Come autumn, as a way of defying the back-to-school doldrums brought on by a rapid shortening of the days, and to mark what feels like the true start of a year, I go on a pilgrimage. This year, more than ever, I crave the slow and steady rhythm of a walking pace, big skies, and cleansing wind and rain to shake off the cobwebs of a long confinement and to break the domestic routines of daily life. I want to connect to my own pumping heart and the natural world around me, re-oxygenate stale lungs and feel the muscles in my legs stretch and work.
Since I’m looking for uplift, there is nowhere for me that’s more rejuvenating and exhilarating than the uplands of Golden Cap in Dorset, the highest point on the south coast of England. In the rinsed light of early autumn, it glows, as if just-hatched, new-born. I have earmarked the little church of St Candida and the Holy Cross, behind these soaring coastal cliffs, tucked into the valleys of Marshwood Vale, a landscape that folds gently in on itself like ribbons of thickened cream. It is part of a medieval pilgrimage trail that connected Bridport to Axminster, containing one of only two shrines with relics of a saint still existing in England (the other being Edward the Confessor’s shrine at Westminster Abbey), somehow miraculously surviving the Reformation and the civil war. St Wite, martyred by marauding Viking hordes, attracts the hopeless and hopeful sick who journey to her quaint limestone shrine.
Pilgrimage as a cure, pilgrimage for healing: the concept is as old as these hills that were crisscrossed with wayfarer and pilgrimage trails almost since the beginning of our civilisation. But the past 50 years, in particular, have seen a global revival of interest in the idea of pilgrimage; the eternal search for spiritual and physical succour dovetailing with today’s urgent calling for holistic meaning. It satisfies our hankering for “slow” over instant gratification, and offers an alternative, drug-free route to emotional and physical wellbeing. No surprise then that numbers increase year on year at the famous Camino de Santiago de Compostela trail, almost 350,000 recorded pilgrims last year, while more than 2m went on the Hajj in 2019.
In early March, with the world spinning on its axis, I was instinctively drawn to the pagan, mysterious, breast-like form of Silbury Hill in Wiltshire, off the Ridgeway, the oldest pilgrimage route in England. The perfect curve of the mound rose high above the flooded plains and I scaled it, in the horizontal rain, wading through treacle mud, reflecting that endurance is part of life, as it is part of any pilgrimage. Making a day’s circuit of the Neolithic standing stones and pagan burial sanctuaries seemed a very symbolic and purposeful way of processing the seismic changes that were unfolding. It was as if the very unknowability of Silbury helped me to find mental clarity, providing guidance as the tumultuous turn of world events shifted my own sense of self.
“Sometimes when people look for a new inner direction in their lives the most sensible and simple approach is to be found in an outer direction,” says Dr Guy Hayward, of the British Pilgrimage Trust. “With pilgrimage you literally walk a physical path, have a clear goal – your destination – and have a means of reaching it: walking. The simplicity of this tangible endeavour may be the secret that many need to know in order to find that inner-direction that so many of us seek.”
With no more than a pair of sturdy boots and a sense of purpose, on a simple physical and psychological level, the very act of walking, the rhythm of putting one foot in front of the other, of matching your breathing to your pace, in the fresh air, is soothing.
A 2015 study by the American National Academy of Science summarised that a 90-minute walk in nature calms the psyche, eases depression and feeds creative juices. Walking has been further proven to reduce blood pressure, lower blood sugar levels and improves concentration and energy. Unlike hiking, which is purely a physical challenge, the activity of a ritual walk, “the thinking footfall” as writer Robert Macfarlane describes it, encourages you to savour the moment and the resonance of each place. It’s finding pleasure and purpose in the act of “slow”.
So, after the easing of lockdown, I celebrated with a British Pilgrimage Trust route, via app, that guided me from the city of Wells, to the iconic pilgrimage landmark of Glastonbury Tor. I was drawn by their description of “ley lines, Green Men, leaping water, fire-breathing dragons and angels in high places”. I followed their counsel to pause, breathe and interact with the landscape; throwing stones into the holy wells, offering blessings at the foot of sacred trees, leaning into the branches and feeling the bark beneath my hands. My venture here felt like something quite separate from a ramble on a hill in my own backyard; a symbolic gesture of something meaningful and profound.
I recognise that my private pilgrimages, which bookended lockdown, were very personal and solitary quests for direction and a sense of wholeness and wellbeing in a fractured world. Yet it should not be forgotten that social interaction can be the most memorable source of influence in a pilgrimage. As a way of taking the pulse of place and its people, pilgrimage is a great way to travel. Traditionally, it has always been a true social leveller, as Chaucer has so vividly described.
On my various holy trails around the globe, the inevitable spontaneous mixing with strangers has been a singular takeaway. I have met down-and-outs and dreamers, strivers and shysters, hippies and Alpha achievers, and even a future lover, all as varied and as interesting as the swindling millers, virtuous martyrs and libidinous wives in the Canterbury Tales. Climbing Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka on New Year, and watching tantric ritual dances and seeking the head lama’s blessing at the Mani Rimdu festival in Nepal with its medieval atmosphere of beer, bribery and bride-bartering, the communality, and festival vibe is joyfully infectious, the social interaction uplifting.
A few years ago, I was wrung-out emotionally in the wake of my mother’s death and at a kind of crossroads in my life. Not knowing which way to take my career, unable to make any sane decision about the most trivial things, even what colour to paint the bedroom, I decided to join an organised pilgrimage in Shikoku, one of the less visited islands of Japan. The mythological landscape is part of a route made sacred by Kōbō-Daishi, founder of Shingon Buddhism in the 8th century. I hoped it would help me, not only get under the skin of this indomitable landscape and Japan’s rich, storied past, but also to find the something that was missing, the key that would reconnect me to myself. After all, extending one’s horizons is a fundamental human instinct, a fact that made lockdown so challenging.
I invited my sister and we piggybacked on to a jolly coachload of white robed henro, or pilgrims, for a few days, following the same slippery forest paths to our destination-shrines. We entered into the convivial spirit of their rituals: purifying at the water troughs, throwing a coin into a tray, lighting incense, ringing the giant bell, hitting the gong, chanting the Heart Sutra. Each step had its own resonance, like notes on a score sheet. They rose and fell.
Over tricky, stony, maple leaf-strewn paths, trodden down comfortingly over centuries by so many pilgrims before, the act of walking and talking out our grievances and problems among our uncomprehending fellow pilgrims, without having to maintain constant eye contact, was conducive. My sister and I successfully aired our hopes and fears, argued and cried, and came home, sore of foot, but with lighter hearts and soaring spirts.
We display the mementos of the journey – conical hats and staff, journals full of shrine stamps – with humour, but never underestimating that these are material symbols of the transformative power and healing trajectory of pilgrimage.
Contact British Pilgrimage Trust for organised pilgrimages in the UK (britishpilgrimage.org). Britain’s Pilgrimage Places by Nick Mayhew Smith and Guy Hayward is published by Lifestyle Press at £19.99