Let’s work together to make a 1-day pilgrimage route for each cathedral in Britain…
Apart from the ones that appear on our Britain’s Routes page, please can you let us know about any other routes with cathedrals as their destination?
If you can’t find a route for a cathedral that you love, perhaps you could help me, Guy, create one? See the template below.
I gave a workshop at the first ever National Cathedrals Conference in Manchester in Sep 2018, which you can read here, and introduced this 1-day pilgrimage idea to deans, precentors, canons etc., who were very receptive. Pilgrims could arrive in time for Choral Evensong – a 45-min service of music sung by world-class choirs, for free.
My friend and colleague, the biologist Rupert Sheldrake, every year takes his godson on a day pilgrimage to a different cathedral which culminates in evensong. Indeed Lord Selborne, a hereditary peer, completed his mission to walk to every English cathedral, finishing on Easter Day this year– it took him two years in total, 1650 miles at 15 miles a day, 110 days – and he’s a man in his late 70s going through chemotherapy at the time. The comedian Russell Brand is also in favour of pilgrimage/evensong and has offered to walk with Rupert himself soon, after their recent podcast together.
This 1 day pilgrimage format, combining the benefits of pilgrimage, tea and evensong, may appeal to many godparents and godchildren, and of course many others too.
Some cathedrals are already on established pilgrimage routes, like Canterbury, Winchester, Lichfield, Chester etc. but for the rest the field is wide open to blaze a new trail.
Here’s a ‘how to’ template for creating a short, 1-day or half-day, pilgrimage route on foot to a Cathedral, Abbey, Minster or Priory anywhere in Britain:
- Find a holy place within 6-8 miles of your destination (or 3-4 miles for a half-day pilgrimage on foot). This start point could be a parish church, chapel, holy well, ancient tree, ancient/prehistoric monument, war memorial, source, or mouth of, a river, and hilltop. Ideally, it will also be near good transport links, e.g. a train station. Churches and chapels (and sometimes wells, prehistoric sites and river sources) are easily identified on an Ordnance Survey map. For prehistoric sites and wells/springs, search the Megalithic website, and for ancient trees, search the ancient tree inventory.
- Once you have a start point, draw a circle 6-8 miles in diameter on an Ordnance Survey 1:25K Explorer Map, which touches both start and end points, then start searching within that circle for similar holy places of some diversity (i.e. not just churches) that could potentially become holy waypoints along the route.
- Look for diversity above all in both landscapes, historic and holy places. Aim for a mix of woodlands/open plains/marshland/riverside etc. Natural holy places are important as well as human-built holy places. Non-religious historic places where significant historic events occurred (such as battlegrounds, inventions, important meetings etc) also add a local heritage dimension. It is also worth thinking about a possible historical or spiritual ‘theme’ that links the places being walked through, but if nothing fits neatly then this is not essential.
- Try to plot route along public footpaths as much as possible, rather than along the road. Walking along the road is possible, but not preferable, and ideally best if the road has a pavement or grassy verge alongside it for maximum safety. Think “maximum holy, minimum road”. Use Google Satellite imagery to check for pavements and verges, and to see what the route looks like from above.
- Find a digital mapping app that works for you to help you plot the route and work out exactly how long it is in miles, using our guide here. We use the Memory Map app to plot routes, which requires you to buy (quite expensive) licenses to the Ordnance Survey maps within the app. The official Ordnance Survey map is also good, and cheaper, or there is Viewranger, with Open Street Map, which is free and easy to use. The best is Viewranger for precise plotting, but you will need Ordnance Survey maps as well. You can then share the route electronically with other people by exporting as a .gpx file. The advantage of smartphone navigation for pilgrims is that they can’t get lost.
- Perhaps set up a Pilgrim Passport and Stamp scheme, where pilgrims can buy a card that they can get stamped at the different churches along the route. This should be familiar to those of you who have walked the Camino de Santiago. It might be good on a day pilgrimage route for adults and children too.
- Be clear about start and end times, especially if people want to fit in lunch, cream tea and Choral Evensong into their day’s schedule. Referring people to suggested train timetables from nearby transport hub towns and cities is useful, but NB these change frequently.
- Find a pub/restaurant for lunch, at the half-way point or just before, which also functions as a loo stop.
- At the destination, e.g. a Cathedral, perhaps set up a pilgrims’ book for signing their names (and other data too, such as: age – gender – home-town – nationality – start-point – duration – mode (foot/bicycle/horse)).
- As you plot the route, also bear in mind the importance of suggesting spiritual practices at various holy places and waypoints – e.g. gratitude, meditation, prayer, connecting with nature, plants and animals, singing or being silent. This helps to flesh out the spirituality of the pilgrimage.
- Also, there are several pilgrimage-specific practices you can suggest:
Circumambulating churches – walking round the holy place before entering. Maybe touch the east wall of churches, from the outside.
Lying down, having a ‘holy nap’, or doing a sky meditation – either in churches or outside.
Kneeling at the altar and thinking about things that matter to you.
Lighting candles (see below)
Singing songs or reading poetry in the holy place
Sign your name in the visitor’s book, give donations to churches
Contact relic – a shell, stone, personal to you etc. that you place on holy objects as you pass along the route, maybe give it away at the end, or keep it.
Immerse in the wild water spots and imagine being cleansed
Connect with trees and plants.
For any questions, please email Guy. If you want to create one yourself, let me know, and let’s make this vision of 1-day pilgrimage routes to all the cathedrals in Britain happen.
And finally, there might be simple ways to shift the culture of cathedral visits, as refelcted in what what people do and experience when they get to cathedrals. Tourists get blasted with historical information on entering a cathedral with a tourist guide, or with a guide book but they could easily be converted into pilgrims by providing them with candles at the same time as handing them the guide. Or there could be clearer signs showing the way to candles, and guides could suggest that tourists could make a prayer whilst lighting their candles. The same could go for holy water too, with clearly marked stoups at the entrance to the cathedral. One can lie down in the Nave and look up in awe. And before entering a Cathedral one can walk around it clockwise to mark it as a holy place – also known as circumambulation. Prayer can be ‘reframed’ by encouraging visitors to think about life issues that are particularly current to them standing by the altar. Thus, a visit becomes a pilgrimage with little extra effort. This kind of approach based on experiences could help bring about a cutural shift towards spiritual practices in cathedrals.
We are seeing a spiritual awakening in society all around us. Cathedrals are already facilitating this awakening, and there is much scope for talking this process further. Pilgrimage and Choral Evensong have a wide appeal. With an experience-based reframing, these traditional practices can become powerfully contemporary.