Modern pilgrims quietly travel on foot to places with meaning or significance. You may have been on a pilgrimage without even knowing it. All it takes is to walk purposefully towards a place that means something to you.
All over the world, different religions have taken up pilgrimages: Muslims head to Mecca, Christians to Santiago de Compostela, Hindus walk the length of the Ganges. Whereas modern pilgrimages don’t require a belief in God, they can follow the paths of these earlier pilgrims to a cathedral, chapel or shrine, and appreciate these places for the holy spaces they are.
What is considered sacred today, however, is much broader. Many ancient sites exert a powerful pull and have the additional benefit of being in the landscape, often in out-of-the-way and lovely places. Journey to a long barrow on the crest of a hill, a standing stone overlooking a bay, or a stone circle in the heart of a wheat field, and chances are that you will experience something profound and steadying. As philosopher and writer Alain de Botton puts it: “Certain places, perhaps because of their remoteness, vastness, chaotic energy, haunting melancholy, exert a capacity to salve the wounded parts of us.”
Five British pilgrimage sites
Join other wayfarers at these ancient and sacred places.
Stonehenge and Avebury stone circles, Wiltshire
Solstice gatherings of druids at the UK’s most famous stone circle are well known, but at other times of the year it’s impossible to get close to the megaliths. Better to head to nearby Avebury for more convenient stone-hugging.
Bardsey Island, Wales
Bardsey was a major pilgrimage destination in medieval times, and is still a destination for anyone seeking a spiritual place.
Following a vision of the Virgin Mary, a rich widow called Richeldis de Faverches built a shrine here in the 11th century. The site has remained significant for Roman Catholics, and still attracts 100,000 pilgrims a year.
Iona, Inner Hebrides, Scotland
Iona has been a centre of spirituality since Saint Columba established a monastery here in AD653. It now attracts visitors on religious and secular retreats.
Glastonbury Tor, Somerset
Glastonbury attracts both Christians and non-believers. The town may be full of crystal shops but up on the Tor, it’s all about the view and King Arthur.
Turn to page 74 of April’s The Simple Things for more on Clare Gogerty’s look at modern pilgrimages.