Winter brings shorter days and unpredictable weather – but you don’t have to put pilgrimage on pause. Here’s why BPT’s Dawn Champion thinks winter is perfect for a one-day pilgrimage.
“When is pilgrimage season?” I am often asked. Chaucer would have you believe it begins in April, and for most people the end of October signals the end of journeys on foot, as paths get squelchy and an early dusk curtails your daily distance. But there are plenty of reasons to love walking in winter.
Time to yourself
There can be a lot of pressure on us at this time of year, and a one-day journey offers a much-needed opportunity to take time out for ourselves without needing too much planning or time away from family. You can be spontaneous when it is just a one-day journey and go at short notice when the weather is favourable.
With less daylight to walk in, it’s a good opportunity to throw off the pressure of achieving daily distances and instead commit to quality not quantity. Most of our Cathedral one-day routes finish with a final section on city pavement, so why not take the opportunity to walk into darkness with a candle lantern or torch, and emerge into light again as you arrive in the bright, colourful lights of the city. If you are lucky to have clear skies you might even glimpse a shooting star. The Leonids fall in November, and the Geminids in December.
Peace and stillness
The quietness of the winter landscape in Britain offers a different experience. With fewer people on the paths and less distraction it is the ideal time for deep contemplation. Wildlife may be quieter, but you’ll still encounter a burst of birdsong, a secret rustle in the leaf litter, stoic fungi and early buds. Damp or frosty paths reveal the tracks of animals that have been using the trail before you. No leaves in the trees mean you can see further, or take in views you can’t see in summer. A time to take stock, to reflect, to think about what has been, and what will come, at the turning of the year.
Here’s some of my favourite one-day routes for winter:
Glastonbury – choose a half day or full day route for a mystical journey, perfect for celebrating the winter solstice. Time your pilgrimage to watch the sunrise or sunset from the Tor, and combine it with a visit to the Chalice Well.
Edinburgh – Begin in the mysteriously powerful Rosslyn Chapel with stories of Freemasonry and the Holy Grail. Make your way round Craigmillar castle, climb Arthur’s Seat, and find your way to Holyrood, before pressing on to the day’s end at St Mary’s Cathedral.
Salisbury – Salisbury Cathedral’s From Darkness to Light special service celebrates the beginning of advent. Starting with a single candle and growing to a full procession with light and song. What better way to arrive at this evocative service than by emerging from the darkness of night itself, and walk with a candle lantern or torch into the city.
York – if you’d rather avoid the mud completely, try this circular city pilgrimage. This route takes you through York’s many diverse religious beliefs of its inhabitants. On this journey there is something of all these historical ages of life from the beliefs, sufferings and joys of the Pagan, Christian and Jewish communities.
Canterbury – there are lots of different well maintained routes into the city that are great in winter and it has a city circular route too. The river route takes you to the medieval heart without having to pass through suburbia. The city has welcomed pilgrims for over a thousand years, attracted by St Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury Cathedral and St Martin’s Church – the oldest church in the English-speaking world – and its many other ancient churches, saints, holy springs, and, latterly, Chaucer’s tales.
Staying safe in winter
- Always check the weather forecast in advance and on the day of your journey and follow advice accordingly.
- Always take waterproofs, scarfs, hat and gloves. Wear multiple layers of clothing so you can manage your temperature in cold conditions, especially when you go from being active to stillness. Felted wool clothing offers noise-free weather protection.
- Wear footwear with sensible soles for muddy conditions. Wooden staffs, sticks or metal walking poles are also great for stability.
- Allow plenty of time for your journey so you don’t have to rush on slippery paths.
- Make sure you can be seen in low light levels with bright or reflective clothing.
- Take a torch (and check the batteries) even if you plan to finish your journey before sunset.
- Take a hot drink and plenty of snacks.
- Know your path – you can use our google maps to check the environment when selecting a path. Most 1-day routes are quite safe in winter, particularly those that finish in a city. Look for sections on roads or more challenging environments like coastal or hillside paths. Ensure you are prepared for the terrain and download the map before setting out so you can use them offline and check your live location.
Prefer to walk with a guide? Check out our winter guided pilgrimages and leave the wayfinding to us.
Enjoy connecting with others or join a Silent Pilgrimage, and walk with your own thoughts.