Walking to St. Michael's Mount at low tide
There are many reasons to embark on a pilgrimage in modern times. It could be simply to escape the noise and clamour of daily life. It could for the therapeutic benefit of being outdoors or it might be to honour someone perhaps on Remembrance Day or just to spend time alone.
Another reason is that a history buff might like to retrace the steps of pilgrims from days of old.
Graveyard © Lynn Houghton
The truth of the matter is that covering long distances on your own two feet is known to profoundly affect the walker. I once trekked to the top of Mt. Sinai for the sheer enjoyment of the adventure. It was magical doing this under the full moon and quite hilarious sharing the trail with Bedouins and their camels. But there were many people on this trail that were on a serious pilgrimage and were ascending the mountain to be at the peak precisely at dawn. These were the people who climbed the rocky trail barefoot. It was a truly compelling experience.
On thing is certain, there needn’t be a religious motivation to embark on a pilgrimage today. And we have some truly fascinating and historic paths to try out. Check out www.britishpilgrimage.org to get ideas.
Something discovered recently by the BTO is the Old Way. Similar to the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain, this pilgrimage path was almost forgotten – but the BPT rediscovered it on Britain’s oldest road map (Gough Map, c.1360). This map reveals an intriguing red line running between Southampton and Canterbury. Taking our cue from the Gough Map’s key waypoints, the BPT has created a new long-distance pilgrimage route of 250 miles based on an ancient old way. Incredible.
The Solent Way © Lynn Houghton
I walked the Solent Way to raise money for a conservation charity based in Africa. This ancient path follows the coast of the Solent from the New Forest to the village of Emsworth. It is deemed to be historical as it weaves through the remarkable New Forest (formerly the hunting grounds of William the Conqueror), around Hurst Castle (built by Henry VIII) and past the Portsmouth Historic Dockyards. But the part of the path that I chose to walk was the section that King Henry II walked, and likely barefoot, in penance for the murder of archbishop Thomas a Beckett in the 12th century. There is a wonderful church to visit along the way in the village of Warblington appropriately named the Thomas a Beckett parish church. This is the part of the path that diverges into the wood or, as long as the tide is out, can be followed along the shingle beach and onwards to the charming village of Emsworth.
A couple of other suggestions:
· St. Michael’s Way is in Cornwall and thought to be one of the routes to St. James’ Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, Galicia. But what is fascinating about this 12.5 mile trail is that it begins at an ancient church on the beach near the village of Levant, which is dedicated to a female saint, St. Anta. Extraordinarily little is known about this saint so those with a streak for investigative prowess should definitely give this walk a go.
· The Pilgrims Way from Winchester to Canterbury is 153 miles along the chalk ridge of the North Downs. It dips into river valleys where major towns and cities are nestled such as Guildford.
For more information on British pilgrimages visit: https://britishpilgrimage.org/