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Hattie Langdon leads us through ancient UK pilgrimage routes.

A pilgrimage, by definition, is a journey to a holy place. While pilgrimages are often associated with religion, the motivations for undertaking a pilgrimage vary. 

William Parsons, the co-founder of the British Pilgrimage Trust, describes how the origin of the word pilgrimage comes from the Latin “per agra”, meaning “through the fields”, and how the Old English “Holy” means something wholesome or holistic. Therefore, a pilgrimage is a walk towards a sense of wholesomeness. Pilgrims’ motivations range from spirituality to a craving for the outdoors and general historical intrigue.

Pilgrims travel from across the world to walk the famous Camino de Santiago, a network of ancient pilgrimage trails spanning all the way across Europe and coming together at the tomb of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela, north-west Spain.

But in these times of restricted travel, we need to look no further than the UK to find over 90 ancient pilgrimage routes that hold their own unique stories.

The Old Way 

Duration: Two to three weeks

Length: 250 miles

Route: Southampton to Canterbury

Drawing parallels with the renowned Camino de Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage, the route of this ancient path was almost forgotten for 500 years after Henry VIII banned pilgrimages. It was rediscovered after being found on “The Gough Map”, Britain’s oldest road map.

The pilgrimage culminates at Canterbury - the most notorious destination for pilgrims in the UK. 2020 marks 850 years since Thomas Becket was murdered at the altar of Canterbury Cathedral by four knights adhering to King Henry’s cry, “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” Becket was elevated to Sainthood and his shrine in Canterbury Cathedral became a place of pilgrimage with an estimated 100,000 pilgrims arriving in the year 1420.

This pilgrimage provides something for all pilgrims, no matter the motivation, with diverse and dramatic landscapes. From quaint coastal villages and scaling shorelines to the immense south downs and the lush banks of the River Rother. Those on a spiritual pilgrimage may enjoy visiting the bubbling sacred springs of Fulking. You can fulfil your historical intrigue by entering The Golden Lion Pub where D-day plans were laid out, and then onto Battle, where the Norman conquest was settled. Not forgetting, of course, the historically enveloped landmarks scattered along the way; Arundel and Saltwood Castle, the great Cathedrals of Chichester, and the final destination where your pilgrimage concludes: Canterbury.

Peak Pilgrimage

Duration: Three days

Length: 35 miles

Route: IIam to Eyam

The pilgrimage from Ilam to Eyam has its own original story that draws the attention of 100,000 pilgrims a year. 

In 1666, a devastating outbreak of the plague gripped Eyam. History describes how it arrived from fleas that were festering in a bale of damp cloth that had been brought from the heavily plagued London.

In a heroic move, the villagers of Eyam made a united decision to quarantine the entire village, in a form self-sacrifice in order to prevent the spread of the plague to their neighbouring villages. This ultimately led to the deaths of 260 villagers.

Today, pilgrims travel from IIam (which is itself a pilgrimage destination as the home of the 7th Century St Bertelin), to the holy town of Eyam in a three-day pilgrimage. This route across the Peak District demonstrates how you don’t need to be scaling mountains and wading rivers to be a pilgrim. This route is peaceful, accessible, and restorative for people who desire to walk for the enjoyment of walking itself.

Saint Margaret’s way

Duration: One week

Length: 61 miles

Route: Edinburgh to St Andrews

The sheer number of pilgrims destined for St Andrews in the 12th century left the town nearly overrun with visitors and struggling to cope. In response to the herds of people flocking to honour the Patron Saint of Scotland, the King ordered the erection of the Cathedral to be built in order to accommodate for the flow of pilgrims travelling from far and wide.

In undertaking this pilgrimage, you will be following in the footsteps of thousands of pilgrims before you, travelling across land and sea to the “Pilgrim Kingdom” of Fife. While ancient pilgrims would have taken the famous Queensferry, the route now takes you across the Forth Road Bridge with spectacular views of Scotland’s greatest man-made wonder and UNESCO World Heritage site; The Four Bridge. This walk is nothing but remarkable in the volcanic scenery and vast, stretching golden beaches, with the route dipping in and out of thriving fishing villages. At the end of the week, you glimpse St Andrews. With reaching spires and cobbled streets, it is not difficult to imagine how it may have looked for those pilgrims who once stood in your place hundreds of years before you.


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