DAY 5

Our fifth day out of Salisbury started from the Holy Rood Church in Holybourne. Happily we found it open, with various bell ringing activities going on. We chatted for a while with the participants including the hand bell ringing instructor, who also plays the organ. Having stamped our Pilgrim Passports, we left Holybourne in springlike sunshine and headed east. Although the weather had certainly improved the paths on the chalky soil were just as muddy, making for slippery progress.

Chancel of the Church of the Holy Rood, Holybourne

At Upper Froyle we passed the magnificent house of Froyle Park, formerly the site of Treloar College for the disabled, now an expensive commercial wedding venue. The Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary lies just beyond. It houses an interesting collection of altar cloths and clerical vestments, which are still used, according to the ladies who showed us around. We talked again about the challenges faced by rural churches with dwindling congregations.

At Pax Hall, the family home of Sir Robert Baden-Powell, now an old people’s home, we found a suitable south facing bank on which to sit and enjoy our lunch.

Next stop was St Mary’s Bentley and it’s wonderful yew tree, and low boughs under which the churchyard path used to pass. Sadly the path is now closed – for health and safety reasons! Jane Austen’s brother Henry Thomas was curate here.

For most of the way from Holybourne to Bentley and beyond our path followed close to the A31 with its omnipresent traffic noise, detracting slightly from the beauty of the chalk landscape.

As we approached Farnham the Pilgrims Way crosses from the chalk onto more sandy Tertiary rocks making the going under foot significantly easier. Tom thought he could see the Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary in the bed of a stream near Lower Old Park – you can’t take a geologist anywhere!

We stopped and talked to a farmer at Park Farm gathering his sheep to move them to fresh pasture, not for (early) lambing as we had supposed. We talked about the weather (as we and farmers do!). His prediction based on how the yews were feeding up, the deer were behaving and the early blackthorn blossom, was that the weather is going to get worse before it improves, and that we are in for a nasty cold snap. We sincerely hope he’s wrong! He was intrigued by our venture and particularly interested in the charities we are supporting. He told us about a friend of his who’d suffered a crippling back injury when a stock lorry ramp had fallen on her. She’d spent many months in the Spinal Unit at Salisbury Hospital. At one point when she was in despair, he’d insisted on taking her out in a wheel chair. They’d visited Salisbury Cathedral and found peace there. He’d clearly been inspired by it. He told us that his friend’s determination had since returned and that she is making progress.

Approaching Farnham, our path took a northward loop before turning southward past Farnham Castle an down into the town, our destination for the day.

Castle St, Farnham

We were rather amused by a sign on the wall of the Andrew Windsor Almshouses. How language has changed!

Sign on almshouses

DAY 4

Day 4 began where we left off at Bishop’s Sutton near Alresford. Before departing we checked the door of the church (St Nicholas) and this time found it open, with a big welcome for passing pilgrims.

Drinks and biscuits laid out for pilgrims at St Nicholas Bishop’s Sutton, with a warm welcome

As we were stamping our Pilgrim Passports Richard, a regular at the church for many years, arrived and showed us around. This included the vestry which had been built part over a gravestone looking like a coffin set into the wall! We exchanged experiences and talked about the challenges for rural churches with dwindling congregations.

From Bishop’s Sutton our path took us eastward past the source of the Arle. Soon we heard the sound of a steam train on the Watercress Line uphill of us. Richard had told us that the Flying Scotsman was on the line this week, but it was a different locomotive that we saw.

Passing through the village of Ropley, Julie noticed that coffee and biscuits were being advertised at the village hall, so we duly went in to investigate. The ladies were most welcoming, despite our muddy state, and seemed intrigued by our venture. Within just a few minutes Tom had established a connection with one of them to near neighbours from where he grew up in Kent. How small this world is! They told us about the devastating fire which had enveloped their village church of St Peter in 2014, and the appeal to raise funds for its restoration. A short while after leaving the village hall we passed the church and the massive reconstruction project under way. Donations to the appeal to bridge the gap between what the insurers will pay out and the actual cost can be made via their website at www.stpetersropley.org.uk .

Reconstruction of the roof at St Peter’s Ropley
A significant project

On we walked around Four Marks and past the Garden Centre there which really needs to tidy up its act. A wonderfully presented front image but goodness what a mess (and pollution
?) lies behind. How people seem to feel able to disrespect the environment in the name of commercial enterprise! I guess I’ve experienced a certain amount of that.

Next stop Chawton: the village where Jane Austen lived, but significant for us the sight of the headwaters of the Wey and the next river catchment on our journey.

Julie Austin’s……..sorry, Jane Austen’s house in Chawton

In Chawton we met a young woman keenly photographing various buildings. Intrigued by our backpack banners, we talked about our project and she very kindly gave us a donation in the name of her mother-in-law who lives in the Salisbury Cathedral Close – connections again!

And so it was, onward into Alton to the Church of All Saints. Not the most ancient on our route, but obviously vibrant, which was good to see.

We liked the notice on this seat

From here it was on through Alton to our day’s destination at Holybourne.

Church of the Holy Rood, Holybourne

So ended the fourth day of our pilgrimage -many interesting people and no rain. A wonderful day!

DAY 3

Day 3 started at Winchester Cathedral. We were welcomed by a cheery soul at the reception desk who was clearly intrigued and enthused by our venture – plenty of pilgrims to Canterbury, but clearly few committing themselves as far as Rome. There must be a good reason for this.

We made our way quietly to the Shrine of St Swithin, where we pondered a while and lit a candle.

At the Shrine of St Swithun

With the organ playing and the place more or less to ourselves, we sat for a while in the Quire where we listened, prayed and thought about our journey ahead.

Light rain was falling as we left Winchester Cathedral, reminding us of the St Swithun’s Day folk lore, depicted in the cover of the shrine. Forty days of rain? But this is February, not July! Route finding through the city proved a minor challenge until we found familiar territory at the Nun’s Stream. We followed this to Abbott’s Barton and the Hampshire Wildlife Trust nature reserve. Here the restored meadows were doing just what they say on the tin: holding the flood water across the valley, and, no doubt, helping to prevent Winchester from flooding.

A quick stop at St Mary’s Kings Worthy was followed by quite the muddiest few hundred metres so far. By ploughing his field uphill and down the farmer has encouraged all the fine soil to move to the downhill side of his field where it was little short of treacherous to walk across! What was the name of the quicksand bog in the Hound of the Baskervilles?

By the time we reached Martyr Worthy the rain had properly set in and we were grateful for the shelter offered by the lovely little 12th century Church of St Swithun. Here we tarried a while enjoying some hot soup from a flask and waited for the rain to ease.

The muddy slog continued along the north bank of the Itchen through Chilland to Itchen Abbas where we stopped briefly at St John’s.

On crossing to the south side of the river, the rain started to ease and by the time we reached Ovington it had actually stopped! What a pity we couldn’t find our way into the delightful little Church of St Peter at Ovington. However builders had clearly been busy working on the tower roof and the entrance had been made a prohibited area.

What a delight it was to see an informative interpretation board set up close to the river at Ovington, where Tom used to fish, by who else but the Wessex Rivers Trust! Well done, team!

Wessex Rivers Trust delivering again!

With a a brightening sun, albeit low in the sky, we headed on to Bishop Sutton, our destination for the day. Sadly we found the pretty 12th century St Nicholas Church locked with a steel gate!

St Nicholas Bishop Sutton

DAY 2

Crossing the River Test

What a contrast with the way our fist day ended! We left Beryl and George’s house in Broughton in bright sunshine and a spring in our step. The Wallop Brook was flowing strongly and over its banks in places so we avoided using the ford. Up over Howson Drayton the sound of skylarks rang in our ears, reminding us of walks long ago on the South Downs with Tom’s father. What would he have thought of this eccentric venture? Despite his advancing age he’d probably have been walking with us.

Although it was certainly full, our crossing of the River Test was unproblematic. As we climbed up over How Park a car stopped to inquire about our project. It turned out they were keen fishermen and supportive of the Wessex Rivers Trust and asked how they could contribute – our backpack banners were clearly doing their job!

After a brief rest and an Eccles cake outside the village shop in Kings Somborne, we headed up over Ashley Down to Farley Mount, in light showers. This intriguing folly commemorates a horse that “in 1733 leaped into a chalk pit twenty-five feet deep afoxhunting with his master on his back”. This must be one of the highest points in Hampshire, affording distant views as far as Southampton, once the rain cleared.

Farley Mount

Damage from Storm Dennis was evident in the country park with a number of trees down. One which has fallen across our path had been beautifully adorned by the County Council with safety tape. Clearly it would take much tooth sucking and budget searching before someone (or more likely a team of hard-hatted operatives, complete with welfare unit) actually comes to cut it up!

Needless to say we ducked under the safety tape and continued on our way passing Crab Wood Nature Reserve and the Royal Winchester Golf Club, with its wonderfully absurd notice warning passers-by to “take appropriate cover” on hearing hearing cries of “fore”!

The Royal Winchester Golf Club

Soft muddy paths gave way to hard tarmac ones as we entered urban Winchester – easier to walk on by tougher on the knees and hips, especially on the downhill. Next stop the Hospital of St Cross, where we were just in time to catch the porter closing up, and persuaded him to stamp our Pilgrim Passports. Claiming our Wayfarers Dole would have to wait for another time.

By now the rain had set in properly, so it was a rather damp trudge northward alongside a very swollen River Itchen to our day’s destination at Winchester Cathedral.

DAY 1

DAY 1

It was wonderful to see the 20 or 30 friends gathered at the west door of Salisbury Cathedral this morning to see us off.  Fortunately, the forecast weather held off and although it wasn’t exactly blue skies and sunshine it was at least dry (ish!).  Photographer Spencer had us all completely organised: poses with charity banners, line-ups and shots under the north arch.  It felt just like getting married all over again!  We’d barely got out of the city centre when a car pulled up alongside us and the occupants inquired: “Are you the couple walking to Rome?”. We can only assume that they’d heard about us on the local radio.  Full of enthusiasm for our project they told us about their son’s impressive long-distance walking achievements. They wished us well and asked us to say a prayer for them when we reach St Peter’s.  Once out of the city we climbed up towards the ruins of the Clarendon Palace to see a yellow clad figure running downhill towards us.  Blow me (us), if it wasn’t Tom’s old rivers friend Malcolm who he hadn’t seen for several years and now lives out that way.  Quickly, the two of them sorted out all the major environmental issues facing the planet, as you would expect: climate change, agricultural practice and over-abstraction among them, before we got back on our way east. Really great to see Malcolm again. Need more time to talk later. We passed the ruins of Clarendon hunting palace shortly after.  They are well guarded by llamas.  

By now Storm Dennis was truly making its mark and it was anorak hoods up pretty well for the rest of the day. Next stop Pitton village where the bus shelter provided a convenient location to do a map transfer.  Ten minutes later we were enjoying a welcome hot cup of tea with St John Singers friend Wendy and her husband at their house on the edge of the village.  Wendy, an impressive linguist and professional translator, seemed keen to know how our Italian was getting on!  

We pressed on up and along the Winterslow escarpment.  Sadly, the views were rather grey.  Some seriously impressive gusts (50-70 knots) reminded us how glad we weren’t out sailing! At least the wind was behind us. By now we were seeing a number of downed branches and the occasional whole tree too. So, we moved on with caution.

Waymarking, having been pretty good up to this point seemed to completely disappear now (Wiltshire Council, please note), and we became hopelessly lost for half and hour.  Even Google Maps gave up on us on account of lack of signal.

Back on track, we headed on in the rain with the blessing of a good straight Roman road to lead us. But it seems Roman Roads weren’t built to avoid flooding!  Or at least the 4×4 brigade had rendered this one pretty impassable on foot.  We hadn’t thought to carry lifejackets!

At last the crest of Broughton Down came into sight.  With its steep north-facing escarpment and nature reserve it’s an inspiring place to be on a sunny spring day! A steep decent led us down into Broughton village and to our friends Beryl and George, where a change of clothes, a hot cup and sumptuous lemon cake awaited us.

Well, we survived Storm Dennis and the first day on our long journey to Rome. Only a hundred and fifteen days (or thereabouts) more to go!  As one of the Cathedral Clergy said to us “the weather can only get better from here!”.

But let’s spare a thought for those across England and Wales, who haven’t survived Storm Dennis so well, and who’ve suffered such terrible flooding of their homes.

A big thank you to all those friends who came to the Cathedral to see us off.  Your presence gave us a deep sense of support and encouragement, which will remain with us all the way to Rome.  

Julie’s retirement cake

Julie’s recent retirement from the Salisbury District Hospital was celebrated with amongst other things this amazing cake depicting our pilgrimage from Salisbury to Rome. We couldn’t resist putting up a picture of it. Julie looks like she’s raring to go while Tom sits nonchalantly on a stile nearby reading a newspaper, or is it a map?

This wonderful cake was made by hospital colleague Kim Buckingham.

Planning and Preparation

As February approaches and the days begin to lengthen again, we’ve been busy getting ready for our big walk. We’ve spent much of our spare time since Christmas gathering together the essential equipment. Selection of boots took quite an effort with multiple visits to various outdoor shops across southern England. The technology of boot design and fitting really seems to have moved on in recent years. We were fortunate to find good advice from some excellent shop staff, including one young chap who’d recently walked across the USA from coast to coast! We thought that our project was a big one! Eventually we settled on boots that we’re both happy with. Interestingly they’re from a manufacturer we’ve both had several pairs from before. We’ve been busy getting them muddy since. 

The selection of rucksacks has been a matter of balancing the need for sufficient space to carry the essentials against the temptation to take too much. Yes, we know about that from previous experience. Julie recalls long mountain trips in our younger days when Tom insisted that she even cut the handle of her toothbrush in half to save weight! We reckon to carry a maximum of 10kg each: at least for the early part of our trip. Others have talked about getting that down to 8kg. That may be feasible in summer, with think but quite a challenge in the early spring.

Route planning and identification of places to stay has been greatly assisted by the Lightfoot Guide to the Via Francigena by Paul Chinn and Babette Gallard. We’ve joined the Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome and that has turned out to be a useful source of information, much of it from the experience of pilgrims who have gone before.

For the initial English part of our walk mapping is less of a problem. However, once we’re on the continent sourcing and carrying maps of sufficiently large scale becomes quite a challenge. We’ve decided to chance our luck with technology and ordered a mini tablet onto which we can put digital IGN 1:25000 maps for the route. It’ll be useful for other information and of course for keeping our blog up to date.

We’ve spent as much time out walking at weekends as we can. We hesitate to use the term training as it makes it sound so serious and competitive, while we feel it’s as much a spiritual experience as a physical one. This far, 15 miles or so a day seems to be within our comfort zone and slowly the stiffness the day after seems to be getting less. We’re not yet carrying the 10kg though.