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From the Gulag to Glastonbury

01 March 2013

BBC4's new series Pagans and Pilgrims: Britain's holiest places, which starts next week, marks the end of a ten-year journey for its deviser Nick Mayhew-Smith


Inside and out:abandoned cells in a Soviet-era Gulag

Inside and out:abandoned cells in a Soviet-era Gulag

AN ABANDONED Gulag complex, in the far north of Russia, was the unlikely starting point for my peregrinations through the holy places of Britain. Yet this is where my long-term project to promote our country's spiritual history began.

The seeds of this lengthy odyssey were planted a decade ago, when I stepped through the rusting gate of a long-abandoned labour camp, on an island in the White Sea. Fragments of rough pottery splintered under foot - remnants of Soviet-era prison-life that echoed down a corridor of crudely numbered cell doors.

The first door I tried swung slowly on its hinges. I stepped into the abandoned cell, and picked my way through bed springs and rotting rags. A scattering of grass grew where the pale, sub-Arctic sunlight fell through the empty window's rusting bars.

It was a shock to remember that this archipelago is regarded by many as the holiest place in Russian Orthodoxy. The remote island of Solovki is now the scene of a rapid monastic revival, and pilgrims flock here once again during the brief summer, when the pack ice that gives the sea its name melts.

There was a cold but clear-sighted logic to the early Communist decision to set up the first labour camp here, in 1923. Founded by pioneering monks in the 15th century, the Solovetsky Monastery had become the Russian equivalent of Mount Athos - a place that richly symbolised everything the new atheist regime despised. Altars in the monastic churches were ripped out, and replaced with kitchens or latrines. Monks and priests who refused to use them were executed.

SUCH harsh contrast between the sacred and the profane casts a painfully bright light on the essence of all our holiest sites. In Britain, as much as in Russia, it became increasingly clear to me that holy places are much more than peaceful havens given only to prayer or contemplation. They are where history is made, where the hopes and fears of nations are gathered and dissipated; they are our own Golgothas, in miniature and close at hand.

The day after we pushed through the long grass into the forgotten Gulag, my brother and I visited the monastery gardens, bright with daffodils in early July. The Russian guide told our group about an attempt by the English Navy to raid this holy island, a forgotten skirmish far from the Crimean War.

Despite nine hours' bombardment, a combination of divine miracle and military incompetence ensured that not one monk was harmed. The guide looked at us, and smiled knowingly at such a mix of blessings between nations. In a Moscow flat the following year, I asked her to marry me.

And so an Orthodox-inspired quest continued back here in Britain. Our apparently gentle landscape of rolling hills and gradually decaying Christian buildings might seem anything but a spiritual battleground, particularly compared with the recent trials endured by Russia. As I began to investigate our sacred heritage, however, experience on the ground proved every bit as intense and dramatic.

The Holy Island of Lindisfarne, the most important early monastery and missionary centre in England, also bore witness to the start of the Viking Age in 793, the moment when 300 years of terror uncoiled on Europe like the lash of God. In similar vein, the blood of St Thomas Becket spilt on the floor of Canterbury Cathedral created the foremost shrine in England, a place that dominated spiritual and secular culture for centuries.

DESECRATION is part of the life cycle of holy places, something to remember in Britain as we contemplate the vast and complex legacy of our Reformations. Both Holy Island and Canterbury attract visitors in great numbers today, centuries after their monasteries were closed and shrines were dismantled. The power and function of holy places is not merely undimmed by the passing of centuries, and the scars of violent opposition, but validated by them - enhanced, even.

Armed with my wife Anna's sense of the sacred, and the proceeds from selling a publishing firm I had founded in 1996, I set out on a five-year journey across the length and breadth of Britain. The aim was to see what was left of our long legacy of Christian activity. The end result was my book Britain's Holiest Places, published in 2011.

The book industry had warned me that "religious history books" were unpopular, but I knew that my journey had unearthed treasures that would appeal to anyone with an interest in our colourful past, or an affection for our most enigmatic landscapes. The main reason is the sheer diversity that is on offer: it is not possible to fit our Christian history into any single creed.

I soon abandoned my unhappy attempts to shoehorn our holy places into a theological framework, and learned to celebrate them for what they are. When I wrote the final version of the book, my ambition was simply to encourage readers to visit, and make up their own minds.

The book was reprinted ten weeks after publication, and TV and radio companies made contact. After some prevarication, the BBC and the Welsh-language channel S4C teamed up to commission a six-part series.

I SET out to retrace my steps with the film crew for an intense three-month schedule, in the company of the series presenter, Ifor ap Glyn. He is a poet and broadcaster, and, by chance, attends a Welsh Congregationalist chapel in his home town of Caernarfon. As he comes from a Christian denomination almost entirely devoid of ancient ritual, I was intrigued to see what he would make of the most extreme examples of medieval piety, and ascetic traditions.

His instinct for the inherent beauty of spiritual places has proved to be unerring. Aided, no doubt, by a poet's sensibility, he recognised even the unfamiliar practice of praying at shrines as the most human of narratives: a place to channel our rawest emotions. At root level, shrines need no more explanation than the matches and candles provided. Holy places make plain their purpose, with minimal intervention.

Ifor's good-natured engagement with some of the imaginative tales of early Christian writers makes particularly informative and entertaining viewing. The outlandish folk hero St Twrog probably did not roam the mountains of Snowdonia casting boulders the size of dustbins at the devil and his temples. But he might have converted the people from paganism. You cannot carry out an archaeological excavation on an allegory - a liberating realisation for any church historian.

For me, the episode on shrines sums up the potential of holy places to cut across division, and inspire people from any denomination. In addition to Ifor's thought-provoking response, we were fortunate to interview both the Archbishop of Westminster, the Most Revd Vincent Nichols, in Westminster Cathedral, and the Dean of St Albans, the Very Revd Dr Jeffrey John, by the shrine in St Albans Cathedral. In their own ways, all three offer a strikingly human interpretation of the love that continues to draw us to the graves of our ancestors.

Archbishop Nichols makes the provocative claim that the Reformation in England has come to an end in recent years. Citing public reaction to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997, he believes that we are a nation that is once again comfortable revering the memories of the departed. It is a big call to make, but, after five years on the road, visiting every great shrine in Britain - both past and present - I would say he has a point.

THE holy places in Britain, in particular our cathedrals, are becoming more accessible and better known than at any point in the past 400 years. There were no acknowledged shrines in any Church of England cathedral for hundreds of years after the Reformation, but, in the past quarter of a century, more than a dozen have reintroduced memorials to their saints.

Icons have been commissioned and displayed, medieval tombs rebuilt, votive candles supplied, and, in a few cases, such as St Albans, the saint's relics have been returned to public veneration.

Some would argue, no doubt, that their popularity is simply testament to our national love of heritage. But we have castles that are just as old that see nothing like the numbers of visitors. An emotional connection remains - the first step towards a spiritual encounter.

Indeed, this is what makes it possible to commission a television series: beautiful places, with fascinating stories that people can relate to. I had assumed that the BBC would want to tell our religious history in chronological order, but, instead, it opted to focus mostly on natural landscape features, and the marks left behind by devotional activity. The programmes therefore look at islands, sacred trees and mountains, water rituals, ruins, caves, and shrines, and visit 38 places in six episodes.

This is a story written on an enormous canvas. Now, we think in terms of writing the gospel on people's hearts, but there was a time when it was written on to the whole of our landscape. Like cartwheels that follow an ancient track, devotional use over many centuries leaves its own marks to follow - traces etched into the spirit of a place.

Some symbols are eternal, and archetypal, like the trees and mountains that we examine in one of the episodes. They unearth a wealth of surprising Christian symbolism that is intact in our landscape. Hilltop chapels dedicated to St Michael the Archangel abound: St Michael's Mount, and particularly Glastonbury Tor, are among our most iconic sites. They are photogenic, and have an interesting tale to tell.

A ruinous chapel at Roche, in Cornwall, perched on a rocky crag, is one such eye-catching site that we visit in the programme. It looks, at once, like a place from which to proclaim to people gathered below, and also somewhere to retreat from the world. It is the sort of site that any Christian can usefully contemplate. Even someone who claims to base his or her entire faith on the contents of the Bible would admit that mountains play a pivotal part in Jesus's journey. The Sermon on the Mount and the Temptation in the Wilderness, conjured into life on a windswept Cornish moor.

Pagans and Pilgrims: Britain's holiest places runs on BBC4 for six weeks, from Thursday 7 March at 8.30 p.m

Britain's Holiest Places: The all-new guide to 500 sacred sites, by Nick Mayhew Smith, is published by Lifestyle Press at £19.99 (CT Bookshop £18); 978-0-9544767-4-8.

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