On Foot to Canterbury and Beyond

On Foot to Canterbury: A Son’s Pilgrimage by Ken Haigh, 2021. University of Alberta Press. Shortlisted for the 2021 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction.

Near the beginning of On Foot to Canterbury, author Ken Haigh poses a timeless question: Why do humans travel? Haigh lets Robert Louis Stevenson answer: “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more clearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilization, and find the globe.”

On Foot to Canterbury is Haigh’s second travel book (following Under the Holy Lake: A Memoir of Eastern Bhutan). His new book recounts a walk from Winchester to Canterbury, England, hiking the Pilgrims’ Way. The narrative is immediately engaging; it’s both entertaining and thought-provoking. In addition to being a personal journey and a tribute to his father, On Foot to Canterbury is a cultural journey. It delves deeply into England’s past. Haigh deftly weaves together three main threads — travel memoir, English literature, and English history — producing a vibrant tapestry.

With his journey coming to an end, Haigh asks himself why humans go on pilgrimages. In his words, “there is a wonderful simplicity about a pilgrimage. Each morning you rise and put on the same clothes …. You break your fast, hoist your pack onto your shoulders, and hit the road.” As you walk, you ponder and philosophize. Haigh’s journey took him beyond his physical destination, to a Pilgrims’ Way of the mind and soul. On Foot to Canterbury did the same thing for me. 

Off-the-beaten Track

Under The Holy Lake by Ken Haigh, 2008. University of Alberta Press.

Reviewed by A.M. Potter. ® 2019.

Those who know me, know I’m a big fan of travelogues featuring distant lands. Few countries are as remote as Bhutan.

Under The Holy Lake presents a captivating memoir of two years in Bhutan. The prose is polished and whip-sharp. The author, Ken Haigh, is thoughtful and learned without being pedantic. The memoir is entertaining, at times light and effusive, yet also profound and intensely satisfying. What does it say?

Go to Bhutan. (Or, if not Bhutan, any place off-the-beaten track.) Live there, work there. If you can go when you’re young, all the better. It will stay with you for the rest of your life. Approach the new land slowly. Accept it warts et al; in the case of Bhutan, torrential rain, foot-long poisonous centipedes, and confusing social mores, to name a few.

Haigh certainly accepted it. His time as a teacher in Khaling, Eastern Bhutan, is a study in cultural adaptation, always a long and arduous road, and not always successfully traversed. He came to cherish Khaling – the valley under the holy lake – and the Bhutanese people. I won’t elaborate on the book’s narrative trajectory. I rarely do. Instead, I’ll say: “Read for yourself.” Experience the real Bhutan, from a to z: ara (corn-mash whisky) to zhugcho (please, sit).

PS: Haigh tells of two years in the late 1980s. Of course, places never stay the same. Bhutan is still 12,000 km from central Canada, but it is no longer distant in time. No place is.

Click to view Under The Holy Lake.