How to guide a pilgrimage event

First steps

Where am I going to have my guided pilgrimage event?

Only choose a route that you love. The more you love it, the harder you will work to guide the very best guided pilgrimage you can. Choose a route where the landscape and the holy places inspire you. Then the practicals: can people easily get to the start by public transport, or can they park their car? The same goes for the destination. Ideally, try and keep car involvement to a minimum by choosing start and end points near train stations, but if you are starting and ending in remote places, then organise half the cars to be parked at the end for pickup, and half at the start point, to share the effort. Don’t choose too long a route, as groups go as fast as their slowest member, and you cannot predict what the precise pace will be. A good rule of thumb is 8 miles or less per day, and assume 1 mile per hour over the whole day (this is based on the BPT’s experience of guiding over a thousand pilgrims, and makes allowance for rest stops, loo stops, lunch breaks, and the phenomenon of people walking slower when they talk to others). Any longer than 8 miles and you should alert people. More detailed advice on the ‘where’, ‘how long’ and how to design your route here.

When am I going to have my pilgrimage event?

Perhaps pick a day of an anniversary of one the elements of the pilgrimage route itself, e.g. a saint’s day attached to the destination, or, if less of a Christian pilgrimage, then a seasonal festival like Harvest or May Day. Also, if the group walking with you has a meaningful shared anniversary, then pick that day. We say ‘day’ because this guide is largely about guiding 1-day pilgrimages. Anything longer than a day requires accommodation, which adds complexity. Advice on organising accommodation on guided pilgrimage will be dealt with separately elsewhere.

Other considerations are bank holiday weekends and national holidays. Choosing these ‘prime’ days may be a good idea, or may actually reduce your numbers. School holidays and half-terms are worth bearing in mind too. Sunday is a good day for pilgrimage, but cathedrals close earlier in general on Sundays, so be aware of opening hours and public transport schedules, and daylight hours too because arriving in the dark is not ideal. Fridays and Mondays are good for those who spend weekends with the family, or who want to tie in the pilgrimage with a weekend holiday. Saturday is good because it gives people a day to recover afterwards before work, but it is a ‘prime’ day. All days of the week have their different pros and cons.

Who should I invite to my pilgrimage event?

At the BPT, we always say “Open to All – Bring your own Beliefs”, to include as many people as possible, but it is up to you if you want to restrict participation based on certain criteria – and, of course, price will affect the inclusivity. But if you do say ‘Open to All’, this places a responsibility on you as the guide to deeply consider how you are going to guide people in such a way as there is something for everyone, and not so much of something that people feel uncomfortable. The general principle is to invite all pilgrims to take part in the more ‘spiritual’ practices, but allow them to not be involved if they choose (and best not to draw attention to those who aren’t taking part, as long as they aren’t being disruptive!).

The key shift of focus that pilgrimage represents is a move towards practice rather than belief. The more visceral and physical the practice the better, so that beliefs and language don’t get in the way of participation. Having said that, the language you use will be pivotal in whether you attract people: the more religious jargon you use the less inclusive you are being, because jargon requires insider knowledge that your pilgrims may not have. Always assume people don’t know what you are talking about…even the people who do may want to hear how you explain something from your perspective.

How can I theme my event?

Theming your event will largely depend on the route in question. You can theme around water, stones, trees, saints, historical happenings, seasonal festivals, celebrated individuals, famous groups of people, and others.

How should I test walk a route?

Ideally, you will test walk a route before selling tickets for your event, but, on balance, sometimes this is not feasible or desirable. It is possible to postpone this ‘test’ task until after you have starting selling tickets. Detailed guidance for ‘recce’ing’ or test walking a route can be found here. Many of the aspects of planning how you will guide the actual event will be revealed to you by walking it with this purpose in mind.

A very important task is getting in touch as early in the process as possible with churches and holy places, so that they know your plans for arriving on the test walk and for the actual guided event itself.

What is the process for selling tickets?

Which digital platform should I use to sell pilgrimage event tickets?

The BPT uses Eventbrite; but there are various online ticket managers, and some may be less expensive. However, Eventbrite is trusted and well-developed. Managing tickets online saves you the hassle of taking down contact details by phone via the order form. Also, along with asking questions on the order form that can be exported as a spreadsheet, it gives you options for selling different types of tickets, and streamlines the payment process. You can also send emails to all your pilgrims with one button click. The page describing the event looks good too, and gives the option of adding photos, in order to attract pilgrims.

What should the event description page contain?

Come up with a good title for the event, advertise the start and end time and the meeting place. Entice people with: a lively and informative description of the route (but not too long), the history, a list of holy places to be visited, beautiful photos, practices/rituals you will do along the way, travel details, who you are as a guide, what clothes and stuff to bring, where the profits are going, how many miles the route is, how spiritual or religious your guiding will be or not, physical fitness considerations, whether dogs are allowed (dogs can draw focus away from contemplation, fight with strangers’ dogs, worry livestock etc), and anything else you can think of.

How much should my tickets be?

In short, as much as you think people will pay: enough to make you happy with the effort you are putting in, and the right price point to get the right number of people in your group, not too big a group, not too small. Ways of enticing people to buy are: to offer a discount for people buying a pair of tickets to incentivise pilgrims to find a friend to join them, and concessionary prices. (NB with Eventbrite, always make sure the start and end date on the tickets are what you want them to be, otherwise it can say ‘sales ended’ for no obvious reason!)

What questions should I ask on the order form?

Anything you want to know the answer to! The BPT uses the order form as a way of gathering interesting data, as can be found here. But also questions like: mobile number, emergency phone contact, dietary reqs (if necessary), medical conditions, how did you hear?, disclaimer, taxi sharing, where people are travelling from etc., are useful ones to ask at this stage, to help you organise the logistics of the event.

What should I say on the order confirmation email?

Anything you think a pilgrim needs to know to have a good experience. We make our confirmation emails simple and light on detail to begin with, and add in more complex logistical details nearer the time of the actual event, about a week before, so details aren’t forgotten. On the email they get as soon as they buy a ticket, include things like meeting place and time, contact number for the guide, what to bring.

How do I publicise the event and find the right audience?

Always, for your first few guided events, text or email your friends who will want to support you, post on your personal social media channels, contact your local newspaper or village magazine. To get national publicity, list your event on our ‘Other Events Listings‘. If you let us know about it by email, we can advertise through our social media channels. Get in touch with local interest groups who may be aligned with your event.

What insurance and first aid training do I need to be a responsible pilgrim guide?

The BPT specialises in turning walks in Britain into pilgrimages, but the Ramblers are the go-to authority for practical guidelines for guiding walking events, and offer insurance cover for what they call ‘walk leaders’ but you’d need to be a member to qualify, and add your event as a Ramblers event through their channels. In general, liability insurance is relatively inexpensive for a low-risk activity like walking, and you don’t need specific training to be insured. Regarding First Aid training and whether it is required for insurance cover, the Ramblers say this: “If an individual on a walk requires first aid, any member of the group can provide assistance until qualified help arrives. There is no danger of compromising insurance cover when providing first aid as required. It’s better to do something rather than nothing at all.”
We would recommend that you tell your pilgrims to download the excellent ‘British Red Cross First Aid’ app on the smartphones, which has offline videos and step-by-step instructions for what to do in each type of first aid emergency crisis.

How do I guide the actual event itself?

Before the Event: Do as much logistical forward thinking as possible before the morning of the event, mainly around helping people arrive on time, so you are not stressed just as the event is starting, when everyone starts asking you questions all at once. (In fact, try and have a second contact person to share the burden of this last-minute flurry). Don’t arrive late to your own guided event: leave plenty of time for travel, and maybe stay the night before close to where you start if you don’t live locally. Leave a buffer in your schedule for people arriving late, because it is difficult to set off without them, and a balance needs to be struck between getting on with your schedule, and the extra effort it takes to organise pilgrims joining the group at a later stage.

At the Start: As people arrive, be warm and welcoming, and look happy to see people – but at the same time don’t allow pilgrims to come up to you with questions that will side-track you from more important tasks you may have to do which are time-critical. It’s good to have someone to divert people to at this critical stage who is there to help you. Later in the day, you can answer all the questions that are directed at you one-by-one, but the beginning is fraught unless you set proper boundaries between your pilgrims and yourself – they won’t realise how many things you need to organise at the beginning of the day!

Setting the Tone: When the moment comes that you want to start the pilgrimage, gather everyone into a space. Maybe a circle, maybe not. The following is how co-founder Guy Hayward starts a guided pilgrimage, but you can of course do it however you like.
– Introduce yourself.
– Let pilgrims know that either at the start or at a certain place they will be given opportunity to set a personal intention for their journey – i.e., something they want help with in their life, or something they want to give thanks for.
– Hand out any objects like pebbles or candles at this moment – anything you might invite pilgrims to use later in the day. A pebble can be ‘charged’, for example, if a pilgrim holds it in their hand whilst setting their intention.
– Describe the theme of the day – either the significance of the date on which they are walking, or what they will see during the day, and give some thread of narrative to the day’s events.
– Pass around a central lit candle: each person can say their name when holding the candle, and then look at each person in the group, before passing the candle to their left, and the next person does the same. This process takes a while, but by the end, everyone knows each other’s name and feels part of the group.
– Then suggest the group holds silence as everyone sets their personal intention (not saying out loud, for privacy) if you have decide to do that at the start.
– Explain the significance of the destination, so that people feel excited about where they are walking to.
– Finish with a poem or song to set the tone of the day. Maybe a folk song, carol or something which links in with the day.

The beginning sets the tone, and is the moment where people are most nervous about what they have signed up to, and look to their leader, you, most. As the group forms over the next couple of hours, this feeling of anxiety usually subsides, once they realise the day is going to be a heightened, more fun and meaningful version of walking!

Practicals: Explain that a group is like a pack, and everyone needs to look out for each other. One successful method is to get people to choose a ‘buddy’ who they don’t know, and then whenever you as the guide come to a turning point when walking, you stop, wait for those at the back to catch up, or your designated ‘backmarker’ person (this has the benefit of allowing pilgrims to change conversation partner and meet someone new). The buddy system works by you shouting ‘buddy’ and everyone checks to see their buddy is present, and then you don’t have to count everyone individually each time (which is inaccurate and exhausting because people move as you are counting!). If each pair of buddies don’t know each other, this reduces the likelihood that you will lose both at the same time. People get lost if someone decides, for example, to go off for a loo break but they don’t tell anyone else. It’s better to get all this sorted right at the beginning, because you are most likely to lose people at the beginning and trying to find them can be very difficult and take you wildly off schedule. The Ramblers have the gold standard of guidance on these practicalities.
If someone is being disruptive or generally difficult, always consider the feelings of the group as a whole over their individual feelings, whilst being respectful. The Ramblers give this guidance: “Speak to the person in a calm and professional manner; explain calmly the impact of their behaviour on the rest of the group; don’t put blame on the person as other issues might be affecting their behaviour; be open and listen, but also be assertive. If you feel that the situation isn’t being resolved and there remains a risk to the safety or enjoyment of the group as a whole, you have the option to ask the person to leave the walk.”

Photos/Videos: Make sure you get photos (or videos) of your pilgrims having a good time along the route in beautiful places for future publicity of your events, and try to capture the moments that make the walk a ‘pilgrimage’, not just a walk. If it is you taking the photos you may need to run ahead of the group to get a better perspective, and take a step back from any rituals that people perform (although this can be awkward so it’s up to you). Because of this, ideally ask someone else to take the photos, as you will be focused on other things at critical moments. Recommended all-round DSLR camera is the Nikon D3500. Videos and photos can also be done on smartphones.

Get Walking: As you come to particular holy places, have a plan for what you are going to say about the place, and what ritual or spiritual practice you are going to do, and perhaps let pilgrims know they can donate to churches and other holy places along the way. Less is usually more, as people are likely to get information overload during the day. Any history should be story-led rather than fact-led. And the shorter the ritual, the more impactful, usually. Think also about the overall rhythm of the day when devising the structure of information release and spiritual practices. (We will be dealing elsewhere with what spiritual practices to do on a guided pilgrimage, as each route will have its own rhythm. For the moment, at the bottom of this page is a list of spiritual practices.) In general, be light-hearted rather than earnest or serious.
Mark points on your map where you have significant views, or you can see a distant holy place coming up, or places good for stopping. Also, think about which sections you would like to make ‘silent’ sections where you ask the group to walk silently for about 10 mins (uphill sections are usually good!). Sometimes the social chatter of a group can draw people away from their inner contemplation and checking in on their intention, so it’s good to get a balance between talking and reflecting.

Lunchtime: Half an hour is optimal length of time if eating packed lunches outside and you have a tight schedule – but give people warning this is how long they have, and a 5-minute warning just before you leave. Try and stop at a place where people can go to the loo at lunch, either in woods, behind a hedge (bring biodegradable loo roll and a trowel as backup!) or actually in a building with proper facilities.

Setting the Pace: As you walk along, give people time to get over stiles, and through gates. When you are waiting at turning points for others to catch up, don’t set off as soon as they arrive because they may need to catch their breath, and otherwise it can be demoralising for them. It’s very important to wait at any point where the route becomes ambiguous and there are different possible ways to continue, and make sure you have a ‘backstop’ person to make sure they are the last person to arrive. Losing someone is a big problem and headache, and stressful for them, not least!
When you enter an urban area, having been in countryside for a while, be aware that people don’t realise how easy it is to disperse and get lost – you might find it necessary to go into ‘mother goose overdrive’ at these points.

Reaching your Destination: Make sure your exit logistics are well thought through, because once people think it’s time to go, things get chaotic and it’s hard to hold the group together. Therefore it’s good to gather the group about 20 minutes before you arrive at your destination to go through final logistics for departure, in advance of the moment they want to leave (to give time for booking taxis, organising lifts etc.).

Allow for the best approach to your destination holy place, and give them enough time at the end of the day to enjoy it, and make sure you arrive on time so that pilgrims can actually visit their destination! Make sure you close with some kind of group ceremony or get-together, to say thank you to each other, and give people chance to say anything they want to. They may have heard enough from you during the day, but this is their chance for their feedback and voices to be heard. And on that point, do always allow for questions at any time during the day, actively encouraging them, and be as honest and as thorough in your answers as you can be. This is a very quick way to gain trust.

What after-care do my pilgrims require?

Pilgrims may wish to keep in touch with each other, so let them know you will connect them if they ask. GDPR is an issue these days, so be careful in how you handle this. If you have taken photos of the day, you can share them with the group – people usually like to show photos to their friends. Also, share any nuggets of information, moments shared, poems and songs that people enjoyed – and ask for feedback if you can bear the criticism!

Does anyone teach people how to guide a pilgrimage event?

Not to our knowledge, but if you register your interest for such a teaching workshop by emailing us, if there is enough demand we may start to offer workshops.