Review of Wayfarer: Love, Loss and Life on Britain’s Ancient Paths by Phoebe Smith

I was delighted to win a copy of Phoebe Smith’s book Wayfarer in the competition from Penny Post and the Hungerford Bookshop, particularly as I had already booked to hear her speak at the Croft Hall in Hungerford at one of the bookshop’s excellent author events.

I was intrigued by the book’s strap-line “Love, loss and life on Britain’s ancient paths”. The review quotes on the back cover gave the impression that there would be a lot of soul searching and personal discovery involved and they were correct. 

At times, it’s a very tough read indeed. Some of Phoebe’s personal experiences are quite harrowing — and there were plenty of occasions when I gasped out loud or groaned in despair. To say what was going on would spoil the impact of the narrative, which is essentially the author’s life story. I devoured it over a couple of days and kept creeping back because I just had to know what happened next. 

It is, however, safe to to share that she starts by revealing huge personal and relationship issues going back to her childhood, which she successfully works through during her days spent walking. These she communicates with unflinching emotional honesty. 

It was almost by chance she discovered the healing power of being on a trail, whilst walking part of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in Spain, for a journalistic assignment. The difference between a simple walk and a pilgrimage, she discovers, is the purpose to the walk and this first walk causes her to ‘lose her way’ and then rebuild her life. Already a seasoned adventurer and travel writer, putting herself out of her comfort zone physically is no great challenge to Phoebe Smith – but emotionally, it’s a different story. During further walks, she takes a hard look at her life and addresses some long-suppressed traumas. She comes to understand why she is how she is and acts how she does, and what she can do to break the self-abusive cycle which threatening her very sanity.

The writing is spare and evocative. Her turn of phrase, whether describing the death of her mother, her survival of abusive relationships, or the brief magical moments captured during a walk, are often breathtaking: 

“The waves crash loudly, echoing in my ears as the visual drama of the expanding Scottish coastline also intensifies. Spoils of the granite cliffs lie in fragments metres below the pathway, sticking out of the churning sea like croutons in a white soup, while broom and bindweed creep between the cracks spooling behind the edges.”

Going on a pilgrimage sounds as if it might be a purely religious activity. But, we learn that it probably never was really, and certainly now there is a growing popularity of the concept of going on a pilgrimage to simply take a moment out of every-day life; to reassess where you are and where you are going. There have even been three successful BBC television series called Pilgrimage embracing this theme, and even more books written.

Phoebe trawls through potential ancient pilgrimage routes listed by The British Pilgrimage Trust. New pilgrimage routes are being regularly rediscovered, having fallen out of memory since the act of going on a pilgrimage was legally banned by Henry VIII in 1538. Following the huge restrictions on personal freedoms during Covid, it seems the idea of making such a journey has never been more popular.

 And, Phoebe does indeed discover a new enlightenment which she is clear has nothing to do with religion per se. She walks old pilgrimage trails across Britain and tells stories of saints and other important historical religious figures that have been long forgotten — because they deserve to be remembered and celebrated as a part of the nation’s story.

 “As I climb higher, beneath the shining white bark of silver birch, curved stones mark the route, worn down into grooves that resemble smiles from years of footfall.  Something about the process, treading where so many boots have trodden before, makes my stirring mind settle.”

However, these are not necessarily epic long-distance hikes. Phoebe accepts the compromise that she must fit her pilgrimage walks into a hectic and pressured working life, but still derive enormous benefit from taking time out to breath and think and walk the routes — most of which would have been familiar to our distant ancestors.

“This walk is not a long one — I would once have run the same distance within an hour — but, as I wander, I realise that I no longer feel the need to prove myself on a long hard routes that once I felt I had to endure. I still like a challenge, but one I have chosen, on my own terms, for my own reasons, rather than blindly following a tour or plan that someone else has told me I should.” 

The inside cover ‘blurb’ says that her book: “… reveals how nature and place can heal old wounds, offering a pathway to salvation she never thought existed.” And, this about sums it up. Phoebe walks alone, she walks in groups, she even undertakes a ‘silent pilgrimage’ and through each experience she learns more about herself and sheds the weight of her past traumas to navigate more confidently along her personal pathway to a much positive and fulfilling future. 

As the reader who joined her on this emotional odyssey, I closed the final cover with a feeling of huge satisfaction – and with the desire to find out more about the possibilities of pilgrimage for myself.

Vanya Body, Froxfield

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