Monday, 11 January 2016

Pilgrim's Progress - The Extra Mile review

There's something rather appealing about the concept of pilgrimage, whether or not you have a religious faith. It's a bit like a combination of the pleasures of walking and trainspotting (and I don't mean that as an insult) - there's both the exertion that is usually involved and the feeling of ticking off achievements, a medieval equivalent of a bucket list.

In The Extra Mile, Peter Stanford sets out to take in a number of centres of pilgrimage in the UK, without indulging in the actual act of being a pilgrim himself. Even though several times he is drawn into the experience, he undertakes this as an observer rather than a participant. These are mostly Christian sites, but he also takes in the pagan/Druidic possibilities of Stonehenge and Glastonbury.

I came on this book by accident - I think it was an Amazon recommendation when I was looking at something else - and I am pleased that I did. Stanford gives accounts of what he experiences, from the lively celebrations at Glastonbury to more contemplative island retreats like Iona and Lindisfarne. For me, the most interesting was probably Holy Well in North Wales, the most complete of the medieval pilgrimage shrines and a fascinating piece of architecture whatever you think of the supposed properties of the water.

I'm not sure whether it helps or not that Stanford comes across as a cool, detached observer. I assumed from his slightly fussy writing style that he was retired, but he apparently had young children at the time of his trip (mid 2000's), so was probably younger than he sounds. He is often a little sceptical of what is going on, especially where the events clearly bear little connection to the origins of the site, but never mocks the participants and is not truly critical of anything. He also occasionally admits that the spirituality of his Catholic upbringing had crept in unbidden.

If, like me, you have an interest in medieval British culture, or you want to know more about British religious traditions, which certainly extend far beyond the typical modern establishments, it is genuinely interesting. If you're a Brother Cadfael fan, you'll even discover some of the real history behind the St Winifred story that appears in the series of books. I'm not sure that The Extra Mile works hugely well as a travel book, though, and it lacks the warmth and humour of writers like Bill Bryson. But it certainly highlights several locations that won't be as well known as Stonehenge and that might be worthy of a visit.

As a book, then, it could have been more engaging, but for an insight into both early British religious practices and how they have extended into the present and have been adapted to modern ways it is definitely worth a read.

The Extra Mile is available from amazon.co.uk and amazon.com.

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