I read this morning that 2016 is to be the year of the 'spiritual walk'. Now, I'm not particularly spiritual but I am attracted by the idea of brisk physical activity combined with a period of thoughtful reflection, preferably in an area of outstanding natural and historical significance.
Whether it's the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain or the Via Francigena, which links the English cathedral city of Canterbury with Rome, these ancient routes of pilgrimage seem to be enjoying something of a renaissance. In 2015, for example, over 260,000 pilgrims completed the Camino de Santiago (compared to only 690 in 1985). In Italy, award winning blogger Rick Zullo has recently spoken about the increasing interest in the via Francigena (Walking the Pilgrim Trail to Rome).
As with others who make such journeys, my own pilgrimage is born out of adversity (Remembering my colleague and Friend Jude Payne). Like many of his friends and, in particular his wife Alison, I am determined to try and salvage something positive from my friend Jude's tragic passing. For reasons that will hopefully become clear, a pilgrimage along Hadrian's Wall with a small group of friends and colleagues is a fitting tribute to Jude, of which I hope he would be proud.
Of course, Hadrian's Wall wasn't a route of pilgrimage at all, but a defensive fortification at the northern perimeter of the mighty Roman Empire. Construction started in AD 122 under the authority of Emperor Hadrian and was completed within six years. Eighty Roman miles long (117.5 km), punctuated with mile castles, forts and garrisons and home to various infantry and cavalry divisions, the Wall was intended to deter celtic barbarians from encroaching on Roman territory.
Significant parts of the the wall between the River Tyne in the east and the Solway Firth in the west are still standing, and it is along these remains that our pilgrimage will take us.
Publius Aelius Hadrianus was a complex and compelling man and I am looking forward to learning more about his life and times in the weeks and months ahead. As well as the wall, Hadrian is credited with rebuilding the Pantheon and constructing the Temple of Venus and Roma, the largest temple in ancient Rome.
Jude loved his ancient history (in fact, if the truth be told, he had a rather unhealthy interest in Time Team). He had travelled to Rome on a number of occasions and in 2009 he cycled the length of the wall, confounding the sceptics who didn't think him capable of such a feat of physical endeavour, and raising over £1000 for good causes in the process.
My own somewhat dormant interest in Roman history stems from a routine family holiday to the Cumbrian fells in the mid-1980s. The holiday took a dramatic turn when, over the brow of a bleak hill, in authentic battle formation, a legion of Roman soldiers appeared. Our young jaws slackened, our eyes widened (in wonder, and a little fear). It was no longer 1983. It was AD 128. The Ermine Street Guard had arrived! This formative experience sparked a life long interest in the study of the past and over the next couple of years we became unofficial groupies for this merry band of historical re-enactors. I'm hopeful that our pilgrimage will rekindle my enthusiasm for this fascinating historical period.
Moreover, in an age when we spend so much of our time sat at a desk in front of a computer, I'm also immensely looking forward to the physical challenge and the prospect of spending a prolonged period of time (five days) in the great British countryside. While the distances involved are not excessive and the terrain should be relatively benign, I'm not underestimating the physical challenge of the pilgrimage and will enjoy dusting down my hiking boots and airing my tent, which have been shamefully neglected in recent years.
While I can't speak for the others, it is an unfortunate reality of modern family life, that such opportunities to spend quality time with a group of friends in a common endeavour are few and far between. As you might expect, and despite the tragic circumstances of our expedition, the excitement and banter has already reached fever pitch, before we've even taken a single step.
We are also very pleased to be raising money for Bloodwise, a charity whose mission is to stop people dying from blood cancers like leukaemia and lymphoma, to make patients’ lives better, and to stop blood cancers happening in the first place. Already we have raised over £2000 for this important charity. You can donate here https://www.justgiving.com/Walk4Jude.
So, a physically gruelling five day charity pilgrimage along an ancient Roman wall with an entertaining group of friends and colleagues. Jude would have loved it. He'll be in our thoughts every step of the way!