Published by Penned in the Margins, ‘Heavy Time: A Psychogeographer’s Pilgrimage’ sees Sonia Overall take to the old pilgrim roads, navigating a route from Canterbury to Walsingham via London and her home town of Ely. Clare Wadd reviews.
Leaving behind a child, and the laundry and cooking, and hemmed in by the practicalities of more than two weeks away, Sonia Overall sets out to walk from her home in Canterbury through Rochester, Southwark in London, then Ely, where she grew up, to the medieval shrines of Walsingham in north Norfolk. Her walk forms a triangle, a trinity, linking places of holy pilgrimage; she doesn’t expect to find God, but she does expect to find what she calls ‘thin places’, places that are more than the sum of their parts. When they’re described as ‘pockets in the landscape where the memory is so tightly stretched that other worlds might shine through’ it all gets a bit Doctor Who for me, but I understand the desire to step away from daily grind and find the holy in the hedgerows and verges and fields and woods.
As she walks, each day she picks up a relic — ordinary things like a bingo card, a feather, an old coin. She’s failed to do the training walks she intended and, with a desk-job, isn’t as fit as she might like, but is stubborn and sturdy and curious. She is someone who cares about place, someone who walks and writes, and carries a notebook as she follows streets, country lanes, footpaths and tracks. But this walk isn’t through a rural idyl; there are towns and cities, brownfield urban spaces, and grubby verges strewn with litter. Despite Chaucer and Becket, there is no longer a pilgrims’ path between Southwark and Canterbury, and her research indicates much of the medieval route has probably morphed from Celtic trackway to Roman road to Anglo Saxon Watling Street to A2. Practical as ever, she hogs it as closely as she sensibly can, whilst working around overnight stops and shops for water, blister plasters, sunscreen.
This is a fabulously grounded, earthy book of practicalities. It’s immediate and intimate, a deeply personal story. I don’t want to spoil the plot, if that’s the right word, but suffice it to say, everything doesn’t go quite to plan. The weather is overbearingly hot. Wrong turnings are taken, and a precious guidebook is lost. Feet get blistered, badly badly infected blistered, A&E is involved, plans have to change. As the medieval pilgrims heading for Canterbury would have taken lifts on passing carts, so Sonia takes the train and travels by car when needs must.
I can honestly say I’ve never thought about pilgrimage before. I’ve never thought about the three stages of yearning, preparation (those practice walks!) and arrival. I had never thought about the practicalities of being a medieval pilgrim, with ill-fitting shoes, sore feet, sunburn and soaked clothes, nor about the tricksters and thieves they must have met. About their blisters without plasters, infections without antibiotics, and cold nights still damp from wet days. My imaginings of olden times have had me staying put, not being adventurous and brave.
Heavy Time has also made me reconsider what I value in a walking book, and it turns out one of the things I value is for it to be written by a woman. And not just a woman, but a woman walking, for the most part, alone. A quick scan of our shelves confirms that the world of walking books is full of men going off on their solo adventures in ways that casually imply we, the other 51%, might want to do the same, but without ever addressing what it might be like for us. Getting your period, casual pub harassment, exploring the edgelands and creepy ‘thin places’ solo — it doesn’t always sound much fun. And never mind the laundry and cooking. Sonia Overall is also one of that rare breed — a female psychogeographer — meaning she’s exploring a sense of self and tuning into how the places she walks through affect her physically and emotionally. And that of course, is different for a woman than a man too.
‘Heavy Time’ is out now and available here (£9.99).