Saturday, 16 July 2016

'These forms who hasten by' - ghosts and runners on the Pilgrims Way (1923)

The Pilgrims Way

Along the Pilgrims' way.
The yew trees sigh and sway,
They stand a lasting line,
On ancient days a sign.

The monk and minstrel gay
With prayer and roundelay;
The pedlar with his load;
They took the Pilgrims' road

And when the sun is low,
They sometimes seem to go
Along the same old track,
By yew trees, gnarled and black.

When folks say what they've seen,
Well, WE know what they mean;
These forms who hasten by,
Are really you and I!

(RMH, South London Harriers Gazette, November 1923)


Pilgrims Way,  Kent, 1950 - Bill Brandt
The Pilgrims Way is a route between Winchester and Canterbury, at least part of which follows ancient trackways on the North Downs even if its name and conception as a single continuous route probably goes back no further than the 1870s. It is popular with walkers and runners - including those taking part in  The Pilgrims Challenge 66 mile ultra marathon in the last couple of years.

The notion of following in the footsteps of ancient pilgrims is an evocative one, and in a certain light quite haunting. In the 1920s, when this poem was written, there was upsurge of interest in both the great outdoors and in ghosts. Robert Macfarlane notes that in this period 'people, traumatized by the war, took to the paths in search of ghosts  - setting out on the tracks of the lost and left-behind. Old paths became mediums in two senses: means of communion as well as means of motion. The convivial pilgrimages described by Chaucer became tinged with a morbid historicism: spectres stepped from the verge or hedge, offering brief address' (The Old Ways: a journey on foot, 2012).

This would seem to apply to this poem, which I found in an old South London Harriers newsletter, but  I like the twist  - that what others see as ghosts may in fact be runners hastening by.

I wonder who 'RMH' was?

[update - South London Harriers have identified an R.M. Harrison who ran for the club in this period, so he is possibly the poet]

Hamish Fulton's The Pilgrims Way features in the current 'Conceptual Art in Britain' exhibition at Tate Britain gallery in London. In  April 1971, Fulton conceived of  'A 165 mile walk' on 'Ancient paths forming a route between Winchester and Canterbury' as an art work leaving no trace other than this photograph of  'A hollow lane on the North Downs'.

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