THE tall man with the pronounced limp smiled at me wearily as we walked up the muddy track together. The rest of the group were far ahead, waiting patiently so that we could all finish the journey together. “It’s been good,” he said. “I haven’t walked further than a couple of miles for years; I didn’t think I could do it.”
We were completing the inaugural journey of a new pilgrim path, designed as a rural deanery’s answer to the challenge of mission and discipleship. Rather than the traditional approaches, Chipping Norton deanery has taken the metaphor of the spiritual journey and made it real. The Chipping Norton Deanery Southern Circuit includes 16 churches strung over 35 miles. Along the way, route guides offer reflections as well as directions; the landscape instructs as well as delights.
But Chipping Norton is not the only example. All over the country, churches and communities have been taking up the idea of pilgrimage as a spiritual discipline, and forging new paths or reviving old ones. They are tapping into — or perhaps reclaiming — the growth in popularity of pilgrimage, the ancient practice of journeys as providers of space for reflection and prayer, and the exploration of real and spiritual landscapes.
Seeking respite from the busyness of contemporary life, and looking for healing in prolonged contact with the natural world, pilgrimage has become an increasingly favoured pastime for all ages. On traditional paths, such as the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, numbers of pilgrims have increased from 114,000 in 2007 to 301,000 in 2017, but shorter UK pilgrimages have blossomed, too.
Some, such as the St Thomas Way, launched in 2018 and going from Swansea to Hereford, are many days’ journey. Some, such as Chipping Norton, or the Deddington Deanery Pilgrimage, in Oxfordshire, launched in 2017, link the churches of a deanery in one continuous loop; still others, such as the Edwardtide Pilgrimage, at Westminster Abbey, simply invite pilgrims to visit and join a special service.
Some of the new routes are carefully researched to include specific places particular to a saint: St Hilda’s Way, inaugurated in summer 2015, links churches dedicated to the saint on a 40-mile route from Hinderwell to Whitby. Some, such as the Thames Pilgrim Way (2014), offer reflections and prayers for those walking the long-established Thames Path.
Others, however, have no historical route but instead commemorate an event. The Peak Pilgrimage was launched in 2015 to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Great Plague by linking Ilam to Eyam, the Derbyshire village famous for shutting itself off to prevent the outward spread of the disease.
istock Walkers on the way to St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall
THERE are those who would argue that only some of these routes can be classified as pilgrimages, and that the rest are at best church-crawls, or walks with a historical interest. Indeed, the definition of pilgrimage has become more fluid in recent years, covering all types of journey — from coach trips to Walsingham to the 1800km walk from Canterbury to Rome.
Purists would hold that only a journey by foot along a route whose origins can be traced back to some spiritual event or person can truly be called a pilgrimage. A more open interpretation would be that a pilgrimage is any spiritual journey to a sacred place.
The journey should have an element of challenge to it, but, while the fittest pilgrim might experience this challenge only on the steepest slopes of the Pyrenees, the less agile could count as an achievement finding the energy to walk into a church and kneel at the foot of a shrine.
Far more important than the miles covered, blisters popped, or ligaments torn are the encounters made along the route: encounters with strangers, with oneself and one’s deepest thoughts, and with God. Pilgrimage offers a time set apart from the everyday: time to reflect, to talk in depth, to listen to others, and, above all, to meet God.
The best routes lead the traveller through glorious countryside and industrial outskirts, pausing at tiny churches and vast cathedrals, revealing unexpected landscapes and eye-catching scenery. But even the shortest journey can become a pilgrimage if we will it so. For, ultimately, we become pilgrims if that is what we wish to be — it is all about the intention.
The Revd Dr Sally Welch is the author of Pilgrim Journeys: Pilgrimage for walkers and armchair travellers (BRF 2017).
New UK pilgrim routes to try
St Alban Pilgrim Way
In June this year, a pilgrimage route from St Paul’s Cathedral, to St Albans Cathedral will be launched to coincide with the opening of a new welcome centre and pilgrim exhibition in St Albans. The route is divided into five sections, ranging from five to eight miles, each of which is easily accessible via public transport. The 35-mile walk will take in some of the most stunning parks, waterways, and views in London, and allow for reflections along the way inspired by the life of St Alban, Britain’s first saint and martyr.
To be part of the inaugural walk, from 19 to 21 June, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
istock The ruins of Whitby Abbey, the final destination of St Hilda’s Way
St Hilda’s Way
St Hilda’s Way is a 40-mile route from Hinderwell, on the north Yorkshire coast, up on to the North York Moors, down the Esk Valley, following the river, and finishing at Whitby Abbey. The route takes in eight churches linked to the life of St Hilda, the seventh-century Anglo-Saxon princess, arts enthusiast, and peacemaker who hosted the famous Synod of Whitby in 664, in her position as the first abbess of the double monastery of Streonshalh, now known as Whitby Abbey.
To buy the official guidebook of the route, visit www.dalescourtpress.co.uk.
istock St Magnus Cathedral, Orkney the end point of St Magnus Way
St Magnus Way
St Magnus Way was launched on the 900th anniversary of the death of the patron saint of Orkney, in April 2017. It is one of six new pilgrimage routes in Scotland. The 55-mile route, from Egilsay (where Magnus was murdered on the instructions of his cousin Hakon) to St Magnus Cathedral, in Kirkwall (built following several accounts of miracles associated with him), is divided into six separate walks, and incorporates coastal-, track-, hill-, forest-, and road-walking. Download the app to get Bluetooth accounts of his story from waymarkers as you walk.
For more details on new Scottish pilgrim routes under development, visit www.sprf.org.uk/routes.
istock Whitby town, harbour and church, with the ruins of Whitby Abbey behind
The Augustine Camino pilgrim route, launched in 2016, leads from Rochester Cathedral, past the medieval Aylesford Priory and Canterbury Cathedral to the new shrine of St Augustine, in Ramsgate. There are seven sections to the Augustine-inspired route, ranging from seven miles to 13.5 miles. The route’s website lists the medieval significance of each section; walking directions; accommodation (some offer discounted pilgrim rates); and shops and services along the way. If you are walking over several days (a week is suggested for the whole route) it is possible to arrange for baggage transfer for £15 per bag, per transfer: email email@example.com.
istock St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall, the final destination of the Cornish Celtic Way
Cornish Celtic Way
This 125-mile pilgrim route through Cornwall, launched in 2017, stretches from St Germans to St Michael’s Mount, incorporating more than 60 miles of the Cornish coastal path, and two established pilgrimage routes (the Saints’ Way and St Michael’s Way). Divided into 16 walks (or you can do the whole route in two weeks), the route encourages walkers to engage with the Celtic saints who brought Christianity to Cornwall between 500 to 600. There are Celtic crosses, standing stones, holy wells, and churches along the way. The book A Cornish Celtic Way, available on the route’s website, provides an overall guide. Alternatively, sign up to one of a series of led walks taking place throughout 2019.
For details of more British pilgrimage routes visit the British Pilgrimage Trust at www.britishpilgrimage.org.