Travelling light

Some people read cookbooks, the way ordinary mortals read fiction. This is apparently a guilty secret shared by many book lovers, who may or may not be good cooks. I sympathise as I have been known to do this myself. I don't think I'd ever read a Delia Smith cover to cover; but there is something very enjoyable in reading a brilliant writer, such as Elizabeth David, who just happens to write recipes as well.

I guess with cookery books, it's not just the recipes, it's the story behind the recipes that interests me, and makes me want to read them, whether or not I actually end up cooking using that book. A case in point is The scent of orange blossom. I think I have very rarely cooked from this book, a collection of Sephardic Jewish recipes; but it's a wonderful history of a race and its travels through Southern Europe and into North Africa, and perhaps more importantly of a family, and how their history is reflected through their food.

Travel writing can, I think, be quite similar. There seem to be two main categories: there are the travel books that are often literary masterpieces (although sometimes not) where the writer is often the central figure in his own tale - think Patrick Leigh Fermor, Peter Fleming or Martha Gellhorn. Then there are the books that are travel guides, they vary enormously from very basic which hotels / restaurants to use, to those which are much more detailed, and often have some beautiful writing as well.Although I love the literary travel books, it's the cookery book equivalents - the travel guides, that I probably most love as with them you truly can "virtually travel".

Sean Jennett's 1970s The Pilgrims' Way : from Winchester to Canterbury is a delightful read, following the ancient road as well as he can from its source in Winchester to where it joins the London road that Chaucer's pilgrims would have travelled and on to the centre of pilgrimage in Canterbury. Both a detailed guide to the Way (lots of turn left, turn right, look out for the stile), a musing on the nature of pilgrimage in medieval England and its destruction, a history of the people and places along the way, and, perhaps most of all, reflections on the changing face of the British landscape. If Chris Stringer's book Homo Britannicus was an examination of the major changes in the landscape of the UK, Jennet's travels along this ancient road showed the more recent man-made changes that had impacted on the landscape of southern England. I would suspect that a contemporary traveller following the way would find it, in some places, vastly changed from Jennet's 1970s excursion.

I love ancient roads, I love the feeling that people have been using certain trackways back into prehistory, I love that sense of continuity. And so to me, pilgrim ways have always been important. They often stretch back far beyond Christianity into a very dim and distant past. Jennet's guide brings this wonderfully alive. He summons up the spirit of the medieval pilgrims, their lives, their hopes and aspirations, and their reasons for using theWay. They were very unlike us, but we also have much in common. This is well worth a read whether or not you're thinking of walking the Way.


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