To be a British pilgrim, 21st-century style

Weary pilgrims rest against the yew tree at Wilmington Churchay-pilgrimage/pilgrim-numbers/” target=”_blank”>Camino de Santiago which is now drawing an average of a quarter of a million pilgrims a year. Like the stewards of the Camino, who are argue that pilgrimage is for those of ‘all faiths and none’, BPT founders Guy Hayward and Will Parsons advocate a ‘bring your own beliefs’ approach.

I was curious about this new form of pilgrimage. It seemed to me a prime example of the kind of emerging, evolving British spirituality I documented in The Secret Life of God, in which the spiritually serious go in search of a form of faith based on experience and authenticity rather than doctrines or rituals handed down to them. While this quintessentially 21st century way of making meaning may still include organised religion, it involves reworking relationships with traditional institutions, along with an openness to other faiths and paths. I wondered whether I would meet the counterparts to the pioneering individuals and communities I’d found in the course of my research, ordinary people quietly discovering their own verions of the sacred while living normal lives.

And so it proved. Over two and a half days, two dozen people from a variety of backgrounds traversed the rolling Sussex hills, appreciating the beauty of churches – and the utility of their standpipes – honouring the ancestors of the land and doing a spot of yoga on a long barrow. Our guides sung to us – hear this ancient piece of British plainchant here – and led us in the singing of rounds they’d written to mark the connection between people and place.

New rituals emerged: drawing on eastern and Islamic traditions, Guy and Will encouraged the circumambulation of every church before entering it as a way of pre-empting the colonial ‘greed’ of marching straight in. And, as I write, there are probably some Japanese tourists telling their relatives how the British worship the cliffs edging their island in the way that Jews honour Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall – the fruit of Guy’s accidental discovery that placing your forehead against the east wall of a locked church can give you a powerful sense of the whole building.

I was surprised and yet not how readily the motley group embraced this easy syncretism: it clearly draws on a range of ideas and practices that have become commonplace in religious and alternative circles in recent years. I was entirely surprised by the way passers-by seemed to understand what we – identifiable as something more than a walking group by our pilgrim staffs – were doing, greeting explanations of a modern, non-dogmatic kind of pilgrimage as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

I think the fact we were doing the most British of things – walking about the countryside for no practical reason – helped. (As we left the South Downs, we were awarded an impromptu medal by an YMCA worker, who said that collectively we’d done the same mileage as the walker who’d just spent four days walking from Winchester to raise funds.)

The vestry at Firle. That's my sleeping bag.
The vestry at Firle. That’s my sleeping bag.

As nature-loving inhabitants of a chilly island, we perhaps have a instinctual understanding that forging a relationship with the place which harbours us involves a degree of effort and travail.

For me, the experience fulfilled a lifelong ambition I never knew I had – sleeping in a vestry, in this case that of extreme pilgrim Peter Owen Jones at Firle. It’s also crystalised my intention of walking the pilgrimage routes that traverse Wiltshire: what better way of getting to know my new county than to be a pilgrim? Watch this space.