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  • Writer's pictureTaryn Watkins

It starts with a step. Via Francigena Day 1: Canterbury

Updated: Jun 28, 2023

two women kneeling at the beginning of the Via Francigena outside of Canterbury Cathedral
Katy and I about to set off on the road. This is the starting point of the 1200 mile walk to Rome.

I had walked before. Of course I have. I have been walking for all of my living memory. I don't remember learning to walk. But I did...

It seems like that is what we are doing for most of our life, learning and relearning things we began at the beginning. Those first steps as a child are faltering and hesitant. You need a lot of help. On pilgrimage I feel the same way, though my independent self sufficiency wants it to be otherwise..... Those first steps are full of anticipation, worry, fear, excitement, wonder. I had walked before, I sort of knew what to expect. But that was the Camino Frances, with friends, and a well marked trail. This was more than double the miles (1200!), not well marked, full of unknowns, and I would be doing most of it on my own.

Canterbury Cathedral and sign posts to Rome

I was glad to be with a friend for those first few days. Katy and I began on the feast of St Anthony of Padua, June 13th 2016 in the Year of Mercy. It was a bright and beautiful day.

candle at shrine of st thomas becket
"The candle burns where the SHRINE of St. THOMAS OF CANTERBURY stood from 1220 to 1538 when it was destroyed by order of King Henry the VIII."

We began in the Cathedral, which has a uniquely glorious and sad history. The first Archbishop of Canterbury, St Augustine made the journey in reverse from Rome to Canterbury about 1500 years before my walk the other way, but there was a closeness to him, walking the same Roman roads (ish) and the deep roots of the faith in this place. It is the place of many Saints and Martyrs, St. Ælfheah, Anselm, and in particular, St. Thomas Becket who was martyred in the Cathedral itself while praying Vespers. His shrine was a place of pilgrimage for thousands and thousands over centuries. It was destroyed as well as his relics by Henry the VIII in 1538. Many things were lost during this time, the blood of martyrs and monks, precious relics and so much beauty. There is a candle marking the spot. I found it very haunting and sad to see the empty space, empty niches....

Even so, it is one of the most beautiful churches I have been in, particularly the ceiling, which gives the feeling of falling up into eternity.

Ceiling Canterbury cathedral

Via Francigena pilgrim passport Canterbury Cathedral

We were greeted by an Anglican priestess who was very kind and gave us a "blessing." To be honest it felt a bit uncomfortable and strange. A surreal sense came over me thinking of the centuries of history that led to that moment. We received our first stamp, then the walk began. It was a cheery easy hike through flower studded fields and shaded tracks. Rain would chase us occasionally through the bright poppies and sweet smelling chamomile. We prayed, sang, talked. It began to rain a bit more, and some more... a huge storm that never let up. These field now soaked us to the bone... and sandals, therefore the blisters began a bit earlier than I hoped. Yet there were so many daisies and poppies... beauty was a strange companion to the discomfort. The overture of my life... suffering and beauty. As we were praying the rosary the skies opened for the last decade and our lady smiled on us with one of the most beautiful rainbows I have ever seen.

Poppies in field

woman walks in fields along the Via Francigena in England

I had only brought sandals with me because that was what I preferred on the Camino.... mistake number one. More to be told of that saga another time, but for now what you need to know is that even at the very beginning in all of the anticipation and excitement and worry, the Lord was making preparations for graces in my life. Graces of trust and dependence, purification, and sacrifice.

two hiking backpacks on a bench surrounded by trees
A spot to rest was a welcome treat

"Why am I doing this?" is a question that occasionally comes to mind while on pilgrimage. At the beginning my intention for the Year of Mercy was to offer this pilgrimage for many intentions of others, for my vocation, and particularly for all the souls in purgatory. Now when I say that, people usually think oh yes, of course the souls in purgatory, but I mean ALL the souls in purgatory. That all of them would be ready to see the face of God and purgatory would be empty! I was asking enormous things from God. Now whether He answered that, I don't know, but I think He was at least pleased with my boldness and confidence in Him, to ask great things of Him and let him do as He wishes.

woman walking along the via Francigena in England surrounded by woods


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