Coat of Hopes: a community-created pilgrimage to COP26

Barbara Keal standing on Newhaven beach wearing the as-yet unadorned Coat of Hopes and leading a group in song
Coat of Hopes’ initiator – and initial coat-wearer – Barbara Keal leading the gathered group in song on Newhaven’s East Beach, 30 August 2021, just before the start of their unique, 500-mile pilgrimage to Glasgow for the COP26 UN climate change conference. Photo credit: Ginny Smith

From Sussex to Scotland: and I would walk 500 miles…

This morning – a grey, mild and blustery Monday in late August – I downed my coffee faster than usual and ventured out to meet up with a group of walkers who were already gathered on Newhaven’s East Beach. But this was no ordinary walking group: I was about to witness the start of an epic, two months-long pilgrimage to the COP 26 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, and at its centre would be a community-created (and worn) patchwork coat.

A coat of many colours

Coat of Hopes is a fascinating project that has been in the making for almost a year, initiated by Lewes artist and designer Barbara Keal.  Different walkers will wear the coat during its 500-mile journey northwards, and the coat will grow ever more colourful as more and more hand-stitched patches are added to it from contributors along the way.

Map showing the Coat of Hopes route from Newhaven to Glasgow for COP26, and the 10 current "Stitching Event" locations along the way
Above: The Cope of Hopes two-month, 500-mile walking route from Newhaven on the East Sussex coast to Glasgow for COP26, with the 10 current “Stitching Event” locations marked. Photo c/o: https://www.coatofhopes.uk/

The group gathered on the beach at Newhaven ranged in age from five to 50, and included a town crier, a film-maker, and some families joining the walk just for the first seven-mile stage to Lewes.

There were also several hardier souls who plan to walk with the “coat pilgrims” along most of the 500-mile route.  Leo and Lorraine Panitzke, from Cooden Beach near Bexhill, told me that they have also recruited Leo’s 77-year-old mother to act as their support driver on the long and gruelling stretch from London to Glasgow.

A woman sits on the shingled beach and sews the first patchwork square onto the Coat of Hope
Above: Sewing the first patchwork square to the Coat of Hopes, Newhaven, East Sussex. Photo credit: Ginny Smith

Once the first patch had been hand-sewn securely to the coat, the group moved off over the shingle banks of the beach, singing as they walked, led by Barbara. We spectators stood beside the sea to wave them off. As we stood there, the sound of their voices singing the “Coat Song” drifted back to us, a brave and poignant reminder of the long journey they face ahead.

A town crier ringing his bell on the shingled beach in Newhaven, East Sussex
Above: a town crier was among the walkers for the first leg of the Coat of Hopes journey northwards. Photo by: Ginny Smith

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A patchwork pilgrim coat, made by all for all, carrying the hopes of many

Barbara Keal has written in detail about the project: “The community created patchwork coat will carry peoples’ hopes on pilgrimage from Newhaven to Glasgow, a coat made by all for all.  It will be worn by many and varied “coat pilgrims” and the initially blank “undercoat” will gather patches made of blanket embellished by local people along its route. Patches will be added to the coat at regular “stitching stop” events along the way.

Coat of Hopes founder Barbara Keal standing on Newhaven Beach wearing the coat and carrying a staff
Above: Barbara Keal, the artist and designer behind the project, wearing the as yet unadorned Coat of Hopes at the start of the pilgrimage in Newhaven, East Sussex on 30 August 2021. Photo by: Ginny Smith

An unusual, inclusive way to call for urgent action on the climate crisis

“The walk from Newhaven to Glasgow will take 60 days, departing Newhaven on the 30 August and arriving in Glasgow on the 28 of October. From Newhaven to Parliament Square in London, the coat will make its journey alone, but from Parliament Square (5 September) it will join as a pilgrim on the Camino to COP26, a group pilgrimage organised by the Faith Bridge group of Extinction Rebellion.  

“This is an entirely inclusive pilgrimage for all people of good will to join in walking to COP 26, to express their dedication to the need for urgent action to care for our home planet. The coat will maintain its distinct identity throughout as a single pilgrim carrying many voices.

Above: the Coat of Hopes route map – as each section is completed, the corresponding line will turn green (more details on their website).

Each patch as unique as its maker

“Each patch will be unique and carry its makers’ remembrances, griefs, prayers, and hopes for their local landscape in the face of climate and ecological breakdown to the delegates at COP26, where we will invite them to try on the coat and feel the weight and the warmth of our hopes. Patch makers include a wide range of people, including: young mothers, men in prison, school children, refugees – every person is invited to make a patch. 

Six of the hand made patchwork squares that will be stitched to the Coat of Hopes. Each is totally different and as unique as its creator.
Above: some of the community created and sewn squares that will be stitched to the Coat of Hopes as it wends its way from Sussex to Scotland

“The first patch will be sewn to the coat on Newhaven beach before the start of its journey and on arrival in Lewes at around 5pm it will make a lap of the Dripping Pan – on the back of midfielder Bradley Pritchard – at the end of Lewes FC’s match against Horsham. Then at 6.30pm, the Depot in Lewes will host the first “stitching stop” event, at which “The Coat Song” will be sung and patches from the Lewes area will be sewn on to the coat. 

The back of the Coat of Hopes with the first batch of patchwork squares being sewn on in Lewes, East Sussex
Above: The first batch of patchwork squares are sewn onto the Coat of Hopes at the first “stitching event” in Lewes, East Sussex on Aug 30 2021. Photo credit: Ginny Foster

When you wish upon a square…

“The coat will carry some voices that are rarely raised. It is not making a demand, but living a story. Its work is to share stories, build connections, start conversations and, by its beauty, born of the energy committed to its creation and journey, maybe make that little space in which hearts can be changed.”

The back of the Coat of Hopes worn by Barbara Keal showing the first colourful patch that was sewn on in Sussex
Above: Barbara Keal in the Coat of Hopes – with its very first patch sewn on – at the first “stitching event” in Lewes, August 30 2021
Photo credit: Ginny Foster

 If you are interested in becoming a pilgrim and walking part of the route (any distance from 5 miles to 50), or would like to help by being a “patch maker” or a “patch gatherer” or in any other way, please visit Coat of Hopes. There is a lot of information on the website, including a route map and detailed schedule, a volunteer form to complete online, and a viewable spreadsheet of the journey that will be regularly updated throughout.  And if you do volunteer, your name will be entered into the spreadsheet as one of the pilgrims carrying the group’s hopes to Glasgow.  

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