The Cheltenham Literature Festival (and a Bonus Book Review of Travels With a Stick)

The email came as a surprise.

“I am getting in touch to invite you to this year’s Cheltenham for a panel event about modern pilgrimages.”

“This year’s Cheltenham”…as in the Cheltenham Literature Festival, in Cheltenham, England. The oldest festival of its kind in the world, Cheltenham is a big deal. It draws tens of thousands of people to its 10-day annual event, selling hundreds of thousands of tickets to conversations about fiction, art, current events, children’s literature, and yes, travel. Authors from David Cameron to Helena Bonham Carter were there this year.

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And so was I. Somehow, the event organizers came across Walking to the End of the World and invited me to be one of the 900 presenting authors this year, joining Richard Frazer, author of Travels With a Stick, and “wild camping and extreme sleeping adventurer” Phoebe Smith for a conversation about “Mindful Adventures for Modern Pilgrims.”

I couldn’t say yes fast enough.

The Festival:

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Last week I flew to England, took a bus through the rolling green hills of the Cotswolds, and spent two incredible days in a literary wonderland. The scope of this event—from the emerging outdoor murals of literary luminaries to the small details like the book art in the bandstand-turned-“bookstand”—was enchanting. I spent a full day wandering around, browsing the bookshop and sampling the food and listening to authors from Raynor Winn (I reviewed The Salt Path here) to historical novelist Philippa Gregory.

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Then finally, on Wednesday evening, it was my turn. I was fitted with a fancy mike tucked behind my ear, whisked through the rain to a small green room, and then herded onto a stage, where for the next hour I sat in a spotlight and talked about my experiences walking the Camino de Santiago.

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I confess I don’t remember much of what I said. I know that Phoebe brought up how I’d been anxious about answering the call of nature when outside in actual nature (which is something I talk about in the book), and I got tangled up in what to call a bathroom in England (toilet, we decided, or more casually, a loo). But that was the exception. Most of our conversation was more thoughtful. We talked about what drew us to walk, and who we met and what we learned along the way. We talked about Camino miracles and practical tips for walking.

Richard, I can say with only delight, stole the show. He was warm and funny, quick with a quote and an anecdote, and comfortable in the format.

And his book, I’m happy to report, is just as lovely as he is:

To be a pilgrim you don't have to jump through hoops or sign up to doctrines you'd rather question -- you just have to set off!

Travels With a Stick:

In some ways, Richard Frazer’s journey on the Camino feels so familiar to me. He started walking in Le Puy. He struggled mightily with his feet. He considers beer a suitable afternoon anesthetic. We even stayed in some of the same places – readers of Walking to the End of the World would recognize the “bossy” gite owner in Livinhac as Martine at Le Coquille Bleu, who taught me how to do laundry the correct way.

But in most ways, Richard’s book opens new doors and new ideas. As a minister, he brings a traditional spirituality to his writing. Where I am flip, he is thoughtful. He walks alone and reflects on the things he sees and hears, bringing a well of knowledge about both classic literature from CS Lewis to Alexander McCall Smith, to reflect on the human condition.

“You begin to listen to your own silence in a new way. The silence, the monotony, the empty-headedness becomes a deep voice challenging our settled thinking and upsetting the pretence that we have found an equilibrium in our lives that will see us comfortably through. The silence, the emptiness allows us to be filled by something beyond—a deeper wisdom than that which the endless chatter and commentary of our day-to-day minds can offer. This may come unbidden to the pilgrim and may well be a shock as the journey takes hold of her.”

And while he is a minister, Richard is also a man deeply committed to social justice work, and deeply aware of the challenges of his own faith community, and he sometimes brings the perspective of an outsider.

“The pilgrim world is a world that embraces the new, invites transformation and reimagines the new… Maybe the magic of the pilgrimage is that it represents an undomesticated, untamed spirituality, and that’s what resonates so powerfully with so many people today who have become disillusioned with organized religion.”

It’s only been recently that I’ve realized that the very act of pilgrimage was illegal in the United Kingdom in the 16th century, as part of the English Reformation. Pilgrimage was considered one of the corrupt practices from Rome, superstitious and idolatrous. Religious art and relics were destroyed, monasteries were closed, and a part of history was lost. Today, pilgrimage routes are being brought back across the UK, with individuals like Richard Frazer (as well as groups like The British Pilgrimage Trust) leading the charge.

Travels With a Stick is a reflective story, more than it is a guide to the trail, tracing the thoughts and emotional journey of a man walking in a new place, catching his breath after long years of service. I found myself marking pages to return to and making notes of ideas worth considering.

Back to Cheltenham:

And then the event was over, and we were whisked back through the green room, back through the rain, to the vast bookstore, where a line of people waited to have us sign books and share stories. Because Camino people are often book people, and book people are often drawn to the reflection and simplicity of the Camino.

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And somehow, I get to be a part of all of it.


4 thoughts on “The Cheltenham Literature Festival (and a Bonus Book Review of Travels With a Stick)

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