Chairman’s report to the 2018 AGM

Chairman’s Report – AGM 10 March 2018

It gives me great pleasure to welcome you all today and a special welcome to our guest speaker David Lascelles.

This is the Confraternity’s 11th Annual General Meeting, and while Rome is the Eternal City, it is humbling to remind ourselves that we were founded only in 2006, at an inaugural gathering (on 18 November) attended by just 15 brave souls.

I would like to start my report this year by reminding ourselves why we are here.

Our mission is to encourage, inform and assist people walking, cycling or riding to Rome along historical pilgrim routes, and we aim to create a community of people who are planning to set out or who have completed their journey. We are essentially secular and non-denominational, but we recognise the spiritual and religious dimensions of pilgrimage – however it is defined.

The CPR still has much to do, and indeed by its very nature our job will never be finished, but I am pleased to report some significant achievements in the past 12 months.

A total of 1000 people have joined us from more than 30 different countries since we started, and we currently have 317 active members, of whom 26 are life members (as of 31.12.2017).

Our thanks to Jim Brodie, our membership secretary, who keeps a handle on this and registers and welcomes new members.

After a long hiatus, we finally issued a printed Newsletter in September 2017. This was Alison Raju’s swansong, her 23rd newsletter, and we owe her a huge debt of gratitude for all those publications. They are a veritable treasure trove.

Alison’s contribution to the Via Francigena is legendary, and I am glad to say that even though she has put down her editor’s pen, Alison will remain on our Steering Group and will also be out there – boots on the ground – updating her Cicerone guidebooks. We have a few of her two VF guidebooks for sale here – but they are unfortunately quite badly out of date and both will be republished in time.

Mary Kirk has moved into the editor’s chair and, as well as editing our planned annual printed Newsletter, she is now also producing e-newsletters. The aim is to communicate more, and more regularly, with our members. Sadly Mary cannot be with us today because she has a leg in plaster.

We have made further changes to our website so that it is easier to post updates and so that it can display our new inter-active accommodation map – more on that later.

Those of you who have walked or who plan to walk from Canterbury to Rome will know that we have just 30 kilometres of the Via Francigena in our backyard. I am delighted to report – thanks in large part to our Canterbury representative Julia Peters – that we are finally putting our house in order. Canterbury Council have installed some new signposts to Rome. There is therefore less chance that pilgrims setting out from Canterbury will start their journey by getting lost. Julia is working on having similar signage put up in Dover itself.

Julia has done a lot of great work to promote local awareness of the Via Francigena in Canterbury and Kent. We share the route, as you know, with the North Downs Way, and she has also teamed up with the warden Peter Morris to have the way marking refreshed.

Julia organizes regular walks along the Canterbury-Dover section, and the next outing will be on April 7th when the CPR will join up with a group of French pilgrims from Arras for a walk to Dover. We hope that members will turn out in force to maintain, and indeed deepen, the entente cordiale.

A long-term ambition is to help provide, or help foster, a pilgrim hostel or some sleeping accommodation at or close to the half-way point at Shepherdswell. Many people, especially those who have had to set out late from Canterbury, find the full 20 miles to Dover on their first day too much – and some even opt to return by train to sleep in Canterbury. Going backwards for a night’s sleep is not an ideal way to start a long journey to Rome.

As we all know, the Via Francigena also passes through Calais.

Prospective pilgrims have sometimes contacted us and asked: is it safe to walk there?

The CPR is now flipping that question.

How can we mainly prosperous, well-fed members of the western middle classes, setting out as would-be pilgrims, continue to ignore the plight of genuine and needy 21st-century pilgrims? Like it or not, that is what those economic migrants and war refugees are. Like it or not – and despite the best efforts of the French authorities – these migrants are not going away; and, even if they do, more will come. This is most probably a humanitarian tragedy for which there is no permanent solution.

And that is the challenge, and it behoves us, therefore, to help, or at the very least to acknowledge this reality – rather than just walk on by.

Mary Kirk, our new editor, earlier this year spent a week in Calais working as a volunteer with the British charity Help Refugees. As a result of Mary’s trip, we have added a section on our website about Calais and about volunteering there, and we have a link through which you can to donate to help the migrants. We have set an example and sent a small donation of £100 to the charity’s Auberge des Migrants in Calais on behalf of the CPR.

While focused on France, it was with great sadness that we learned last year of the death of Francis Geere, a retired British diplomat living in the village of Nans-sous-Sainte Anne, near Besançon. Francis was a tireless friend of the Via Francigena, and many of us will have fond memories of him, and will be grateful for his help and friendship.

I can pay him no better tribute than read the words of Paul Chinn, author of the Lightfoot Guides:
“His dedication to helping pilgrims was unmatched. He would willingly travel by car for dozens of kilometres to pluck an exhausted pilgrim from the wayside, whisk them to his home, La Maison Rose, to ply them with one of his memorable curries and a little Jura wine before returning them, refreshed, to the route the following morning.”

Could I please ask you to pause for a few moments to remember Francis.

On a lighter note, all pilgrims collect stamps – the varied and colourful hallmarks in our pilgrim passports become part of the ritual, the sport, something almost sacred, in our journey. They are cherished memories of each painfully won stage of the way.

I am pleased to report that our communications specialist, Jonas Ewe, has designed both a new CPR pilgrim passport and some exciting badges for Confraternity members. He will be speaking about them in a few moments.

Jonas also monitors and moderates our presence on Facebook where conversation and chatter about the Via Francigena have reached record volumes.

As I reported in previous years, we now have a list on the website of members who have completed a pilgrim journey to Rome. It is for both walkers and cyclists and it includes one member who did the entire journey from England on horseback. The CSJ also has a database of pilgrimages to Santiago. Our list grows modestly each year. It totals just under 80. This roll helps us create a wider community and a sense of fellowship. If anyone has a journey to add, please update the website with details or send us an email with the date and place of your departure and the date of your arrival in Rome.

The numbers walking to Rome are still only a fraction compared to the avalanche on the Camino Francés (An estimated 300,000 pilgrims were issued with a Compostelum in 2017, up from 278,000 in 2016).

The statistics kept by Danilo Parisi, the Po ferryman, recorded 1221 long-distance pilgrims in 2017 up from 1176 in 2016. According to Danilo’s records, about one third of them (399 on foot and 77 on bicycle) started from Canterbury in 2017.

Year on year Danilo carries increasingly more walkers and cyclists – he ferried just two pilgrims when he began his service in 1998 – and he now has a new launch, the San Colombano, a gift from the local authorities as a sign of how much they value his contribution to the Via Francigena. Your Steering Group has also voted to make him an ex-gratia payment of £100 as a ‘thank you’. I will personally deliver a cheque (or the cash) to Danilo this summer, making what will be my fourth visit to his magical riverside domain at Soprarivo di Calendasco.

Danilo is three weeks walk from Rome, and many other pilgrims reach there after journeying far shorter distances – you only need walk 130 km from Acquapendente or cycle 400 km from Lucca to qualify for a Pilgrim Testimonium – and not all long-distance walkers take his ferry (Danilo and others calculate that he carries about 80 per cent).

Your Confraternity remains well funded, thanks both to a steady in-flow of new members and to the loyalty of old members. Our Treasurer Robert White will be presenting the accounts shortly.

I would like to thank my colleagues on the Steering Group for all their hard work during the past year. We met twice formally and once informally, and we conduct a lot of routine business online.

One member has left, and we have been joined by one new member, Cecilia Weston-Baker. Cecilia is our photo editor and she has made great progress in curating our photo library. Please send her any shots you would like to offer the library.

All current members are standing again for re-election but we are always looking for volunteers, especially those with specific computing and office skills.

Finally, next year we plan to hold our AGM in the more comfortable surroundings of the conference centre at Southwark Cathedral.

That’s it for 2017, and it remains for me only to wish you an enjoyable day here and safe and happy walking (and cycling) in 2018.