Writing for The Guardian, Alan Franks joined a group of modern pilgrims who were celebrating the centenary of England’s unofficial national anthem. Here he reflects on a lifelong passion for walking, and describes the extraordinary journey through time and place made by William Blake’s Jerusalem.
So what is it about going on foot? It was, and is, our primary means of transport, and the only one apart from swimming in which we are our own vehicle.
Some can’t stand it, never mind walk it; the only place to which it takes them is the dire memory of school crocodiles. Since God, working through Man of course, gave us cars and trains and planes, why bother with something that does your legs in and goes at a fraction of the speed?
Others, like me, can’t be doing without it. One reason I find myself writing this is that I’m just back from a long walk to celebrate the centenary of Hubert Parry’s famous setting of William Blake’s Jerusalem, of which more in a moment.
Ask walkaholics to explain themselves and you will stride into a stiff headwind of justifications. They include the following: it’s good for you; the proper antidote to a sedentary age; you see things you never would if you were roaring past on wheels; the landscape makes more sense; a kind of meditation occurs; you make connections; you are very possibly a pilgrim, even if you are not happy with the word.
Many aren’t. It carries enough baggage to break the stoutest back, lumbering the walk with devotional overtones all the way to its shrine-objective. But then words, like people, make journeys, and when it comes to “pilgrimage” there are grounds for claiming a secular origin for this one. Depending on your interpretation of the Latin components per and agri , it can denote either travelling through fields or coming from another country. It is the second of these meanings that gave the word its sense of holy mission. The Old French counterpart peregrin was even used to mean crusader.
Though much has worn away since then, in literalism as in tombs, there is an enduring ardour for the act of walking, and for doing so with a purpose. The group that I joined were marching to Jerusalem for Heaven’s sake, albeit the song rather than the place. They started at Bunhill Fields, the location of William Blake’s unmarked grave, and went from there to Rustington on the Sussex coast, where Parry composed the tune of what has now become the nation’s unofficial national anthem.
One of the recently founded British Pilgrimage Trust’s many routes, it took them eleven days, and was arranged to visit all manner of places with some connection to the lives and work of Parry and Blake. Hence a stop at Soho’s Golden Square, where Blake’s brother had a sock shop and where William’s paintings were exhibited; then Tate Britain and its Blake Room; Wellington House, the headquarters of the propaganda bureau which commissioned Parry to write the music for Jerusalem; the Royal Albert Hall, where only one tune has been sung more often, and that is the National Anthem itself.
Out into the commuter lands of Surrey; Cobham Chapel and the memorial to the renowned nineteenth century building pioneer Robert McAlpine, or Concrete Bob; the water mill nearby, the oldest such “satanic” plant; the Holy Well at Dunsfold.
I caught up with the pilgrims at the extraordinary Shulbrede Priory near Haslemere, secluded so deeply in these unexpectedly empty borderlands of Sussex and Surrey that even the local taxi driver from the station hadn’t heard of it.
Though still imposing, the place is just a small corner-remnant of a once mighty medieval establishment laid low by Henry VIII. There was a rather brutal aptness in our being here since it was that same monarch who in 1538 banned the practise of pilgrimage, hitherto popular among all social strata. This was a prohibition from which the country is arguably only now recovering.
Even more striking was the scene upstairs in the drawing room. There on the piano in the corner lay a sheet of manuscript paper with the tune of Jerusalem. Nothing remarkable about that until you learnt that it was Parry’s original, and that the instrument had been his own. It is here because Parry’s daughter Dorothea married Arthur, First Baron Ponsonby of Shulbrede, whose descendants are still in residence.
One of our number, James Keay, a composer, picked up the sheet with all suitable caution, sat at the stool and up into this very English air rose this…very English air. Since it never fails to do what it does, it wasn’t going to let us down now. There it stood in all its plain familiarity and peculiar complexity – a stirrer of the national breast and a bringer of calm; a call to arms and a hymn to peace; full of male sinew yet the Women’s Institute’s theme tune; widely co-opted by the nation’s “merely” spiritual and overtly political, yet explicitly Christian.
Or is it? Well, how long have you got. When on pilgrimage you have a seeming eternity of conversation time, which is one beauty of the thing. So off we set, wondering, like countless earlier Blakeans, about the intended meaning of that opening line. Did he conceive it as a question, “And did those feet?”, or was this just a poetically inverted way of saying “And those feet did” ? And did it matter? Yes, actually, it did.
We certainly gave it our best lungfuls. The two stanzas were probably sung sixty or seventy times in the course of the pilgrimage, and in all manner of places, which we will come to later. For the moment, what was sure was that the old room was ringing with Parry’s piano and the runaway hit lyric whose royalties poor Blake missed by a century. Even the seventeenth century animals on the painted wall-frieze seemed to be joining in, albeit with Latin bubbles coming from their mouths.
Our group was a shape-shifter, sometimes as few as four, sometimes more than a dozen, with people joining for a couple of days here and there, like me, and others, like Guy Hayward and Will Parsons, doing the whole one hundred and twenty-five miles. These two young men are founder members of the British Pilgrimage Trust, one a psychologist by training, the other an author and singer who for most of his twenties made a bold living as a Wandering Minstrel, doing as the job description implies and taking traditional British songs to all parts of the country.
With the landlords’ permission, we sang Jerusalem at many pubs along the way. We did so at the Angel Inn in Midhurst, where some of the Pilgrim Fathers had sat and envisaged their own new Jerusalem across the Atlantic; we did it too at the Duke of Cumberland in the little village of Henley. Some of the drinkers simply upped their own volume to counter ours. But others listened and were moved. One man even followed us out when we’d done. He was almost speechless and his face was aglow with a kind of zeal. And he’d barely touched his drink.
At Cowdray Castle we were met by the remarkable Lady C. , Marina, artist, sculptor and adviser to the Oxford Centre of Mindfulness. There in the mournful splendour of the old ruins we ran into a fully clad Grim Reaper, scythe and all, got up to spice up the visitors’ experience of Hallowe’en. The man inside the costume turned out to be the former teacher Steven Payne, aged 52, who last year attracted wide publicity for his own recreation of a medieval walk from Southampton to Thomas Becket’s shrine in Canterbury by one Carluccio de Carrera in 1365.
On to Chichester, where Blake was tried and acquitted of sedition in 1803 after he had allegedly made disparaging remarks about the King and the army to a soldier he had found relieving himself in his (Blake’s) cottage garden. There was some irony in his arrest since he had come to the village of Felpham partly in order to escape the hostile climate of London towards dissidents.
It was here that he had written Jerusalem, or rather had started work on the much longer and more ambitious poem, Milton, envisaging a return to earth by the author of Paradise Lost. Initially called And Did Those Feet, the two now-famous stanzas had been conceived as the preface.
For those who know of Blake mainly for these verses, the road to his “Jerusalem” comes to an unexpected conclusion. Though a committed Christian, he was also profoundly influenced by the ideals that inspired the French Revolution and convinced that state religion was both a “trick” and “the source of all cruelty.” As the historian E.P. Thompson wrote in his 1993 book, Witness Against the Beast; William Blake and the Moral Law, the poet never compromised with the society he had so powerfully criticised in such angry poems as London, which heard “mind forg’d manacles” in humanity’s anguished cries.
As the later Socialist author J.B. Priestley observed in his 1934 book English Journey, commissioned by Victor Gollancz, to walk seriously is to activate “the skull cinema.” Countless pedestrian (in the literal sense) writers from Charles Dickens to Robert Macfarlane, author of The Old Ways, have found such imaginative stimulus in the business of putting one foot in front of the other for hours and days.
Long routes have narratives of their own, whether in their historical rationale or their deliberate making. For example the famous Ridgeway came into being by doing as it says and following a strip of chalk upland across southern England, while the Wainwright Way got its name from the man who decided to pick a coast-to-coast route from Cumbria to Yorkshire through the National Parks of Lakes, Dales and Moors with the barest use of metalled road. Like countless others, both are routinely termed pilgrimages.
One reason for the foundation of the BPT is the burgeoning popularity of the route to Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain. In ways that are hard to describe, to walk these different paths is to take possession of them, to upload them through the soles of your feet into the fabric of your life. Do them in company and you may find them shaped remarkably like conversations or stories. Chaucer is my witness.
Our route down into Sussex did as many routes must in the crowded corner of a not very large country; it used what it could muster from existing rights of way, stringing together stretches of old paths between villages, downland drove roads, farm tracks, lanes, field edges and broad commons. The ominous cliché of walking through history began to pull its weight as the linkages concerned time as much as place. One evening, just after the clocks had gone back, the route took us along a holloway. The mesmeric effect of walking for hours with the rhythm of others’ paces in your head, the scoop of the ground below and the head-torchlight on the branches above turned the world into that unthinkable thing, an open-air tunnel.
On to Rustington and Hubert Parry’s local church; also The Street, where the leaders of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies was based, and to whom he gave “Jerusalem” towards the end of the war. As with the green-and-pleasant English countryside, so with this anthem; the closer you look, the more it can surprise you. Parry had been asked to supply “suitable, simple music” to Blake’s stanzas by the Poet Laureate Robert Bridges, for use in a campaign meeting by Fight for Right, a movement formed to restore a national morale threatened by the growing toll of war deaths.
Parry obliged, but he grew disaffected with the movement and withdrew his support the following year. As with Blake a century before, his was a critical patriotism, and their half-posthumous, wartime pairing more reflective than triumphalist.
What a strange journey their song has had, courting controversy with its possible siting of a risen Christ on English footways, not to mention the very title’s echo of our own military adventurism. The fact is, our de facto national anthem was scripted by an eccentric visionary revolutionist, and to walk these ways is to be reminded of that fact. And yet such things always seem to pass away like niggles as the tune strides out, shouldering its magic load of self-replenishing hope and yet another English hall sends its flock away sated into the night.
The Jerusalem Pilgrimage was organised by the British Pilgrimage Trust. The photographs in the first slideshow are used courtesy of the trust. The photos in the second slideshow are by Ruth Gledhill.