Magazine article The Spectator

Pilgrimage's Progress

Magazine article The Spectator

Pilgrimage's Progress

Article excerpt

One of Britain's oldest Christian traditions is reviving in a strange new form

If Christian Britain is fading away, what will survive of it? One answer seems to be pilgrimage. In the past decade, 30 pilgrimage routes have been created or rediscovered; holy places have seen a 14 per cent growth in visitor numbers since 2013. These figures are recorded by a new organisation, the British Pilgrimage Trust, which wants to 'revive the British pilgrimage tradition of making journeys on foot to holy places'.

The BPT stresses that not all pilgrims are religious: 'Bring your own beliefs' is the slogan. Guy Hayward, who co-founded the BPT with Will Parsons, observes: 'We have to tread very carefully around the language of spirituality and religion.' But he thinks pilgrimage has a universal appeal: it connects you to the world, and to other people. 'You're walking in the land, in nature, you're talking to people. It's not complicated, but at the same time it's very tangible.'

Perhaps, then, pilgrims should leave their smartphones at home? 'No, no!' Parsons is emphatic. 'We think that modern pilgrimage requires modern technology to make the most of it.' Phone maps are better than a fold-out when you're lost in a wood. The BPT plans an app to link pilgrims with accommodation spots -- churches, fields, village halls.

Britain was once a land of pilgrims. In the Middle Ages, the shrine to the Virgin Mary in Walsingham, Norfolk, was one of Europe's most-visited pilgrimage destinations. Then in 1538, Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell banned pilgrimages. The shrine was demolished, the famous statue of Our Lady of Walsingham dumped on a bonfire, and the site turned into luxury housing. An Elizabethan balladeer sighed: 'Bitter, bitter, O to behold/ The grass to grow/ Where the walls of Walsingham/ So stately did show.'

The grass grew for another 300 years, until, at the end of the 19th century, first Anglicans and then Catholics reclaimed the shrine. Today Walsingham attracts 250,000 visitors a year, and is expanding. The Catholic shrine has just launched another building project.

Many of Britain's pilgrims are Christians. But many are simply curious, or historically minded, or keen to walk somewhere beautiful. The BPT points out that Britain is full of holy places; it's creating a database of pilgrimage routes. The shortest on their list is a ten-mile trip from Abingdon Abbey to Christ Church cathedral, Oxford. The longest -- whose route the BPT is in the process of developing -- is a 21-day walk from Winchester to Canterbury, taking in three river sources, nine holy wells, 61 pubs and 78 churches.

The BPT was partly inspired by the huge success of the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. (Last year more than 5,000 Britons walked it.) Leslie Gilmour, who runs the Camino Adventures website, has often asked pilgrims if they're religious. 'Most jump straight in there and make the distinction between religion and spirituality. There's spirituality that a lot of people believe in who have no affiliation with religion.' What kind of spirituality? 'There's more connection with other people on a day-to-day basis on the Camino than I think most people have at home,' he says. Pilgrims naturally turn to one another for help, and treat one other equally. 'The ego is very much stripped away when you're just walking and there's no BMW in the car park, or big houses or whatever. …

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