The 1-day Cathedral Pilgrimage Project

Let’s work together to make a 1-day pilgrimage route for each cathedral in Britain – some cathedrals are already on established pilgrimage routes, like Canterbury, Winchester, Lichfield, Chester etc. but the field is wide open to blaze a new trail for almost all of the other cathedrals.

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? If you can’t find a route for a cathedral that you love, I’ve written a template (below) to empower you to create one yourself and promote it on this website.

I gave a workshop at the first ever National Cathedrals Conference in Manchester in Sep 2018, and deans, precentors, canons etc. were very receptive. 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, holy well, ancient tree, ancient/prehistoric monument, war memorial, grave, source, or mouth of, a river, and hilltop. Ideally, it will also be near good transport links, e.g. a train station. Churches and chapels (and sometimes wells, prehistoric sites and river sources) are easily identified on an Ordnance Survey map. For prehistoric sites and wells/springs, search the Megalithic website, and for ancient trees, search the ancient tree inventory.
  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. Non-religious historic places where significant historic events occurred (such as battlegrounds, inventions, important meetings etc) also add a local heritage dimension. 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, and ideally best if the road has a pavement or grassy verge alongside it for maximum safety (see our guidelines here). 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. We use the Memory Map app to plot routes, which requires you to buy (quite expensive) licenses to the Ordnance Survey maps within the app. The official Ordnance Survey map is also good, and cheaper, or there is Viewranger, with Open Street Map, which is free and easy to use. The best is Viewranger for precise plotting, but you will need to subscribe to Ordnance Survey maps within Viewranger as well (£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.
  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 spiritual practices at various holy places and waypoints – e.g. gratitude, meditation, prayer, connecting with nature, plants and animals, singing or being silent. This helps to flesh out the spirituality of the pilgrimage.
  11. Also, there are several pilgrimage-specific practices you can suggest:
    Circumambulating churches – walking round the holy place before entering. Maybe touch the east wall of churches, from the outside.
    Lying down, having a ‘holy nap’, or doing a sky meditation – either in churches or outside.
    Kneeling at the altar and thinking about things that matter to you.
    Lighting candles (see below)

    Singing songs or reading poetry in the holy place
    Sign your name in the visitor’s book, 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, or keep it.
    Immerse in the wild water spots and imagine being cleansed
    Connect with trees and plants.

For any questions, please email GuyIf 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 for the 1-day Cathedral Pilgrimages Project

My friend and colleague, the biologist Rupert Sheldrake, every year takes his godson on a day pilgrimage to a different cathedral which culminates in evensong. This 1 day pilgrimage format, combining the benefits of pilgrimage, tea and evensong, may appeal to many godparents and godchildren, and of course many others too. And cathedrals could offer a special Godparent’s service with blessing at Evensong on a particular day each year.

Another suggestion you could make to your local cathedral, is that all the parish churches in a cathedral’s diocese within walking distance make a pilgrimage to a special patronal festival service for the cathedral on a particular day of the year? Westminster Abbey do this for their National Pilgrimage Day on the Saturday around October 13, its patronal festival. Thousands of people come, and people walk in from all over London. It would reinvigorate the “Mothering Sunday” tradition, to visit the mother church of the diocese, except the date would be different to avoid that day ‘of the hearth and home’ that now exists. St Alban’s already do this on Easter Monday. If your cathedral is dedicated to a major figure like Mary, for example, the Visitation of Mary on May 31 would be a good date.

And finally, there might be simple ways to shift the culture of cathedral visits, as refelcted in what what people do and experience when they get to cathedrals. Tourists get blasted with historical information on entering a cathedral with a tourist guide, or with a guide book but they could easily be converted into pilgrims by providing them with candles at the same time as handing them the guide. Or there could be clearer signs showing the way to candles, and guides could suggest that tourists could make a prayer whilst lighting their candles. The same could go for holy water too, with clearly marked stoups at the entrance to the cathedral. Or one can lie down in the Nave and look up in awe. And before entering a Cathedral one can walk around it clockwise to mark it as a holy place – also known as circumambulation. Prayer can be ‘reframed’ by encouraging visitors to think about life issues that are particularly current to them standing by the altar. Thus, a visit becomes a pilgrimage with little extra effort. This kind of approach based on experiences could help bring about a cutural shift towards spiritual practices in cathedrals. For example, look to Lincoln Cathedral’s Sacred Space monthly service for inspiration of a range of possible spiritual practices appropriate for a pilgrim.

We are seeing a spiritual awakening in society all around us. Cathedrals are already facilitating this awakening, and there is much scope for taking this process further. Pilgrimage and Choral Evensong have a wide appeal. With an experience-based reframing, these traditional practices can become powerfully contemporary.

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