Interview: Nick Mayhew Smith, author

28 June 2011

My wife, Anna, and I went to a bookshop to buy a guide to Britain’s holy sites, and discovered there wasn’t one. She is a Russian Ortho­­dox Christian, and has a much more advanced appreciation of holy places than an Anglican such as me. So I decided I had better write this book [Britain’s Holiest Places*].

It’s intended as a complete guide to Britain’s huge Christian heritage, from the Roman era onwards. It’s mostly a guide book, opening up around 500 places to anyone who would like to explore this fascinating and much-neglected network of spiritual experiences.

It’s also a travelogue. I describe what I encountered, and record how I managed to interact with what might otherwise be considered history.

It was lucky timing: I had j ust sold my stake in a publishing company I founded; so I had the time and the funds to visit every corner of Britain. It took me five years.

There are stunning artworks, mysterious and remote holy pools, soaring cathedrals, ruinous churches, hermits’ caves, hilltops, pioneering Protestant chapels, even ancient churchyard yew trees.

I did enjoy visiting several ancient places where pagan and Christian reverence overlaps, particularly the mysterious early Celtic sites in the West. There are a couple of early Christian sites now in the care of Buddhist communities, who treat them with heart-warming amounts of respect and understanding.

On a different note, there are also reminders of some of medieval England’s anti-Semitic past — for example, at Lincoln Cathedral, where the great bishop St Hugh took a very strong stance against hate mobs.

There are several books on pre-Christian sites in Britain, but again I don’t know enough to declare any place, even Stonehenge, an un­ambiguously holy site: we simply don’t know what people did there. I’ve also been to many Christian places in Italy, Greece, and Russia, particularly the great monasteries, but have yet to make it to the Holy Land.

These sites all have a Christian witness, on a cultural as well as a spiritual level, with a magnetic peace that can permanently change you. I was very drawn to one of the most remote churches in Britain, at Pennant Melangell in north Wales, where the shrine of St Melangell attracts people from all over the world in search of healing. This remote stone outpost of faith could give sanctuary and solace to the most troubled of souls.

A spiritual experience that was altogether more raw was when I tracked down a large spring-fed pool. It was set in a grove of trees in Northumberland, at a place called Holystone. It might have been used for baptism in Roman times. It was secluded; so I entered its icy waters for a brief but exhilarating im­mersion, a spine-tingling and archetypal encounter with creation.

All human beings are mae in the image of God, but I think most people would agree that not everyone is equally holy. I think it’s the same with places, which are another aspect of God’s creation.

Holy places are defined by humans, in any case. They are places where people have meaningful encounters, either a spiritual experience or an interaction with a piece of Christian history or culture.

I don’t rate being a pilgrim all that highly, because holy places can thrive only with the care and use of local people rather than visitors, no matter how devout they are.

I worked on a variety of magazines for brief periods, until I ended up at the Financial Times, which gave me an unexpectedly good lesson in avoiding too much bias. Its readers need accurate information about the impact of spending cuts, for ex­ample, without the political spin that might slant other newspapers.

The worst thing for me personally was answering to any sort of boss. I think people often try to wield authority over others for their own confused reasons rather than for practical purposes.

I wanted to be a writer or journalist from way back. One of my school friends recently reminded me that I used to say I wanted to be a priest. There’s no chance of that, I guess, but I suppose I’m part way there.

I don’t think I would last very long as a priest. I don’t think I’d be compliant enough with the hierarchy of the Church. It’s the same with all human power- structures; so it’s better for someone like me to be a self-starter.

I was licensed as a Reader in October 2009; so it’s still relatively new to me. I love my church community, not because I feel I have to, but because my interaction with the congregation has so far been entirely positive. But my daughter was born during the middle of my first year of training, and I think it is very difficult to juggle being a Reader with having a young family. Evenings and weekends are at a premium for both.

I have been writing about travel since I first started journalism. The previous book I contributed to was on a rather different subject: nude beaches around the world [The World’s Best Nude Beaches and Resorts, published in 2007]. I wrote my section of it in my spare time, when I was still running a publishing agency. It was a bit less intellectually demanding, needless to say, but we were careful to make it decent and accessible. It’s difficult to separate nudity from sex in people’s minds, but we did our best.

Nude bathing is in a very different category from holy places, of course, which turned out to be far more controversial and difficult to present accurately than I imagined when I set out.

I suppose if this book is about soul, and my last book was about the body, I guess the next would have to be about the mind. Failing that, I would like to look a bit more closely at some of the very minor Christian denominations in Britain — you know, the places where they just have a single church still surviving from an 18th-century tradition that has otherwise died out.

We can say: “We’re not like those nutters;” but we ought to take some responsibility for the fringe elements as well. If you use the word “Christian” to describe yourself, whether you like it or not, you are sharing something with everyone who says they’re a Christian.

The squabbling between Christian denominations makes me angry. I’ve heard claims of supremacy from so many different church traditions, and they all say basically the same thing: “We’re the true inheritors of Christianity; we’re closest to the early Church; we are based on St Paul’s teachings. . .” I’ve even come across Christianity blended with nationalistic sentiment, which is idiotic.

Getting married was the most important choice I made. Hurting people emotionally is what I regret most.

My book tells so many extra­ordinary stories of faith. I think they are the main attraction. I would like to think that these holy people and places are remembered and are better appreciated as a result of what I’ve compiled.

As for being remembered: it’s like when you go on a fabulous holiday — you’ll remember the experiences for the rest of your life, but you won’t remember the name of the pilot who flew you there.

I have been most inspired by my Great-Uncle Bill, from my New Zealand family, who was a prisoner of war. He instilled in me a visceral understanding of the horrors of war and violence through the tales he told of his ordeals. He just seemed to get more liberal and more loving the older he got in life; so I hope I can avoid becoming a crotchety old reactionary, too.

Colin Thubron’s travel books combine an extraordinary writing talent with a brave determination to visit the world’s most difficult and inaccessible places. That makes him the perfect author in my view.

My favourite place is Auckland, New Zealand, where I have a lot of family and some close friends.

My favourite Bible chapter at the moment is Romans 14, where St Paul says, basically, that we should welcome other people’s foibles if it helps them with their faith. I heard a lot of Christian division and bickering on my journeys, none of which got me excited. I think St Paul’s advice could neutralise all this pointless rancour if we took him seriously.

The sound I love most is my daughter, telling me she’s ready for bedtime. It has happened just once.

I’m happiest in the wild, on a remote stretch of shore.

I pray most regularly for my daughter — I suppose, like every parent, mindful that God is Father.

Almost everything gives me hope for the future. I only despair over our past, because it is fixed. I even like the way modern society is going, broadly speaking.

Does everyone choose to be locked in a church with Nelson Mandela? So that’s too boring. I’ll choose Archbishop Desmond Tutu: he has such a good sense of humour, always chortling away. That would help the minutes pass quickly.

Nick Mayhew Smith was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

*Britain’s Holiest Places: The all-new guide to 500 sacred sites (Lifestyle Press, £19.99 (£18); 978-0-9544767-4-8)

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