Tag: pilgrimage

Why walking with the Northern Saints is the perfect spring break

The dawn of Christianity remains imprinted on the landscape of County Durham and Northumberland. There are over 100 ancient, stone churches, many dating from the Saxon period, plus various spiritual sites, and pilgrimage routes.

The region is now celebrating its ancient heritage with six new pilgrim routes, known collectively as The Northern Saints. The linear walking trails, based on ancient pilgrimage pathways, chart the spiritual history of the Northeast as the Christian crossroads of the British Isles.

“The northern Saints cared deeply about the people of this region,” says Helen Savage, the vicar representing the Moorland group of churches, including Blanchland Abbey on the route.

“Their intense commitment has helped to keep the flame alive for the work in these parts.” 

The golden age of British pilgrimage lasted from the 12th to the early 15th century and the Northeast became a haven for pilgrims. During the 13th century, indeed, many British cathedrals were so besieged by pilgrims that normal church services were frequently disrupted.

This was especially true of Durham’s now Unesco-listed cathedral, which today provides a spiritual anchor point to the pilgrim trails fanning out from the city.

Pilgrimage is increasingly popular again, but modern-day pilgrims are more likely to be seeking a sanctuary from their busy lives and driven by a need to reconnect with nature.

The Northern Saints, waymarked with a purple, Celtic cross, are designed to appeal to both contemporary pilgrims and serious walkers alike, plus more casual weekend hikers.

I charted a route [map above by illustrator Elly Jahnz] through Northern Saints country for the new issue of Discover Britain magazine — out now.

More about Discover Britain.

 

A pilgrimage in the footsteps of the ancient saints for St Davids Day

Today is St David’s Day, so Dydd Gŵyl Dewi Hapus!

I made a pre-lockdown pilgrimage to Bardsey Island [pictured] in North Wales to follow in the footsteps of the ancient saints.

Here’s an extract from my latest travel-writing feature, published today.

When Pope Callixtus II decreed three pilgrimages to Bardsey to be equivalent to one to Rome, it sparked a pilgrim scramble to the remote Llyn Peninsula that lasted until The Reformation.

The medieval writer Gerald of Wales first noted the large number of pilgrims blazing a sandal-clad trail to Bardsey in 1188, many of them believing to die on the island idyll would guarantee them a place in heaven.

That’s why Bardsey is still known as the isle of 20,000 saints.

“Bardsey comes at you with all the senses: the sound of nature, the view west across the sea with the mountains behind, and the sense of ancient spirituality,” says Peter Hewlett, who arranges walking trips around the Llyn.

“It feels defiantly lost in time.”

Read the full feature via Telegraph Travel here.

How to take a walk in the footsteps of the Northern Saints

* This post was written pre lockdown * 

One name keeps coming up in County Durham: Cuthbert.

“St Cuthbert is woven into the landscape of the Northeast. There were times when the pilgrims couldn’t get to his shrine as it was so crowded.”

Charlie Allen, Canon Chancellor of Durham Cathedral, is expainling Cuddy’s perennial appeal as we meet in the Cathedral cloisters, the sound of the choir practicing for evensong beyond the ancient walls.

“Today, pilgrims come for different reasons but the idea of making a pilgrimage remains a transition point in life. It’s a time to reassess.”

Durham is the visitor hub for six new, long-distance walking trails, collectively the Northern Saints project, which maps the spiritual heritage of Northeast England as the Christian crossroads of the British Isles.

The trails, following ancient pilgrimage routes, were first waymarked to coincide with the Association of English Cathedrals naming 2020 as the Year of Pilgrimage.

I’m walking The Way of Life, following in the footsteps of St Cuthbert north towards Durham via Bishop Auckland.

His body was carried by his devoted followers [pictured above as a statue in Durham] to a place of refuge following Viking raids on Northumberland in the 9th century.

One of the shorter of the six trails, the 29-mile hike divides conveniently into two or three sections for a weekend of autumnal walking and local history.

There are places to stay and eat along the route with more infrastructure to be added.

The route is well waymarked with circular symbols of a purple Celtic cross, although it’s worth downloading a route plan from the website for some sections.

Further waymarking is due to be completed by Easter 2021.

British Pilgrimage — spiritual journey or Emperor’s New Clothes?

I took a weekend out during the summer.

Just me and a brand new experience. It felt good.

I joined a weekend pilgrimage [pictured above] with the British Pilgrimage Trust, a charitable trust with a modern-day take on the ancient art of pilgrimage.

After a night in an Airbnb in Frome and meeting a group of 20 complete strangers over coffee the next morning, we set off — pilgrim staffs in hands [pictured above].

It was a long haul, covering some 12 miles per day, although the bucolic countryside of the Avon Valley helped to distract from the burgeoning blisters.

After two full days of walking, we arrived into Bath and took the waters to conclude a pilgrimage devoted to the goddess Sulis Minerva.

Sinking in

So how did I feel at the end of the weekend? Underwhelmed.

The idea of weekend alone with my thoughts in nature really appealed. But the practicality of the pilgrimage itself started to grate, especially after we arrived really late at our overnight stop on the first day and having run out of water.

If you’ve got a group of people paying £150 a head to join the pilgrimage, you have a duty to cover the basics and look after people.

Maybe, I was expecting too much. As one of the walk leaders told me over breakfast:

“It’s about giving our pilgrims an experience. Whether they enjoy it or not, it’s still an experience.”

Tacking stock

I’ve deliberately waited a couple of months before pitching and placing an article about my experience. It will be published in the new year.

Meanwhile, I’ve had time to think back over the weekend. Did I bring my own stresses or preconceptions to the pilgrimage? Or is this type of group experience simply more Scout camp than spiritual journey?

Read my article and decide for yourself. Here’s a preview:

We finally made it to Iford Manner on the Somerset-Wiltshire border as night fell, tired and hungry, for an al-fresco take-away dinner and homemade cider.

Bedding down en masse on sleeping mats in an outbuilding that night, I pulled the sleeping bag around me glad to rest.

This pilgrimage lark, I was coming to realise, was no walk in the park.

A pilgrimage should be about the journey, not the destination. But it was only when I spent time alone in Bath afterwards that I actuallly found the sense of peace I had been looking for all along.

I’m not planning to re-book. Maybe I’m just not cut out to be a pilgrim after all.