Religion and travel are two topics that are rarely combined, yet the Guardian did so –- in a fashion –- with a piece on Britain’s ancient pilgrim routes and how they’ve soared in popularity. The point of the feature was that one need not be religious at all to tread ancient paths that honor everyone from St. Cuthbert, St. Cadfan, St. Werburgh and St. Chad to Saints Wulfad and Swithun.
What results are nature walks with likeminded people with not a nod to the religious history that has traditionally surrounding this activity. Imagine traveling to Mecca for the … architecture? Might religious convictions have something to do with the motives of some of the travelers?
Here’s an account of how secularized Brits are strolling from church to church just to get some peace and quiet.
In one of the smallest churches in England, a couple of dozen people are taking the weight off their walking boots for a moment of quiet reflection in the cool gloom. Outside, an unlikely April sun pours over the South Downs.
It seemed, says Will Parsons, a good moment to learn the lyrics of John Bunyan’s To Be a Pilgrim -- perhaps, he adds, adopting neutral terms “to be more inclusive”.
The group was soon belting out the 17th-century hymn, drawing curious passersby to peer into the tiny hillside Church of the Good Shepherd, in Lullington. Come wind, come weather, regardless of lions, giants, hobgoblins or foul fiends, “there’s no discouragement / Shall make them once relent / Their first avowed intent/ To be a pilgrim”, they sang.
This merry band are part of a new boom in pilgrimage which has seen the re-establishment of ancient routes and the growing participation of people on a spectrum of belief from religiously devout to committed atheists.
The story goes on to say the hikers were walking Lewes Priory to the Holy Well in Eastbourne over two and a half days.
Parsons and Guy Hayward, who founded the British Pilgrimage Trust in 2014, say there is a “buzz” around traveling with purpose among strangers. This year they have doubled the number of public pilgrimages they offer to meet demand. “Bring your own beliefs,” they urge their participants.
The piece then goes into a history of European pilgrimages, including the denizens of “The Canterbury Tales” as well as the ever-popular Camino de Santiago in Spain.
Leslie Gilmour, an atheist who has walked the Camino three times, attributed its growing popularity to a desire for a break from daily life that had a spiritual or contemplative dimension. “Sometimes people are facing big decisions and want time and space to reflect. Sometimes people want to find a community of sorts. Religion is often not the main motivation,” he said.
The British Pilgrimage Trust aims to tap into this. “We’ve opened up the definition of a holy place to include prehistoric burial sites, ancient trees, river confluences, hilltops,” said Hayward. “Lots of people simply want to connect with the natural world at a pace at which you can appreciate it.”
This piece reminds me of similar articles on non-religious retreat centers. I am not complaining that this piece totally neglected religion -- there are some hints -- but some background on what these pilgrimages used to entail would have been nice.
Essentially, pilgrimages meant following in the footsteps of holy people who once trod those paths or whose remains inhabit a shrine at the end of the journey. Pilgrimages were also undertaken as penance for sin, as supplication for a favor from God or simply out of devotion.
I appreciate the Guardian’s generous religion coverage and reading this piece has certainly made me want to walk many of these pathways through the UK, (all of which were photographed in sunny weather, which has never been my experience of Great Britain).
It just seemed odd how the piece was geared totally toward the non-religious, as if to pacify any would-be hiker who's worried that a little piety might rub off on them.
What amuses me is the assumption that religion is a factor that can be ignored in these travels. If these are truly faith-free zones, should they be called "pilgrimages" at all? Or maybe Britain's Christian heritage isn't so bad? Might there be a story in the travels of pilgrims who are mixing hiking with prayer and fellowship?
After all, C.S. Lewis loved daily walks and early in his career did annual walking tours in places like Ulster, Surrey, Oxford and the Malvern Hills (with J.R.R. Tolkien and friends). Perhaps the British Pilgrimage Trust might consider a trip through the Carlingford Mountains of southern Ireland; the country that inspired much of Lewis' descriptions of Narnia?
It's a thought.