What does the word ‘pilgrimage’ mean to you?
- Dusty churches?
- Kind strangers?
- Flat-footed sandals?
If you answered yes to the above, you were probably thinking of the Camino de Santiago, which is a collection of routes that cross France and Spain to meet at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia.
Like me, you might have first heard of the Camino de Santiago whilst watching Emilio Estevez’s pilgrimage movie ‘The Way’.
If you did watch the film, you might have resolved, also like me, to one day walk the Camino de Santiago yourself (although probably not in sandals).
Once again like me, you probably haven’t found the time, the inclination or the right footwear in which to do so. Some people are obviously more committed to the idea however; according to Statista in 2022 around 439,000 pilgrims finished this particular pilgrimage.
For those of us who didn’t even start it, the good news is that we have a wealth of UK pilgrimage routes just waiting on our doorsteps for us to discover.
And no, I’m not talking about Pizza Pilgrims here, although I do love their story of driving a three-wheeled Piaggio Ape van back from south Italy, learning about pizzas as they went.
Which brings me to my second piece of surprising pilgrimage news.
Not all pilgrims visit churches.
The modern pilgrimage
‘What’s the difference between a pilgrimage and a walk?’ Asked a friend as I explained I was planning to catch the train to Hereford and sleep in a crypt.
I can’t remember how I answered but the question did get me thinking. At that point, my pilgrimage knowledge was based mostly on John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Or rather the hymn version we used to sing at primary school.
'Who would true valour see, let him come hither.'
It was one of my favourites, and my young self was just as prepared, in pursuit of adventure, to fight giants and be beset around with dismal stories as my 55 year old self.
I didn’t even notice the pilgrim wasn’t a girl.
But back to a more modern pilgrimage. Bunyan’s Christian was clearly exactly that, but pilgrims have always sought their own holy places and not all of these have been based on traditional religious beliefs. River pilgrimages, tree pilgrimages, ancestral pilgrimages, artistic pilgrimages; they all have some resonance with most of us.
Now I have completed my own (very short) pilgrimage, I believe it is how a traveller journeys that marks the difference between a pilgrimage and a long walk.
By this I don’t mean their mode of transport, because there are cycling and horse riding pilgrimage routes; but rather their travel experience. At this moment in time (see my last point below) I feel a pilgrimage allows a pilgrim to.
- Link important places
- Travel slowly
- Accept hospitality
- Remain open minded
Some pilgrimages are UK routes
As a non-expert pilgrim, I can’t present you with a pilgrimage UK map but I can point you in the direction (see what I did there) of one.
The British Pilgrmage Trust provides free access to a UK-wide pilgrim route map, which includes information on over 250 routes as well as a network of night sanctuaries and accommodation.
Instead of me finding it, I like to think the Golden Valley Pilgrim Way found me. Whichever is true, my experiences, even the graveyard loo views, were so positive, I’ve lost my desire to complete the Camino de Compostela and discovered enough UK pilgrimage options to keep me busy until my sandals finally fall apart.
My recent pilgrimage experiences by the way, include getting locked in a church, drying an entire set of clothes in a crypt and learning all about ‘Dangerous Dave’.
You’ll have to read my account to find out why I’m waiting until spring to go back and finish my Herefordshire pilgrimage. But to keep my diary topped up, I’ve picked three other possible UK pilgrimages I would also like to complete.
St Magnus’ Way
- Location: Egilsay and mainland Orkney
- Distance: 58 miles
- Reason 1: I’ve always wanted to visit Orkney
- Reason 2: Remoteness and solitude are just about guaranteed
- Reason 3: It’s easier to wild camp in Scotland than England
- More information: St Magnus Way
The Cornish Celtic Way
- Location: Cornwall
- Distance: 125 miles (possibly not all of this one)
- Reason 1: I live in and love the West Country
- Reason 2: It is a station to station walk
- Reason 3: It starts just down the lane from my Dad’s house
- More information: The Cornish Celtic Way
Cambridge Pilgrimage in a day
- Location: Cambridge
- Distance: 12 miles
- Reason 1: We’re planning to visit Cambridge soon
- Reason 2: I think it might be flat
- Reason 3: Cambridge is a fascinating city
- More information: The British Pilgrimage Trust
The right footwear for a pilgrimage?
Hopefully my thoughts on the matter have encouraged you to walk your own pilgrim’s way. For those of you still wondering whether or not a pair of flat-footed sandals is a necessary pilgrimage accessory, I will answer you thus.
I was very glad, after miles of Herefordshire mud, that I had packed and carried mine. Bunyan offered his protagonist Christian biblical shoes that, ‘Would not wear out’.
Which sadly my walking boots did.