The British Pilgrimage Trust is working to make pilgrimage in the British landscape attractive and help pilgrims to ‘bring your own beliefs’. We want those taking up pilgrim pathways to be representative of Britain today – which flourishes in its diversity.
Because making pilgrimage is a physical act, practised and tested out on the ground rather than on the page or in policy, so too is the concept of Bring Your Own Beliefs. It is put into practice every time a pilgrim travels out along the path, and with every encounter they have along the way.
The questions we ask ourselves at the BPT, and encourage others to ask themselves, are these:
How can we make pilgrimage inclusive and accessible to everyone?
How can we ensure that pilgrimage is fulfilling to all?
What aspects of inclusivity have we not yet considered in our endeavours?
These are questions we also turn to you.
If you would like to contribute to our Bring Your Own Beliefs policy, or have answers to the questions above that you wish to share, get in touch.
Pilgrimage is a pathway for practices that elevate the experience of moving through a landscape to one that is also an inner journey. The British Pilgrimage Trust believes that such a journey should be made on an individual’s own terms, requiring no set beliefs. It is a pathway that should be open, accessible, and welcoming to all.
Diversity in the British Countryside
The migration of birds and beasts across the globe demonstrates an innate animal instinct to travel and to seek. Indeed, the earliest traces of mankind reveal us to be a travelling species. Hunter gatherers do not stay in one place. They move.
Immersion in nature brings us closer to this primal part of ourselves. By paying particular attention to the land through which we travel, and the effect these places have on us, it is possible to cultivate a sense of belonging in, and return to, the natural world. In Britain we are losing our connection to this world at an alarming pace. We see pilgrimage as a practical route into re-forming this connection. This opportunity for reconnection is open to everyone.
The ability to feel ‘belonging’ to a landscape is a thoroughly contemporary, as well as ancient, issue. The British Pilgrimage Trust is grateful for the incredible footpath network in Britain, which enables public access to the countryside. This is a practical starting point for opening out rural landscapes for all to benefit from: but we understand that this is not always enough to create a sense of being welcomed in, and belonging to, the rural landscapes of Britain.
The BPT is continually working to open the countryside conceptually, as well as practically, to all.
Pilgrimage is not a costly venture, and we wish to encourage pilgrims of all economic backgrounds to take up the practice. Out on the path, you need only pay for the food that you eat, and the place that you sleep – both of these basic requirements can be attained at minimal (and sometimes no) cost. In Scotland, wild (and free) camping is almost universally permitted – as long as you follow the Outdoor Access Code, and the same is true in some parts of Dartmoor national park. In England, while wild camping is not permitted, it is easy to find low-cost campsites, for as little as £5-£10 per night.
We are also launching the Sanctuary Project. This will provide low-cost accommodation to pilgrims, and will launch first on the Old Way. We hope to extend the Sanctuary Project across the UK.
British Pilgrimage routes are, wherever possible, accessible by public transport: pilgrims should be able to access routes at minimal cost – to themselves, and to the environment. While it is true that some kit is required in order to make pilgrimage (especially if your pilgrimage is over a day long,) good basics last for many years – and can often be bought more cheaply second-hand.
It is always possible to spend more on pilgrimage – eating in pubs rather than buying basics from shops along the way, staying in B&B’s rather than sleeping in a tent, visiting places with entrance fees – but the baseline cost of pilgrimage should enable people on most incomes to make pilgrimage in Britain.
Ages and Abilities
Most of the time spent on rural pilgrimage is spent immersed in the natural world. We encourage pilgrims to walk slowly through their surroundings: pilgrimage is not about how far you travel, but about how deeply you travel. Making pilgrimage can be a process of days and months – even years – but you can also make a pilgrimage in a matter of hours.
Regardless of age or physical capabilities, pilgrimage is open to everyone. It is the quality of attention and presence of mind that enrich the experience of pilgrimage, rather than the number of miles covered. Statistically, there is not a significant difference between the distances travelled by those walking in their 20s and those in their 60s – and we have welcomed pilgrims in their 70s and 80s who cover 10 miles a day (an average day’s walking for a pilgrim) with ease. For many, making pilgrimage is a low-impact and low-risk physical activity that can be enjoyed at virtually any age. It is also a practice that facilitates openness and conversation between the generations.
By setting an intention and a destination, you are making pilgrimage – whether or not you are on an ‘official’ pilgrim path. While we are still developing a pilgrimage routes that have confirmed accessibility from start to finish, regardless of physical abilities, there is already an initiative called Miles Without Stiles. This is a nationwide network of walking routes in national parks for people with limited mobility, including wheelchair users, families with pushchairs, and the visually impaired. We have also developed a series of urban pilgrimages, which are more easily accessible than rural pilgrimages to differently-abled pilgrims. We are always, however, open to new ways of making pilgrimage accessible.
Responses to Holy Places
One of the key observations we have made over the years is that whilst the practice of pilgrimage brings people together, it encourages individual responses and observations. Every pilgrim’s response to holy places, and to the practices we encourage them to make, is unique. We encourage pilgrims to respond to each holy place as they wish: to make up their own minds.
For the British Pilgrimage Trust, a holy place is any place that, for whatever reason, holds resonance. This resonance might be felt by one person or by many – at an ancient tree, a river’s source, a long barrow, shrine, cathedral, breathtaking vista – for a longer list of possible holy places, click here. Much of the BPT’s work in devising guided pilgrimages, or in creating route guides, is identifying places that might resonate with modern pilgrims: and so the places we encourage pilgrims to stop, contemplate, and engage with are as individual as pilgrims are.
We do not claim to have identified every holy place along a pilgrim path: for the land and the places within it show themselves differently to every pilgrim. There are always more places to find. This is the joy of the ‘Bring Your Own Beliefs’ principle: the path is always open to new interpretations, information, and explorations. In this spirit, we welcome feedback, knowing that we do not know everything.
In modern Britain, pilgrimage can be made by anyone, whatever their beliefs. We also feel it is important to promote shared access to the oldest known holy places in the landscape – which in Britain are often of Christian or pagan heritage. An important question for us is how to make the land’s known devotional heritage – intertwined with one particular faith – a welcoming, inclusive and open place to a contemporary Britain that flourishes in its diversity.
We see pilgrimage, which encourages pilgrims more to practise than to believe, as an invaluable act through which to achieve this openness. There are therefore no religious persuasions or particular beliefs in the BPT’s approach to pilgrimage. Instead, we seek to make pilgrimage open, accessible and welcoming to all.
We have gathered suggestions for pilgrimage practices, which have, in our experience, the most universal and deeply rooted appeal. These practices have been collected from those we have made pilgrimage with, and from looking to the past and across continents. These are often incredibly simple: treading carefully and in silence through woodland, affirming an intention before setting off on the path, reaching out to make physical contact with an ancient tree, church, stone circle or pure source of water. For a longer list of pilgrim practices, click here.
We encourage pilgrims to explore these practices and see how they feel: do they work for you? ‘Bring Your Own Beliefs’ means following your own instincts – if a suggested practice doesn’t feel right to you, perform a different act instead. This is, perhaps, a sign that you are ‘tuning in’ – that you are opening yourself out to all that pilgrimage can offer.
A Work in Progress
If you would like to contribute to our Bring Your Own Beliefs policy, get in touch.