The British Pilgrimage Trust is a Charitable Trust set up to restore the tradition of pilgrimage in Britain.
The BPT was formed in 2014 after witnessing the ever-increasing success of the Spanish Camino, and concluding that Britain is missing a trick by not providing pilgrims with access to a similar (or even better) experience.
Pilgrimage was once Britain’s most important expression of leisure and spirituality, an activity for Kings and peasants alike. This was curtailed in 1538 when Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell banned pilgrimage in Britain. Today, there is a global renaissance of pilgrimage – 250,000 on the Camino to Santiago, 2 million on the Hajj, 20 million on the Arbaeen and 100 million to Kumbh Mela. The BPT believes it is time for Britain to revive her pilgrimage tradition. The required infrastructure is already in place – off-road footpaths, under-used churches, and pilgrim support in the form of pubs and village shops. We need only discard our Tudor taboo, join the dots and let people know…
We do not want to re-establish a medieval form of pilgrimage, but to renew the tradition according to modern needs, to create an open spiritual activity without religious prescription. Though practised by most world religions, pilgrimage at its root contains no specific religious association. The word comes from Latin peregrine – ‘per agri’ – which simply means ‘through the fields’. The BPT defines pilgrimage as a journey on foot to holy places (‘holy’ coming from the Old English hallig meaning ‘wholesome’ or ‘healthy’). Holiness can take many forms – cathedrals, river sources, long barrows, ancient trees etc. – and pilgrimage in Britain is the quest to encounter and connect with such places. Such a broad path can welcome people of all faiths and no faith, side by side.
We hope to make Britain world-renowned as a Land of Pilgrimage, and see the proliferation of pilgrimage routes in Britain not as a division of our strength, but as wider basis for greater participation. Britain does not have to focus on a single destination – we have holy places everywhere, and we can avoid the intensified ecological impact of 250,000 people walking the same path yearly, as they do in Spain.
We have been unable to find reasons NOT to want British Pilgrimage to return to our land. Having pitched our vision to thousands of people ‘on the ground’ from all walks of life, we have found it is consistently met with enthusiasm.
People from all around the world also are likely to want access to British pilgrimage, as shown by the increasingly international audiences drawn to the Spanish Camino. In 2014, out of those pilgrims walking to Santiago the nationalities with greatest increase in numbers were Russian, Australian and Korean. It is the BPT’s opinion that those overseas hold the dream of Britain – this green and pleasant land – more keenly than most British people. We therefore believe that bringing a share of this international Camino market to Britain will be relatively straightforward.
In short, although, and maybe even because, British pilgrimage is currently behind the times, it has the greatest potential for growth of any other world pilgrimage venue.
We aim to revive the British pilgrimage tradition of making journeys on foot to holy places. We are promoting British pilgrimage as a healthy and inclusive form of spiritual green tourism to new and established markets, global and national.
The BPT aims to make pilgrimage something thousands of people in Britain do. We will improve accessibility by creating new routes – particularly shorter 1-day and weekend pilgrimage journeys – engaging new technologies like smartphone navigation, and promoting pilgrimage as an activity set free from religious prescription – in regions all across Britain.
What we have done so far
Since the BPT was formed, we have been making exhibition pilgrimages around Britain, walking routes such as Winchester to Canterbury, and London to Walsingham, promoting this new (yet old) idea to those met on the path, and writing motivational posts via social media.
Following on from these exhibition pilgrimages, we have received considerable press coverage over the past year, and have led workshops at Canterbury Cathedral and Schumacher College in Devon, leading people out onto the path. We have also created this website to give people the necessary motivation, skills and mapping to step out and undertake pilgrimage on their own.
What we will do
Over the coming year we aim to continue to develop this website, complete its database of UK pilgrimage routes, and also to develop our flagship route, the South Downs Pilgrims Way, from Southampton to Canterbury.
The chief obstacle remaining for British pilgrimage today is the lack of low-cost accommodation in rural areas. To remedy this we will create ‘pop-up’ accommodation venues every 7-10 miles in the form of churches, fields and village halls. Once successfully implemented, we intend to apply this template to Britain’s other great pilgrimage routes.
As far as we can follow the successful example provided by the Santiago Camino, it is also vital that British pilgrimage has a distinct identity from its cousin. The BPT aims to establish the British pilgrimage brand as more ‘wild’ than its European counterpart by enshrining outdoor sufficiency into its accommodation networks. In the short-term this is necessary to create a ‘pop-up’ accommodation network from available resources – but in the long-term we seek to maintain this ‘wild’ pilgrimage identity (alongside more comprehensive accommodation solutions) through the creation of ‘Pilgrim-Acres’, an infrastructure of woodland wild-camping venues designed to endure the vicissitudes of politics and religion, and remain forever Pilgrims’ Britain.
We are also using the Camino’s example to indicate potential problems facing the rebirth of British pilgrimage. The main complaints voiced about the Santiago pilgrimage are overcrowding and limited regional coverage. Both these issues can be avoided in Britain through the promotion of a multiple regional routes, which will allow the impact and benefits of pilgrimage to be shared equally throughout the land, as well as creating more diverse appeal to the British tradition.