How to create your own pilgrimage route

Here’s a ‘how to’ template for creating a short, 1-day or half-day, pilgrimage route on foot (or horse/mule/bicycle) to any holy place destination anywhere in Britain. The general principles could also be used for creating longer pilgrimages.

  1.        The destination could traditionally be a Cathedral, Abbey, Minster or Priory, or any other holy place that you deem fit to be a destination, e.g. the mouth of a river. Then find a pilgrim place start point which could be an ancient tree, ancient/prehistoric monument, mosque, synagogue, temple, war memorial, parish church, chapel, cathedral, labyrinth, hermitage, cave, grave, holy well, waterfall, source, or mouth of, a river, island and hilltop. Ideally, the start point will also be near good transport links, e.g. a train station.
  2.        If you have decided on a destination but not a start point, draw a circle of 6-8 miles diameter from your destination (or 3-4 miles for a half-day pilgrimage on foot) on an Ordnance Survey (OS) 1:25K Explorer Map (the type with the footpaths in green, not red), then start searching within that circle for similar holy places of some diversity (i.e. not just churches, see list below) that could potentially become holy waypoints along the route. Churches and chapels (and sometimes wells, prehistoric sites and river sources) are easily identified on an OS map. For more info on their history, visit Explore Churches. And for other kinds of ancient and modern monuments and holy wells, see English Heritage, National Trust, Cadw (Wales), Pastmap (Scotland), Megalithic and Holy Wells, Healing Wells & Sacred Springs of Britain (and look at the Files tab on the FB page) and the labyrinth map.
  3. If you have decided on both start and end points, but don’t know which holy places to choose in between, draw a straight line on the Ordnance Survey map between the start and end points and then use that as a guide to plot two different routes touching on holy/pilgrim places either side of the straight line to find two routes to test. It’s useful to use key pilgrim places as ‘anchor’ points by which you can design your route.
  4.       Look for diversity above all in both landscapes, historic and holy places. Aim for a mix of woodlands/open plains/marshland/riverside etc. See if you can find out if land on your route is organic, sustainably farmed, carbon-rich, biodiverse etc. Natural holy places are important as well as human-built holy places (e.g. see ancient tree inventory map, ancient yew tree map, UK Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, English local nature reserves, English national nature reserves, Welsh national nature reserves, Scottish national nature reserves). Non-religious historic places where significant historic events occurred (such as battlegrounds, inventions, important meetings etc) also add a local heritage dimension, as well as connecting with burial places, such as graveyards. 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.
  5.        Try to plot route along public footpaths as much as possible, rather than along the road (or public bridleways for equine-based travel). Walking along the road is possible, but not preferable (see our guide here), and ideally best if the road has a pavement or grassy verge alongside it for maximum safety. 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. If cycling, it’s better to use road sometimes rather than fragile footpaths, for more advice speak to those at the Cathedral Cycle Route.
  6.        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. The official Ordnance Survey map ‘OSMaps’ is good (£25/yr), or there is Outdoor Active, which allows you to toggle between Open Street Map, Google Satellite and OS maps (if you get the OS annual licence for £25/yr). You can then share the route electronically with other people by exporting as a .gpx file. Google Maps is also excellent as a display and search app and for plotting in urban areas, but does not show OS mapping so it’s good to transfer your data from Outdoor Active or OS app to Google, as most people feel familiar with Google and the icons are beautiful and you can add photos to your waypoints. The advantage of smartphone navigation for pilgrims is that they can’t get lost because the phone tells you where you are.
  7.        Perhaps set up a Pilgrim Passport and Stamp scheme which allows pilgrims to 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. Adding individual and unique QR codes at different points along the route allows you to track who has walked where along the route, which is useful to provide evidence for engagement with your route if you are ever applying for funding.
  8.        Be clear about start and end times, especially if people want to fit in lunch, cream tea (and in the case of cathedrals, Choral Evensong) into their day’s schedule. Referring people to suggested train and bus timetables from nearby transport hub towns and cities is useful, but NB these change frequently.
  9.        Find a pub/restaurant for lunch, at the half-way point or just before, which also functions as a loo stop. Discover local food outlets on Big Barn’s Map.
  10.        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)). The main thing is that somehow pilgrims’ arrival is recorded by the cathedral to get them excited about pilgrimage.
  11. As you plot the route, also bear in mind the importance of suggesting general spiritual practices at various holy places and waypoints – e.g. meditation, prayer, connecting with nature, water, stones, trees, plants and animals, singing/chanting and being silent etc. And to turn a walk into a pilgrimage, at the beginning set your private ‘intention’ – dedicate your journey to something that you want help with, or for which you want to give thanks.
  12. Or pilgrimage-specific practices like circumambulating a church before entering, lying down and looking at ceiling, having a ‘holy nap’ in church, or ‘looking at sky’ meditation, kneeling at the altar and thinking about things that matter to you, lighting candles, singing songs or reading poetry in the holy place, sign your name in the parish church visitors’ books, 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 by placing on a cairn in the cathedral, or keep it; and immerse in the wild water spots and imagine being cleansed, connect with trees and plants, and walk barefoot. All this helps to flesh out the spirituality of the pilgrimage.

To publicise, find photos of the various holy places online on Google Images search. If you want to use them publicly, check they have a Commons licence; Wikipedia’s images are often Commons licence. But first, you need to test walk your route.