On Pilgrimage

A finalist for the 2021 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-Fiction, On Foot to Canterbury: A Son’s Pilgrimage is a contemplative read that, I predict, will make you itch to depart on your own journey.

Having walked what is now the world’s most popular pilgrimage: the Camino de Santiago in Spain, I was taken back by Haigh’s book to those magical days. As he describes it, “There is a wonderful simplicity about a pilgrimage. Each morning, you rise and put on the same clothes you were wearing the day before. You break your fast, hoist your pack onto your shoulders, and hit the road.”

In Haigh’s case, he chose to go for a walk to spend more time with his recently deceased father. But there is far more to his story than that. Trapped in a job he disliked by his need to care for his family, suffering from depression, Haigh, who lives in Clarksburg, not far from Collingwood, writes, “I knew I had to do something or spontaneously combust.”

While Haigh’s experience along the trail somewhat parallels Cheryl Strayed’s delivery from a collapsing life, Haigh takes readers on an elegant historical tour of England as he walks for two weeks from Winchester to Canterbury. With the patient eye of a historian, he explores churches and describes the landscape. He brings to life the story of Thomas Beckett, the murdered Archbishop of Canterbury whose shrine in Canterbury Cathedral is at the end of this ancient pilgrims’ route. Having misplaced his own faith, Haigh explores his relationship with God, coming to appreciate British author Julian Barnes’ statement, “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”

Sitting in the shadow of the Canterbury Cathedral at the end of his walk, Haigh recognizes the advice of Phil Cousineau, who wrote The Art of Pilgrimage. Cousineau says that a pilgrimage is pointless unless you “bring back the boon.” By this he means that you need to learn from your pilgrimage and share these lessons with others, which Haigh does in his quiet unobtrusive way.

I won’t give away Haigh’s lessons except to say that his pilgrimage, like my own, was a unique opportunity to reset my life. Somehow the simplicity of getting up each morning and putting on the same clothes as you wore the day before, clears your mind. Similarly, reading such an elegant description of someone else’s pilgrimage, helped me clear my mind and reminded me that I was overdue to shed the worries, concerns and trappings of everyday life. It was time for me to embark on a journey of my own. And if that isn’t a good reason to read a book, I don’t know what is. It’s no wonder Haigh’s book was a finalist for the prestigious Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-Fiction.

Learn more at On Foot to Canterbury.

Haigh, Ken. On Foot to Canterbury: A Son’s Pilgrimage, University of Alberta Press, 2021