Dan Hitchens

Pilgrimage’s progress

One of Britain’s oldest religious traditions is reviving in a strange new form

If Christian Britain is fading away, what will survive of it? One answer seems to be pilgrimage. In the past decade, 30 pilgrimage routes have been created or rediscovered; holy places have seen a 14 per cent growth in visitor numbers since 2013. These figures are recorded by a new organisation, the British Pilgrimage Trust, which wants to ‘revive the British pilgrimage tradition of making journeys on foot to holy places’.

The BPT stresses that not all pilgrims are religious: ‘Bring your own beliefs’ is the slogan. Guy Hayward, who co-founded the BPT with Will Parsons, observes: ‘We have to tread very carefully around the language of spirituality and religion.’ But he thinks pilgrimage has a universal appeal: it connects you to the world, and to other people. ‘You’re walking in the land, in nature, you’re talking to people. It’s not complicated, but at the same time it’s very tangible.’

Perhaps, then, pilgrims should leave their smartphones at home? ‘No, no!’ Parsons is emphatic. ‘We think that modern pilgrimage requires modern technology to make the most of it.’ Phone maps are better than a fold-out when you’re lost in a wood. The BPT plans an app to link pilgrims with accommodation spots — churches, fields, village halls.

Britain was once a land of pilgrims. In the Middle Ages, the shrine to the Virgin Mary in Walsingham, Norfolk, was one of Europe’s most-visited pilgrimage destinations. Then in 1538, Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell banned pilgrimages. The shrine was demolished, the famous statue of Our Lady of Walsingham dumped on a bonfire, and the site turned into luxury housing. An Elizabethan balladeer sighed: ‘Bitter, bitter, O to behold/ The grass to grow/ Where the walls of Walsingham/ So stately did show.

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