Books·Q&A

'A pilgrimage is a journey with a purpose': Ken Haigh walked the Canterbury Trail in honour of his late father

On Foot to Canterbury is on the shortlist for the 2021 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction.

On Foot to Canterbury is shortlisted for the 2021 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction

On Foot to Canterbury is a book by Ken Haigh. (University of Alberta Press, Submitted by the Writers' Trust of Canada)

"Is there a place in the modern secular world for pilgrimage?"

Librarian and author Ken Haigh explores this question in On Foot to Canterbury, a nonfiction book which chronicles his journey hiking across southern England and following the footsteps of medieval pilgrims to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral. The book is part travelogue, part memoir and part literary history.

 On Foot to Canterbury is a finalist for the 2021 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction.

Haigh has been the CEO of the Collingwood Public Library for eight years. He recently left the position to pursue his dream of teaching. Haigh is also the author of Under the Holy Lake.

He spoke to CBC Books about how On Foot to Canterbury came to be.

What made you want to take the trip to Canterbury?

The origin of the trip was something my father and I were going to do together. 

He was very active in his local Anglican Church, and Canterbury is sort of the global centre for Anglicanism — it's like Rome for Anglicans. Also, my father and I did a lot outdoors. We went fishing, canoeing and hiking together. So I knew a walking holiday would be something that he would enjoy. 

It wasn't until a few years later that I revisited the idea, and with my wife's encouragement decided to do the trip anyway as a way to honour my father and sort out things going on in my own life.

Unfortunately, he died before we could set off, so we never did make the trip together. It wasn't until a few years later that I revisited the idea. With my wife's encouragement, I decided to do the trip anyway as a way to honour my father and sort out things going on in my own life. 

A landscape view on the Canterbury trail, photographed by the author. (Ken Haigh)

I was probably dealing with depression disguised as a massive midlife crisis. My wife picked up on that and said, "Maybe you need to go for a walk."

How did you document the journey and turn it into a book?

I have a good memory — but I did keep a journal. I didn't write during the day. I would walk during the day and then at night, I would just whip out the journal and write down everything I could remember that happened in the day, including conversations.

I tried to parse those and write things down as I remembered them. That's where the details came from. So when I went to write, I had that skeleton outline to work with.

After I did the trip, I thought, "Well this is kind of interesting, maybe I could make it into a magazine article." I started writing it and it just got longer and longer. I realized it was turning into a book.

How did the trip bring you clarity and insights on the idea of pilgrimage and purpose? 

The question going through my mind, as I walked the pilgrimage route, was about my dad. It would've been interesting because he was a very religious man; I'm not. So I wondered, "Am I a bit of a fraud going on a pilgrimage when I'm really agnostic?"

I wondered, am I a bit of a fraud going on a pilgrimage when I'm really agnostic?

I came to the conclusion that anybody can go on a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage is a journey with a purpose, a journey with an intention. The intention is to examine your own life and try and reset your priorities, which is what I did on the walk.

A landscape view on the Canterbury trail, photographed by the author. (Ken Haigh)

I needed to think about the rest of my life and what I wanted to do with it. I realized I wasn't happy in the job I had, and it was time to work myself out of that job. It took a couple of years, but I worked myself out of work, basically.

You were running a writer's group at the library, which provided input during your writing process of this book. Tell me more.

I started a writer's group because there were a lot of people in the community who were interested in creative writing. We met twice a month and shared the work that we're working on.

It was good to have a deadline. Knowing every two weeks there would be people waiting to hear the next instalment — that forced me to write. I also found that there's a certain satisfaction when you've worked hard on something and you read it to somebody. Honest criticism is what I was receiving. 

There's a certain satisfaction when you've worked hard on something and you read it to somebody. Honest criticism is what I was receiving.

When I wrote this book originally, there wasn't very much about me personally or about my father. And everybody that read it said, "Ken, I want to know more about you. I want to know more about how you felt. And I want to know more about your relationship with your father."

Opening up to other people is very uncomfortable. I resisted that a bit. But then I thought about a lot of the travel books I'd read and realized that they were right. The books I enjoyed were ones where the writers were really honest about what was going on — so I owed it to the reader to be a bit more forthcoming.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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