School Pilgrimage Podcast with Fr Graeme Rowlands

BPT’s Guy Hayward speaks with Fr Graeme Rowlands – Priest, Chairman of School Governors, Guardian of the Shrine of Walsingham, Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral – about his work in taking school children from different cultural backgrounds from the Kentish Town area of London on pilgrimage to St Paul’s Cathedral (Year 3), Westminster Abbey (Year 4), Walsingham (Year 5, for 2 nights away) and St Alban Cathedral (Year 6). Graeme speaks about how children get so much from being in the countryside and experiencing pilgrim places as a pilgrim, not just as a tourist/student, both in urban and rural environments. Also, how they are much better than adults at praying!


I’m Guy Hayward and I’m here with Father Graeme Rowlands in his house next to St Silas’ Church in Camden Town.  Father Graeme is a vicar here and does brilliant services and lifts the hearts of those in the local area, which is an inner-city area of Camden, and I am speaking to him particularly today about his work with schoolchildren of the school that he’s a governor of nearby.  He takes these children to pilgrimage to Walsingham, St Paul’s Cathedral to Westminster Abbey and I’m just intrigued to know about this, because I think the British Pilgrimage Trust would do well to start taking schoolchildren to special places on pilgrimage.  And opening them up to these treasures of our lands.  So it would be great to talk to him and I’m really looking forward to it.

Hello Fr Graeme.

Graeme: All schools, I think, have this as part of the curriculum, at least in theory, as part their R.E. they would do pilgrimage.  Because it’s not necessarily just a Christian concept of course.  Every possible religion goes on pilgrimage.  But they would do it as a sort of study of this thing that people do, and why they do it and what they do when they are there.

Guy: More sort of intrigue rather than practice. 

Graeme:  Yes, in fact the kids know what pilgrimage is but they have never experienced it, and it’s only by experiencing it that they really understand it.  So I’m taking Year 6 on pilgrimage to St Albans next Monday, and that’s normally been the pattern, I take Year 3 to St Paul’s as in St Paul’s Cathedral, Year 4 to St Edward, as in Westminster Abbey, Year 5 to Walsingham for 2 nights, and Year 6 to St Alban.  And before we go we do a general session on pilgrimage; what the point of it is and so on and so forth.  Then we do a slightly more detailed subsequent session on what’s the focus of the place that we are going to and a bit of history, but also a bit of real what happens there now.  Then they write intercessions things which we take with us on the day, and so part of the pattern of the day is the offering of prayers, lighting candles and so on there.  That then enthuses them about it.  And this is not just Christians, because the schools are about 30% Muslim but they all come, and they all come to mass of course during school time and so on.  It actually then becomes much more part of their experience.  The old jingle – If you’ll tell me I’ll forget, if you show me I will remember.  If you involve me, I will actually understand.

The problem is quite a lot of schools do sort of go through ticking the boxes. 

Guy: The thing about pilgrimage you have to have your body in the place. 

Graeme: Yes.  I used to do Walsingham in the day, but it’s a long way and although they experience the place and we do some of the essential elements, they don’t absorb the place or get the feel of it.  If you take them there for 2 nights, we do Wednesday to Friday.

Guy: And school gives you that role?

Graeme:  Yes.  So we arrive Wednesday lunchtime.  They then of course find their accommodation because they stay like real pilgrims in the rooms.  So they go into lunch, we sort out rooms, we then do a bit of actual real history.  So we go into the Abbey ruins and we do a bit of sketches and that sort of thing there, before we go to the Abbey ruins we go to intercessions in the holy house.  So get the religious bit in right at the beginning.  Then I take them to the Martyr’s cellar just opposite the gate where the martyrs were actually imprisoned on the night before they were taken and hung drawn and quartered in the field behind.  Then we walk to the Slipper Chapel, and most of them choose to take their shoes off.  We go to the Slipper Chapel and say some prayers there, then we walk back.  Some of them will walk both ways barefoot!  We then have supper, and we then go to church just for a complete change and on the Wednesday evening we have exposition and benediction.  So there’s a quiet prayer time and things like that.  Then they go to bed.  That’s the most difficult bit.

Then Thursday we have a sun mass in the morning for which they prepare and use servers and things like that.  We are there for Corpus Christi actually next year, which we’ve been to before, which is good, because you can involve a whole class and they did a carpet of flowers and a chalice and host on the ground in front of the outdoor altar in the shrine grounds.  Then a procession from the parish church they threw herbs, they threw flower petals etc. etc.  Then after lunch we take them to the beach.  So we go to Sheringham and have an ice cream, then we go back Walsingham, then they have very necessary showers.  After showers and things they then have a BBQ on the farm, so I take them down to the farm and they climb all over the tractor.  There’s a farm in the village and I know the estate manager and he provides the BBQ utterly free of charge, and the main farm hand comes and gives them a tour.  They meet the cows, and we go up the hill and they have burgers and things that.  It’s wonder for them because there’s so much space, they can just sort of run round the hill and muck around and they are utterly safe.  These kids from London it’s extraordinary.

Guy:  How many?

Graeme:  30.

Guy:  How many of them will never have been outside in the countryside before.

Graeme:  About half of them will never have seen a real horse or field very much.  They see it on telly.

Guy:  So that’s a huge experience.

Graeme:  Yes.  Then Friday after breakfast we do the village, and so we do the parish church, Russian Orthodox, Methodist Chapel and so on, which is always an interesting experience for them. 

Guy:  Why?

Graeme:  Because they’ve never seen anything quite like it.  I have to be slightly careful what I let them say whilst we are in there.

Guy:  What kind of …

Graeme:  Well I say, what’s the difference between this and our church, and they say they haven’t got Jesus.  And I say, what do you mean.  And they say, there’s a cross there without Jesus on it.  So I say well what else is different, and they say, they haven’t got a tabernacle.  So I say ‘oh right’, and they say ‘well there’s a big desk thing up at the front what’s that there for, no altar’ and so on.  It’s very good to experience for them.  Then the worst and most horrific bit of the whole pilgrimage is when we take them to the shop!  Where they buy souvenirs, that’s awful because the shrine shop is not really built to cater for 30 kids or even 5 kids.  Into the shop, if we survive that we then go back to the shrine church, I bless this whole array of pencils, chocolates, medals, rosaries, and you name it they’ve bought it.  So I bless all of them and we do a sort of final visit.  And then we get on the coach, taking a picnic lunch with us and we stop on the way back for them to eat the lunch, we get back to school about 4 pm.

Guy:  How do you go from 0 to 60 starting by saying I want to start doing this with the children, and then ending by giving them a 3 day experience?

Graeme:  Remember that I’m part of the furniture at school.  I do teach there; I teach music there and I am Chairman of the Governors.  At the moment I do 6 class assemblies Monday, Tuesday and Friday mornings, and so I’m part of the furniture.  So therefore its easy really.

Guy:  When you said to me before most pilgrimages are to God that’s an interpretable comment.

Graeme:  I talk to the kids about there being 3 sorts of pilgrimage.  So it’s either to a place where something happened, like Jerusalem, like Rome.  Or it’s to a place where there are the relics of a saint, or to a place where there’s been a vision.  Those are the 3 basic aims of pilgrimage and quite of lot of them of course actually tick 2 of those boxes. 

Guy:  That’s an interpretation of what pilgrimage is, and I think it makes sense because God is interpretable for people in terms of just anything beyond themselves.  Going to whatever is beyond you, or beyond normality or your ordinary life, may be a bit more than that.  That you’re glimpsing at something real beyond yourself, that could be God or…

Graeme:  Yes, and you are also in the space in which to think and in which to respond to whatever it is.  That’s why Compostela and all that has become so hectically popular particularly with the sort of average chattering middle classes, because it’s rather sort of trendy to go on this pilgrimage and rough it.  You’re now getting used to what a cynical person I am, I never been to Compostela so I don’t know.

Guy:  It is interesting.  I think the generous way of looking at it is that they may start off because its trendy, and they go because it’s the in thing and they do it because their friend has done it, and they chatter about it.  But once they actually do it, even if some of them don’t even go into the cathedral, but even the journey there you can tell that change is happening on all sorts of levels; social, physical and their body is improved, their ability to have time to think and exposure to lots of different cultures and people, age groups and….it’s all good, all good grist.  Even if you start it for all the wrong reasons.

Graeme:  If you start without reasons, or without clear reasons that’s fine.  I wasn’t brought up to go to church and look at me now.  You sort of define what you like what you believe what you exist for and so on, as you experience things.  I understand that perfectly.

Guy:  Do you?  Pilgrimage is art.  So the ones to St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey are they similar formats, do you drive there?

Graeme:  We get on the Underground or above or whatever, and they are similar formats, and they involve having mass there, they involve intercessions.  St Paul’s is a difficult building, full of tourists.  I am a Canon of the Cathedral so I know it is a difficult building to pray in. I actually take them there, we have a sort of tour round and then we have intercessions and light candles there, by the statue of Our Lady, then take them somewhere else local for mass.  So having done that I get them out of the cathedral and take them down to St Andrew by the Wardrobe. 

Guy:  That’s good so they get to walk around a bit.  A lot of what we do are longer walks, a day of walking or in London we do Tower Hill to Westminster Abbey.  You see so many different churches I suppose children – it would be too long for a child may be Tower to Temple would be quite a good one. 

Which bit of the religious bit do the children get most by or inspired by, is it the intercessions or the lighting a candle?

Graeme:  I would have said it’s the whole set of experiences.  They’re used to class matters ….so they are used to that as worship, but having it somewhere like, for example, it’s in St Faith’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey, a completely different ball game.

Guy: One of the greatest chapels in our land.  There’s no better place to take a child, that seriously is charged with an energy that I have never come across before.

Graeme:  That’s right.  It’s because it’s the only bit of the abbey that’s not been touched really and hasn’t become a monument of some sort.  The rest of the building is crammed with memorials this one chapel is the only one really.  It’s the only bit that’s preserved its original atmosphere.  There are chantry chapels and so on as well, there’s the chapel behind the high altar right at the east end, but they are all rather overtaken by other things.  Whereas St Faith is entirely separate it’s not overrun by tourists, and it’s got a very powerful painting of St Faith, holding a grid urn and underneath it and embedded vividly of course, because I’m saying the mass.  And there’s a medieval wall painting of the Crucifixion and so on, on a sort of frieze, very powerful and because you’re about that far away from it.  So the sense of connecting with the past, with pilgrimage and also the other bits at the abbey is the prayers at the shrine of St Edward because I take a relic of St Edward with me insofar as you can’t venerate anything much, although he’s in the original shrine there is a certificated relic here, which is part of the silk veil in which the bones were wrapped which was extracted at the time when the shrine was restored, in the 17th century.  And so it is a secondary relic of St Edward.  I take that with me so there is something to venerate after the sessions.

So all of this is an exercise in creating something tangible.  So the reason I can’t single out any of those activities is that they are all creating that tangible connection.

Guy:  How do the Muslim children and the other faiths, how do they respond to it?

Graeme:  They love it, exactly the same way. It’s actually very moving because the intercessions they write are very personal.  Things like ‘please help me to get on better with my mum’, or whatever, because children have no sort of …they don’t try to create any sophistication about this.  If you say write a prayer about something personal, they’ll do it.  So I always say I want two intercessions, something personal and something general about the world.  It can be whatever you like.  And I read out the general ones, then I say right now we’re going to have a time of silence during which we’re just going to think about our personal prayer.  And then I leave the intercessions behind at the shrine.  So they’ve actually offered it themselves, and its then left there.

Guy:  Would you go as far as to say that children do better with intercessions than adults, because of the lack of sophistication?  Because they just go straight to the point?

Graeme:  Yes, it’s much easier for children.

Guy:  On that basis alone school pilgrimage is a valuable activity.

Graeme:  Yes.  It’s also good for them to experience somewhere that’s much more saturated in prayer than any of the other environments they know.  I mean I’m lucky with both my churches insofar as they are both very good and devotional places, St Silas more than Holy Trinity.  St Silas is just over 100 years old, and Holy Trinity is 113 years old, and nothing compared with the experience they are getting on pilgrimage.  It broadens all those horizons.

Mark:  What do you think happens to a child in this experience, what’s actually happening on a spiritual level.

Graeme:  I think they realise that prayer isn’t just a personal thing, or a communal thing with the people that you can see around you now.  I think they realise that they are being taken into and offering a prayer that actually goes through time and goes through space.  So this is two dimensions really, an historic dimension and also the heavenly dimension. 

Guy:  And may be in the same way that a rock concert crowd which is bigger than an small cabaret venue has an amplifying effect on the spirits of the individual.  Is that basically what’s happening through the historical dimension.

Graeme:  Yes, it is.  Funny you go back to my jingle– in order to appreciate it and you need to experience it, and not just talk about it.  Actually these days kids online, and sort of allured to the images, they constantly see things on screens.  And so it’s wonderful that we are able to show them real places on a smartboard at school, and they actually help very much.  I think that they start noticing almost because they are so used to screen images.  For assemblies in classes I use screen images, bits of art, places whatever, but I also try to introduce one real tangible thing.  And it’s the real tangible thing, no matter how simple it is, that they will remember.

Guy:  Do they need to have that opened up to them, that concept through history and time and connecting with other people?  Or are they just sensitive.  Do you say that explicitly, that you’re now connecting with the heavenly dimension?

Graeme:  No I don’t.  But of course, they do understand about saints praying for you, and so there’s a sort of basic thing that you say and you say it in different ways, and again, and again.  So there’s a basic thing there, but they can then take that on, and lead it on in their understanding, without you having to tell them exactly how to do that. 

Guy: The heavenly community, that they are connected with.  Is that just saints or is it actually anyone whose prayed in that place?

Graeme:  Both, yes.

Guy:  It’s a big aspect. Yours is a different format to the way I start somewhere, and then go somewhere, and walk.  The walking element.  This is more about the actual place.  Sounds like that gets a lot in very quickly.

Graeme:  Yes, because with school you haven’t got that amount of time, and you haven’t got that amount of energy really to shepherd them.

Guy:  So it’s basically taking them to a place not as a tourist, but as pilgrims.  Different to a visit to a church, they do that in their school already.

Graeme:  They do, and a lot of the places do pilgrimage as a concept but they do it pedantically and ‘noddy’ if you know what I’m saying.  ‘This is a font and you put babies into it and it does them good’ but they don’t treat the children with respect, they sort of talk down to them by and large.  Your average guides at a cathedral.

Guy:  They are too ‘explain-y’ and give the surface level rather than the depth.  Do you think that’s because the guides don’t know the depths?

Graeme:  Yes, indeed it is. 

Guy:  You wouldn’t do that if you knew the depths, you just wouldn’t.

Graeme:  But they don’t and so some of the tour bits I get a bit irritated by, because the tours are sort of normally laid on by the place, so at the abbey they will provide a couple of official guides who are normally scary old ladies, in sort of gowns who take the kids round, and sit them down in the choir stalls, and say isn’t this wonderful.  And they then say why is it called the ‘quire’?  So I then interrupt and say, well of course the reason this bit of the building is called the quire is because it’s where the monks sang the offices every day.  And so it’s that act of singing which names this bit of the building, and that’s why when we have a group of singers we call it a quire.  It’s that way round.

Guy:  So actually what this requires is people who know these places very much from a spiritual pilgrim perspective, those who actually know it deeply.

Graeme:  That’s easier at places that aren’t tourist like Walsingham, spanning years at say…… or Westminster Abbey where they’re dealing with vast numbers of visitors.

Guy: So you’ve got this unique position of chairman, music teacher, assembly person, a lot going on and therefore you can make these pilgrimages happen.  And also you’re a cathedral canon, so there are lots of pieces in place for you that make this easier; a guardian for the shrine of our Lady of Walsingham on and so on.

That’s obviously not scalable.  Would you recommend to church at large to try and start implementing this kind of field trip?

Graeme:  They need to make contact in the place.  It’s got to have an element of prayer, that’s the basic that turns it from an outing or historic trip into a pilgrimage.  It hasn’t got to be a mass, it hasn’t got to be anything liturgical, but it’s got to have an element of prayer and that’s what they miss out of in lots of these places.  It’s useful if it has something tangible that the kids do whilst they are there.  Let me explain by an example.  At St Pauls Cathedral when they have a group of children, and they take them into the choir stalls, they very often have some dressing up clothes in the choir stalls, and so they’ll dress somebody up as a bishop and so on and so forth.  They think that that’s wonderful and the sort of thing the kids like.  It is completely pointless!  Absolute waste of time, it’s treating them like idiots and if they have a real live something or other there, who then says these are the sort of things I do, then it would be invaluable.  But there’s no point in dressing a child up in these fine things and taking a photo, and then moving on to the next thing.  It comes back to them experiencing something.

Guy:  Something spiritually serious?

Graeme:  Yes, spiritually serious, it’s also spiritual input from them because children find it very easy to pray, very easy.  And it’s also giving them the basics with which they can do that, so just as I have with the Reception in Year 1 at school at the moment, every time you say a prayer you have to teach them what to do; you need to be still and calm on the outside, so that you’re calm on the inside, and so on and so forth.  And if there were just those basics elements it’s easy.  The rest they will lead it on.

Guy:  I didn’t realise that children were particularly good at prayer.  They are more natural than adults…

Graeme:  Yes more natural, they’re amazing.

Guy:  Well you’ve inspired me.  That was fantastic and I’m really inspired to move on and really make this happen in the world.  I think more schoolchildren need to be opened up to this wonderful tradition we have in front of us, connecting with the land that we live on and live in, and I don’t know how exactly this is going to go forward, I don’t know how it’s going to work out, but I just feel this is an idea whose time will come and is coming right now.  If anyone out there has any particular needs or suggestions for schools that we might work with, or anything they want to say in response to all that’s been said in this podcast would be great to hear from you.  And you can get in touch with us via our website, by emailing

Thank you so much and do please subscribe to us on social media and sign up to our newsletter, so we can keep you abreast of guided pilgrimage events that we are doing.  Thank you very much and until next time…

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