Chairman’s Report – AGM 11th March 2017

It gives me great pleasure to welcome you all today to the Confraternity’s 10th Annual General Meeting.

It’s nice to see one of our founding fathers here, William Marques, who on 18th November 2006 attended the inaugural meeting which established the Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome. There were just 15 members then, and that founding crew did great pioneering work in putting the CPR on the map. William was our first chairman.

I am the third, and in time I look forward to handing over an ever more robust Confraternity to a successor.

The number of people who have joined the CPR since we started now totals 889 (as at 10/03/2017) from 28 different countries, up from 818 last year, and we currently have some 274 paid up members, including 16 life members. Our finances are in good health, as you will hear later from our Treasurer.

The last 12 months represented a period of transition, with the Confraternity led by a largely new Steering Group.

There have been significant achievements, but there are one or two areas where we could do better; and we are always looking for new ideas and new volunteers.

We have a new much fresher looking website, but it is still work in progress – the photo gallery, for example, needs curating – and we don’t have the resources to take it further. Our hard working webmaster, Patrick Tuck, handles updates and maintenance. He has also set up a MailChimp account through which we can distribute routine messages to members and an e-newsletter.

The existing CPR Newsletter is a less than happy tale. We produced a large number in the early years – chock-a-block with fascinating articles on the Via Francigena – and these were all published on the old website. The problem was that virtually no one read them.

We are now attempting to revert to old fashioned hard copy, but in the 12 months since the last AGM we have failed to get even a single edition out of the door. Is there anyone who would like to take on the task of editing and overseeing the printing of a Newsletter?

The CPR’s accommodation list is an even bigger challenge.

This used to be the jewel in our crown. It was put together painstakingly over a number of years on the back of people’s helpful contributions. In the early pioneering days of the VF this was clearly an invaluable tool. But in today’s wired up world, with everyone carrying an android phone or something similar, and with many more hostels, b&bs, and hotels on the web, such a service is no longer quite so essential.

But it is our intention to keep it going. The problem, however, is that people have stopped contributing new information and – more of a problem – we do not have anyone who has the time to edit and keep the database up to date. Julia Peters will be talking to you later about this issue.

Jim Brodie, our membership secretary, has been working hard to get our membership database up to date but there is still some work to do on that.

And finally on the subject of resources, we don’t have a secretary to take minutes and issue agendas – light work, but vital.

We have an active presence on Facebook, thanks to one of our Steering Group members, Jonas Ewe. Jonas is also working on a design for a new CPR Pilgrim Passport. The passport or credential is a vital part of all pilgrim journeys, and the CPR takes great care and pride in issuing them. (We sent out 170 in 2015 and 171 in 2014, although only 31 last year, and about a dozen since the beginning of 2017).

A year ago I reported that there were serious deficiencies in the signage leading from Canterbury Cathedral to the exit of the city where pilgrims join the North Downs Way to Dover. I am glad to report that there has been some progress.

There is understandably a lot of interest in Canterbury in the Via Francigena, and we are fortunate in having a representative there who is very active and has herself walked the Via Francigena. This is Julia Peters who is doing post-graduate work at the University of Kent and which has provided funding for a series of events led by Julia. Julia is creating a leaflet to be made available at the Canterbury tourism office with information on the background of the Via Francigena, and a map of the section between Canterbury and Dover. The Beaney museum in Canterbury will display information on the Via Francigena on flat screens throughout the museum. 

New finger post signs will be placed along the route to guide pilgrims from the Cathedral gate to the outskirts of the city. These will be funded by the CPR. The rural section of the route was re-signed in the autumn by Peter Morris of the North Downs Way.

A new interpretation panel has been placed outside Saint Augustine’s Abbey. This is very informative, and has a map of the route guiding pilgrims to where the official North Downs signage begins.  

A 2016 Charity Walk led by Julia raised over £2,000 for Save the Children. It saw 45 people walk from Canterbury to Dover, including some CPR members. Julia hopes to make this an annual walk, with the next scheduled for the first weekend in October.

As part of an initiative to create a wider community we have started to put together a list of members who have completed a pilgrim journey to Rome. The CSJ is also assembling a database of completed pilgrimages to Santiago. Our list is on the website, and it is growing modestly each month. It now totals just over 70. If anyone has a journey to add, please send us an email with date and place of your departure and the date of your arrival in Rome.

The numbers walking all the way to Rome are still only a fraction compared to the avalanche on the Camino Francés (278,000 pilgrims were issued with the Compostela in 2016).

The statistics kept by Danilo Parisi, the Po ferryman, recorded 1,176 long-distance pilgrims in 2016. Year by year Danilo carries increasingly more pilgrims, and he now has a new launch – a gift from the local authorities as a sign of how much they value his contribution to the Via Francigena. In 2015, Danilo ferried 919 pilgrims, up from 735 in 2014, and 520 in 2013 – so his numbers have more than doubled in four years. The same pattern is repeated with the numbers of British pilgrims – 51 last year, 34 in 2015 and 17 in 2014 and just 9 in 2013.

Danilo is three weeks walk from Rome, and many 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.

I visited Danilo last year for the third time. Our first two encounters were on my pilgrim walks to and from Rome. Spending time with Danilo is always rewarding.

I was in Emilia Romagna along with Julia to attend the 15th anniversary of the European Association of the Vie Francigene (AVEF). This is the Fidenza-based organisation that has tapped into and pooled the resources of the municipal and regional governments and local business along the way to foster the development of the Via Francigena. They have been remarkably successful in putting the Via Francigena on the map in Switzerland and Italy, especially in Tuscany which is beautifully waymarked, though they have been less successful in France.

We have good relations with our French cousins in the Rheims based Féderation Française Via Francigena. But the waymarking in France is not altogether a happy story – or rather it is still work in progress – and it is often more advisable to follow a guide book than the waymarks which tend to take pilgrims on devious scenic routes. Long distance walkers, as we all appreciate, do things in a straight line.

This brings me to our Steering Group.

We met two times since the last AGM – in July 2016 and January this year. These are productive sessions but they only reflect a tiny amount of the actual work we do. I would like to take this opportunity on behalf of all our members to thank the Steering Group for their dedication.

I’d also like to mention each in turn.

  • Myself – Brian Mooney

  • Alison Raju, whose Cicerone guidebooks to Santiago and Rome have shepherded thousands of pilgrims over many years, currently looks after our Newsletter.

  • Jonas Ewe helps with external communications and design issues, and manages our presence on Facebook.

  • Jim Brodie, who is absent, is our membership secretary responsible for welcoming new members and sending out Pilgrim Credentials.

  • Julia Peters, our Canterbury Representative, also looks after our accommodation list and she will be talking to you about that a little later.

  • Patrick Tuck, a master brewer, is our webmaster, and handles updates and changes to the website.

  • And finally, Robert White, our Treasurer, who I will shortly call upon to give his annual financial report.

All the members are offering themselves for re-election.