As published in The Belting Zodiac

A Modern Hardy Pilgrimage by Nancy Powell

As published in The Belting Zodiac

This image may be subject to copyright

The Belting Zodiac:

‘How do you know that the pilgrim track
Along the belting zodiac
Swept by the sun in his seeming rounds
Is traced by now to the Fishes’ bounds
And into the Ram, when weeks of cloud
Have wrapt the sky in a clammy shroud,
And never as yet a tinct of spring
Has shown in the Earth’s apparelling;
O vespering bird, how do you know,
How do you know?
How do you know, deep underground,
Hid in your bed from sight and sound,
Without a turn in temperature,
With weather life can scarce endure,
That light has won a fraction’s strength,
And day put on some moments’ length,
Whereof in merest rote will come,
Weeks hence, mild airs that do not numb;
O crocus root, how do you know,
How do you know?’

- Thomas Hardy

Despite being plagued by indolence, and having spent more than most of my life in bed either asleep, or in some kind of somnolent inertia, it’s when I’m walking that I am at my most joyful. It feels strange, and obvious, to admit that the thing I am most reticent to do is what has always been the most spiritually
fulfilling. I think my parents knew that - when they dragged me around the fells of Ruskin’s Cumbria, dotting Easter chocolates up the Old Man of Coniston and promising half-pints at the edge of Buttermere - one day I would thank them for giving me the gift of pilgrimage. And I think I first understood that feeling of gratitude somewhere during my school years, when I’d find a route that suited me, to Steep Church or up Edward Thomas’ Poet’s Stone. And by the time I got to Oxford, and would do my walk to
Port Meadow and up round to Godstow Abbey, I wished I never refused to go up all those mountains to see something like magic on the peaks of the Lake District. And whilst I am still mostly bone idle, the spirit of wandering is, to me, the most Romantic sense a girl can have.

The poet-pilgrim is a cherished archetype. Hardy’s Wessex, Hopkins’ Oxford, Thomas’ Hampshire. Falling in love for the first time next to the banks of a river in Steep, reading Walt Whitman and forever wishing for whatever he meant when he talked about the Open Road. The transmutation of wandering
forests and planes into language, and then back again into my own personal journeys gave me something which I suppose Nature gives us all. And although I am, as I said, a habitually lazy person, I’m infatuated by the concept. The ‘liminality for the laity’ as it is sometimes termed, is a way of locating the transcendent in our surroundings. Pilgrimage to places, parishes, shrines and sacred spots is akin to the embodied journey to the spiritual realm.

For women, the shrine of Walsingham aided problems with lactation and infertility, and generated a kind of selfdom for pilgrims which was felt to relic themselves to the Holy Mother...The mystery of womanhood can be met with an initiatory experience into the mystical realm, and makes certain aspects of womanhood intelligible. Maybe it is this, some feminine desire to transform the interior with the exterior, that has led me to wandering. Sacred travel is a paradigm forging exercise. The transcendental is placed in a specific reality and fed by the marchers who observe it. The concept of darshan helps us to understand the transformative power of sacred travel, which delineates the active relationship between the Divine and its beholder through Symbol. The act of beholding becomes a reciprocal and essentially
salvific experience. Edith and Victor Turner, who write extensively on pilgrimage, posit that “If mysticism is an interior pilgrimage, pilgrimage is exteriorised mysticism”. We are acting out, like the Vedic creatives, the Covenant between the Divine and ourselves, simply by walking. Through pilgrimage we can become cosmic surveyors, and open up to the movement of the earth and the skies within us.

Personal piety grew as a component of nineteenth century British pilgrimage. This is because pilgrimage has never been completely immune from its surrounding epoch, and the nature and mode change according to epochal influences. So what does this mean for 21st century pilgrimage in an increasingly secular age? I believe there is still room for wanderers. Life has not been stripped of its willingness to accommodate ritual, if anything, the mundane, or what Durkheim would call the profane, has been imbued with a new propensity for ritual meaning. The diachronic opposition between the sacred and the profane might hold up in the public sphere, but in personal consciousness, we have been liberated to blur that dichotomy. A beautiful byproduct of modern spiritualism (and its inevitable narcissism) is our ability to totemise almost anything, and I think this allows us to reimagine pilgrimage in the modern world. A visit to a lover, a friend, a gravestone or an old home is a visit to a new totem in our own personal pantheon of religious meaning. The journey inwards is facilitated by the journey outwards. I see no problem with taking an atavistic return to a simple form of pilgrimage, or learning a new form of travel through the internet; both are valid modes of creative communion.

There are places often hidden behind the minds of people we love which hold such secret significance, that when they bring us there, we feel that we have joined a lonely wanderer on a journey they’ve previously traveled alone. Something about this has always been the most powerful part of pilgrimage, to be given entry into someone else’s paradigm, in whatever secret garden or landing halfway up the stairs. My Dad showed me one day the tree he visits everyday at the Rookery by our house. Each day he gives it a hug and walks around it three times. He has done this for years without me knowing, and once he invited me to watch, I became a part of that sacred ritual. I’ve never loved him more. I visited my friend Lily’s house in Dorset for the first time a few years ago, and we went up Colmer Hill. We walked up through the Jurassic etchings of faces and got to the top where her baby teeth were buried. In the mist, overlooking the Dorset coastline, I stood on a remnant of her childhood and right there, again, I’ve never loved her more.

Along that same Jurassic shore, I’m sure that Thomas Hardy felt that sacred feeling of lost time. For Hardy, like for pilgrims, the phenomenological significance of place provides a material manifestation for something nameless or murky. For Hardy, this place is Wessex, and for pilgrims, this place is where they walk to. In his poetry, Runic stones and megaliths serve as physical markers of this phenomenological significance. They are moments in space and time that create a lost Wessex, symbols rendered in the vast
green of a remembered Albion. Hardy must have believed in the chronotope, the indivisibility of space and time, through which points of spiritual significance or stories are suspended. In Tess of the D'urbervilles, Tess is awarded her last rest on the pagan altar of Stonehenge, before being taken by the Christian forces of Victorian England. I imagine that when I finish my pilgrimage along the Belting Zodiac, and behold Tess’ resting places in a state of darnash, I will never love Tess more.

This image may be subject to copyright

Some Songs For Pilgrims:

I’d Like to Walk Around in Your Mind - Vashti Bunyan
Green Are Your Eyes - Marianne Faithfull
Spencer the Rover - John Martyn
The Seal of the Seasons - T-Rex
The Glorious Land - PJ Harvey
I Lost Something in the Hills - Sibylle Baier
Are You Leaving For the Country - Karen Dalton
When First Unto this Country - Ian & Sylvia
The Travelling Tragition - T-Rex
An Oxford Elegy - Ralph Vaughan Williams
Oh England My Lionheart - Kate Bush

© Nancy Powell 2023

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