Caro Woods is going to make a very special kind of journey: a 4-month pilgrimage with her pony Tommy, travelling from the Holy Island of Lindisfarne near the Scottish border, to Saint Michael’s Mount in Cornwall. A total distance of over 800 miles.
In this interview we talk about the reasons for her pilgrimage, the practical and spiritual aspects, the power of landscapes and the human connection with Mother Earth. And of course we talk about Caro’s partner in this team effort, her Connemara pony Tommy.
You can listen to the interview using the audio player below. Or you can read the transcript.
Caro, you must be counting down to your day of departure?
I am indeed. On the 1st of May we leave for Lindisfarne. I’m going to transport my horse up to the holy island of Lindisfarne, where we’re going to spend a few days just sort of settling ourselves.
I’m going to stay in a little retreat house, and Tommy is going to stay on a farm on the island, which is going to be interesting.
And we set off proper on the 5th of May, which happens to be my mother’s birthday. The 5th of the 5th of the 15th I thought was quite an auspicious day somehow.
We set off to walk from Lindisfarne between the tides. I think the tide retreats by about 9 o’clock, so we should be setting off on our way then.
And that’ll be the start of an 800 mile journey, all the way down to Saint Michael’s Mount in Cornwall.
That’s right. Which is kind of where I live. I live above the hill that overlooks Saint Michael’s Mount. It’s beautiful. It’ll be our destination.
And Tommy lives just outside Marazion, so he’ll be going more home than I am. He’s closer to the mountain than I am.
How nervous are you?
It’s getting closer by the day, and more and more scary. There’s so much to think about, but there comes a point where you can only do so much preparation and then you just let it go, and trust it’s all going to be alright.
There are two reasons why you’re doing this. Let’s start with the more ‘earthly’ one: you’d like to raise £10,000 for charity.
That’s right. It’s actually a road trip to raise funds for the Riding for the Disabled Association. I chose them because they have a very wide network. So I thought for practical reasons that could be quite helpful for us, while we’re raising money for them.
But also I’m very interested in equine learning facilities. There is quite an established area for therapy, working not only with the disabled but also disadvantaged people in many ways, or people with lots of problems. They can find a lot of therapeutic benefit from working with the spirit of horse. It’s an area that I’m interested in.
So that’s one reason. And the other one, well actually, it’s a multilayered journey because it has a lot of dimensions to it.
But the two main ones are the spiritual aspect of pilgrimage, and raising money to help others benefit from therapy with horses.
How about that whole spiritual part of the journey?
I wanted to have a journey that was not established. I wanted to create my own journey. So I was thinking, what could I do?
I didn’t know if there was an established link between the Holy Island of Lindisfarne and the holy island of Saint Michael’s Mount. And I couldn’t find one.
But I’m sure back in the mists of time there must have been a very established link between these two. People coming from the north to the south, and vice versa. Pilgrims travelling from one to the other and around the country on certain pilgrim routes.
In a sense I may be recreating or reconnecting with an ancient pilgrim route. That was my reason for choosing that particular route.
Because I’d been walking on the Mary/Michael Line with Richard Dealler who’s been leading these walks, the Mary/Michael aspect of this pilgrimage has been quite interesting. And unexpected in a sense.
Because obviously, Michael is connected with Saint Michael’s Mount. But I didn’t realise, until I visited Lindisfarne a few months ago, that the church on Lindisfarne is dedicated to Saint Mary. So that was an unexpected surprise, and wonderful really.
Do the figures of Michael and Mary represent anything in particular to you?
Yes, indeed they do. Saint Michael is the Archangel who vanquishes evil, and turns evil to good. His attributes are courage, banishing fear, and light. In other words he runs darkness into light. I haven’t explained that very well, but anyway, those are his attributes.
Mary is a much gentler energy, associated with the Blessed Virgin and all the theological aspects of that as well.
And these two seem to go together somehow. Like Apollo and Athena. Like a marriage of the two together.
How did you come up with your idea of this pilgrimage?
It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time. And time is the essence really. Because suddenly I realised I’d reached my 60th year and I thought, oh my God, if I’m going to do it I’ve got to do it now while I still can.
And also, a lot of things I’m interested in sort of merged together and came to a point where I thought there’s just no going back. I’ve got to do it.
Obviously I’m not as agile as I used to be. But I can still walk 10 miles a day quite happily. I’m doing it while I can. Before time runs out.
But that means there’s something inside of you urging you to do it. What is this drive, this motivation to go on this huge pilgrimage?
In the last ten years or so, I’ve become much more interested in spiritualism. I’ve investigated lots of different areas to do with healing and the spiritual path.
As an artist I’ve been connecting colour to the physical geography of the land. And then there’s a cross-over between interest in chakras, and connecting the chakras to the topography of different landscapes.
That is another layer of this pilgrimage. I shall be working through the chakra system too, starting with the crown chakra and working down to the base chakra, finishing off in Saint Michael’s Mount. Which of course is appropriate for me because it’s where I’m based.
What will be your motivation to keep going while you’re on the road?
That’s a very good question. I don’t quite know. I think I’m going to have to break it down to being in the now and taking each day as it comes. Because each day will have its own challenge to reach my destination.
It’ll be a daily motivation to get to where I’m supposed to be. And then my ultimate aim is to get to my final destination.
Let’s talk a bit about your partner on this journey: your pony Tommy. You selected him especially for this journey, didn’t you?
Yes, I thought as I’m not going to have any back-up I’ve got to have a native pony who’s not going to want to have a lot of special care from my point of view.
He’s got to be pretty hardy, not only physically but also mentally.
Tommy came along, I met him and we just clicked. He’s just perfect. Perfect in the sense of what I wanted him for. I mean, he’s not ‘perfect’, just like we aren’t perfect. We all have our little foibles, and Tommy’s no different.
But in terms of having the mental and physical capacity to do a journey like this, I think — cross fingers — he’ll be perfect.
What sort of a horse is Tommy?
Oh, he’s a character. He’s certainly no pushover. As horses go, he’s not a particular affectionate sort of horse. He’s quite dominant in his own way. We have a healthy respect for each other.
But in other ways he’s absolutely brilliant. For instance, this morning I had him at liberty in the big school for the first time and he didn’t put a foot wrong working on the ground with him.
So there are moments where I think, wow, what a brilliant horse. And other moments where I think, well…
There are two things he’s very touchy about. He’s very head-shy, which I’ve tried working with. But I think, possibly, in the past he might have had his ears twitched. Which has made him very head-shy, and I’m still working on that.
And also, he doesn’t like having his hind feet picked up. Maybe the reason for that is he might have been gelded fairly late.
Because he also has certain characteristics that are quite… stallion-like. He’s certainly not a calm, docile kind of man, at all.
But other than that he’s absolutely great. And I couldn’t have asked for anything better really.
Do you think he’s ready for the trip?
I think, like me, we’re as ready as we can be. It’s one of those things you’ve just got to do.
We’re not going at a huge speed. We’re doing an average of about 10 to 15 miles a day, hopefully. Some days it’ll be more than that, and some days it will be slightly less. With lots of rest days, after four or five or six days.
So hopefully that’ll be a pace that will be sustainable. Neither of us are speed merchants.
But Tommy’s great. He’ll go if I ask him to go, and there’s no problem there. As we say in the horse world, he’s got more go than woe.
When I saw a couple of his pictures, the first word that came to mind to me was ‘unfazed’. I don’t think there are a lot of things that make an impression on him or frighten him.
For his age, he’s only 6, he’s pretty good. He’s pretty sensible too. Obviously, there are things that worry him and that he hasn’t seen before.
But he’s not silly and he doesn’t do silly things. As long as I give him time to look at things and make sure they’re not going to harm him, he’s quite happy to accept new things. And I’ve tried to introduce him to lots of new things.
He’s proven to be very brave. And trusting too. So that’s brilliant.
We’ve built up enough of a bond for me to know that if he doesn’t want to go anywhere, all I have to do is just get off and knead him, and I’m sure I won’t have a problem.
Brave and trust, those are the other words I felt apply to Tommy. It must have been at the second or third picture I saw of him that I thought, the term “Saint Michael’s Mount” applies to this horse.
Saint Michael could just walk up to him and say, Tommy, I need you to carry me and charge at the Beast. And Tommy would just do that. I can just picture him carrying Michael with His flaming sword, charging at the Beast, full of bravery and trust in his Rider.
I feel that too. I think he’s wonderful.
We share a canny Celtic spirit. Being a native Irish horse, he has that kind of canny spirit of a true native.
He’s not elegant and fiery like a thoroughbred. He’s more down to earth, and he gets on with the job. Which is great. What more can I ask?
Our modern technology has made the world a small place, where distances have lost their significance. But a journey like yours changes that. 800 miles on horseback is a very long way.
On foot or by car all you’d really need is a place to eat during the day, somewhere to sleep at night, and petrol stations along the way. But Tommy doesn’t run on petrol, and he can’t eat at the local pub. So how do you tackle that particular challenge?
That’s another reason why I chose a native. Because they do very well on very little.
My plan is to stop every two hours for a rest. So that gives him an opportunity to do a bit of grazing. Maybe a longer stop over lunch, where I can take his saddle off and give him a bit of a rest.
Factored into the ride will be a lot of stops and opportunities for grazing and topping him up. If we’re offered some hard feed along the way, then that would be very gratefully accepted.
And also, at that time of year the new grass will be coming up, so that should fill him with lots of vitality. I’m hoping anyway.
You’ve had to plan the entire route. Do you know where you will sleep each night?
Yes, mostly. There are certain pockets of the journey that I haven’t managed to fill in yet. And some are almost there but still a little vague. And with some I just haven’t a clue.
But there again, it’s one of those things I’m going to have to trust and hope that we are shown the way. And I’m sure we will be guided by many things. Not necessarily in this physical world.
That’s probably an important part of a pilgrimage, isn’t it? Just trusting that it will be alright, that you are looked after. And that you will find people along the way that will help you.
Absolutely. And I’ve tried not to get worried about it, because that’s a waste of energy. It’s almost like saying, I give up my fear and put my trust in the Universe.
And I have to do that, because otherwise I don’t think I could do it. I don’t think I could even start.
I think that’s going to be a very nice example to the rest of the world, because it’s something we should all be doing.
We should all let go of our fear that’s keeping us prisoner, and learn to trust in the Universe and in our own ability to listen to our intuition that will take us to where we need to be going.
Yes, I think that’s right. But that doesn’t mean I’m not fearful.
The buildup is worse than actually doing it. It’s the most difficult bit, because it’s the planning, the thinking through, all the different scenarios and the backup strategies that I need to put in place.
When you’re actually there doing it, you’re going through the motions and you’re not worrying about two weeks ahead. You’re worrying about now. About what’s happening right now in the moment.
Going on a pilgrimage isn’t as normal or as popular as it once used to be. Why is that, you think?
Funny you should say that. I think it’s becoming more popular, and I think a lot more people are doing pilgrimages. Particularly the Santiago de Compostela is very busy these days, I believe.
I think in general people are more interested in the idea of pilgrimage. In the idea of going on a spiritual journey of transformation of some sort.
And I think it’s gaining momentum. I really do. So I think there’s going to be a huge revival of it. I’m getting that feeling.
What would you say is the essence of a pilgrimage?
I think it’s a very personal thing. The essence of a pilgrimage is going on a journey. You’re going on a physical journey, but it’s actually an inner journey.
It’s an inner and outer journey, I think that’s the essence of a pilgrimage. It’s what you discover about yourself along the way. Which might not even be apparent at the time. It might be sort of retrospective.
So the old saying ‘It’s not the destination, it’s the journey’ really applies to a pilgrimage?
I think so. Obviously it’s important to have a destination. Because there are people who are walking around the world on a constant pilgrimage.
There was that woman, the Peace Pilgrim. She started walking for peace, and she just walked and walked and walked. She was donated shoes along the way, and that was all she carried. The clothes on her back and she was occasionally given a new pair of shoes when she asked for a new pair. Maybe she would give a talk along the way. Very remarkable woman.
But pilgrimage means different things to different people.
What do you hope to gain personally from your journey?
In a sense, I’m not sure. Because that’s the nature of pilgrimage. I’m waiting to see what will be revealed.
But my objective is maybe to see how I can get something very creative out of it. I’m hoping it will sustain me creatively for a while afterwards.
For instance, the ribbon idea. That’s grown as an idea and it’s something I even want to develop further. Because I think that could be an interesting way of introducing a thread of narrative that runs all the way through the pilgrimage.
And your ribbon idea that’s where people can pick a coloured ribbon for Tommy, when they donate to your cause.
That’s right. It started off as an idea to encourage people to donate towards the RDA. And also as a way of allowing people to come along with me, via a ribbon which has been allotted to them.
And for me it’s a physical reminder of the support that we have had as well.
So that’s how it started, but then it becomes interesting. Because if anyone wants to have a particular colour — like you Bart, you said you wanted a particular colour — then suddenly that becomes interesting for me. Because I’m interested in why you wanted to have that colour. That becomes part of the narrative.
Or, if you wanted to donate a ribbon of your own, if it has a specific interest from the sender’s point of view, that’s interesting to me too.
So I’m sort of envisaging this ribbon idea to be a healing thing. And that can accompany me on the journey as well. Not necessarily for me, but for the person who has donated the ribbon, or the colour.
I really liked your idea, and that’s one of the reasons why I also donated a ribbon. I picked the colour purple, because to me purple is a very spiritual colour.
Purple is associated with protection by the spiritual world. And healing by the spiritual world. So I thought that was a very fitting colour for a journey like yours.
That’s absolutely wonderful Bart. I really appreciate that, and I appreciate you sharing that with me. Because for me, that makes it so real, and such a tangible thing.
Also, I’d like to point out that the ribbon thing doesn’t necessarily have to be if you’ve made a donation. It could be anybody who has supported us on the way. Such as people who have accommodated us, or just encouraged us with a few words.
Obviously, if people can bring themselves to donate something towards the cause, then that’s very helpful. But it’s the support in a very general sense as well.
Going on country-wide pilgrimages isn’t all you do of course. How would you describe yourself to someone who asked you what you do in life?
Oh gosh, that’s a difficult one. Professionally, I’m an artist. My practice has changed, pretty radically, over the last 20 years.
From a very visual painter of landscapes mainly, my practice has changed into more writing about being in landscapes. And then that naturally progressed into walking in landscapes.
But I don’t consider myself to be a walking artist. I’m an artist who happens to walk, if you like. Or happens to take pilgrimages.
In the art world there’s a very subtle difference. If you’re a walking artist, you’re a performer. And I am no way a performer. I’m very much a visual artist, who happens to find creative ways of expression.
You also seem to me a very spiritual person, in the broader, non-religious meaning of the word. Because your connection to landscapes is pretty obvious really. It’s what you were drawn to as an artist, and it’s also what you’re drawn to in the more spiritual things that you do.
Oh, definitely. There’s always been a link between the landscape that I painted in an emotional way. I always respond to landscape in an emotional way, and this is no different.
I’ve always loved being in landscape, and revel in it. It’s always been what brings me alive, what makes me feel good.
Can you put your finger on what it is exactly in the landscape, or being outside, that makes you feel the way you do?
I think it’s something very fundamental. I feel it’s very replenishing. There’s something about our connection with landscape that is very fulfilling. It’s something innate in us.
It’s like our survival thing. When we dowse for things, we find it very easy to dowse for water because that’s a survival thing.
And it’s because we’ve lived on this planet with animals and the vegetation, and that’s a natural way of being for us. We’re not really designed to be cooped up within four walls.
We come from a very deep connection with the Earth.
I think the word connection is key in that relationship.
As a species we have become very disconnected from the greater whole. Because of this big brain that we have, we consider ourselves to be separate from all the rest.
And we take this to an extreme. Because we’re not just separated from nature, from all the other animals. We’re also separated from other humans.
So maybe, being in these beautiful landscapes and connecting with nature, is also about connecting with the greater whole, and therefore, connecting with who we really are.
That’s right. The Romantics, poets and artists, have written and spent a long time painting the Sublime. And there is a lot in that.
So we’re just carrying on a very deep tradition of reconnecting with Gaia, Mother Earth and all that she encompasses.
I think your journey is going to be a very special journey. And I look forward to reading your updates. Because you will be updating your blog Pilgrim On Horseback while you’re on the road?
I will indeed. I will take my little iPad and when we have our rest stops, which will give us a couple of days to catch up with things, then hopefully I’ll be able to update my blog, for anybody who’s interested in our progress.
And if anyone wants to join us, just email me and I can say roughly where we will be at a certain time on a certain day, all being well.
Anybody is welcome to join us, either walking, cycling, or horse riding. We would be very grateful for the company and would love to see anybody along the way.
Personally, I’m really looking forward to meeting you. Because we will be doing that during one of your rests in between two legs of the journey. I think that’s going to be early July.
And I will also meet Tommy, and give him a horse whispering session and some healing.
Bart, I think he’ll lap it up. He will absolutely love it. And I’m really looking forward to meeting you too.
We’ll be about half way then. So it’ll be a bit of a milestone. Maybe just over half way. That’ll be worth celebrating too.
You can read more about Caro’s journey, and maybe even donate to support the Riding for the Disabled Association, on her blog: Pilgrim On Horseback.
All images by Caro Woods,
except the first one: Janet McEwan