Why everyone should make a pilgrimage in Britain (even atheists)
23 NOVEMBER 2017
I was told, on arrival at the tiny station of Sandling in the depths of Kent, to “BYOB. Bring Your Own Beliefs.” I was spending the next four days with the British Pilgrimage Trust, a new movement bringing pilgrimages back to Britain. But these are not just holy journeys for devout Christians: committed atheists and everyone in between are welcomed and encouraged to embrace the idea of slow travel on foot with strangers.
My fellow pilgrims were exactly that melting pot: Olivia, 26, a film-maker escaping the daily grind; Karen, 42, an archaeologist advocating sustainable travel; John, 34, a plumber recovering from his father’s death; Jenny, 52, a psychologist exploring holistic healing; and Sandy, 60, a chef meditating on nature. And then there was me, 32, a regular church-goer approaching the pilgrimage as a faith-strengthening exercise. The trust’s founders, Guy Hayward (classical singer) and Will Parsons (“wandering minstrel”) were our leaders.
Each armed with a hazelwood staff, we headed into the sun-dappled forest around Sandling, our route devised from the early Gough Map of Britain. We were walking part of the Old Way, a medieval 220-mile pilgrims’ route from Southampton to Canterbury and the path that the four knights took on their way to murder Thomas Beckett, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1170.
Our first stop was Saltwood Castle, home of the late politician and diarist Alan Clark. We filled our water bottles from the castle well (water filtered by Guy) while singing a jolly medieval song: “Water Flows, Life is Given/Rises from Earth, Falls from Heaven.”
Surging forward, we scaled ancient hilltops, explored woods, clambered up Iron Age burial mounds and foraged for berries. We circumambulated ancient churches – a practice drawing upon Buddhist, Islamic and Catholic influences – before resting our heads on the buildings’ stonework, inspired by pilgrims at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.
Inside, some of us prayed at the altar. “I was drawn there,” explained one of my walking companions, describing herself as “spiritual but not religious”. Others sat in the pews admiring the stained glass windows or reading the memorial stones. As Will put it: “If God does nothing for you, consider the many generations of local people who have shared silence and song in these places. Think of churches as living community hubs, places of common welcoming (baptism), joining (marriage) and saying goodbye (funerals). In them, something simply echoes.”
We picnicked in a field of sheep, finishing with creamy milk from a nearby farm. Suddenly life couldn’t get any better even if, in true British fashion, it began to rain. As dark descended, we completed our nine-mile stretch to Elham, an ancient market town where Wellington stayed when planning Waterloo. Bed was in the Rose & Crown (bigger groups sleep in the town hall).
After a hearty breakfast, we set off the next day for an 11-mile leg to Patrixbourne. An avenue of poplar trees brought us to Bedlam Wood, where we walked in silence, medieval style, tiptoeing “to allow the incredible wildlife of the woods to relax, and become more noticeable”, explained Will. It was blissful having the time to ponder.
Majestic country estates slipped past as we strolled along leafy lanes. After Bishopsbourne, we arrived at St Mary’s Church, Patrixbourne. We spread out across the church with our roll mats and snuggled into our sleeping bags, some under pews, others in the aisle and the chapel. Guy burst into song – the beauty of the singing soon dispersing any fear.
We were woken at 7am by the church bells and the piercing blue of the stained-glass windows. Andrea, the church warden, had provided bread and home-made jam for breakfast. Wild swimming in a pond in the nearby woods woke everyone up (freezing cold). Today our goal was Canterbury – more than seven miles away, via Fordwich, the landing point for Julius Caesar’s army.
The rippling river Stour, dotted with fishermen, led us towards the steps of Canterbury Cathedral, where we sat in the front row for evensong, basking in the soaring voices of the choristers. After a night in a Canterbury hostel, our merry band set off, blurry eyed, at 6am to make the low tide at Whitstable – the “Finisterre” of the pilgrimage (named after Cape Finisterre, the final destination of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route).
Having put the world to rights, we arrived in time to walk “The Street”, a natural strip of shingle half a mile into the sea. As we reached the furthest point, I threw my staff into the sea. “Learning to let go with grace is a crucial practice,” Will had explained. So I let my staff continue on its journey as I turned back from mine.