Mar 29, 2018

Pilgrimage Open to All: Bring Your Own Beliefs

By Bonnie Welch /
Pilgrimage Open to All: Bring Your Own Beliefs

The Sustainable Food Trust’s Future of UK Farming conference at Fir Farm this April will feature a pilgrimage from the source of the River Dickler to Hill Barn, hosted by Guy Hayward and Will Parsons of the British Pilgrimage Trust (BPT). Ahead of the conference I decided to join Guy and Will along the Old Way to Canterbury in an attempt to uncover how the ancient tradition might help reconnect us with nature.

Pilgrimage – at first – may not seem like an activity directly connected to farming, yet the BPT, in their mission to re-discover the ancient tradition of pilgrimage, describe it as a “healthy and inclusive form of spiritual green tourism” taking place across vast swathes of British agricultural land and the wider countryside. Founders of the BPT, Guy Hayward and Will Parsons, say that part of the pursuit of pilgrimage is to challenge the sense of ‘hyper-connectivity’ in our modern world – in which phones connect to cars, which connect to houses, which turn on the heating. However, the reality is that we are going through an epidemic of disconnection – where water comes from a tap and food from a supermarket, yet we are alienated from their actual source. Pilgrimage thus offers far more than just a time to be outdoors. In focusing on the deep-rooted connection between humans and the land, it can encourage greater care and protection of the natural world. At a time when the environment is increasingly at risk from the destructive actions of humans, engaging with nature has never been more pressing.

Described as a “journey to wholesome and/or special places”, pilgrimage has a rich history. “In medieval times, you could barely move in England without encountering groups of pilgrims,” writes Harriet Sherwood in a piece on the BPT. However, its history is plagued with hardship – in Britain, it was stopped in 1538 when Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell banned the practice as part of sweeping moves to obliterate the pre-Reformation church. In restoring the tradition of pilgrimage, Guy and Will regularly traverse the ancient routes and have a growing group of followers seeking to explore the various natural wonders and spiritual sites of significance, including holy wells, river sources, great trees and ancient monuments. Journeying off-road as much as possible, the routes use nature as their guide, often passing through diverse terrain, along coastal footpaths, woodland trails, river crossings and farmland. Contrary to common opinion, the BPT point out that the word ‘holy’ does not imply any particular religious allegiance, and instead derives from the Old English word Halig, meaning healthy, wholesome or holistic. Holy places are, they explain, “compelling places – towards which you feel summoned to walk”.

And summoned to walk I was. Having met Guy and Will last year following their pilgrimage from the source of the Welsh river Towy to the SFT’s Harmony in Food and Farmingconference in Llandovery, I was inspired by their vision for the future of British pilgrimage, and its potential to reignite our relationship with nature. I decided to join them on a one-day pilgrimage to Canterbury. Despite my love of the great outdoors and passion for walking, I must admit to being somewhat sceptical as to the spiritual significance of the journey I was about to undertake. My preconceived ideas of pilgrimage, as an intensely religious expedition taken by those in search of moral or spiritual significance – meant that I was anticipating something similar.

Nevertheless intrigued, I joined Guy and Will with a group of twelve others, on a crisp autumnal morning to walk part of an ancient pilgrimage route rediscovered by the BPT. The Old Way to Canterbury, as it was once known, is a 350-kilometre route beginning in Southampton, with the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury as its final destination. Our journey covered the final leg of the Old Way, starting at St Mary’s Church in the quaint Kentish village of Patrixbourne, three miles south of Canterbury, where we ended just in time for Choral Evensong at the Canterbury Cathedral. Despite the relative proximity of Patrixbourne to Canterbury, our route took us seven miles across country, stopping off at a series of churches and holy water sites.

Much like the ancient pilgrims, we were given traditional wooden staffs, which are said to act as a direct connection between each pilgrim and the land, a sort of natural energy conductor – not to mention that it also proved to be a very handy stabiliser when climbing over rickety wooden stiles. The route took in a total of six ancient churches, each of which appeared lovingly cared for. Following the lead of Guy and Will, it became somewhat of a ritual to rest our foreheads against the exterior East wall of each church, allegedly to take in the wealth of energy projected against it and stored within. This experience took some getting used to, though it proved to be quite calming, allowing some rest to pause and consider our own reasons for joining the pilgrimage. It also provided a time to appreciate the magnitude and splendour of the ancient buildings.

Guy and Will say that pilgrimages are as much about rediscovering an ancient form of spiritual journey, as they are about developing one’s own well-being. “In striving for holy places on foot, you will rediscover your relationship with self and nature,” they explain. Not only does pilgrimage encourage us to take a step back from our complex, fast-paced modern lives, but it allows us to develop and enhance our own bodies and minds, engaging us in physical activity, mental stimulation and contemplation. In order to maximise the experience, the route we took avoided ‘civilisation’, in favour of nature. Along the way, we drank filtered water from holy springs, lay beneath an ancient beech tree, and paddled in a natural well. We shared lunch in a wooded glen and sang traditional folk songs as we walked, stopping to offer gifts of silver in the form of small coins to selected natural sites. It all felt very much like The Canterbury Tales.

An aspect of the pilgrimage that was of particular interest to me, was the relationship it engendered with the changing countryside and farmland that surrounded us. We passed through arable lands, coppiced woodland, orchards and fields with roaming livestock. We also witnessed the diversification that many farms depend on, traversing a solar power farm that formed part of the route. During the day, I came to realise that pilgrimage offers huge potential for walkers to gain a greater understanding of the ways and workings of the land – much of which is used to produce the food that feeds us on a daily basis. For those of us whose lives are largely city-based, and for whom encountering the natural world is a rare occurrence, pilgrimage provides a space to connect with and learn from nature, at a pace through which it is possible to appreciate it.

There are other clear commonalities between pilgrimage and farming, grounded in the idea that the land itself is holy and that our interaction with, and care of the land, is of great significance. Farmers understand the value of the natural capital found within the fields –  its soil, sources of water and other resources are crucial to the health of the land and the endeavour of farming. For holistic farmers, whose land management practices work symbiotically with nature, the entire farm ecosystem has a role to play in the production of food. What pilgrimage offers is a way of connecting with the land. Guy and Will explain that only once you are in nature, are you able to understand it. “You can’t love the land until you meet it,” they say.

Of course, organised pilgrimage is not to everyone’s taste, and the BPT realise that “there’s a lot of baggage around the word”. The word ‘holy’ is also often hard to bear, provoking something of an “allergic reaction” to those of us who perhaps don’t identify with religion more generally. However, pilgrimage is “part of our indigenous tradition” and a “part of who we are” claim Guy and Will. In order to escape the separation, isolation and monotony of modern life, we must meet new people and witness the evolution of the countryside that is so crucial to each of our lives. Pilgrimage offers a perfect solution – a space to reconnect with ourselves, others and with nature. It is fair to say, after a full day spent walking through the beautiful British countryside, it is hard not to feel this sense of connection. My experience did not end when we arrived in Canterbury, but invigorated my passion for nature so much so that I am sure I will make pilgrimages a much more common occurrence. What’s more, my reservations as to the spiritual significance of pilgrimage were proved unnecessary, for I came to see almost immediately that regardless of religious identity or spiritual alignment, pilgrimage really is for everyone. The only necessity is an open mind.

Guy and Will are planning a pilgrimage from the source of the River Dickler to Fir Farm near Stow-on-the-Wold on the morning of Friday, 27 April 2018, as part of the The Future of UK Farming conference.

The conference itself features amongst others, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Michael Gove; President of the NFU Minette Batters; the US’s leading livestock farmer Joel Salatinsoil expert Joel Williamsfounder of Ballymaloe Cookery School Darina Allenand Head of Agriculture at the Buccleuch Estates, Adrian Dolby.

Session themes will cover: Public Money for Public Goods; Building Better Soil Through Farming Practice; Delivering High Animal Welfare and Local Meat Through Small Abattoirs and New Models for Local Food Systems.  

Click here for more information and tickets.

Bonnie Welch grew up in rural Somerset and has a keen interest in global sustainable food and farming practices and permaculture. She is currently a masters student of Food Anthropology at SOAS University in London.

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