The simple answer is: NOW.
There is no better time to make pilgrimage, historically or existentially. The (nearly) 500 year old disappearance of British pilgrimage can now fade, and everyone can walk the footpaths toward holy places (of all kinds) without fear of being branded a faith-deviant or vagrant and whipped back to the Parish of our birth.
Furthermore, the BPT believes that we’re already making pilgrimage. It is not something arcane or special, it is an everyday form of life and movement for humans, whether we realise it or not. Holy places are everywhere – and every journey on foot takes us toward one or another. But we are so often blinded by the hurry of life that we forget to see the ancient truths of this holy land. A small change in attitude – a willingness to step forward with trust – can be all that is needed to cultivate this awareness and let its benefits flourish in our lives and land.
That’s why there is such power – and joy – in consciously voicing the intention and taking the time To Be a Pilgrim, in the fullest sense possible. The benefits can then seep back into ‘normal’ life, until (God-Willing) any such separation fades!
A British pilgrimage does not require a journey of months, weeks or even days. You can make a pilgrimage in a few minutes, if that’s all your time available. However, the more time you can offer to your pilgrimage, the likely greater the benefits will be for you. But any pilgrimage is better than none…
The key to making pilgrimage – a journey on foot to a holy place – is simply doing it. Choose your destination and set out. Travelling slowly over the land to reach and engage with somewhere extaordinary can be part of your journey to work or lunch hour. Some small moment of your day’s journey can be pilgrimage.
And of course, there are Britain’s Great Routes to be followed. When you can take the time to walk one you will be glad. But pilgrimage is for everyone, and whatever time you can offer yourself from the journey of your life – this will suffice.
British Pilgrimage: An All-Season Experience
People often talk badly of British weather. But everything can look bleak from the sofa, and rain falls harder on a window than on a pilgrim’s back.
The truth is that Britain is a uniquely four-seasonal land. All kinds of weather happen here – and can do at any time of year. From blizzard to heatwave, these islands offer it all. The seasonal change is distinct and beautiful. Many lands do not enjoy such a rich transition from Winter to Spring to Summer to Autumn. We see and feel it all here in Britain, which is a great blessing, allowing the land’s unique diversity and strength.
Each season is available for pilgrimage in Britain, and each has advantages of different kinds.
Summer (approx. May – Aug)
Most people choose to venture outside during summer months, when pilgrimages are easier and more relaxed. If you get wet, you’ll dry quickly. Summer is forgiving – and of course it is beautiful. Wild flowers grace the dreaming hillsides, and birdsong is symphonic. Life unfolds with greater volume, tempo and fun. You’ll stumble across village fetes and outdoor gatherings, and meet many more fellow pilgrims out on the path.
However, you cannot rely on pristine sunshine. The British Summertime is a three-season event, and rain, wind and (relative) cold are always possible. Therefore, you may want to carry clothing suitable for all weathers. But there’s a good chance you won’t wear it much – which ironically means that summertime pilgrimage can require a backpack of similar weight to winter when you’ll be wearing all your kit all the time.
Summertime in Britain also sees more people get out and about. This is not always a benefit. Occasionally, locations with road access can be swamped by coach and car-driving tourists. The physical confinement of cars can cause post-road boisterousness and de-sensitivity, which can be disruptive for a gently-connected wandering pilgrim wanting to experience full atmospheric engagement with holy places. But persist and the quietness will be heard.
Also, when summer is hot you’ll need to drink more water, which you’ll have to carry or find. And by sweating you’ll need to wash your clothes more quickly – though they’ll dry in record time just hanging from your backpack.
Summer also carries other hazards – insect life is thriving, so mosquitoes may choose you for their dinner. This means summertime pilgrimage is best accompanied by a mosquito net, and/or some herbal repellent – another thing to carry.
You will also potentially be at risk of sunburn, which requires sun-cream, coconut oil, a wide-brimmed straw hat, and/or long-sleeves and a collar – preferably in linen or light cotton. You may also find your energy levels can fluctuate beneath the raging sun. The European model of after-lunch siesta becomes an attractive option – and with long evenings, rich in late light, you may prefer to walk in the cooler times and rest for midday in woods or by water.
Autumn (approx. Aug – Nov)
Autumn is the fruitful time, when hedgerows drip with free food and the vibrant colours of decay astonish the eye.
Autumn offers an excellent time to make pilgrimage in Britain. There are fewer people roaming the land, the days are shorter but not yet curt, and the transition between summer and winter is balanced, not yet one nor the other.
The weather is mixed without extremes – sunshine is less intense than summer, cold is occasionally biting but not enduringly so, and rain is quick and still warm. You’ll need your waterproof clothes, hat /scarf/gloves, and thick evening jumper. You’ll be more likely to wear them too.
You can still wash in the rivers and streams, and the seas will be warm from summer sunshine. Also, it’s easy to find wild food – fruit, nuts and fungi are everywhere. You will literally stumble over your supper.
Furthermore, the slow-paced journey of pilgrimage feels particularly suited to the increasing restfulness of Autumn. Life is not being lived at full-speed – the season encourages a gentler contemplation of life’s abundance and impermanence.
Mosquitoes thrive in the slow days of Autumn, and their limited remaining time on earth makes them more voracious.
However, overall Autumn is a wonderful time to make pilgrimage in Britain.
Winter (approx. Nov – Feb)
Winter has a bad reputation for pilgrimage, as a season cold, wet and dark. But the truth is not so simple, for within winter’s unfashionable embrace one can find astonishing and subtle beauty after the brash and burly crash of summer.
It is true, in winter the weather can be tricky. There are few leaves on trees, the fruit that lingers is withered on the stem, and the wind howls over hilltops while rain lashes in sideways. You get cold, there is little light, and everyone else is at home.
Winter offers greater challenge and opportunity. You will require more discipline and focus to make pilgrimage happen during the thin days of winter. You’ll need to make sure your jacket is zipped up and nothing left out in the rain. Drying clothes and equipment can become difficult. The days begin late and end early, so hours of walking time are curtailed. Cold can bite severely, so you’ll require the right layers of good wool. Proper boots will be needed to keep your feet dry and stop you slipping around in mud.
But despite the added difficulties – or indeed perhaps due to them – the benefits of wintertime British pilgrimage are great. First of all, no-one else will be on the footpath. You’ll see their curtains flicker with indoor entertainment, leaving you to inherit the earth. No-one else will roam the footpaths by day or night, and silence will grace your encounters with holy places. The cold and wet can be borne easily with adequate clothing, and you will nurture a pilgrimage that feels rare and special.
Furthermore, when you take shelter in a church or public house, and people ask where you have come from and are bound, you will see the surprise and admiration on their brows – “you’re doing what?” – which can easily lead to great support and assistance being offered by perfect strangers. In winter, your journey marks you apart. The rite of hospitality to the stranger roaming the cold land of winter is deep and ancient. After all, you could be Wodan or Jesus in disguise…
‘If on a winter’s night a traveller…’
All your heavy waterproof clothing will be generally worn, so your bag can be strangely light. Of course, you’ll need a heavier sleeping bag, and thicker clothing, as well as hat scarf and gloves. But the magic of winter, the dark still time of the year, is profound and unforgettable. A wintertime pilgrimage in Britain is a unique and wonderful experience for those who dare…
Spring (approx. Feb – May)
In Spring the earth awakens from its slumbers, and the sap rises boldly in animal and plant. You too will feel the rising energy, the longing for green places, for company and adventure and movement. A Springtime pilgrimage will put a spring in your step and a sparkle in your eye…
“When that Aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote…
…Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.”
(Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, General Prologue)
In Spring the small flowers rise from the ground, and the bare earth is renewed on its journey toward the glory of summer. Rich natural scents will blow on the wind, incense to bless your journey, and animals will sing your progress on the footpath toward holy places. It feels like a very natural time to make pilgrimage.
You will enjoy longer days and shorter nights – though the weather can still surprise you with almost anything, so you’ll need to be well prepared. The nights and mornings in Spring can bite, as winter still tries to hold back the rise of summer. But with the everpresent promise of life renewing itself, the sting of inclement weather is milder, as summer’s promise draws nearer…
Spring is almost as good as Autumn for wild food – green leaves, potent with buzzing energy and enzymes, are everywhere available for fresh salads. You will be able to browse the hedgerows and graze as you walk, on plants that will become too bitter to eat after Spring growth.
In sum, the heart of Spring is a classic time to roam toward holy places in Britain.