WHAT IS BRITISH PILGRIMAGE?
Pilgrimage is one of the most important British activities you’ve haven’t heard of. It’s a fundamental cultural technology used throughout history all over the world: but not in modern Britain.
There’s a lot of loaded language here, so we need to define terms from the ground up. Pilgrimage is making journeys on foot to holy places. Pilgrimage comes from the Latin ‘per agra’ – through the fields. Holy is from the Old English ‘Halig’, meaning ‘wholesome/healthy/holistic’. So pilgrimage is at root a walk through the fields toward wholesomeness.
Walking the land and encountering holy places in both the built and natural world is a universal human activity. Ever since humans stood up on two feet, looked to the stars and walked, we have made pilgrimage. Other animals do it too – Kingfish up the Mbutu river, Eels to the Sargasso Sea, and Swallows to Africa. You can even say the earth makes pilgrimage around the sun. Everywhere you look you find pilgrimage – except modern Britain.
Pilgrimage is the most wonderful and refreshing human activity. It re-invigorates body, trust and soul. It is the best way to pray for people who don’t believe in prayer.
Today, all round the world, pilgrimage is booming. There are more pilgrims than ever, as old traditions are rekindled and old ways walked. The Hajj of Islam, the Kumano Kodo of Shinto, Kumbh Mela in Allhamabad, and the Camino to Santiago de Compostela – people are increasingly making long dedicated journeys to holy places.
There’s something levelling, humbling and unifying about walking. Everyone is restored to a common human equality, as animals on the Earth, together under the same sky. Tribal identities matter less than the social reality you encounter – which on pilgrimage is usually kindness and beauty, the good stuff.
And as well as social and community health, pilgrimage offers physical mental and spiritual health benefits too. And a vital boost for rural economies.
Pilgrimage was always about healing. Today this remains true – but perhaps the primary ailments that it can heal in Britain now are Social Distrust and Nature Deficit Disorder. Pilgrimage and walking are obviously entwined, but pilgrimage adds this rich extra layer of seeking holy places, which makes it an activity with very different values, meanings and results than simply walking.
Visibly, you can distinguish a pilgrim in Britain from an ordinary hiker by their wooden staff. It is a prop used by Moses, Gandalf – all the greats. It’s a classic renewable logistical solution for pilgrims, which can stop stumbles from becoming full wrenches, can propel you uphill and slow you downhill, can investigate puddles to learn if they are in fact lakes, can part seas of nettles, and can pluck distant apples from wayside trees. We also use staffs as tent poles for our tarpaulins, to help allay the risk of nighttime rain.
Perhaps the greatest use for wooden staffs for a pilgrim is that they can physically embody the challenge of letting go at the end. Pilgrimage is a microcosm of our journey from birth to death. And at the end, we let go of something we have loved, that has supported and empowered us on the way. In life, this is our bodies. In pilgrimage, this is our staffs, which have become almost an extension of our bodies, and which we really don’t want to discard. But it’s vital practice to say cheerio. And it means you can buy another one for your next pilgrimage, thus giving a great boost to British woodland coppice industries, the ancient way to make woodlands live forever in balance with humanity.
SO WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?
Britain is a uniquely wonderful land in which to be a pilgrim. We have this intense network of public footpaths, secret green passages leading almost everywhere, off-road capillaries that oxygenate the land. No other country has anything like it.
We also have the most amazing temples in every village and town. And brilliant public houses offering incredible local food. But as things stand, hardly anyone is connecting these dots.
Pilgrimage in Britain was once this land’s most joyful form of spiritual expression – a merry quest through the land toward distant shrines in search of healing. It meant singing and dancing and encounters with people and places, wonder and hope. It seems obvious that some of this would do us good today!
While on the footpath we’ve asked thousands of people why they themselves don’t make pilgrimage, and the standard answer is ‘religion’. Though perhaps not the most sophisticated reasoning, you can see what people mean. Pilgrimage got caught up in Henry VIII’s power games, and was condemned when Henry took over British religion.
But when people tell us pilgrimage is too religious – or the wrong kind of religion – it can be quite confusing. Because when you are out there on the footpath, making pilgrimage through the land, it feels so natural healthy and exciting. And if an idea of religion stops people from experiencing that, well that’s a problem we have to solve.
Spain and France do not have this problem, because they have different national histories. These are Catholic countries that never went Protestant. So, they can offer the Camino to Santiago in a transparent Catholic framework. This transparency has proved extremely popular with non-religious pilgrims, and the path attracts 250,000 walking pilgrims a year, half of whom profess no religious affiliation.
But this can’t work in the same way for Britain, because we’re British, and our island history took a different path. The Tudor taboo makes pilgrimage a sacred elephant in the room…
So the pilgrimage renaissance has not reached these shores. Britain finds it difficult to embrace a spiritual path based in Catholicism. Tribal scars are deep.
We’re not stirring up or reinforcing this division – but we’re certainly not solving it either. It’s far too big a problem for us to meaningfully untangle.
Furthermore, today in Britain the most numerous spiritual path is ‘No Religion’, at 44% of the population. So we’re being pragmatic, and rescuing pilgrimage from religious rivalry by applying Alexander the Great’s technique to this knotty problem, to cut through pilgrimage’s binds, and translate the ritual into a more original and ancient open-source format.
People are hungry for spiritual experiences that materialism doesn’t provide them. Prayer is seen as wasteful. But prayer is a great and vital human creative expression – and a compelling mystery – that pilgrimage blends into an exciting physical adventure. Such a form of physical prayer is fun, good for you, low-cost, and no-one’s watching to tell you how to do it.
There’s other difficulties too, more practical issues on the ground. When the monasteries were dissolved, British pilgrimage lost its traditional accommodation network. So today, you have to pay rather a lot to sleep in bnb’s that are not even on the path – which frankly makes the whole thing unworkable. Pilgrimage is an unbroken journey on foot – the connection of holy places by dedicated footfall. Jumping in a taxi halfway simply breaks the ritual.
So we’re inventing solutions that can be implemented all over Britain, in every great route currently open. It’s a wild camping network of pop-up accommodation that is affordable and available without investment into centralised infrastructure. And it means no unsightly and ill-fitting developments within the natural landscapes whose sanctity pilgrims are seeking. It makes no sense to destroy this beauty by journeying through it. Minimal impact is crucial for modern British pilgrimage. We need to cherish the land in all its holiness. If we break it, we can’t throw it away and buy another one…
AND WHAT IS THE SOLUTION?
Simply enough, by removing religious specificity, and re-packaging pilgrimage, the tradition can breathe and come back to life. We are certainly not trying to purge religion from pilgrimage – but we are bypassing religion as British pilgrimage’s defining identity, and removing specific religion from its fundamental architecture. If this appears presumptuous, well we suppose it is. But we can do this because we must, if pilgrimage is to function again in Britain.
People associate pilgrimage with its last emanation in Medieval Britain, and assume this is the only way it can happen. But pilgrimage almost certainly pre-dates all world religions. So by stripping out religious specificity, we’re only removing what is essentially an additive layer onto the raw form anyway. But what this does is free the ritual – and open it to anyone wishes to take part, people of any or no beliefs. And they can add any layer of meaning they wish. This new path has room for all, side by side – as long as pilgrims respect each others’ right to diversity.
In Britain, our largest and fastest-growing spiritual grouping today is ‘No Religion’ at 44% (BSA 2015). So we say, for pilgrimage to really happen in Britain, it must cater for this dominant spiritual path.
We see this as a new way to make pilgrimage – which is in fact a very old way – and it’s incredibly exciting and important. Reinventing the walk feels bigger than re-inventing the wheel.
In Britain we have been waiting for the Church to do something with pilgrimage for nearly 500 years. But we believe that the current appetite of Britain is not willing to wait any longer for an established church to plate up pilgrimage on their terms, transparent or not. So we have seized the initiative to renew it ourselves, to offer it from this uniquely non-prescriptive angle. And the response is tremendous.
People from all faiths are contacting us to get involved, but, as might be expected, so too are those who have rejected established religion.
We had confidence this would resonate with people who have fallen out of love – or even cordial relations – with established religion. Here is a path on which no single belief form is superior, but at which all are welcome. Here in Britain you can find your own way to meet the Divine, through a simply devoted walk through nature. What is there not to like about that?
SO WHAT’S HAPPENING NOW?
We are making this all happen through our charity – the British Pilgrimage Trust – and out first milestone has been to launch today our new website (www.britishpilgrimage.org) that is re-branding pilgrimage in Britain.
The website aims to share this vision of pilgrimage in Britain to the world, to discover whether our theory is right, that without a specifically religious identity pilgrimage can reclaim its place as a widely used and well loved meaningful and valuable tradition in this land?
The website also lists all Britain’s existing great pilgrimage routes, as well as the new routes constantly opening. Our charity is currently developing its own flagship route between Southampton and Canterbury, following the South Downs in order to avoid the motorway troubles of the old North Downs route. We call this pilgrimage the Old Way.
It’s clear the tradition is awakening from its slumbers. But this is merely the beginning of the beginning. I doubt I will live to see British pilgrimage take form in its fullness. We don’t have the millions we’d need to do the things we wish – though maybe we will. I suppose millions are spent every day on much stranger things. This is a long-term social movement, far from an overnight phenomenon, but certainly a worthwhile opportunity for charitable giving. So if people want to help make this happen, you can be in from the start…
But what pilgrimage in Britain needs more than wealthy supporters is Pilgrims – common or garden wanderers in search of holy places – brave pioneer souls willing to step out into the unknown landscape of a new tradition whose openness, we admit, can be a little daunting. Freedom from ritual forces self-responsibility to work out for yourself how to encounter holy places. We recommend song. It counts as a gift, it feels good to give, and it weighs and costs nothing.
The thing is, we know how huge the international pilgrim market is – and while it is very exciting to think of the thousands of global pilgrims who will come to Britain to make pilgrimage here, we also want to focus on re-kindling Britain’s own appetite for the ritual. It may be unfashionable to say this is ‘our’ land, but we feel strongly humans are expressions of the landscapes in which they live. So any new movement of pilgrimage in Britain cannot neglect the British people. We – you – are the hosts, and pilgrimage is our responsibility to cherish in our own British way.
As such, we are helping pilgrimage seed itself into other British traditions. We know God-parents who have invited their god-children on pilgrimage as a way to create a meaningful special relationship with them, rather than simply bumping up the birthday present pile. And we know people who are getting married and incorporating pilgrimage into their post-reception rituals, so rather than flying off to sit in the sun for 2 weeks, newly-weds are choosing to step out together in Britain, bags on back and staffs in hand, to begin the journey of their lives together in the best possible way – with a dedicated pilgrimage through the land.
And we’re being flexible with required timings, to open each great route as a series of weekend pilgrimages and one-day routes, to make it accessible for people who simply cannot sacrifice the full 3 or 4 weeks.
We believe that pilgrimage as a mode of sacred travel can in fact happen anywhere, anytime. It is a way of approaching a journey on foot, not a set path you must follow. The set paths are important because they can create amazingly good routes. But you can make pilgrimage in your lunch hour too, or in the morning on the way to work. We seek to blow this tradition wide open!
Possibly most excitingly in terms of the actual revival, we have rural churches opening to offer pilgrims overnight accommodation. This isn’t the sign of a dead Church, but of a very much a living one. Though this is a delicate request, and not always easy to communicate to the Church – we need your help, but we need you to relinquish control. That’s not easy to swallow, and it’s a sign of beautiful confidence that the Church is encouraging it. Many churches are agreeing to allow pilgrims access to vital facilities like water taps and power points. One church, run by the charismatic Peter Owen Jones, is embracing pilgrimage to the degree of putting a pilgrim firepit in the churchyard and attaching flip down boards to the seats of pews, so they can convert to single beds. This seems like really radical re-purposing, for churches to host pilgrims of all faiths and no faith, without trying to convert them. But it’s also really simple and sensible and obvious. Of course churches host pilgrims. Where else would they go?
For of course, the irony of all this talk of non-religious specificity is that in fact, the temples of Britain are largely churches. We also are promoting river sources, ancient trees, holy wells and ancient barrows as places of pilgrimage – but by and large the holy places of Britain have Churches built on them. But this is far from a bad thing. Churches are a ready-made temple network, and they are currently under-used in desperate need of pilgrims – of earnest journey-makers seeking deeper connection with self, nature and God. It is a big thing to ask Churches to be open to welcoming non-Christians. But they seem to be up for the challenge – like Jesus was, we suppose…
In short, these are very exciting times. For everyone who didn’t know it was available, British pilgrimage has now re-opened. And it’s official…or rather, very much not official. We look forward to seeing you on the path.