We are delighted to share with you Clare Viner’s account of her second Story Pilgrimage. A walk she undertook in the autumn of 2023 from Exeter to Stoke Canon and then along the length of the River Culm to the Holman Clavel pub at Culmhead. Clare has been creating and sharing her stories about the River Culm since 2021. You can read her other stories and previous blog posts here.

Why go on a Story Pilgrimage?


hy tell stories as you walk across a landscape? Is the earth really breathing, do the waters really listen? I believe they do. It’s like when you walk into a building where people have been happy. You can feel that happiness, it’s somehow in the fabric of the building. So why should landscapes be any different? In ancient times people lived with the magic of deep connection to the land. Indigenous people today still do. Earth based people have always told stories about this magic, which is real to them. In Britain the stories were ridiculed, in the ‘Age of Reason’ and the progress of industrialisation. Now we know that people are not machines and neither are landscapes. We are all highly sensitive and complex. More and more we recognise that we need mystery and we need love. And love is not something that can be dissected and examined under a microscope. We must love this beautiful world to keep it safe. And for this to happen we must allow our hearts to burst open with the mystery of flowing water, birdsong, gentle hills and a wild animal darting across our path. Telling a story in a landscape helps me to connect with that place in a way that isn’t rational. It’s more dreamlike, more subtle. It seems to open an invisible door to a place where anything is possible.

The first story pilgrimage was in 2022

My idea was to walk from source to confluence of the River Culm and to tell the stories that I had discovered along the way. By a series of synchronicities, I met an amazing woman, Jane Embleton, who agreed to journey alongside me and support this big adventure.

In 2022 the stories had taught me that that at the source of the River Culm there is a very Holy Man, who has been waiting for a very long time. In the story he is waiting for a woman, who he loved, to return. I found other stories in the landscapes of Holy Women, St Sidwella, St Katherine and St Columb, and the stories of these three Saints, clearly all predate Christianity. When we finished the 2022 pilgrimage at the confluence in Stoke Canon, I had a sense of loss, sadness, confusion. It didn’t feel right. I wanted to feel that we had done something wonderful, that it was all good. But I felt uncomfortable. When Jane and I spoke about it, she said she felt that the pilgrimage wasn’t complete.

“I think we have to take the Holy Women back up to the Holy Man,” she said.

And we discussed the links with Exeter. Through these conversations we decided that we needed to walk a four day pilgrimage including St Katherine’s Priory in Polsloe, St Sidwell’s church, the Witches plaque and the Mermaids of Exeter. We agreed to watch our dreams in the days before we walked;

Dreams; We both dream deep mysterious tales in the week before the pilgrimage begins. For me it’s about being hung upside down by my ankles, like Odin, one of the ‘Hooded Ones’ sometimes connected with the Fey. Jane’s dreams also seem connected with the Fey, the ancient ancestors of these lands and there are twins in her dream, like parallel worlds.

Day one, 14 September 2023
The walk begins

St Katherine’s Priory in Polsloe, Exeter, thirteen of us and two dogs, gather around a circular table, Sue-Claire, Louise, Mo, Ros, Helen with her dog, Charlie, Rachel with her dog, Heacher, Kate, Richard, Louise, Malcolm, Kane, Jane and Clare. Sue-Claire has scattered flowers and I’ve brought an icon of mother and child. I wanted to leave her in the gardens of the Priory but she was placed on the table, so, by accident, she was the starting point, the hub in the wheel that was about to begin spinning.

Clare Viner welcoming people before story telling

We each spoke our intentions for pilgrimage. We walked across to the water, the North Brook that flows through the Mincinglake Valley Park. We sang and prayed to her, that her water’s will run clean again. ‘Mincing’ comes from an old English word meaning ‘Holy Women’, so the park is the Park of the Holy Women’s Lake.

Does this remind you of King Arthur and the Ladies of the Lake? These were Fey or Fairy women, deeply mysterious and powerful, connected to our Celtic ancestors and the Tuatha de Danann, usually associated with Ireland. Their name translates as children of the Goddess Danu. But here in Devon the land is named after a Celtic tribe called the Dumnonii, children of the Goddess Domnu of the Deep Water’s. You might think this is a big leap from ‘The Holy Women’s Lake’ but let me tell you more….

The nuns of St Katherine’s Priory were recorded as getting into trouble with the Bishop in Exeter from very early times. The first recorded documenting is a letter from the eleventh century and after this there is lots of evidence of these holy women disobeying the church laws of the time. They wore ‘fine dresses’ spoke too loudly and refused to speak Latin, they often had male guests to stay at the Priory. But my favourite quote about them comes from a letter written by the Bishop in which he speaks of the scandal these holy women were causing by walking into Exeter in, ‘their fine dresses with their large hunting dogs’.

If you consider that archaeology at the Priory uncovered mosaic images of a wheel (Katherine’s wheel) and of the astrological sign of Sagittarius, a centaur with a bow and arrow, it starts to become clear that these holy women were connected with the stars and with their own rebellious saint. These were not meek nuns. These were powerful holy women and their fine dresses make me think of tribal women; women who dress in the colours and designs of their tribe, spinning their own threads (and destinies) on a wheel.

As our pilgrimage group of 13 stood by the ancient stream, now heavily polluted by the landfill that runs off the site at Mincinglake Valley Park and by numerous CSO’s that pour untreated sewage into the water, I thought of this little streams’ journey across and under the city of Exeter, where it will continue to be violated multiple times and channelled in man-made pipes out of view. I wondered how the ancient disobedient holy women would have reacted.

We talked about St Katherine, of Alexandria, an ancient Egyptian figure, possibly linked to cats in all their untameable nature, definitely linked to the study of the stars, the spinning wheel, the spinning of thread and of destinies.

So here, right from the beginning of our four-day walk, in a ruined place, next to an old landfill site, we were in the thick of ancient mythology…and the stars started to spin a little brighter as we spoke our wishes, our dreams.

A candle in the lantern, that we were to carry for the next four days, was lit.

Lighting the lantern at the start of the story pilgrimage

We carried the candle into the city centre, stopping at St Anne’s chapel and an old Victorian fountain, in the shape of the pilgrim’s scallop, that had been filled with rubbish a few months earlier. Now, miraculously, it was clean and full of water. Then we walked to St Sidwells community centre, where there has been a church for at least the last thousand years. I retold Sidwell’s story. In my version the ‘holy woman’ is not human at all, she is the Spirit of the corn. She is forever cut and regrowing, marking the turning of the seasons and giving hope, reminding people that everything is cyclical (like the wheel). We all fall and we all rise again (my version can be read here). Several people said they felt emotional after the story. We picked fruit in the lovely community gardens.

Friends taking part in the story pilgrimage, walking up the River Culm

We stopped for coffee and then went into the Rougemont gardens. Here there is a plaque naming the last women in England to be executed for witchcraft in 1685. The women are named and we read out the words on the plaque. For several of us this felt powerful, energy rising up, rage and tears. The persecution of, mostly, women for witchcraft in England was very widespread and surely these were amongst the last of our magical female ancestors.

We stopped in Gandy Street to take note of ‘The Mermaid’ wine bar and then walked on to Mermaid Lane, which marks the site of a coaching house, ‘The Mermaid Inn’ which overlooked the Quay from the 14th century to the 19th century, about 500 years, was finally closed in 1869. The site is now a small housing estate, just up the road from the White Hart Inn.

We walked along the River Exe, carrying our lantern but with us now, were also the stories of the Ladies of the Holy women’s Lake, The finely dressed ladies with their hunting dogs, The Egyptian Saint Kat – her – in, the Spinning Wheel, the Stars, the Golden Spirit of the Corn (and many local people who brought in the harvests), the Spirit of the Witches, the Mermaids and Domnu, who Devon is named after, the Goddess of the Deep Waters. We went up the river and a stop for lunch before walking along St Andrew’s lane.

Walking the story pilgrimage

This felt like difficult walking, it was narrow and there was no pavement. At one point here our candle went out and one member of our group was reminded of a sadness from her past. To me it felt like a funnelling, a squeezing of all the big stories and energies that we had met in Exeter. We relit our candle and kept walking.

At Stoke Canon we finally met the River Culm, this is the place where the confluence of the Culm meets the Exe. Three pilgrims left our group, the river was now smaller but we kept walking until we reached Columb St John. We had been walking for around 2.5 hours without a break and we were tired! I sat on the grass and when several people requested a story, I thought that I didn’t have the energy but then the story came.

It was the story of the Killerton Dragon, King Arthur and his men, the mysterious ladies of the water, a battle, a determination to save all that was holy and beaver, playing his part (you can find a record of the story and others here). After I had spoken the words a renewed energy rose up in me…which was just as well – we had another challenge to face before sleep that night!

The National Trust had kindly offered to allow us to camp on the Killerton estate but were particular about where to put up our tents. In the end most people went home after that first long day. But three of us were determined to sleep within the landscape of the Culm. This involved lugging tents and sleeping bags up a steep hill. The others had gone ahead to the ‘Red Lion’ pub in Broadclyst. Malcom had planned to meet us for dinner but we were so late, he went home. Jane, Kane, who is my partner, and I put up our tents and discovered that the woods looked very different in the dark. The thought of missing last orders for food felt unbearable! We arrived at the pub to see Morris Men outside jumping and leaping, waving fabrics into the night sky. There was energy and fire and beat! It felt encouraging. We had a good meal and somehow made it back up the hill and into our tents.

Three Days up the Culm and into the ‘Holman Clavel’

In the morning Louise and Louise came up to the top of the hill and found us packing away our tents. I’m feeling bedraggled but they are bright and tidy after a good nights sleep. Their presence is like a balm. And later I remember the twins, the fairy ones, in Jane’s dream before the pilgrimage. It makes me wonder; how often do we bring divine grace to each other. Like the selchies of Scottish folklore, the seal people, they transform into humans from time to time. They walk around in our world giving teachings and healing before returning to the sea.

As we walk down, through the woods, to the Ellerhay car park, where we’ve arranged to meet the others, we spot some magnificent spider’s webs, glistening with early morning dew. There is a hush in the woods and I remember St Katherine, with her spinning wheel. Malcolm has extremely kindly driven my daughter, Una, from Exeter, so they join us for a fry up breakfast cooked by Helen on her camping stove.

Then we gather in a circle by the Culm to set our intentions for the day. I play my drum and Charlie, the dog, spots two swans gliding gracefully through the water. He charges across the circle, leaps into the water and is met by a force he wasn’t expecting! The swan hisses and lifts up her wings, the hunter becomes the hunted and Charlie is swimming frantically trying to get away. The swan is swimming towards him. It turns out that getting into the river is a lot easier than getting out. Charlie is scrambling in the mud, the swan getting closer and he gets out but only just in time!

Clare Viner next to the River Culm

We all watch this drama and wonder at it happening just as we begin our second day. I’m also thinking about ‘Chimberly Charlie’ the name of the ghost or ‘Holy Man’ who is waiting at the pub, which is our ultimate destination.

The sun shines as we walk to Cullompton, stopping at the ‘Dovecote’ cafe to drink coffee and wash. I’m reminded of St Columb of Cornwall. Her name means ‘dove’, so if the river is named after her, it is ‘The River Dove’. In my head I’m now calling it ‘River of Peace’.

Up a narrow lane, after many hours of walking, I spot an Elder tree. I decide to tell her story. It is one of consent. You must always ask for the permission of the Elder Mother, a fairy healer, before taking anything from her tree. We are just on the outskirts of Cullompton.

Group walking as part of the story pilgrimage

The Walronds community centre in Cullompton, feels like a sanctuary when we arrive and I’m exhausted. But I’ve advertised that there will be an evening of River Storytelling in the White Hart pub. It’s tricky as I haven’t been able to get hold of the pub, so in the end we decide to hold the evening in the Walronds centre. Malcolm, John, Trisha and Ric all come to join us. Later Jenny and David come over from the White Hart, where they’ve been waiting. Jane and I prepare the space and I open the floor to other storytellers. Ric reads a very sobering piece from George Monbiot’s book, ‘Regenesis’. It’s a hard reality of the state of our rivers in England.

I contrast this modern tale with one from 1876 based on a newspaper article I found, by an Exeter fisherman, who loved to fish in the Culm, which was teaming with the best trout. He says the trout of the Culm were quite different from the trout of the Exe. The Culm fish had soft pink flesh and were more abundant and bigger than any other fish found in all of Devon. It’s a love story between him and the defiantly independent fisherwoman, Miss Osbourne. It’s also a reminder, that it was relatively recently that the Culm was an extremely healthy river. Later I tell the story of Columb, the dove woman, who I believe the river is named after. She is a homing bird and will always find her way home, now she guides others. Her story is a fascinating mix of the Morgan Le Fey, St Katherine and St Sidwell. It’s recorded in a library in Cambridge (but you can find an extract of my version here).

One person leaves the room quite suddenly and I have to steady myself. I know that when I tell stories, when anyone tells stories, they have an effect, people don’t like them, they feel emotional, they get triggered. It’s part of the power of a story well told. I’ve had to learn to hold this and not take it personally.

Walking the story pilgrimage with the lit lantern

In the night it rains heavily. Most people decide not to walk with us but Kathy and Tiff join us. Now we are five. As we walk out of Cullompton, we have to navigate the motorway, a spaghetti of roads, where it’s often difficult to cross, they weave over the Culm. When we finally get out of the town, we are all jangled. There is a bird on the pavement, completely squashed, maybe a crow but it’s not clear what might have killed it.

I lead us to a line of beech trees and then we see ropes tied around the tree I have chosen. There is no clear reason why the ropes are there, simply cutting into the body of the tree, wound around and around, binding and hurting the tree. Jane unties the rope. We put our lantern at the base of the tree. I tell a story of the fairy women associated with the beech tree. Something lifts and we walk on.

When we stop for lunch Jane tells us about a form of scrying or searching for information. It’s to do with choosing numbers and then selecting a passage from a book. We have a go, asking about the pilgrimage. The phrase that we are guided to says something like;

“If you do not succeed it will be disastrous for all.”

We walk on and the candle goes out. It’s drizzling and takes a while to get it going again. We reach a bridge that is no longer there. We think we can wade across the river but it’s too deep and strong. We climb over fences and find another bridge. We sing songs of freedom and fire. We tell stories to each other of loss and betrayal and strength.

That night it is very heavy rain, there is thunder and lightning. Helen has invited us to sleep in her repurposed chapel, so we are at least not under canvas. On a floor in a sleeping bag, I listen to the rain and think about the words from our scrying. We have to succeed, no matter what, this is not a time to give up. I dread getting very cold and wet. In my dream I see a witch’s dunking chair over the river Culm. I feel shame and grief.

The final day several people decide not to walk due to the continued heavy rain. Another Kathy joins us as far as Hemyock. Kane, Jane and I go into the ‘Catherine Wheel’ pub, near St Margaret’s brook and the castle. (St Margaret is also connected with Dragons). We enjoy a pint of cider as the rain falls heavily outside. I remember St Sidwell’s farm that I discovered by accident in 2022 just outside this village. It’s good to share stories over a glass of cider! As we leave we see five herons. The rain is still falling but lightly now. Just outside Hemyock we come to a place in the road that is impassable due to flooding. A pick up truck offers us a lift and is incredulous, when we say we’ve walked from Exeter! We hold on tight in our soggy rain gear as we are carried over the flood. There’s a feeling of being supported.

It’s become increasingly difficult to keep the candle lit but as we have travelled, the candle has taken on a greater significance. Almost like a child, a precious and fragile thing that we must continually tend.

We walk up towards the hills, knowing that we are getting closer now. The rain starts to really pour and we take shelter in a tumble down shed opposite a fine old farm house. A beautiful face appears in the window. She opens the window high above us. She tells us, it’s her shed but we are welcome to shelter there. We chat and I have the feeling that she is a rather disgruntled princess in a castle. She wears a tight top with butterflies exquisitely etched onto her sleeves. As she talks she holds her hands up to her face, so the butterflies dance around her. She tells us that the house was originally known as ‘The house of the beautiful water’. The rain stops and we say ‘goodbye’, walking up a steep hill and wondering at the fairy tale nature of this meeting.

In the woods, I tell a fairy tale of the Birch tree, as we rest on a fallen birch trunk. This is a tale about allowing yourself to enjoy life, the fairy woman of the birch rewards the girl, Bethushka for dancing with her.

And after several more hours of walking we find ourselves on the long road, lined with beech trees, that leads to the Holman Clavel pub. We see two ravens in the trees and our lantern is still lit. We are wet and tired but our destination is within sight now.

Walking the story pilgrimage

To my surprise we have a welcoming party! One of Jane’s friend’s, Jacques, and Malcolm greet us. We must have looked strange walking into the busy pub carrying our lantern. I placed the lantern beside the fireplace. Paused for a moment. We sat down and gratefully accepted the very thoughtful gift of dry socks that Jacques had brought for us! It was so noisy that we decided to move into the back room, where several large (hunting?) dogs followed us! Jane asked me to tell the story of the Holy Man, who the Holman Clavel pub is named after, a clavel being an old word for fireplace.

And I felt a wave of tiredness, a sea of hopeful faces looking at me and a sense that this is a difficult story to tell. But I knew it was important, so I swallowed my pride, accepted that this wouldn’t be a great telling, and did my best. It’s a tale of a Temple, based on folklore of the Blackdowns that there is a lost city (one clue to the truth of this I’ve discovered is a small village on the Blackdowns called, ‘Holy City’). The story is my adaptation of a tale I was given many years ago by an archaeologist. There is a priestess and a forbidden love with one of her students. They leave separately, she is heartbroken by the destruction of the natural world and by incoming forces, feeling riddled with anxiety that she may be somehow responsible. He is sent away by the elders, to Brittany, some say. Did he betray her, or did she betray herself? He returned and found he had a son, but his love was gone. And so he has waited, for her. And one day some pilgrims gathered up the shining parts of her, they spoke and sang and walked. They carried a lantern to welcome her home and she saw the light shining and followed the pilgrims. And so, Charlie, we have brought her back, the Holy Woman, who is many women, we have brought her back to this place that was once a Temple at the source of the River Culm, the River of Peace.

When I have finished telling I’m surprised to notice that several people have tears in their eyes. Afterwards Jane told me that the music playing in the next room, as I told, seemed to get louder and the words to the songs were all about love and loss and reunion. She said that the energy in the room for those ten minutes was electric. The group tell me they feel emotional. Jane suggests we make a circle and put the pub sign, randomly propped up against the wall, which shows Charlie, on an empty chair. We are now six including Charlie, three women and three men. We share some words, close our eyes and sense that Charlie is close, a presence.

Afterwards Jane remembered us being wet but not soaked and my memory is that the rain was fine, not the ordeal, I’d imagined as I listened to storm Agnes raging in the night. We walked right through Storm Agnes and kept the candle lit for forty miles. Is this what we are asked to do in love? Love of another, love of a landscape? Keep walking through the storm and keep the candle lit.

By the door, as we leave the pub, Kane kisses me and tells me he loves me.

Clare Viner 2024