The New Geography of Pilgrimage by Peter Stanford

pilgrims walking the Camino

In this guest blog, award-winning writer, journalist and broadcaster Peter Stanford explores British pilgrimage and its link to The Camino. In his new book, Pilgrimage: Journeys of Meaning Stanford reflects on pilgrimage past and present, and a compelling exploration of its relevance today.

a picture of Peter Staford

My own initiation into the time-honoured ritual of pilgrimage came as a naïve seventeen-year-old. A group of us from my Catholic school in Liverpool, accompanied by two Christian Brothers, travelled to Lourdes in France. We had all grown up being told about how, since 1858, when the Virgin Mary had appeared there to the young Bernadette Soubirous, this shrine had been an otherworldly place, linked by an invisible thread to heaven. Spiritual and even physical illnesses could be cured by bathing in the waters that Jesus’s mother had caused to gush into a grotto.

Though in my narrow traditional Catholic world of the time I didn’t know it, I was also stepping out on that journey in the footsteps of millions of pilgrims down the ages who have headed off in the search for meaning along well-trodden paths to holy spots around the globe associated with their gods. And some not quite so well-trodden.

At the end of the sixth century BCE, 29-year-old Siddhatta Gotama, better known as the Buddha, left behind his wife and newborn child in what is now Nepal. He donned the yellow robes of a monk, and walked and walked for six years until he achieved enlightenment. The tree under which it happened is now the pre-eminent place of pilgrimage for the world’s Buddhists. 

a picture ofmonks praying

All faiths embrace, to varying degrees, the concept of pilgrimage

Islam makes the journey to Mecca for the hajj a religious obligation. Fuelling the physical efforts of those who make such treks has been the hope, sometimes nurtured in silence, other times loudly chanted or sung, that at journey’s end there will dawn some new understanding or perspective on everyday existence. Or, at the very least, a sense of being touched by divine forces that in that particular place will be much more accessible than in the daily routine of life. 

All such sites are regarded as thin places, set apart from the world, moving to a different drum. Possessed of an innately special atmosphere because of their connection to another, higher dimension. When there, the distinction between the visible and the invisible can fade, and a door open onto another mind-set. 

Again, I say this with the benefit of hindsight. I could have hardly have articulated it in such terms back then, much less associated what I was doing by going to Lourdes with this global movement. Our by-the-good-book religion lessons in the late 1970s stretched little further than the stark Q&A formulas of the Penny Catechism. 

Moreover, there were on our trip concessions to modernity that distanced it from those earlier generations of pilgrims. We weren’t donning sackcloth and ashes to trudge the distance on foot over several weeks. We weren’t carrying palm leaves – in memory of Jesus’s triumphant entry in Jerusalem – as our medieval forerunners would have, causing them to be referred to as palmers. Instead, in just two days, we sped in comfort down the autoroute in the school’s mini bus, grateful to be have spared wearing our uniform. 

a picture of a town

Yet, in other significant ways, the experience mirrored that of the godly folk on their way to the cathedral city of Canterbury whose tales Geoffrey Chaucer recounted at the end of the fourteenth century in what remains the most celebrated account of pilgrimage in literature. 

Like them, we weren’t exactly pious, but still tied to the apron strings of the Church – that’s what a Christian Brothers’ education did to you. And we enjoyed the companionship of the road, while also sharing an expectation that what lay ahead would be somehow momentous.  

And it was, imprinted on my memory almost four decades later. For Lourdes was unlike anywhere I had ever been before, its character defined principally by the presence of so many sick people who had come to be cured, often after doctors had given up on them.  All that was needed was faith, they told us repeatedly, and their example made an impact.

When we returned home a week later, I was full of reverent resolutions to change, and awash with bottles of holy water, in gaudy pale blue plastic containers, shaped like the Virgin Mary.

I even brought back what passed on my modest budget for the sort of relic of saints that medieval pilgrims treasured – a large glossy picture of the embalmed dead body of Bernadette in a glass tomb. It was pinned onto my bedroom wall in the hope that it would keep me true to my newfound sense of purpose and planned to sign up the following summer as a helper at Lourdes, assisting the sick as they were lowered into the healing waters. 

I never made it back. There were too many other experiences to crowd in

There have been pilgrimages to other places since, the product of a modest residual faith laced with lashings of curiosity, but never of such intensity as that first one. 

I had always assumed that it was me whose perspective had altered, but half-a-dozen years ago, I suddenly realised that it was actually pilgrimages themselves – and those who went on them – that were changing. 

After a book event in the Lake District, I was being driven the half-an-hour to the nearest railway station by a volunteer from the local literary festival, when she mentioned that she was just back from crossing two mountain ranges while walking the length of the Camino, the thousand-year-old route to Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain. 

She spoke about the opportunity it had afforded her for sustained, life-enhancing exercise. To explore at first hand the history and culture of the regions she was ever-so-slowly crossing on foot. To feel a genuine at-one-ness with the environment. And to escape with all she needed in a single rucksack from the sundry distractions and paraphernalia of modern life.

The rhythm of putting one foot in front of the other all day had, she enthused, allowed her to make space in an otherwise overfull head for deeper reflection.  Some of what she described resonated with what I recalled of Lourdes, but a lot didn’t. For a start, religion had played no part in inspiring her to go on pilgrimage.

After that I started hearing similar stories everywhere I went, about the appeal of the Camino itself, which has seen a huge upturn in numbers from just five a day in the mid-1980s to almost a thousand nowadays, but also about other pilgrimage destinations all around the world.   Even Lourdes, I discovered, was becoming popular with non-Catholics, unthinkable in my day. Long-lost pilgrim routes were being rediscovered and repopulated by a new breed of travellers. In some cases they needed literally to be unearthed so unused or repurposed had they become. 

And that is what led me to take up my pilgrim’s staff once again

To record the changing face of pilgrimage around the world today, stories of some new and some refound pathways, as well as some existing ones that have adjusted their focus in reaction to a new, broader spirit of pilgrimage at large.  Crucial too, as well as the how and where is the why. Why, in our otherwise markedly secular and sceptical times, especially in the developed world where numbers of those who describe themselves as religious is in rapid decline, are people actively seeking out places whose history is soaked in the sort of faith that usually they reject?

The standard answer I was given many times is that tourism is the new religion, and pilgrimage just a new name for tourism.  For pilgrimage read adventure holiday, and for pilgrim read hiker. There is a nice irony in this conflation of tourists and pilgrims since the origins of the modern travel industry lie, in part at least, pilgrimage. Both are about groups of individuals setting off in some sort of organised, overseen fashion, on tried and trusted trails, with a place to stay for the night included, and a guide in the party, to visit somewhere far removed from home that they hope will make them feel better. 

But the two are not the same

Pilgrimage is a word that should be used with care, not thrown around lightly in glossy travel brochures.  It signals more than a ramble through foreign countryside with friends, more than a chance to get healthy and do some sightseeing into the bargain. Pilgrim routes and shrines, as I had found out on that youthful trip to Lourdes, and have witnessed many times since, are more than an alternative for the adventurous to beaches, ski-slopes and villas.  

There is, whether the twenty-first century pilgrim wants to connect with it or not, a transcendent dimension that is bound up with pilgrimage. It doesn’t matter if those setting out on the route have little or no interest in religion, or more widely in faith, or to extend it further still, in that vague, immediately attractive cousin of both of the above, namely spirituality. Walking along a pilgrim road opens us to a legacy that reaches beyond firmer muscled and toned tummies. Significant numbers of those who walk the Camino, and who are among the more than 50 per cent who disclaim the label of religious, nonetheless talk of how the experience leaves them changed.  A handful goes the full distance and convert – or return – to Catholicism.  For others, the shift can be something much smaller, and harder to pick up.  

Of the roughly quarter of a million tourists/hikers/pilgrims who turn up from home and abroad each year at York Minister, mother church of Christianity in northern England since the seventh century, nine in ten arrive by their own admission with no conscious intention of saying a prayer. The building is a glorious museum to them. Yet nearly half subsequently report having been sufficiently moved, once inside, by something they struggle to name that they light a candle or leave a written prayer.

a picture of a cathedral

Still more head home from the Camino with a new appetite to explore other similar routes for their next vacation, rather than a more conventional hiking challenge.

The 1200-year-old Buddhist trail around 88 temples at Shikoku in Japan is a particularly popular next step with Camino veterans. 

One more satisfying explanation (and the book contains plenty more) for the renaissance of pilgrimage is required. This, after all, was a practice that, 40 years ago in Europe at least, was ebbing away like Matthew Arnold’s “Sea of Faith” but without the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar”.  One starting point is to identify the root cause of the return of pilgrimage as something in the ether of our uncertain times. Banking crashes, the rise of populism, seemingly insoluble conflicts and terrifying pandemics individually and collectively are causing us to question the very foundations on which our post-religion twenty-first-century lives are built. 

Our belief in what until recently was taken to be inevitable progress of science and humanity – and hence the marginalisation of faith – has been stopped in its tracks.  When the going gets tough, history teaches time and again, people give the things associated with religion, if not religion itself, a second look.  

Pilgrimage: Journeys of Meaning, is available to pre-order now and will be published on the 29th of April 2021 by Thames & Hudson

Start your own pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago, the Via Francigena, the St Francis Way, the Geneva Way or even the Waterford Camino in Ireland. There are so many pilgrimages to choose from, and they can all be tailored to you. From a week to months of walking – the experience is life-changing.

Take your first step by getting in touch, and start planning!


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