Have you ever considered walking a pilgrimage? Like many people, I’ve wanted to do so ever since hearing about the Camino de Santiago.
Also like many people, I’ve struggled to see how I could find time for such a long walk, and the idea has remained firmly at the back of my head.
Until I realised there are pilgrimage routes right across the UK.
And that some of them offer night sanctuary in churches.
And that one of these could offer me the opportunity to explore the countryside in which I grew up.
The Golden Valley Pilgrim Way
Growing up just over the hills in Malvern, Herefordshire’s Golden Valley holds happy memories for me.
The River Wye at Bredwardine would probably have been my earliest wild swimming experience.
In my memories, Herefordshire is a place of plenty. I recall deep scents of hops, misty views of Welsh mountains and the effect of Herefordshire scrumpy on an unsuspecting teenager.
The Golden Valley Pilgrim Way didn’t sound like any other walking route I’ve sampled. Rather than march me past beautiful landmarks or herd me up a hill, this winding trail proposed to amble me across farmland and past small village churches. One look at the map told me all I needed to know.
I was about to embark on a Slow Way.
I was sold on the idea even before I read about the route’s unusual night sanctuary accommodation, which involved sleeping in village churches. Keen on the idea, I wondered how sleeping alone in a church was going to make me feel.
Scared? Peaceful? Fulfilled?
In the end, the answer was all three, and the nights definitely enhanced my pilgrimage experience, but there was another deciding factor that set me off on my autumnal adventure. The Golden Valley Pilgrim Way starts and ends at Hereford Cathedral.
Which meant my pilgrimage could also be an adventure by train.
What is a pilgrimage?
‘To walk a pilgrimage is a uniquely personal undertaking, whether done solo or as part of a community of pilgrims.’
We perhaps first associate pilgrimages with religious buildings or locations but the concept of a ‘holy’ place becomes easier to appreciate when you swap in the words ‘wholesome’ or ‘special’.
We’ve all visited places that felt important to us. The top of a hill, an ancient tree, an old cross, perhaps a stone circle. And here in the UK, we’re lucky to have a network of public rights of way that can connect us to many of these locations.
But to my mind there has to be something that separates a pilgrimage from a walk, and I think I found it on my short journey through the Herefordshire countryside.
The best word I can use to describe this difference would be ‘connection’.
Anglican churches are part of my upbringing but it wasn’t just these that brought this sense of connection to my pilgrimage; as I travelled in my own company, I felt more and more deeply related to those who had journeyed before me.
What pilgrim routes are there in the UK?
‘For people of any faith or none at all.’
If you look back far enough, the word ‘Pilgrim’ comes from the Latin ‘per’ (through) and ‘ager’ (field). Some of the routes we know as public rights or way today may well have traditionally been pilgrim’s ways.
The Old Way
One great example is the Old Way, which covers 240 miles between Southampton and Canterbury.
The Gough Map of the British Isles would surprise modern-day navigators with it’s east-at-the-top orientation, and is one of the first maps (around 1360) to show Britain in the (albeit sideways) island shape we would recognise today.
The fact that the Gough Map shows a red line on the pilgrimage route between Southampton and Canterbury is really significant.
Today the Old Way has been beautifully described and mapped by the British Pilgrimage Trust who also provide information on over 250 British pilgrimage walking routes and over 50 night sanctuaries.
They also lead pilgrims on guided pilgrimages and have suggestions for day pilgrimages and some cycling routes.
Autumn on the Golden Valley Pilgrim Way
For many cultures, the autumn equinox is a time for celebration, particularly in relation to the harvest. With Herefordshire being a farming community, I would like to say I chose my pilgrimage date to reflect this but I was so keen to embark, I just selected the first dates I had available.
As it turned out, the equal days and nights felt exactly right for my venture. Plenty of time for slow travelling during the day but also plenty of time for quiet evening contemplation.
And just about enough time for my bladder to last overnight, thus avoiding dark graveyard visits.
The Golden Valley Pilgrim Way by train
Start and finish train station: Hereford
Travel time from London: 3 hours
Travel time from Bristol: 1.5 hours
Author’s adventure tip: ‘My pilgrimage can be anything I make it.’ Was my thought before I set off but I soon realised the slow and deliberate way I was travelling was making me rather than the other way round. If you choose to embark on your own pilgrimage, my recommendation would be to set off with an open mind.
Practicalities: The Golden Valley Pilgrim Way isn’t a way-marked route but gpx files and plenty of information are available from the Abbeydore Deanery website. If you take a paper map, you’ll be able to add or remove elements of exploration as you go along. There are toilets at Hereford station and it’s only a 20-minute walk from there to Hereford Cathedral.
You’ll be given plenty of helpful information for each location before you set off but I recommend writing this into your own notebook. I was glad more than once that I had done so.
The Herefordshire countryside can be a wet and muddy place so wear good boots and be prepared to climb stiles and decipher routes across planted fields.
If you do one thing while you’re in Hereford, sit and listen to evensong being sung in the Cathedral.
I guarantee you’ll be mesmerised by the contrast between the high singing voices of the choristers and the unfathomably deep notes of the organ.
Walking routes on the Golden Valley Pilgrim Way
The Golden Valley Pilgrim Way offers two walking routes and one cycling route. All three are circular routes, starting and ending at Hereford Cathedral. They go through villages and past nine different night sanctuaries, where you can sleep in churches or church halls.
If you’re walking, you can choose to embark on a 6/7 day pilgrimage or a shorter 2/3 day pilgrimage, or make up your own combination.
There are pubs and B&Bs available in some villages if you prefer but should you choose to experience the night sanctuaries (I recommend you do) the suggested donation is £20.
I have chosen not to share my own routes here because I made a few changes, but also because a lot of work and care has gone into the original route creation, and the British Pilgrimage Trust deserves support for this effort.
I started my pilgrimage on September 18th 2023.
As I have mentioned before, I didn’t know what to expect from my pilgrimage. For someone who loves camping, and will happily solo wild camp on Dartmoor or bivvy alone on the beach, I am surprisingly nervous about the dark.
As I waved my sister off at Great Malvern train station, I was looking forward to walking out of Hereford city into the countryside but knew my forthcoming church sleeps had the potential to be challenging.
As it turned out, they were the best part of my trip.
Are you a pilgrim?
Were the words that greeted me just after I had finally found and rung the deanery doorbell. After feeling a tad small as I wandered around the Cathedral, and slightly misplaced as I searched the cloisters, it was exactly what I needed to hear. My response, ‘Yes I am!’ made me smile, as did the beautifully simple chapel that was to be my home for the night.
With time to spare before the 7 o’clock cloisters curfew, I decided to listen to evensong in the Cathedral then head out to find something to eat. The soaring voices and deep organ notes were so wonderful I almost forgot to fetch dinner; so it was a relieved Fi that sat down with her Thai takeaway.
This was the second of my never-done-that-in-church-before moments.
Although I knew I would have plenty of time, I had decided not to bring a book with me. Partly because of the weight but also because I didn’t want to taint my experience with someone else’s words. I opted instead for a notebook, a crochet hook and a small amount of different coloured yarn (kindly donated by my mum).
Crocheting in the Cathedral before evensong was my first never-done-that-in-a-church-before moment.
It wasn’t my last.
By the time my pilgrimage had finished, I had eaten lunch in a church, slept in a box pew, and dried my bra in a crypt.
I had even been accidentally locked in.
Which might have frayed my nerves beyond all hope if it hadn’t been the church warden who had got the key stuck and showed me an escape route out through the vestry.
She was a lovely church warden. Judging by our laughter, I think we could have been friends.
Which brings me to one of my favourites aspects of my pilgrimage, one that I am sure pilgrims of the past will echo.
Despite travelling alone for most of my journey, it was the people I met that really made it special.
There were the fellow pilgrims from New Zealand who were on their way back to the Cathedral but still bewildered by our public rights of way, and envious of my Ordnance Survey map.
There was the Guide leader who didn’t mind my sister and I finishing our cup of tea as the Guides arrived.
There was the shop owner who told us she offered free curries to five pilgrims a month because she felt it was a good thing to do.
There was the lady walker who told me tales of ‘Dangerous Dave’, ‘Mad Mike’ and their wild walking route recces.
And there was Simon the vicar who didn’t seem at all perturbed at chatting history to two sleeping bag-clad sisters in his crypt on a Thursday morning.
A pilgrimage to the countryside
I had wondered before I set out, what exactly I was making my pilgrimage to. I felt there needed to be something, but I also got the sense it would come to me as I travelled.
I hadn’t expected revelation in the middle of a potato field.
But there it was. Across Herefordshire I had walked through a whole roast dinner. Lamb, beef, potatoes, apples, even hops. As I gazed at the greening potatoes at the top of the mounds, I realised I was on a pilgrimage to the English countryside.
Not to quaffed Instagram views or over-crowded summits but to real, honest, hardworking countryside. The sort of countryside that hides behind hedges, and is a bit grubby round the edges but keeps us all fed.
The sort of countryside we could all forget if we weren’t careful.
I only completed three days of this pilgrimage but I will be back to celebrate and explore again. Perhaps a fitting date would be Wednesday 20th March 2024.
You can probably work out why.