April brings its buds and showers, said Chaucer, “Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.” Indeed they did. His pilgrims from Southwark to Becket’s shrine at Canterbury were a cross- section of the 14th-century middle class. As they went on their way, they opened windows on themselves, each telling his or her tale. They made little reference to the purpose of their trip, let alone to religion. Today they would be termed a tour group, people at leisure, freed from home and hearth, sharing a new experience with others.
For most Reformation Christians, the 16th century saw the end of collective pilgrimage, but for Roman Catholics the old sites retained their magnetism, notably the cathedrals of Rome and Santiago and the ‘miracle’ shrines of Lourdes and Fatima. Pilgrimage to these places is enjoying a surge in popularity, even as conventional church worship declines. Some 350,000 people a year now walk or cycle to Santiago across northern Spain, in addition to thousands in the comfort of car or coach.
In Britain, traditional Christian destinations never wholly lost their appeal, and some also are reviving. Iona in Scotland now claims 250,000 pilgrims annually, Walsingham in Norfolk 100,000. Pilgrims to Canterbury, Durham, St Albans and St Paul’s are hard to distinguish from secular tourists, but Anglican cathedrals as a whole are seeing a rising number of worshippers at formal services. After decades of decline at the end of the 20th century, attendances have risen by a third since 2000, albeit mostly at the ‘free concert’ of evensong. This has contrasted with a decline of the same proportion in parochial worship.
More remarkable is the revival in non-specific pilgrimage, as championed by the British Pilgrimage Trust (BPT). Founded in 2014 with the motto “Bring your own beliefs”, it defines pilgrimage as “a form of cultural heritage that promotes holistic wellbeing for the public benefit”. Its designated routes are between historic holy places, such as Winchester to Canterbury, the North Wales Way to Bardsey and the St Cuthbert’s and St Hilda’s Ways in the northeast. The BPT makes none of the religious or logistical demands of the Santiago camino, asking only that pilgrims set out with a “journey intention” declared to themselves. This may be related to any faith or none, to “something you want help with, or for which you want to give thanks”.
The old motivations of religious faith were little different, and are today adapted to the new language of mindfulness, wellness and psychotherapy.
I can sympathise with this. I still find it vaguely uncomfortable to travel without a goal, even on holiday. I prefer my wandering to satisfy a curiosity, research a topic, climb a mountain or visit a friend. To be sure, as an atheist I find peculiar that a long journey, requiring time and money, should afford privileged access to a deity through the intercession of a holy place. Yet I cannot deny evidence. Throughout history and in a multitude of faiths, such a belief has gripped the religious imagination. In the process, it has brought solace, comfort, happiness and often health to millions.
The practice of pilgrimage created the most glorious architecture in the world. Masterpieces of engineering and artistry arose at all points of the compass. The towering gothic churches of the late middle ages were designed to inspire delight and awe, as well as devotion. They were ‘stairways to heaven’. Pilgrims arriving at the north transept and ambulatory of Canterbury – with its candle-lit steps, statues, altars, tombs, chapels, reliquaries, stained glass and chanting monks – were said to faint at the spectacle. There was nothing like it on Earth.
The reason for the recent rise in visits to cathedrals, by tourists and worshippers alike, is much debated by sociologists of religion. These buildings remain unique. Nothing remotely like them is being built today. Enhance the architecture with a historic setting, a sense of history, sculpture, paintings and music and it understandably draws the faithful and faithless with equal magnetism. But there is more to a cathedral than this. Unlike parish churches, they expect no commitment, no act of faith, no name and address. They offer anonymity. Their pilgrim’s destination is a supremely private space, one of awe, solitude and peace of mind amid the most intense loveliness. I have always felt a particular calm in wandering a cathedral, an invitation to meditate and reflect.
There is an added dimension to a place on which so much human energy and emotion has been expended. Just as Chaucer’s travellers sought spiritual and physical renewal, modern pilgrims seek the same and clearly find it. Economic and industrial advance has not diminished the pressures of daily living, probably the reverse. Certainly modern life has brought a new consciousness of mental wellbeing, of unhappiness, depression, loneliness and broken friendship. Many find relief in experiencing a change of circumstance, in breaking loose and seeking pastures new. One such pasture is “a journey with a purpose”. There are few greater purposes than the quest for beauty.
Pilgrims often use the saying that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive. Some even admit to an addiction to the journey itself. Long-distance runners say the same. It is the satisfaction of studying maps, setting out, plunging into nature, along muddy paths, across fields, through woods, by that simplest activity, walking. For a brief while our brains must concentrate on the rhythm of steps, the placing of each foot after the other, preferably over rugged ground. All else recedes into unimportance in what can seem a tantric ritual.
Yet the essence of pilgrimage in not travelling but arriving, it is the purpose of destination. I feel this keenly. Planning and achieving a goal is said by anthropologists to hold the key to human evolution. That pilgrimage is on foot and with some discomfort may add to the sense of achievement. But arrival vindicates the journey.
Pilgrimage thus mutates into a metaphor for life. I am sure devout friends will tell me I have slid unconsciously into a form of religious faith. I don’t care. For me pilgrimage is an act of homage to history. It is the past – always the past – bringing its balm, its memories of healing and joy to those who need it. That is why the ancient pilgrimage routes are so precious, why every field, tree, stream and stile conveys meaning. These paths, from their beginnings to their ends, require protection. They need our custodianship. For now, and I believe for ever, “folk will langen to goon on pilgrimages”.
Sir Simon Jenkins is an author, historian and former chairman of the National Trust. This first appeared as the introduction to Britain’s Pilgrim Places, published in 2019 by the BPT.
Canterbury Cathedral: West Front, Nave and Central Tower. Seen from south (Credit: Hans Musil) CC BY-SA 4.0