Sunday, 1 May 2011

The St James Way

I thought I’d tell you about this new route in England just before I leave for Spain. As if predicting how difficult I might find some of the goodbyes I’ve had to say recently the Confraternity of St James asked if I would write a guidebook to a new route they have devised from Reading to Southampton. This turned out to be the greatest pleasure which helped me train for the two caminos ahead as well as letting me see some of the most beautiful and historic part of England. I predict that this route will become a “must walk” for pilgrims in the United Kingdom. I am certain it will also attract visitors from overseas who may be travelling via London from the United States, Australia and other countries. For them the St James Way is an excellent way to do some initial training for a longer camino in France and Spain or simply to enjoy walking through English history, past ancient sites, historic towns, along canals and river banks, past thatched cottages and 12th century churches.
The route was first devised by Marion Marples the Secretary of the CSJ more than 20 years ago. It was walked by only a few people including guidewriter Alison Raju who produced the first set of walking notes. The CSJ now wishes to develop and promote this new route. The guide is almost finished and will be published on line by the CSJ.
This route is about 70 miles long and runs from Reading to Southampton. For pilgrims wishing to walk the route as part of their journey to Compostela they can fly to France or Southern Spain from Southampton, or they can continue on foot to Portsmouth on another route, the Pilgrims’ Trail, to cross by ferry.

Artist impression of Roman amphitheatre at Silchester

The route is based on the Roman road from Silchester via Basingstoke to Winchester, and also includes the St James churches at Bramley, which has wall-paintings including St James, and Wield, as well as the former Benedictine priory at Monk Sherborne, whose church became the parish church at Pamber (not to be confused with the Norman church at Monk Sherborne). From Alresford, the Way follows the Itchen Way to Winchester, England's capital under the Saxons. The cathedral was a Benedictine foundation, of which several buildings, including the Pilgrims’ Hall, survive. Also Benedictine were St Mary's Abbey, also called the Nunnaminster, of which some foundations can be seen, and Hyde Abbey, of which little remains. Nothing remains of the four friaries, though there are some fragments of the hospitals of St John and St Mary Magdalen.
The route continues following the Itchen Way, past the Hospital of St Cross, which still gives out a dole of bread and beer to travellers, and past Southampton airport to Southampton, where a few fragments survive of the Augustinian priory of St Denis (in the suburb now spelt St Denys).
However, the medieval walls of Southampton remain, with the gateways where pilgrims embarked for pilgrim destinations in France, Spain and the Mediterranean. Near the God’s Hospital Tower the Maison Dieu of St Julian’s accommodated pilgrims.
Ferries however no longer run from Southampton to France, so the Pilgrims’ Trail connects Winchester with Portsmouth via Bishop's Waltham, where there are remains of the palace of the bishop of Winchester, and Southwick, where the parish church, dedicated to St James-without-the-Priory-Gate, contains remnants of the former Augustinian priory founded by Henry I. There is an annual pilgrimage around 25 July (St James’s day) from Portchester church to Southwick, recalling the journey made by the Augustinian canons in c 1145 as they moved to a larger site.
Portsmouth, though largely a naval port, had a 13 century Hospital of St Nicholas, and wine trade with South West France. Recently, Time Team has excavated land around the Royal Garrison Church (founded 1212) to discover the plan of a medieval pilgrim hospital and Maison Dieu, where pilgrims would have stayed. The modern cathedral is based on a chapel of Thomas Becket, built by the Southwick monks.
The route starts at the ruins of Reading Abbey with the adjacent more modern church of St James and proceeds south through places such as Sulhamstead Abbots with its picturesque 12th century church. Then onward to Silchester with the remains of a Roman town. You actually walk in the shadow of the tall remains of the walls which were the town’s fortification before heading on to visit another St James church at Bramley. New Alresford (pronounced “Allsford” ) Martyrs Worthy, Kings Worthy, Preston Candover, Itchen Stokeand Itchen Abbas are beautiful villages which soon lead along the River Itchen to the historic town of Winchester.
There I was welcomed as a pilgrim in the great cathedral. The visitors charges were waived. “Yes we have a sello” confirmed the smiling receptionist. The cathedral is breathtaking in its size and beauty and the sun shone as I left to make my way just a few miles further along the river to the Church and Hospital of St Cross. I had a seen a television programme about it and wanted to see it for myself. Soon it loomed large sitting with perfectly manicured lawns. I made my way through the arched entrance and bumped into one of the brothers.
Legend has it that the Hospital's foundation originated in a walk that Henry de Blois, a grandson of William the Conqueror, took in the Itchen Meadows. He was supposedly stopped by a young peasant girl who begged de Blois to help her people, who were starving because of the civil war. The parallel with the Virgin Mary was not lost on de Blois, who was so moved by the girl's plight that when, a little further along the river, he discovered the ruins of a religious house, he resolved to use the site to establish a new community to help the poor. How much of this is fact is unclear, but we do know that Henry de Blois was young, wealthy and powerful: a monk, knight and politician in one. Appointed Bishop of Winchester in 1129 at the age of 28, he founded the Hospital of St Cross between 1132 and 1136, creating what has become England's oldest charitable institution.
The Hospital was founded to support thirteen poor men, so frail that they were unable to work, and to feed one hundred men at the gates each day. The thirteen men became the Brothers of St Cross. Then, as now, they were not monks. St Cross is not a monastery but a secular foundation. Medieval St Cross was endowed with land, mills and farms, providing food and drink for a large number of people - don't forget the water was unfit for drinking so copious amounts of ale and beer were needed!
“Are you coming to Matins?” he said with a smile. “May I?” I asked. Next thing I was ushered in to meet the others. They beamed when I said I was a pilgrim. Their smiles broadened when I explained about the St James Way and the guidebook. The service lasted 15 minutes and was a perfect start to a day’s walking. Before I left I was offered the traditional “dole” – a slice of bread and a cup of ale. I have to say it was a little early for beer, even for me.
From there the route meanders along river and canal reaching Southampton easily within the day.
The St James’ Way is easy walking. It can be done in stages and there is Bed and Breakfast accommodation available either on the route or nearby. With a little planning the route is very accessible. I recommend it.

And so dear friends I’m off. It has been a week or so of farewells. Tough at times but the tears shed herald a different future. My next post will be from my new home in Santiago after I have walked the Camino Ingles with a friend from London who has long wanted to walk to Compostela. Then with another friend I am off to walk from Valencia. I’ll keep you posted. 2 days to go!


  1. I hadn't heard of this route, though I have walked a very short part of the Itchen Way near Winchester.

    The very best of luck in Spain, Johnnie! My thoughts are with you.

  2. Sounds like a really nice route! Something I might be able to get the hubby, Ray the Reluctant, to try! Perhaps I'll see you in SdC in mid June! It'll be exciting to read your posts from there now!

  3. John, what a great life you lead. Walking and enjoying numerous routes. I guess I am a bit envious. This new route sounds and looks spectacular. I wonder though about affording a route that involves only B&B accomodations. I wonder if it can be camped. Have fun in Valencia. I have a lot of family there and it is a wonderful city. Buen Camino, my friend. LOVE, Lillian

  4. Hello Jonnie Walker,
    I am hoping to walk from Reading Abbey as part of my pilgrimage to Santiago Compostella next year,2018, catching a ferry to Santander and then joining the Camino del Norte from there. Could you tell me if there is still a guide book for the section from Reading to Southampton please. I am aware I would need to walk to Portsmouth for a ferry. Many thanks.