An Unbroken Journey on Foot to Holy Places
A British pilgrimage starts and ends on foot. As soon as you get into a car, hop on a train, or let another mode of transport carry you, your pilgrimage is over. It will begin again when you take your next footstep.
This may seem extreme, but it is the oldest truth about pilgrimage we know today. At its simplest, purest and most ancient, pilgrimage is a journey on foot (and holy places are everywhere). Though such simplicity is hard to grasp in our complex modern lives, we strongly encourage you to attempt connection with this lineage of pilgrimage tradition, by holding the form. Only walk.
The word Holy derives from the Old English word Halig – meaning Healthy, Wholesome or Holistic. Its nearest modern equivalent is the Scottish word Hale – as in ‘Hale and Hearty’. Holy does not imply particular religious allegiance.
Holy places are special places – compelling places – toward which you feel summoned to walk.
There are many kinds of holy place. There are temples – i.e. chapels, churches and cathedrals of all faiths. There is water in the form of holy wells, springs, river sources and confluences. There are ancient trees, sacred stones and hilltops. And there are the places where great people were born, lived, died and buried.
It is for you to discover what a holy place means to you, and how best to engage with it. There are many ways to connect. No-one will be watching, and no instruction given. Follow a tradition or invent your own – silence or song, stillness or dance, give or take gifts. Simply be deliberate.
You might also want to coordinate your arrival at churches in time for the magnificent musical service of Choral Evensong performed across Britain and Ireland, which is always free-of-charge. Click here to find the nearest Evensong service to you.
Is it Religious?
It is as religious as you need it to be.
British pilgrimage is a free-form spiritual ritual for people of all or no beliefs, without religious prescription. It is a spiritual/physical ritual – a prayer made with body and land – onto which you can layer any belief system. British pilgrimage does not belong to a single faith (or non-faith) group. It is a shared modern tradition open to all.
A Powerful Technology
The land is strong, welcoming and holy. The paths are open. Pilgrimage works. It goes beyond the shallow waters of tourism and dives deep, challenging participants to truly encounter holy places and seek a more real connection – with themselves and something greater.
As a technology, pilgrimage turns ordinary people into pilgrims. It offers initiation through making people reconnect with an ancient form of ritual, a journey on foot toward unknown outcomes. It takes away people’s hard-won domestic insulation and convenience, and puts them simply on the ground – in a very real Britain that has always been there, just over the hills and beyond the woods.
Pilgrimage is a proven method to cultivate fearlessness, freedom, discipline and joy.
An Ancient Path
Pilgrimage began when humanity first stood up and walked.
British pilgrimage follows the same paths used by the earliest Ice Age migrants to this land. Our footpaths, green lanes and hollow-ways – even our motorways – have all been hunter-gatherer trails and pilgrimage tracks.
Not so long ago in human history every journey made was a pilgrimage. Anyone leaving the safety of their home to travel would have been intensely conscious of the danger to their lives. They would have been very aware of the places and forces which might offer them alliance and strength.
Holy places – mutually respected zones of connection to something greater – offered sanctuary, provided meeting places, and through being prayed to and worshipped could perhaps swing the balance between making it back home or not. This implies pilgrimage is not a distinct class of event, a separate cultural lineage, but rather one that is so fundamental and deeply embedded that we forgot it was there.
We can still choose to apply the tenets of pilgrimage to any journey, to clarify our way ahead and line us up for a better return. As well as a walk, pilgrimage is a philosophy and skill that can be applied to all movements in our lives.
All journeys are inescapably bound to cutting-edge modernity. Going slowly on foot simply takes you there more deeply. On pilgrimage, the very latest versions of nature – the newest plants, trees, birdsongs and winds – are waiting to meet you.
Also, Britain’s most recent changes – rural developments, new forms of agriculture, urban planning, and the prevailing mood of people – you will encounter directly. Pilgrimage is a journey through the true matter of Britain. No newspaper or blog comes close.
Moreover, pilgrimage can be said to help bring you closer to the future. As a development and enhancement of the body, mind and soul, it is evolutionary, and draws you into new strength and awareness, to help you prepare for life’s next challenges.
Furthermore, the BPT recommends the latest outdoor technology – ultralight down sleeping bags, solar chargers, smartphones with GPS navigation and superfine merino wool clothing. This is not a re-creation of a lost past. It is a timely response to modernity.
“Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire” – Gustav Mahler
In 1538, King Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell BANNED “wandering to pilgrimages”. It was a dark day for British freedom. The tradition was deemed undesirable because King Henry preferred people to stay at home making mental pilgrimages reading the printed words of the Bible, rather than taking “holyday” leave in order to make a physical pilgrimage, which would reduce their economic productivity.
Pilgrimage had been part of the social fabric of the land – something everyone did. But with a stroke of the pen, it was made outlaw, a rogue tradition. Vagrancy laws were introduced, so anyone caught out on the path was whipped and sent home. And the monasteries – Britain’s pilgrimage network of places to sleep and eat – were closed, destroyed and sold.
In part this was a response to the King’s desire to distance his new English Church from the distinctive modes and rituals of Roman Catholicism. It was also a recognition of the abuses inherent in the English pilgrimage practises of the day – like pardoners selling indulgences, or monks charging extortionate fees for access to shrines. But the baby and the bathwater…
For nearly 500 years after the ban, pilgrimage slumbered, a dormant seed in Britain’s cultural soil. But today it is rising once more, a fresh green movement reaching for the sun.
The dark days have given British pilgrimage an opportunity for the tradition to be renewed, so it can meet Britain’s 21st-century needs. Due to the fields of British pilgrimage lying fallow for 500 years, not controlled by anyone, today it has a potential inclusivity that no other world pilgrimage tradition can offer. It truly belongs to everyone.