Pilgrimages have become a lost art. The advent of the car has not only changed our motivation to walk the distance, it has also changed our maps and the landscape itself. But there are routes around the world where people continue to walk the same paths that have been walked for hundreds—and in some cases even thousands—of years. While the motivation for many to walk these pilgrimage routes may have changed with the times, the impact of sacred journeys remains as profound as ever.
Dr. Guy Hayward, director and co-founder of The British Pilgrimage Trust, says, “There’s an appetite for walking with a purpose. We are redefining what a holy place is. Maybe it’s a church, but it could also be an ancient tree. The pilgrimage doesn’t have to be pagan or Christian. Holy means holistic. The pilgrimage gives meaning, rather than just a nice walk, and we need that.”
Routes such as the famed “Pilgrim’s Way” from London to Canterbury have been frequented by foot-travellers for centuries. The Camino de Santiago in Spain is similarly renowned. They, and many other pilgrimage routes across Europe, conclude at cathedrals of incredible beauty. Along the way, small churches, shrines, and towns add to the experience, with layers of meaning and history that can only be appreciated by walking the old ways.
But there are other roads with histories longer than even Christianity itself, such as the one from Folkestone to Dover to Stonehenge, which is more than 3,000 years old. But no matter which religion established the route, they are open to everyone, and travellers will find themselves walking through majestic forests and stopping at sacred spots where generations of humans have pondered the same big questions in life.
It was during the Middle Ages that the idea of pilgrimages got real traction in Europe. They became a rite of passage for many Catholics at a time when cathedrals stood as some of the world’s greatest marvels of engineering, beauty, and faith. Many of the routes that have been rediscovered in recent years bear the marks of that era.
An enriching experience
The reality of the walk is what makes it special, Hayward says. “It’s something to actually look at a tree and touch it. When you visit a holy well and commune with it, when you actually put your hand in it—it’s visceral.”
The many pre-Christian sites on British pilgrimage routes are something special that can’t be found anywhere else, Hayward says. Of the remaining pilgrimage routes in Europe, most are exclusively Catholic in their heritage, and almost all of the pre-Christian sites—places akin to Stonehenge—were destroyed centuries ago along with many of the sacred trees and tree groves that were central to ancient ceremonies.
But don’t throw stones at the Church for the loss. In the West, the idea of the pilgrimage is largely a Catholic gift to the culture. In fact, that’s precisely why the tradition was banned in Britain in 1538. Henry VIII broke away from the papacy and declared himself the supreme head of the Church of England. Pilgrimages were seen as a Catholic threat, so they paused for a few centuries, adding to the uniqueness of the British revival.
Classic pilgrimage routes
An oldie but goodie, Canterbury is still one of the most popular pilgrimage destinations. Geoffrey Chaucer’s classic, Canterbury Tales, is a pilgrimage story that’s still required reading in many high schools and universities. A coastal city, Canterbury was the gateway to Rome in ancient times, and it’s where St. Thomas Becket was martyred in 1170. It was also the home of St. Augustine of Canterbury, who is credited with bringing Christianity to England in the sixth century. Shrines to St. Augustine and Becket have been a pilgrimage draw for centuries, and since St. Augustine is the patron saint of brewers, pilgrims can feel good about wetting their whistles after a long day’s trek.
During the 16th-century Reformation, the Church of England broke away from the pope. Many formalities became seen as archaic, and pilgrimages made that list. The Enlightenment of the 18th century and the rise of Britain as a global superpower shifted the tone of pilgrimage to tourism.
During the 20th century, historian Julia Cartwright and writer Hilaire Belloc wrote The Pilgrims’ Way and reignited the spark for sacred treks. Now there are four main routes to Canterbury from Winchester, Guildford, London, Southwark, and Rochester.
These days, the pilgrims are not all Christian; all pilgrims are welcome. Should you decide to undertake a British pilgrimage, expect to meet soul-searchers of all types. A good place to start is with the British Pilgrimage Trust (BPT). The trust is stoking the pilgrimage revival flames by connecting people and places with everything from books to phone apps that use GPS.
Hayward says, “Some of the things involved with pilgrimage are human, not just religious, but there’s something very beautiful about religious buildings that have lasted hundreds of years. People really put a lot of thought into them.”
Walking with purpose
Perhaps it’s the intention of the creators that makes those religious places worth visiting.
Hayward also encourages people to set intentions before embarking on a pilgrimage of their own. “Dedicating the journey to someone or thinking of something you want to bring into your life or let go of—if you start off with these principles, you will have a different sort of walk.”
Hayward also draws inspiration from an unlikely place when he embarks on a trek. “The fool is the most important card in the Tarot. It is the first card, the number zero. He sets out toward the cliff with a smile on his face. Wandering into the unknown with an open mind.” This openness is what Hayward encourages people to embrace. It changes the nature of the walk, and the way fellow pilgrims connect.
“The quality of the conversation changes,” says Hayward. “Instead of being stuck face-to-face in a coffee shop, the conversation slows down. You are walking, so you can start and stop talking, and you don’t always have to be making eye contact. You get to know someone really well, really quickly.”
One of the BPT’s most popular routes in England is called the “Old Way.” Not for the faint of heart, it’s a 250-mile trek from Southampton to Canterbury. Almost forgotten, the BPT resurrected the Old Way from Britain’s oldest road map, the Gough Map, circa 1360. There was a strange red line on this map, and once explored, it took people through breathtaking nature and was dotted with holy shrines.
Another BPT route is The North Wales Pilgrims Way. At 140 miles, it’s recommended to allow a period of about two weeks for completion. It goes from Holywell to Bardsey Island. For ages, thousands of pilgrims found their way to Bardsey Island, which was known at the time as the edge of the world.
Today, The North Wales Pilgrims Way has been waymarked in Flintshire, which has a large holy water swimming pool. Pilgrims can kneel underwater on St. Beuno’s Stone for a personal baptism of sorts. Pilgrims will also have the chance to visit prehistoric stone circles, ancient churches, thousand-year-old stone crosses, sacred springs, and waterfalls.
There are tiny stone churches along the hillside, providing the same shelter and rest for modern pilgrims as they did for ancient ones. For the fortunate and the bold, pilgrims might have the chance to cross the water in a simple boat and arrive at Bardsey Island. It’s no wonder poets such as Gerard Manley Hopkins and R.S. Thomas found inspiration along this same route.
A shared trait commonly found amongst pilgrims is purpose. Some want to ponder a crossroads in their lives. Some wish to immerse themselves in nature and sacred thought. Some do it for charity, and some even just want to shed a few pounds from their waistlines.
But no matter the purpose and intention they have at the outset, people travelling these routes consistently find inspiration and connection to a higher power.
Whatever a pilgrim’s reason, the one thing they all have in common is that they’ve all walked every step of the journey, and in that process, they’ve changed.