A Flagship Pilgrimage Route for Britain
The South Downs Pilgrims’ Way (SDPW) is a long-distance pilgrimage route from Winchester to Canterbury being developed by the British Pilgrimage Trust. It is intended to deliver an accessible experience of British Pilgrimage to new and established markets, both domestic and international.
The SDPW follows 240 miles of Southern Britain, connecting 78 Churches, 4 cathedrals, 3 river sources, 9 holy wells, 5 hillforts, 3 long barrows, 39 tumuli, 61 pubs, 41 villages, 10 towns and 3 cities – on a route that follows nearly 90% footpaths. It takes about 21 days to walk in full. The SDPW will also sub-divide into a series of one-day and weekend pilgrimages.
The provisional path is marked on the interactive map at the foot of this article. If the route follows few straight lines, that’s because its purpose is not to simply arrive at the end point, but also to connect with holy places on the way. This is entirely fitting for an activity you could almost define as finding sacred centres the long way round.
For this reason, and also to lessen environmental impact, the SDPW rarely follows the existing South Downs Way hiking path. This may mean bypassing certain iconic locations like Chanctonbury Rings, but it also lets us send pilgrims to incredible holy places like Kingley Vale, Europe’s largest Yew tree forest.
Zoom in on the map and you can see the provisional route more clearly. We welcome feedback. Actual route details will change before the route’s 2017 launch. Anyone with experience walking these landscapes please get in touch. We are consulting widely but further opinions are always welcome.
Please read on for further details of this route.
The Need for the Route
In the Medieval British pilgrimage tradition, Canterbury and Winchester were two of the great centres, both accessible from Europe with navigable ridgeways joining them. Both small cities have played large roles in the story of British Pilgrimage. The BPT believes that re-invigorating this connection is crucial for the overall renewal of Britain’s pilgrimage tradition.
There already exists a Winchester to Canterbury pilgrimage route, following the North Downs Way. This path was famously ‘discovered’ by Hilaire Belloc in 1911 who called it ‘The Pilgrims’ Way’. It’s a catchy name, but blisteringly big for this route’s boots. The antiquity of the path is obvious, as is the joy of walking it, but as a flagship route for modern British pilgrimage it fails due to the M25 and M20 motorways running alongside a large portion of its length. Though vital for car travel, these roads are noisy and unfitting for pilgrimage, and their impact pervades many miles into the landscape.
So to make a better connection between these two great pilgrimage cities, we have swapped Downs, and made a route for Britain to offer the world pilgrimage market.
As Britain’s latest National Park, the South Downs are well-protected from motorways. They offer a perfect landscape for pilgrimage, dotted with holy places from all eras of history.
There already exists along the South Downs a popular long-distance path called the South Downs Way. This route enjoys well-deserved popularity, but it does not aim for holy places. It simply goes a long straight way on foot before ending at a signpost in Eastbourne. As a pilgrimage path this is inadequate.
The SDPW on the other hand aims to encounter a wide range of holy places. Long distance walkers aim to walk a long way. Pilgrims aim to encounter holy places on foot. The two routes serve different markets with different aims (despite obvious overlaps).
We have tried to keep the two routes entirely distinct, but there are moments when the two streams converge. We hope the SDPW can relieve pressure from the well-trodden South Downs Way. Chalk is not an enduring rock, and suffers the stamp of heavy boots.
Is this Route New?
The SDPW is only new to modernity. Timeless footpaths connect its many holy places, and pilgrims of all descriptions throughout British history have walked these ancient ways.
Perhaps during Medieval British pilgrimage it was less heavily used to connect Winchester and Canterbury than the well-trod North Downs, but even this Way’s most popular path has now become the A2 and A207 carriageways. Walking along busy main roads for the sake of perceived historic accuracy seems to rather miss the point of pilgrimage. To keep being used, ancient pilgrimage paths must adapt to fit modern requirements, or they get forgotten.
The Requirements of a Great British Pilgrimage Route
- A pilgrimage route needs to be beautiful, mostly off-road, quiet and safe. Tarmac is designed for cars and is uncomfortable and unsightly for walkers. Almost 90% of the SDPW is off-road, on a combination of footpaths, bridleways and tracks. The BPT believes closeness to nature is a crucial aspect of the pilgrimage experience, and a key attractor for British pilgrimage’s appeal.
- A modern route needs to touch occasional population centres, for the human bustle and all the practical benefits. The SDPW visits 1 city between start and finish, 10 towns, and 41 villages.
- Holy places on a modern pilgrimage route need to be diverse, not solely Anglican Churches – though let us be clear, these are usually the most magnificent holy places for miles, glorious temples amid potato fields.
- But a modern pilgrimage route must also seek natural beauty, and take pilgrims to places of indisputably glorious creation.
- A successful modern pilgrimage route needs low-cost accommodation integrated into the route. The path must also seamlessly incorporate various other types of accommodation at every stage of the way.
Accommodating South Downs Pilgrims
The SDPW needs a wide range of accommodation providers, to create a flexible varied and low-cost infrastructure that can be launched with almost no numbers, yet expand with demand. It also needs to have almost no developmental impact on the landscape, not just to fit the ethic of pilgrimage, but also beacuse the South Downs are a legally protected National Park. As such, the BPT is working to create a network that includes campsites, churches (interiors and churchyards), gardens, pubs, fields and woods.
We are attempting to establish accommodation venues every seven to ten miles along the path. This allows pilgrims the flexibility to walk daily distances they can manage. We imagine most people will aim for 10-14 mile days, but going slowly is always best on pilgrimage.
Like the Camino, South Downs pilgrim accommodation is for one night only. Pilgrims keep moving. At launch, we aim for each venue to host 20 pilgrims per night for around £10 p/n, with the provision of water and toilet facilities, and access to local food. Ideally fire is also allowed.
Essentially, this basic infrastructure will be the springboard from which a network able to handle greater numbers can grow. We cannot wait for convenient roofed structures to appear, but must create a need before expecting supply. So Britain’s pilgrim pioneers need the ability to sleep comfortably almost anywhere. This does not mean carrying a heavy and uncomfortable pack. But pilgrims do need to carry their own bedding and shelter. Camping is the easiest way to accommodate large numbers of pilgrims without development or investment. That is the reason the BPT uses a Snail logo – because the snail carries its home wherever it goes.
Growth into the Future
Just as the Camino to Santiago, the SDPW will go through various phases of development before reaching optimum usage. It took over 30 years for the Spainish Camino to gain 250,000 pilgrims per year. It too started as a wild route with little real infrastructure, while today it is wonderful living experience and resource for people from all over the world – as well as a tourism industry worth hundreds of millions to the French and Spanish economies.
Though the SDPW is young, and these are its pioneer years, this is no disadvantage. Many people complain about overcrowding on the Camino, and say that its ease of accessibility has watered down its essence by crowding out the holy places. The BPT believes that the British model of wild pilgrimage can offer a more fulfilling pilgrimage experience, and attract pilgrims on the basis of its primitive facilities and quietness. Also, not relying on indoor accommodation makes British pilgrimage more ecologically profound, and offers participants deeper immersion in the natural landscape.
For these reasons, and to maintain a distinct British identity for the SDPW, the BPT aims to keep this wildness enshrined within the identity of British pilgrimage. To this end the BPT aims to set up wooded ‘Pilgrim Acres’, wild-campsites held in Trust to remain forever Pilgrims’ Britain.
And ultimately, our future promotion of multiple pilgrimage routes across Britain and Ireland will help spread the load, rather than having just a single major pilgrimage route.
How Can You Help?
The BPT needs support, patronage and backing. We are a small charity trying to make big (timely) ideas happen. Funding is the vital nutrient to make these plans bear fruit. Volunteers with successful track-records in fundraising would be incredibly welcome. Money exists – we just need people to move it around, to make very exciting things happen for British pilgrimage.
The SDPW requires pilgrim volunteers, people to simply walk a stretch of the route and report problems to the BPT. Those able to do this regularly are obviously best. If you are a member of a community group along the path, please get in touch. We will shortly begin poster campaigns to recruit pilgrim volunteers and potential accommodation providers along the Way. If you wish to volunteer, please contact us.
Organisations of a larger scale, who can also potentially provide accommodation, are also very important for the SDPW’s success. We are approaching the National Trust, the Woodland Trust and the Church of England. Do you know about other large groups who could potentially help with the SDPW (and British pilgrimage in general)?
We also need media partners interested in telling this story to help make it come true. This tale – of bringing pilgrimage back to Britain – needs to be told in order for it to happen.
Most of all, what is needed is pilgrims – pioneers to bravely walk this fledgling route, in full or short stages, to discover what works and what does not, to gather local opinions, to waymark and photograph. If you have read this far, you are curious enough to try. Why not help by pioneering a one-day section of the pilgrimage route?
So if you have a willingness to be involved in the development of this new pilgrimage route, or the charity in general, please do get in touch.
And if you wish to assist us toward financial stability to enable us to to focus on this demanding project, please donate.
Map of the Route