’ll link a couple in the show notes below.
But nothing like being there firsthand, Jo, to your point, having completed a journey, and then arriving, all of us whether you’re traveling on vacation, and I think back to the days in which we did these things, where you were on a plane, and then you’re on a bus, and then you’re in a car, and then you’re schlepping your bags, and then you walk out, you’re in a hotel or a home, and you fling open the window, and there’s this beautiful view.
And it’s just the reward of the sacrifice that you’ve made is very much the same in a pilgrimage like this to a cathedral. As you said, life is going on around you, right, there are attendants there who aren’t aware of your previous five days, six-day journey. And they’re there for their role. But the candles, the choir, the service, have a way of transforming our individual experiences. And I love that you had that experience, I had reservations to stay as well at the lodge. And for that very purpose, I wanted to make sure that I made the evening service and was there and was able to walk through the cloister and able to kind of go through some of the other historic churches in and around Canterbury, St. Martin’s and others.
So as you’re making your way to Canterbury, and you’re having that experience in the cathedral, I will say if you have a thought in advance, you can reach out and establish a prayer service especially, Jo, if you’re standing near the stone which starts Canterbury’s next walk because I saw a picture on your blog, and it made me think, “If she even went on a bigger walk?”
Joanna: Although I really just wanted to set off again, I would just add a couple of things that are really important to book in advance.
Joanna: Make sure you’re in London obviously for a few days before you leave because you want to spend time. I left very, very early that first morning like 7 a.m. in the dark because I walked in October, so you want to visit Southwark and then the same in Canterbury, don’t try to see everything the day you arrive.
So at least have another day in Canterbury and I went back to the Cathedral the day after as more of a tourist to experience it. But you can also request a blessing from any of the people working in the cathedral. I could have asked after Evensong for a blessing. But I decided that I’d had my blessing from the Evensong itself. So I felt like I didn’t need to go any further. But you can ask for that. If that’s something important to you. You can get your stamp at the entrance place.
And I did buy my pilgrim T-shirt. I did the pilgrimage, got the T-shirt!
But I would add in terms of doing more walks, I would love to do The Via Francigena. But walking all the way to Rome, but I kind of want before then I need to do the Frances and before then I’m going to do the St Cuthbert Way which is in Northumberland. That goes to Lindisfarne, which is Holy Island.
And I actually wrote about it in my book Day Of The Vikings, but I’ve never been and it’s in my country, it’s not that far away. And so that’s the one that I’ll probably do next. And I think similar to writing books, like we talked about, I didn’t really realize when I finished, in fact, I want to admit to this too, the day I finished or the day after, I was quite disappointed. I thought I would have had some life-changing epiphany during the pilgrimage.
But it actually took two months for me to reflect on it. I did a podcast on my reflections two months later — This Too Shall Pass: Reflections from the Pilgrim’s Way. And only then did I really understand the meaning. And I think that’s important too.
Don’t expect to have the life-changing moment on the pilgrimage itself. It may come later.
I mean, it may come during the pilgrimage, but it also might not. Is that something you found as well, that sometimes, it comes later?
Kevin: You talked about and you’ve written about on your blog about transience and permanence, right? And I think the journey is the most rewarding part of the pilgrimage. The arrival, the departure are moments, but the journey is where growth and really self-awareness and maybe those touches with faith come in.
But even pilgrimage is transient, right? It’s a moment, and then it’s gone. The permanence, I think, comes from our ability to reflect on our experience and what we’ve gained from it. And so when I saw your writing, I was really touched by that because, yes, I think even your perspective on the experience evolves as you have time to reflect.
And the other thing that happens is that for many people, and for you, if you’re thinking about the Camino de Santiago, many people find that it becomes an experience that they want to recreate. They longed for that sense of feeling, whether it’s the companionship of other pilgrims, whether it’s the moments that they share a reflection, or maybe things that they missed out on along the way, where they said, “I thought it would be this or I thought it would be that.” And they longed for that. So often, these long walks become a bit of a routine and something that people are doing time and time again.
So I’m so excited to hear that you’re thinking about Lindisfarne. We actually talked about that on the blog, because that is a journey in talking to Dr. Guy Hayward from the British Pilgrimage Trust. Fantastic book of Britain’s Pilgrim Places, that you can get. And the proceeds go to The British Pilgrimage Trust about wonderful discussions about the Holy Island, Lindisfarne, about the all of the saints connected there as well and the way of Saint Cuthbert and the intersecting path. Cicerone has a fantastic book that you can pick up as well if you’re interested in those routes. But I am so excited because I would love to what it sounds like now if you’re going to be able to go this year. It sounds like I might have to follow in your footsteps. I would love to see you out there. Is that something that you’re taking after the summer? You may make this other walk?
Joanna: Yes, I mean, I hope that we can get out there more in the world. But I also feel like perhaps 2021 might be more of a domestic travel year. And that we might be able to get further afield later on. But it is I think one of the biggest lessons of walking a pilgrimage but also of the pandemic, I think because I walked it in pandemic times that The Pilgrims Way, that the biggest, you know, one of our biggest lessons is memento mori, remember you will die. And I love these cadaver tombs, I don’t even think you have them in America. They’re like actual tombs that have effigies of dead bodies on.
Kevin: Yeah, we do not have those.
Joanna: Rather than just, “Oh, look how perfect they looked in death.” No, they look like cadavers and dead bodies. And that as well seeing those along the way and feeling like, you know, remember you will die.
And one of the things is when you think, yes, “I am going to die.” It might not be soon, hopefully not soon, but it’s going to happen. So what do I actually want to do? What would I be annoyed about if I died now?
And for me, some of the things I would be annoyed at is not seeing the places that are these spiritual places where sometimes I say maybe the veil is thin and you can touch another side that isn’t physical, whatever you believe that to be. And that when I think memento mori, I want to do the Camino Frances. I want to go to Lindisfarne. The Francigena, for example, to me, it doesn’t have the same resonance because I’ve been to so many of the places along that route, but the Camino Frances, I’ve been dreaming about since I studied Theology at Oxford. It’s something that I’ve always thought about.
So I want to do that route. And so now I’m like, “Well, how do I get to that route?” It’s as we said it’s a 40-day route so you have to take that much time off for a start. Yeah, I mean, you did the Portuguese which is a bit shorter, isn’t it? But if you have this memento mori, remember you will die, is the Via Francigena your bucket list?
Kevin: For me, I don’t know that there is one aspect of that walk where it’s, you know, I feel drawn to a stage of it. Many people go to Rome as pilgrims, they don’t walk 2,000k to get there. So the experience for me is very, very important. And I feel like that’s a space where there are so many highlights of the route that speak to me. And the hospitality of the people speaks to me, that there are parts of France where, you know, and many parts of small-town Europe have evolved, and there are very few residents of small towns, now many of them have gone to the urban centers.
And in France, in particular, the route, and this is a historic way from about 900, the year 900. But as you’re going, those cities almost don’t exist anymore. So what happens is that, as you make your way, you walk 30k, 35k, what have you, and it’s at the end of the day, and the people who live along the route, have come to take in pilgrims as part of their daily life. And there’s not a hostel, there’s not a holiday inn with a pool, and a café, and so on. But you’re there in someone’s home, and they’re caring for you as a pilgrim.
And I think that grace is so inspiring for me to see and maybe learn from someone who is willing to give and sacrifice so much for strangers, that there are aspects of the route that are like that, you know, yes, walking over Grand Saint Bernard Pass and being in Switzerland, and the food and Tuscany. You know, everything is exciting about it to me. But I think that the singular moments of grace are so few and far between in this world, that unless you are willing to put yourself in a position to experience them, you would miss them. And I think on my bucket list, I would regret missing them. And so that’s just one opportunity. I think that I look forward to.
Joanna: I mean, for people watching or listening, I think it’s a good thing to come back to is, “Well, what do I want to do? Where do I want to experience that?”
And I love the fact that you want to come to Europe, and obviously, it’s an ancient Christian area. So I mean, you walk in through these gorgeous churches and Gothic cathedrals. But equally, there’s, you know, I would like to come and do some of your big walks in America for different reasons, I think. But I do find that from a secular pilgrimage point of view, you can do these walks, for different reasons.
And sometimes they’re an internal reason rather than an external one. And that’s, I think, what we’re saying is we’re combining them both on these beautiful routes that are beautiful by the things that humans have constructed to worship God, certainly, I think Gothic cathedrals are one of the greatest expressions of faith.
And then also the natural world, which God created or however you want to believe. But you can really get that sense of power and/or in the environments in a European pilgrimage, for sure. And, yes, I definitely want to do more. But it’s interesting, because I think in Europe, particularly I’m attracted to the more spiritual places, the more religious places, the big cathedrals, that they’re the things that I really love, rather than the rolling hills of Kent.
Kevin: Well, and you make a great point. These experiences can happen anywhere, and some are man-made, some are natural. I think about walking in Ireland and just along the cliffs, and you just had a fantastic line you said, “Where the veil is thin.” And I think those are the places regardless if you’re listening, or watching whatever journey you’re on, wherever those places exist for you, I think Jo and I would both encourage you to find them. Because those are the moments that we live for. And those are the ones that we’ll remember the most. So I really appreciate what you said in that expression. That’s so beautiful.
Joanna: As you say, that’s what we travel for. And that’s what I tend to write about are those moments, and I’ve found them all around the world, sometimes in very unexpected places. And you know how some places you can really feel some kind of spiritual sense and others places you do not. You can go into a great cathedral and not find God very easily. But in a little country church, it might be more spiritual. So yes, I think the most interesting thing is the curiosity for the journey and making the most of it while we’re here.
Kevin: Our guest today on the Sacred Steps Podcast has been Jo Frances Penn. We’ll link in the show notes her website, her more than 20 books, her podcast as well, and hopefully, Jo, some stories on your upcoming pilgrimage walks. Thank you so much for joining us today. It’s been wonderful to spend time with you.
Joanna: Oh, thanks for having me, Kevin. That was great.
Announcer: This has been the Sacred Steps Podcast. Visit SacredStepsPodcast.com for episode notes, links, or to contact Kevin, watch us online on YouTube. We read every comment, please add your review and feedback before you go. Tap subscribe to have episodes added to your playlist. Until next time, Buen Camino.
More Books and Travel episodes and articles about Canterbury
- Walking the Pilgrim’s Way. Six Days From Southwark Cathedral, London To Canterbury
- Canterbury Cathedral, Kent, England
- This Too Shall Pass. Thoughts From The Pilgrim’s Way
- Questions to Consider on a Pilgrimage
- The History of England Written In Stone: Canterbury with Anna Sayburn Lane
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