A pilgrimage is a journey (on foot) to holy places. There are many types of holy places – natural and man-made – such as a parish church, chapel, mosque, synagogue, temple, hermitage, cave, grave, holy well, waterfall, ancient tree, ancient/prehistoric monument, war memorial, source, or mouth of, a river, and hilltop.
But whilst one can finish a pilgrimage at a remote island, holy well or great tree, cathedrals are the pilgrim’s destination of choice for cities, where most people live, work and celebrate together. Cathedrals are only found in cities, and have taken this ‘coming together’ instinct to an extreme, making them iconic testaments to human culture, society, art and, of course, spiritual practice. This is why, in Britain, cathedrals have become, over time, particularly powerful symbols of pilgrimage destination. And these observations are confirmed by the statistics, which show that cathedrals are the type of holy place that people downloading routes from the britishpilgrimage.org website most often want to visit.
But cathedrals need to be arrived at. And the best way to arrive is not to park your car in the nearby visitors car park, but to walk a few miles on foot via public footpaths, not roads. This way you become literally grounded in the landscape before arriving, and often have distant views of the cathedral miles before you arrive. Arrival at a cathedral can be a magical thing, and a walking pilgrimage is the most tried and tested way of achieving that magic (which can also be enhanced by arriving just in time for choral evensong, when the stones sing with human sound crafted over a thousand years).
Most of us don’t have much time these days, and some worry about their walking fitness. So to achieve this sense of arrival but without sacrificing too much, Britain is leading the way in establishing the validity of making ‘pilgrimage in a day’, averaging 8 miles in length. The bottom line is that pilgrimage is less about the how long, more the overall how. Because although you could class these journeys as mere walks, it doesn’t take much to upgrade your walk to a pilgrimage. For example, by setting an intention at the beginning by dedicating your journey to something that you want help with, or for which you want to give thanks, you will have created something more than what most people call a walk…But you can also go further by making a point of feeling your connection to nature, plants, birds and animals, being silent and mindful in the special places you come across and giving thanks at the end of your journey whilst lighting a candle. You can also have fun and experiment with your own pilgrim practices- one practice I like doing sometimes is lying down on the ground and watching the sky (you can do this in the nave of a cathedral too, imaging the ceiling as the sky!). Best of all, you do not need to walk for more than a day for all these acts to be possible!
Another great aspect of some one day cathedral pilgrimages is witnessing the transformation of the landscape from rural countryside into cityscapes- I can’t describe what it feels like to recognise this, so you will have to discover it for yourself. But wherever you are, walking a fully urban pilgrimage or a mixture of rural and urban, the human stories you will encounter in holy places will root you in the place and bring it alive. Cathedrals and their nearby parish churches are places that bring communities together in events like baptism, marriage and funerals, and places of local artwork, masonry, gravestones, memorials, stories told in stained glass etc.
The diversity of places, landscapes, histories and people represented by the 1-day pilgrimage routes to the 44 cathedrals we have created means that you can get to know Britain in a way you never have before. The collective spiritual heritage and natural landscape of Britain is as astonishing as anywhere else in the world. If you make a cathedral pilgrimage you are likely to feel closer to the land, and closer to yourself and those you walk with.”