Pilgrim Britain is a project to connect the landscapes and communities of Britain through a network of physical and spiritual paths.

Background

Over the centuries pilgrimage has been a uniquely fulfilling away-from-home experience. In recent years there has been increasing interest in pilgrimage in Europe, especially in the network of paths which lead to the shrine of St James the Apostle at Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. Each year many people walk, ride or cycle thousands of miles to Santiago - and these pilgrims bring valuable trade and energy to the places through which they pass.

Few people are unaffected by their journeys. The ages, cultures and backgrounds of pilgrims vary enormously, but friends are made across boundaries which are otherwise hard to bridge. Pilgrimage provides fresh air and exercise, exposure to the changing rhythms and seasons of the countryside, to regional diversity, great cities and cultural centres; it offers solitude and companionship, activity and reflection, and spiritual growth. People making the journey often do so at times of personal difficulty or transition (e.g. leaving university or retirement) and they see pilgrimage as an opportunity for reflection and inspiration as they begin a new chapter of their lives. In this context the Camino de Santiago has also been successfully used as a means of reintroducing former young offenders into society - pilgrimage is an excellent way of improving relations between different age groups and backgrounds, as no one group is on 'home territory' and each group can help the other - for example the older person's experience (and perhaps money) and the youngster's energy and strength can make an excellent team.

In Spain, the Camino de Santiago is accessible to anyone able to take a week, a fortnight, a month or more away from home. It is generally affordable for even those with very little money, as accommodation is simple and in many places only donations are requested by those providing sleeping space; 'pilgrim menus' are widespread, so £10 per day is a very achievable cost for the trip, this including an evening meal out. The simple accommodation and communal facilities, which offer little physical privacy in the evenings, result in people sharing their lives by force of circumstances - so that most pilgrims quickly come to learn respect for others and those on their own rapidly find themselves cooking and eating together with strangers - sampling regional foods and recipes carried from all over the world.

This accessible conviviality is something of a victim of its own success in that for many parts of the year the Camino de Santiago is now saturated with pilgrims, with the result that opportunities for quiet and reflection are reduced, and there are practical pressures on accommodation along the route. Furthermore, old paths to Santiago are being re-marked all over Europe; this is a positive development in that people are rediscovering the historical and spiritual roots of paths in their home town or village - and the path and those walking it make very human connections between places which might otherwise feel they had little in common - but an increase in the number of feeder paths is likely to increase the 'saturation' in France and Spain.

The Pilgrim Britain Proposal

Inspired by the success of the Camino de Santiago, Pilgrim Britain proposes to use Britain's excellent footpath infrastructure to link 'places of pilgrimage'. A pilgrimage network would provide improved opportunities for accessible, healthy and environmentally sustainable tourism in Britain. Routes would be culturally, historically and spiritually meaningful, thus enriching the experience of walking.

Our proposal is for a network of interconnected paths rather than a single linear route - this is in part to avoid overcrowding at 'the end'; in part it stems from a realisation that 'the journey is more important than the destination'.

Places of Pilgrimage would be inspirational 'beacons' of activity and places of repose: they might include

  • Breathtaking landscapes, gardens and national parks
  • Artistic and cultural centres
  • Monastic communities of all faiths
  • Churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples
  • Stone circles, ancient woodland and historic monuments
  • Creative communities, eco-villages and organic farms

Good food and accommodation will be central to the success of the path network. Places to stay, which might themselves be pilgrimage centres, could be

  • Farms providing meals (and selling the food of the place)
  • Hotels, pubs, B&Bs and hostels offering local food and ‘pilgrim menus’
  • Bunkhouse barns and campsites providing cheap and simple shelter.

Pilgrim Britain wants to work in four main areas to make this happen:

  1. Mapping: we aim to create an internet based map, overlaying routes and amenities, with ‘links’ to contact details. The virtual map would be supported by paper maps and signposting on the ground.
  2. Accommodation: affordability is essential for real accessibility. At present there is not enough budget accommodation in Britain. We aim to work with farmers, local authorities and others to plug the gaps.
  3. Food: we will encourage farms, hostels, shops and pubs to sell the food of their place, so that a pilgrimage becomes a feast of regional and cultural diversity.
  4. Education and awareness: we will encourage different ages and cultural groups to explore Britain and to meet new people. We will use all available media, but especially film and the internet to reach the young. The young are a vital audience – we need to get them interested in their environment, history and the different faiths and cultures of Britain if they are to understand and embrace their responsibilities as trustees of the future.

 

Why this all matters

Aside from the environmental, health and economic benefits of walking tourism, Britain needs to get to know itself if we are to avoid the increasing marginalisation of different communities and social groups.

We are all prone to shun diversity and fear difference We might holiday in Spain but when we go there, many of us will only eat food we know from home. At home we live near ‘people like us’ and are wary of those unlike us – and yet when we get to know ‘different’ people, our lives are usually enriched. We need to be re-awakened to the excitement of difference – and to the fragility and preciousness of diversity – ‘biodiversity’ and cultural diversity. Both are essential for our long-term well-being.

By re-connecting communities in town and country – and by encouraging those living on a pilgrimage path to venture along it, Pilgrim Britain hopes to undo mistrust between our diverse communities, to aid social renewal and to foster an appreciation of the precious fragility of our islands.

It is at walking pace that we most savour diversity – and only at walking pace are we able easily to meet and to get to know those we pass by. The faster we travel the less we really see.

 

Would you like to become involved with Pilgrim Britain?

You might be

  • a farmer wanting to offer accommodation on your farm or expand the local market for your food
  • a knowledgeable walker or historian who knows about a route which already links places of pilgrimage
  • a ‘pilgrimage centre’ wanting to offer hospitality to strangers
  • a potential partner organisation whose interests overlap with Pilgrim Britain
  • a philanthropist or charitable foundation interested in supporting this project

 

Pilgrim Britain is hopefully to be developed by the Soil Association, working in partnership with the Ramblers Association and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation.

For more information please contact Mark Hoare - Email: