How to create a 1-day pilgrimage route

Let’s 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?

And if you can’t find a route for a cathedral that you love, BPT’s Guy has written a template (below) to assist you to create one with him.

Guy gave a workshop at the 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. Another idea he put to them was that the pilgrims could arrive in time for Choral Evensong – a 45-min service of music sung by world-class choirs, for free.


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:

  1.        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, mosque, synagogue, temple, hermitage, cave, grave, 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.
  2.        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.
  3.        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 (e.g. see ancient tree inventory map here and ancient yew tree map here). Non-religious historic places where significant historic events occurred (such as battlegrounds, inventions, important meetings etc) also add a local heritage dimension, as well as connecting with burial places, such as graveyards. 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.
  4.        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 (see our guide here), 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.
  5.        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. The official Ordnance Survey map ‘OSMaps’ is good (£25/yr), or there is Viewranger, which allows you to toggle between Open Street Map, Google Satellite and OS maps (if you get the OS annual licence for £25/yr). 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 because the phone tells you where you are.
  6.        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.
  7.        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.
  8.        Find a pub/restaurant for lunch, at the half-way point or just before, which also functions as a loo stop.
  9.        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)).
  10. As you plot the route, also bear in mind the importance of suggesting general spiritual practices at various holy places and waypoints – e.g. setting your intention at the start, gratitude, meditation, prayer, connecting with nature, water, stones, trees, plants and animals, singing/chanting and being silent etc.
    Or pilgrimage-specific practices like lying down, having a ‘holy nap’ in church, or ‘looking at sky’ meditation, kneeling at the altar and thinking about things that matter to you, lighting candles, singing songs or reading poetry in the holy place, sign your name in the parish church visitors’ books, 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 by placing on a cairn in the cathedral, or keep it; and immerse in the wild water spots and imagine being cleansed, connect with trees and plants.
    This helps to flesh out the spirituality of the pilgrimage.

For any questions, please email Guy and Harry of the ‘BPT Network‘ team.  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.


Other related ideas to the 1-day cathedral routes project

Godparent pilgrimages – BPT friend and colleague, the biologist Rupert Sheldrake, every year takes his godson on a day pilgrimage to a different cathedral, culminating in choral evensong, and it has proved a very successful model.

Music Festival Pilgrimages – from Glastonbury etc to nearest cathedrals. Even a fraction of pilgrims from festivalgoers would be a very large number. See map of UK music festivals.

School pilgrimages – rites of passage at major transitions like primary to secondary, and A-level to university, children could make pilgrimage to the Cathedral from their school?

Cathedral Pilgrim Ideas

There might be simple ways to shift the culture of cathedral visits, as reflected in what what people do and experience when they get to cathedrals. A visit becomes a pilgrimage with little extra effort. An approach based on experiences could help bring about a cultural shift towards spiritual practices in cathedrals.

Holy Water stoups or Font water – encourage pilgrims to engage directly with font water. 

Candles given on entering along with ticket, and an accompanying leaflet letting pilgrims know which stations around cathedral at which to light them.

Anniversary/birthday visits to cathedrals – make an occasion of it!

Cairns of Pebbles/Stones/Shells – at the beginning of their pilgrimage pilgrims could be encouraged to pick up a pebble or shell or some sort from their starting holy place, and carry it with them on the journey having ‘charged’ it with something they personally want to let go of, and give it to a cathedral ‘cairn’ on arrival at their destination. 

Lying down in the nave – look up at ceiling of cathedral without craning your neck standing up, or looking at a mirror. The converse is putting forehead to ground as well as looking up at ceiling, heaven and earth.

Feel the space – pilgrims can try standing in different places in the cathedral, e.g. nave vs. quire vs. altar, close their eyes, and feel how they feel in each place.

Guiding spiritual experience – through audio guides and training cathedral volunteer welcomers, visitors could become pilgrims by engaging directly with the cathedral in many of the ways suggested above, as opposed to ‘historical’ tours.

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.