I AM a pilgrim. My best self rises just before the dawn, and, boots in hand, tiptoes down the stairs of the hostel. Closing the door carefully so as not to disturb the sleepers, I lace up my boots, shoulder my pack, and set off, looking to the path ahead as it gradually becomes clearer in the early morning light.
The road is my constant companion. While other pilgrims, dog walkers, and after-lunch strollers come and go, I will sturdily place one foot in front of the other, pausing occasionally to rest and eat or explore the roadside churches but none the less progressing steadily until I reach the evening’s destination. There, I will eat again, talk to other pilgrims, and reflect on all that the day has brought me, until night falls and I sleep once more.
Reduced to its barest form, a pilgrimage is a “spiritual journey to a sacred place”. In contrast with their medieval forebears, most people nowadays find the value of pilgrimage in the journey rather than the destination (the spiritual and emotional “work” of pilgrimage is usually achieved long before the destination has been reached).
Long hours of physical exertion allow the mind to wander, heal, grow, and encounter our creator God in new and ever deepening ways. Time spent on the road, overcoming mental and physical challenges, enables the pilgrim to grow strong and return refreshed. Strangers become friends, friends share confidences and experiences, community develops.
Pilgrimage is the rock of my mental stability: it is the way I pray, rest, and recover; and the means by which I find the space to imagine, dream, plan, and prepare.
But I am not just a pilgrim: I am a parish priest; an area Dean; a diocesan spirituality adviser; a wife; a mother; a grandmother; a daughter. I am surrounded by duties and obligations — some joyful and fulfilling, others mind-numbing and heartbreaking. But what part can the road play in a life that is, like so many others, fixed so firmly to a specific place?
From the beginning of my pilgrim days, I engaged with this issue, initially by taking our young family with us on most of our journeys. We invented games and stories to keep them amused on the road, and we squashed all six of us into a single room at night to save money.
Now, I research pilgrim routes that are accessible by car at points along the way (my mother is at her happiest when she is travelling: her restlessness is satisfied by the movement of the vehicle). Taking three or four days away from ministry, I can meet my parents, who have travelled more slowly. Once at my destination, I walk for three hours, rendezvous for lunch, and walk again for two (as parental boredom begins to set in), finally returning to a friendly hotel for the evening. “Pilgrimage-lite”, perhaps, but valid none the less.
When even these journeys are beyond achieving, I have discovered alternatives. Just as high-intensity interval training can supplement a long run or cycle, so “high-intensity pilgrimage” can be engaged with during the in-between times of life.
Our deanery has developed Pilgrim Paths: day-long circular walks between churches; small pilgrim journeys of beauty and holiness. And we are not the only ones. All over the country, Christian communities are using pilgrimage to engage both the faithful and those on the borders of faith, its liminal nature encouraging exploration and the discovery of external and internal landscapes.
The newly formed Christian Pilgrimage Network seeks to provide a hub for routes and reflections, besides serving as a forum for exchange of expertise and resources. And 2020 has been designated the Year of Cathedrals and Pilgrimage by the Association of English Cathedrals (in collaboration with the British Pilgrimage Trust); new one-day pilgrim routes are being launched — perfect for those whose time is squeezed.
istockThe pilgrim journeying alone
There is a luxury to long hours of daydreaming on pilgrimage, allowing thoughts and prayers to drift across the horizon of the mind, perhaps to gather momentum and solidify into resolution or transformation, perhaps to dissolve and disappear if not required. This luxury is not available, however, to the “high-intensity pilgrim”, and greater efforts must be made to invest the journey with the necessary intention.
Singing well-loved hymns out loud; chanting favourite Bible verses to the rhythm of footsteps; observing natural objects with a closeness that is ordinarily lacking; picturing a particular problem or question as a scrunched-up ball of paper which the mind gradually smooths out, revealing the underlying issues — all these can help. But so, too, can simply enjoying the moment. Where am I? Here. When is it? Now. How do I feel? Present.
It is not always possible to be “our best self”. But it is possible to journey towards the ideal — which is, after all, what pilgrimage is all about.
The Revd Dr Sally Welch is the author of Journey to Contentment (to be published by BRF on 22 May). The Christian Pilgrimage Network website is currently under construction. To be kept up to date on its progress, please email sally.welch@christian
The Revd Dr Sally Welch is the author of Journey to Contentment (to be published by BRF on 22 May). The Christian Pilgrimage Network website is currently under construction. To be kept up to date on its progress, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
One-day pilgrim routes
Canterbury Cathedral Pilgrimage (Seven- to 12-mile route options)
CANTERBURY has drawn pilgrims for more than 1000 years. It has the oldest church in the English-speaking world (St Martin’s), and its cathedral is known for the murder of the 12th-century St Thomas Becket. Four new one-day routes have been devised: the Old Way, from Patrixbourne (eight miles); the North Down Pilgrims Way, from Chilham (seven miles); Augustine Camino, from Faversham (12 miles); Via Francigena, from Shepherdswell (11 miles).
St Michael’s Way
Lelant to St Michael’s Mount: 11-13.5 miles
ST MICHAEL’S WAY is thought to date from 10,000 BC. It was used by travellers, missionaries, and pilgrims, especially from Ireland and Wales, to avoid crossing the waters around Land’s End, and is believed to have aided Cornwall’s rapid conversion to Christianity. This one-day route goes from Lelant, on the north coast, to Marazion, on the south coast, opposite St Michael’s Mount. The route skirts Trencrom Hill. Venture up and you’ll be rewarded with one of the finest views in Cornwall.
Chester-le-Street to Durham Cathedral: eight miles
THIS new riverside pilgrimage route runs from Chester-le-Street, past Finchale Priory (home of the 12th-century St Godric), to the riverside at Durham, with views of the castle and cathedral, finishing at the cathedral itself — where St Cuthbert, St Oswald, and the Venerable Bede are all buried.
Aquae Sulis Way
Bradford-on-Avon to Bath Abbey: 12 miles
LONG before the Romans arrived in Britain, Bath was considered a sacred site, owing to its healing waters. The pilgrim route starts in the Saxon town of Bradford-on-Avon, and runs along ancient riverside paths to Bath Abbey. After looking round the abbey, try the waters at the original Celtic holy site, the Cross Spring, now part of Thermae Bath Spa.
Wakefield Cathedral Pilgrimage
Dewsbury to Wakefield Cathedral: 7.5 miles
THIS new route starts at Dewsbury’s Minster Church of All Saints. Before you set off, visit its Paulinus Chapel to see the country’s earliest surviving carving of Christ in Majesty; dated about AD 850. The route takes in suburban streets before reaching countryside, then suburbs again, before the approach to Wakefield Cathedral.
For downloadable routes via a smartphone, and other one-day and longer pilgrim routes see britishpilgrimage.org.