I was invited to join a fellow Unbound author, John-Paul Flintoff, on his desktop pilgrimage from London to Canterbury. Each day he asks people to ‘walk’ with him through a Google Maps section of the route. This time it was Bexley Heath to Swanley, escaping from the sprawl of London into proper countryside. You can see more about our walk here.
As we looked at the images, we talked about Dad’s escape across China in 1942 and my retracing of his route in 2013. It made me realise that as you walk through a landscape, talking about something else, you tend to ignore elements that don’t connect with your conversation. Instead you focus on things that do have a link. It’s as though the landscape is an active participant in whatever we are thinking or talking about.
When we choose to immerse ourselves in nature, when our thinking and what we are seeing are the same, we know that this is a balm to our mental health (see Lucy Jones’ book Losing Eden). When we allow the landscape to connect to our thoughts – in this case with some trees at the side of a busy motorway – we can be soothed as we remember. If we are searching our sometimes troubled inner landscape, the external landscape can anchor us in the present.
Pilgrimage, whether it has a spiritual drive or arises from a deep imperative to undertake a journey, is about a passage through landscape. If you just wanted to go to a sacred site, you could go straight to it. But it is the journey and the landscape as witness, inspiration, comforter, distractor, sanctuary and connector that enables our self exploration and expansion.