What is Easter doing in a Pagan walking calendar? It’s a time when my son is likely to be off school. It’s close to the equinox, but I’ve never quite known what to do with equinoxes. It’s a massively important Christian festival and many of my ancestors were Christian. But the real truth is, it joined my calendar by accident.
I suffer from depression, and the relationship between mental health and walking is something I’ll explore in more detail later on. I was in a desperately bad state, and made the decision to spend a day walking with my husband, to try and take me out of myself, to create the space to feel differently. We walked, for hours, through woods and hills, on a route I’d not done before. Two Iron Age hillforts, at the Cotswold edge, huge skies, and then down into the city of Gloucester, with leg muscles tightening, feet sore, barely able to put one foot in front of the other, we came to the cathedral. And I realised it was Easter. I was almost in tears. This was the moment when the whole idea of pilgrimage started to make sense to me. I had not set out to make a pilgrimage, and yet at the same time knew I had definitely done that.
I have a longstanding relationship with Gloucester cathedral, and I have a story about my great grandmother seeing a ghost there. It’s a place of deep ancestry for me. Walking in, exhausted, and sitting in the cool quiet of the space, and letting the space fill me was a powerful experience that cannot easily be described. I was mind-blown from the enormity of the journey, wide open to the place, and profoundly affected.
We tried a second version of the walk the following autumn, with my son, and without one of the hill forts, and while that too was a powerful journey, the absence of a hillfort was clearly an issue.
We set out for the third time on what was explicitly an act of Easter pilgrimage, taking in both hillforts. Our route introduced us to an incredible oak tree, we met a lot of wildlife including a breathtaking close encounter with a deer. Coming into the cathedral my body and mind were, despite the challenges of preceding weeks, clearly in far better shape than they had been on my first Gloucester pilgrimage.
The cathedral used to be a major focus point for pilgrims – the tomb of Edward the Second (murdered just down the road at Berkley Castle) was the major attraction. These days very few people walk as we’ve done, and most people in the cathedral are there as tourists. There’s a strange irony to coming in as a Druid pilgrim to sit reverently in the cathedral while all around the tourists take photos and chat. One of the things I love about the cathedral is how it takes all sound and changes it into something like music.
It’s worth noting that historically, the lines between pilgrimage and tourism have always been blurred. Religious sites have made a lot of money out of pilgrimage, as well. It is not a thing set apart, but a thing of this world.