I was sitting on a busy early-morning commuter train to London one Tuesday back in 2018. I felt the need to sit in a particular seat in the carriage, and thought no more of that decision until the last few minutes of the journey when I noticed the chap next to me was reading a letter headed “English Heritage”. Naturally I asked, “Ah, do you work for English Heritage?” To cut a long story short, by the time the train pulled into Paddington a few minutes later, we had arranged a meeting to discuss how the British Pilgrimage Trust – the organisation I co-founded – could work with English Heritage.
The meeting came about and Luke Whitcomb, head of marketing for English Heritage, the man I met on the train, suggested that I set to work creating one pilgrim route for each of the ten regions of England for their annual handbook, which gets delivered to 650,000 members, with the guiding principle of connecting as many English Heritage (EH) sites as possible. I suggested that the pilgrimage should be of a short enough duration that families could feasibly make them. So there was the challenge: create ten routes that make thematic sense in themselves, but which also visit several English Heritage sites, but of not too great a distance.
The EH site map was duly sprawled over my desk with all 400 or so sites, offering little coherence at first glance. However, after looking for clusters, I started to see possible areas for new pilgrimage routes.
London was easy: with the author Jason Goodwin I had already developed the London Royal Route (also known as the Sovereign Line) from the Tower of London to Westminster Abbey, touching EH sites at start and end – the London Roman Wall, Winchester Palace and the Chapter House, Pyx Chamber and Jewel Tower of Westminster Abbey. The connection between the two major ancient power centres of Tower Hill and Westminster (formerly Thorney Island) is something one can only experience if they are connected on foot. The concentration of spectacular churches along this pleasingly linear route parallel to the river must be of global significance. I can’t imagine any pilgrimage route in the world being more packed with extraordinary holy places. The experience can be likened to a good hit of spiritual coffee – there’s not much time to stop and stare as the holy places are so tightly packed, but this has the effect of overwhelming the senses; it’s visual and aural but also spiritual. By the end of the day you will be exhausted but feel strangely ‘fuller’.
Contrast this experience with the Peak District Old Stones Way where, south-west of Sheffield, is the prehistoric rock fortress of Carl Wark, a high point from which your destination of Minninglow can be seen 25 miles to the south with lots of pristine wild landscape in between – a far cry from the crowded architecture of the City. This four-day route, all within the National Park, pays homage to the grand scale of landscape design in the neolithic and bronze ages, which could be called “horizon architecture”.
Standing at key points along the route, one can observe the various monuments in multiple directions, sometimes tens of miles apart. This neolithic conception must have been partly responsible for the way that grand medieval cathedrals like Lincoln and Ely are visible for miles around, presumably so that they could act as navigational waypoints for medievals who didn’t have maps or smartphones. (By the way, all these EH pilgrim routes are available for navigation via smartphone.) This pilgrim route gives much opportunity for the pilgrim to contemplate in spacious landscapes – a chance to breathe.
If you are looking for a neolithic version of the London route’s intensity, then the Avebury Pilgrimage in a Day visits nine EH sites in a single day, and the South Dorset Old Stones Way day route packs a lot in too. These prehistoric sites are mysterious but clearly important, and their interweaving within the ecclesiastical landscape is fascinating to witness.
There are some classic ecclesistical pilgrimage destinations included in the English Heritage pilgrim routes line-up – Canterbury, Bury St Edmunds and Durham Cathedral. And, depending on whether you count the enormous spatial footprint of some ruins as determining classic status or not, you also have the abbeys of Whitby, Finchale, Shrewsbury and Furness – each of which were once hugely powerful. For example, Shrewsbury Abbey was a significant centre of pilgrimage in the 11th century because it housed St Winefride’s relics.
St Winefride was a powerful woman in the church in the 7th century, as was another local saint, St Milburga, a century later, who was associated with nearby Wenlock Priory, a major EH site. It seemed obvious that these two ecclesiastical centres should be connected and so I devised a route that also visited Langley Chapel and Acton Burnell, each with their interesting church stories rooted in the rolling Shropshire hills. Off I went to walk it. I had a great time but, on the train back, what particularly hit home to me was the fact that the the dedicatees of the route were both women and, needing a name for the route, I called it the Abbesses’ Way. I thought it was pretty “woke” to showcase two powerful and revered women from the 7th and 8th centuries!
One pre-existing route had already beat me to it, though: St Hilda’s Way, which, rather conveniently, follows the North York Moors railway line (which runs parallel to the walking route) while simultaneously visiting eight holy places dedicated to St Hild – Anglo-Saxon princess, spiritual leader, arts enthusiast and peacemaker – who hosted the 664 Synod of Whitby. EH have recently done a lot of work to Whitby Abbey and so it seemed a fitting destination.
English Heritage’s flagship asset is, without question, Hadrian’s Wall. But a pilgrim route along a Roman defensive wall, I hear you ask? Well, I thought the same. However, the Roman soldiers guarding it still needed their religion and, accordingly, there are some extraordinary holy places along the Wall, such as the Temple of Mithras and nearby Coventina’s Well. Borderlands are often inherently liminal and thus have the feeling of being spiritual, between one world and the next.
Places where battles have taken place are often imbued with humans making the ultimate sacrifice, perhaps for misguided reasons but nevertheless with much bravery, and those feelings resonate in the land. Indeed, St Oswald prayed under a wooden cross before one battle along this route, which he then won, and the site is now called Heavenfield, which has a church. From Heavenfield you leave the Wall and head to Hexham Abbey.
One other unexpected synchronicity with this project, in addition to meeting Luke Whitcomb on the train, was the simultaneous launch of the Finchale Camino Inglés and the publication of the English Heritage Handbook 2019-20, in which this route and the nine others appeared.
This Finchale Camino Inglés is a recognised English section of the Camino de Santiago from A Coruña (75km from Santiago), and its 25km plus distance counts toward a pilgrim’s Compostela certificate at the end for the full 100km.
The English Camino starts at the ruins of Finchale Priory, where the 12th-century hermit Godric lived for 50 years and from where he made one of the earliest recorded pilgrimages from England to Santiago in northern Spain. The route also visits the rather miraculous revitalising project of Bishop Auckland with its castle that used to be owned by the Prince Bishops of Durham, and its modern mining and Spanish art galleries.
My final example of a pilgrim route is one that made me visit a part of England that I perhaps might never have visited had it not been for this EH project, but which now I will always hold dear – the Cumbrian Cistercian Way. The heavyweight Lake District looms over this far more modest South Lakeland landscape, which is tranquil by comparison. Its quietness has an impact. The presence of Christianity was once immense here, and yet now the ruins of the mighty Furness Abbey are tucked in an almost forgotten vale.
By walking most of England in a broad sweep of a relatively small selection of short pilgrimage routes, you end up feeling like you belong here in the land. As a human, there is perhaps no better way to do that than to engage with our deep and often forgotten heritage across many historical eras. But to make this journey through the lens of holy places, as opposed to other kinds of heritage, you get an uplift in spirit that a castle or battlefield cannot provide. The palpable spirit of place in these pilgrim places is enough to soften even the most hardened of attitudes towards belief, faith and religious practice through the ages.