Britain’s Holy Places

‘Holy’ is a loaded term these days, but for the BPT it means anything which makes you feel wholesome, healthy, or holistic (cf. the Old English word ‘halig’, from which the word holy is derived).

Pilgrimage by foot is connected with places and landscape. The spirituality of a pilgrimage largely comes from connecting with the spirit or soul of place. This is not reducible to what a place looks or sounds like, but how the place makes you feel. Or the more intangible experience of you feeling a place’s own essence, which comes from a varying ratio of both the quality and repetition of activity in that place throughout its history, and the innate raw essence of the land in which the place sits.

And Britain has a very high concentration of holy places – 16,000 Anglican churches, and many more thousands of holy wells, ancient trees and monuments. There are more churches than pubs, even. Churches, wells and trees each connect us with different aspects of holiness or wholeness. Churches deal with the human side of holiness – processing our emotions and desires, and establishing our communities – whereas trees are the most complex and often ancient plant forms, and holy wells are the most pure sources of water. But there are many more types of holy place…

 The Temples of Britain:

Cathedrals, churches, chapels, whether in use, redundant or ruined – Britain has tens of thousands of houses of worship, of all different shapes, sizes and ages… They are imbued with the cultural heritage of art, architecture, folklore, songs, craft, and captivating tales of endurance, generosity, grief and love. Walk around a graveyard and the names of all those who have come before are laid out before you, of high and humble status, telling the stories of the community.

Lincoln Cathedral. Credit: Juha Remes, iStockPhoto.

A wide range of different faiths now practise in this land, though the vast majority of religious buildings are Christian, reflecting Britain’s long history of Christianity. A growing number of people in Britain find the identity of these holy places troubling. They can find churches tribal spaces, heavily embedded with symbols of their racial history, power structures and social assumptions.

Green Man, Durham Cathedral

But that is only one angle. Firstly, they are places of this land and contain its history. But also, if you are of another faith or denomination, or none, consider what all churches essentially strive to do. They are places to connect with a higher truth. They link us to something beyond our human differences. Your God may be there too.

Beyond the specificities of belief, also consider the echoes of many generations of local people who have shared silence and song in these places, coming together as one. The role of a local church is also to facilitate collective witness to important moments for any community – for welcoming (baptism/christening), joining (marriage) and for sending people on their way (funerals). 

Saxon Font, Toller Fratrum Church, Dorset

 

7th-Century Saxon Crypt, Hexham Abbey

You may also want to attend the glorious musical service of Choral Evensong performed free of charge by highly-skilled choirs in churches and cathedrals across Britain and Ireland – to coordinate your church visit with Evensong, click here.

In churches and cathedrals simply close your eyes, breathe and feel the place. You may be surprised how calming and uplifting they can be. If you have other rituals that feel appropriate which do not impact on other pilgrims, then feel allowed. Some ritual practices we suggest are to circumambulate a church before entering, lie down and gaze at ceiling, kneel at the altar and think about things that matter to you, light a candle, sing a song or recite poetry, touch a ‘contact relic’ – a shell, stone, personal to you etc. – on holy objects, sign your name in the parish church visitors’ book, and give a donation. These all help to physicalise the spirituality, and activate your ritual subconscious.

On a more practical level, it is not always possible to physically get into a church. Many British churches are locked, for reasons of security or logistics. Look to the noticeboard or Google and ring phone numbers given. Particularly in the larger churches or cathedrals, if asked why you want to go in, say you want to pray or that you are a pilgrim. It opens doors.

Lady Chapel Door, Glastonbury Abbey

Holy Water

Britain was once famed through Europe as a land of water. Our freshwater springs were sweet and ever-flowing, providing mineral richness and clean drinking for all inhabitants of the land.

For a long time, water emerging from the ground was revered as holy. It was seen as a gift, a living mystery and clear evidence that we are sustained by a powerful and generous force. Then we invented taps, and so water became standardised, and our relationship with it thus blander.

But the tradition of respecting water has endured. Well-Dressing in Yorkshire is a famous example, where people annually decorate well-heads with beautiful flowers and cloths as an act of veneration and gratitude. There are also long-standing traditional beliefs that water responds to music and song, and can be used to give and take blessings from it.

St Nectan’s Kieve Holy Waterfall. Credit: ValeryEgorov, iStockPhoto.

The BPT recommends holy wells, river-sources, mouths, springs and confluences as holy places for its routes. These are sites of flowing goodness that draw people to them.

A classical pilgrimage form would be to follow a river from sea to source (and/or vice versa). Likewise, confluences – places where the water from one river joins another – have long been regarded as sacred. The source of a river is often very modest, a pure trickle of newborn water, and as the river starts to move through the landscape it picks up other influences (sometimes less pure) in the form of tributaries, takes leaps of faith in its waterfalls, and carries on growing in width and size until at its mouth it reaches the great oneness of the sea. This is like birth, life and death! And humans have often settled by the riverside, so it makes for a wonderful pilgrimage route.

But many holy wells and springs have not survived, or retained their purity. They have been diverted for industrial purposes, tapped by water companies, poisoned by nearby landfill burial sites, or simply lost in the undergrowth. Some holy wells are conspicuous in their absence, like the Well of St Thomas at Canterbury Cathedral, once the centre of the great pilgrimage cult of Thomas, responsible for thousands of healing experiences – but no longer anywhere to be found… Indeed, many holy wells are dedicated to Christian saints, but would have likely been dedicated to prehistoric deities before they were Christianised.

When you do find holy water, the BPT recommends getting as close as possible. Immersion is best, safety permitting! At the least, put your hands in the water and sense the body of water with which you are in contact. Drinking is recommended, but in most instances you’ll need to filter water for safety with a reputable filter (e.g. Grayl or MSR brands). Silver pins are also good for blessing and petitioning the water (as you make your wish, bend the pin to render it functionally useless, and therefore ritualistically useful).

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St Helen’s Immersion Well, Hastings

Islands

The most ‘watery’ land type is an island. Being surrounded by water, hermits throughout the ages have sought retreat on islands. Being cut off from society like this provided conditions required for peaceful contemplation, uninterrupted by other humans. Also, the water itself is calming, and provided a different elemental experience. The more famous the saint, the more they needed this isolation – e.g. St Cuthbert was such a celebrity that he often retreated to islands.

Bardsey Island. Credit: AlasdairJames, iStockPhoto.

A Holy Land

Often it is the land in between the specific holy places that strikes one as holy. Land which is sustainably farmed, underpinned by carbon-rich healthy soil, biodiverse with many different kinds of (well-managed or wild) native trees, flowers, animals and bees, with pure air and pure rivers, and clean energy and clean nutrients, will make you feel better, compelling you to walk with a spring in your step!

“In the same way that other holy places can be enlivened and refined through conscious attention, whether in the form of meditation, prayer, singing, or simply receiving the impressions of the spiritual practice which went before us with gratitude, the same is true of farms, especially those which are stewarded by human beings who are mindful of their higher responsibilities to look after the earth. When you visit such farms, there is an atmosphere of harmony and beauty which is tangible and possible to perceive if one’s attention is good. The work of the farmers will be helped by your good attention and appreciation.” Patrick Holden, Director of the Sustainable Food Trust.

In order to save our rapidly depleting countryside and lands of healthy soil, we need to love it first, and let that love stream into any action we take. By walking through the kind of land we need to save (and, by contrast, land that is unhealthy and depleted) you will know what needs to be done, even if only on an intuitive level. We must also start to respect farmers who know how to heal our land. They are a dying breed, and as a society it is only by valuing them higher that we will achieve what must be achieved.

Hay Bluff and the Wye valley as seen from top of Twmpa. Credit: MJHODGEN, iStockPhoto.

Great Trees

Certain trees in Britain pre-date the birth of Jesus, and are indeed the elders of our landscape. They are tremendous reminders of the beauty and strength of creation.

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Some of the oldest trees in Britain are Yews, which often are found in churchyards, and are usually far older than the church itself. It has been often suggested that before churches were made of stone, communities gathered under Yew trees to connect with higher truths beneath these powerful trees.

Yews are symbols of everlasting life and rebirth in the druidic tradition – it is a tree that is often seen as a morbid or toxic, but actually it provides invaluable protection and nesting opportunities for birds and other life forms. The tree’s fruit – red berries – are delicious (as long as you only eat the red juicy life-giving flesh, and don’t crunch down on the poisonous black stone inside, and preferably spit it out).

The tree’s regeneration is shown by how it sprouts son and daughter yew trees around the central grandfather/grandmother tree, and its changeability is shown by its occasional sex changes. Clearly a symbol of transformation for humans it is found in churchyards, its roots growing through the eyesockets of skulls buried there. Do you think ancient yew trees should have legal rights as organisms in their own right?

Ancient oaks and beeches are equally impressive to connect with. ‘Talk’ with them by resting against them and noticing the thoughts and feelings you have – they may be quite different to what you have experienced before. ‘Tree Hugging’ has become a source of ridicule, but we at the BPT would venture to ask ‘Why wouldn’t you want to touch a tree?’.

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2000-yr-old Yew Tree, Compton Dundon.

Holy Hills

Perhaps it’s because they are hard to climb – or maybe bring us closer to the heavens – or because they offer big open views, having the effect of opening our minds. Whatever the reason, something of British humanity’s ancient hill-dwelling days still resonated, and we are drawn to the windswept places. Holy hills are often adapted by humans in various ways, with defensive ramparts, or carefully planted trees, or tumulis. In a few cases, whole hills are even built by ancient people.

As such, hill tops are often considered today to be holy places, where people find an ability to contemplate more deeply.

The Tor from the East

Ancient Retreats (Hermitages, Caves)

Just like hilltops and islands, any place where our forebears could ‘get away from it all’ often presented opportunities for inner searching. If they wanted to make a more committed effort they might set up a hermitage building in the remote place and live there, sometimes for years or decades. Caves also provided ready-made shelter, e.g. the cave by Whithorn where St Ninian would contemplate. Britain has many of these types of places, and sometimes they are marked on the Ordnance Survey map, such were their importance.

St Ninian’s Cave, Whithorn.

Holy Ruins

There are a lot of devastated sacred sites in Britain, both because of the sixteenth-century Reformation and the way prehistoric sites have been treated over time as agriculture and Christianisation took hold. However, because the spirit of place usually remains even when the physical ‘body’ of the place is a shadow of its former self, you can still find peace and solace in these places. Next time you are at a ruined High Altar of some great medieval monastery, or see a depleted stone circle, kneel on the grass at the altar and touch the stone. Arguably this makes the magic of pilgrimage, of ‘being there’, even more tangible.

Dryburgh Abbey

Ancient Monuments

All over Britain can be found the markings of British people long dead. Tumuli of all sorts – long barrows, chambered cairns, round barrows – stone circles, standing stones, avenues, earthworks…the sheer effort of creating these structures, and the fact that they have survived, makes these structures holy. They are often part of landscape architecture on a scale we can’t conceive of today, with connections formed visually between hilltop mounds tens of miles apart. And even on the scale of individual stone circles or barrows, you can centre yourself in the landscape by surveying the panoramic views they afford. Often without interpreted decoration, encountering them is more visceral than intellectual. We may never know exactly what happened there, and therefore your felt imagination is required. 

Waylands Smithy

 

Cerne Giant – Cernunnos

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Temples of other faiths

Ancient places of non-Christian and non-Prehistoric traditions do exist in Britain, even though fewer and further between. Notable examples in London are the Bevis Marks Synagogue, Brick Lane Mosque, Baituh Futuh Mosque, Sri Murugan Hindu Temple, Neasden Temple, Wat Buddhapadipa Buddhist Temple. Elsewhere, there is the Shree Mahavirswami Jain Temple in Harrow, the Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking, and the Liverpool Muslim Institute. 

The only substantial Muslim pilgrimage centre in Western Europe is found in Nuneaton.

A dargah or traditional shrine structure houses the grave of Muhammad Abdul Wahab Siddiqi. His shrine is visited by pilgrims of the Sufi tradition, who come from Britain and continental Europe.

In the Buddhism tradition, there is the well-known Centre for World and Peace on the Isle of Arran offering spiritually-demanding retreats. The Chithurst Buddhist Monastery, and the remote Palpung Changchub Dargye Ling in Ebbw Vale in the Welsh valleys.

There are strong remnants of historical Jewish presence in Lincoln on Steep Hill, and Clifford’s Tower in York.

The BPT needs to start conversations with all these places to learn more about how they would receive pilgrims that come from other traditions.

Open To All

If you are interested in displaying this symbol at a holy place near you, please get in touch…