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To be a pilgrim

26 January 2018

The British Pilgrimage Trust is promoting pilgrim weekends to whet the tastebuds. David Atkinson went along

David Atkinson

Nearly halfway, on the trail to Tellisford

Nearly halfway, on the trail to Tellisford

I HAVE never thought of myself as a pilgrim. After a stressful few months, however, I needed some time away. Pilgrimage was a huge part of British life in the 15th century: a vast network of places was available for pilgrims to eat, rest, and sleep. But, after Henry VIII banned “wandering to pilgrimage” in 1538, the tradition largely disappeared in the UK.

Pilgrimage has been enjoying a revival in recent years. And now the British Pilgrimage Trust (BPT), a charitable trust with a modern-day take on ancient wisdom, is promoting the art of pilgrimage on our shores. The trust runs open events throughout the year for first-time pilgrims to sample the old ways. The weekends, based on walking ten to 12 miles per day, are spiritual rather than religious journeys, and open to all faiths.

I join a two-day, late-summer water-pilgrimage along the River Avon to the Roman city of Bath — whose hot springs were dedicated to the goddess Soulis, worshipped by both the Romans and Celts alike for her gift of water. As we gather in a café in Frome town centre, to get to know each other over coffee, on the first morning, it is clear that fleeces and walking boots are de rigueur for latter-day pilgrims.


THE pilgrimage starts with a gathering at St John the Baptist, Frome. The trust co-founders Will Parsons and Guy Hayward encourage us to choose pilgrim staffs, and then place our foreheads against the church’s east wall to feel the energy. Exchanging slightly nervous looks, we join in, and then circle the church as pilgrims used to.

We then gather around the font, and are led in a rather wobbly rendition of John Bunyan’s “To be a pilgrim”, before Mr Hayward and Mr Parsons dribble a few drops of water (from an ancient spring) down the font, and invite people to step forward and make an intention for the journey ahead. Some do, but others are too shy, and do so privately.

The first four miles to St Mary’s, Orchardleigh, a stone-built church on a man-made island, offers a chance to chat with some of the 20-strong group of strangers with whom I will be spending the weekend. Some are BPT regulars, others are first-timers like me. Most have come alone. We are all, it seems, seeking some space in nature to think, away from the stress of modern life.

There is a great deal to take in. As Katherine, one of my fellow pilgrims, here to celebrate her 50th birthday, tells me: “This feels like being at a party and trying to form new relationships. It’s not so much a physical effort as a mental one.”

We gather on the wooden pews, a fresh flower garland above the altar, to hear the story of Sir Thomas Champney and his faithful dog Azure, as captured by Sir Henry Newbolt’s poemFidele’s Grassy Tomb”. The English poet is buried in the grounds, where we hungrily devour our picnic lunch. Again, our guides encourage us to rest our foreheads against the east wall, to feel the energy and memories of the church.

David AtkinsonOn the way to Solsbury Hill  


BY mid-afternoon, muscles aching and blisters forming, the conversation is less easy. Maybe the enormity of the distance to our shelter for the night is focusing our minds. A late-afternoon wild swim at Tellisford Weir helps raise our spirits, however, for the final leg: a five-mile yomp. The Avon Valley offers its bucolic countryside, buzzards soar overhead, and butterflies dance across the trail. Only suddenly coming upon the rotting carcass of a sheep in a wooded glade serves to also remind us of the destructive power of nature.

Behind schedule, we arrive in the early evening at Farleigh Hungerford Castle, where some group members take to impromptu yoga stretches and sunset salutations to stretch out tired limbs. We finally make it to Iford Manor, on the Somerset-Wiltshire border, as night falls, tired and hungry, for an al-fresco take-away dinner and homemade cider. Bedding down en masse on sleeping mats in an outbuilding that night, I pull the sleeping bag around me, glad to rest. This pilgrimage lark, I am coming to realise, is no walk in the park.

The next morning I am up with the sunrise, keen to explore the crumbling stately pile and its Italianate gardens. William Cartwright-Hignett, the present lord of the manor, takes time after breakfast to walk us around the verdant grounds, dotted with livestock and wildflowers. “As a child, I remember running in the hills, and the characters from the village who lived on the estate,” he tells me, as we venture into woodland in search of an ancient spring. “It’s all too easy in modern life to lose that vital sense of community.”

Back on the trail at the confluence of rivers Frome and Avon, Mr Hayward explains the Trust’s plan to recreate England’s answer to the Camino de Santiago: the Old Way to Canterbury. The 217-mile self-guided trail, divided into 18-day sections, will ultimately lead from Southampton to Canterbury — the epitome of slow travel. To that end, the Trust’s short pilgrim-walks are actually tasters and fund-raisers for the main project.

David AtkinsonPilgrim stop, the a historic marble drinking-fountain, the Rebecca Fountain, made by Rushton Walker and erected in 1861, on the north side of Bath Abbey


FOR me, I am still waiting for a sense of calm, the physical challenge and frustration of keeping a large group of people moving at times shadowing my appreciation of the natural world around me. People looking for a lightning-bolt moment of clarity may start to feel cheated. Or maybe the answer is more about looking for clarity within, the act of walking merely a conduit for the inner exploration.

Mr Hayward looks thoughtful. “Our pilgrims tend to have moments of quiet epiphany, not whizz-bang moments. It’s about giving them an experience. Whether they enjoy it or not, it’s still an experience.”

We eat our final picnic lunch under Freshfield Aqueduct, then visit one final church, St Mary’s, Claverton, before the final leg followed the Avon and Kennet Canal towards Bath. Some people are keener to be alone today, lost in their thoughts; others break into occasional song. Mr Hayward and Mr Parsons are always keen to lead.

By the time we stop for a view from Solsbury Hill, our destination is in sight: Bath Abbey. I am ready for a warm meal and an even warmer shower, but, first, I stand before the Gothic façade and read the inscription: “Take the waters of life freely.”

Like the ancient pilgrims, I had challenged myself, and to some extent endured, and I had come to realise that the gift of water was all around: it was up to me to step forward and drink. In the words of John Bunyan’s hymn, I had “made good my right to be a pilgrim”.


Travel details

For rail connections to the pilgrimage trailheads, visit www.nationalrail.co.uk. The BPT suggests Airbnb for overnight accommodation at either end of the trailheads. The writer paid £35 in Frome [airbnb.co.uk/rooms/7085458], and £73 in Bath [airbnb.co.uk/rooms/9647665]. Both are recommended. For more information about the British Pilgrimage Trust, see www.britishpilgrimage.org, where you can also view dates of forthcoming open events in 2018. For more information on Bath, visit www.visitbath.co.uk.

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