Pilgrimage was once Britain’s most important expression of leisure and mindfulness, an activity that was embraced by kings and peasants alike. But since it was banned in 1538 by Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell due to religious connotations, pilgrimage has failed to make a comeback in the country.
But on a global scale, there’s a renaissance of pilgrimage happening, which can be seen through the Camino de Santiago, the Hajj, the Arba’een, and the Kumbh Mela, among others. After noticing Britain’s lack of modern-day pilgrimage rituals, Will Parsons and Guy Hayward founded the British Pilgrimage Trust, a charity that aims to revive the age-old tradition in Britain and promote holistic wellbeing throughout the island nation.
Hoping to learn more about the act (and art) of pilgrimage, we asked Will and Guy to share their expertise on the subject. Here’s what they had to say.
How do you define “pilgrimage”?
Will: The word itself comes from the Latin words for “stranger” and “through fields” — peregrinus and per ager. So, in that sense, pilgrimage is really about leaving your home behind and going beyond your comfort — but it’s also about going off-road, going through green places.
Our working definition of pilgrimage is “a journey on foot to holy places,” though you can exchange the word “holy” with “wholesome,” “holistic,” or “healthy.”
In terms of process, there are three main steps in pilgrimage: intention, destination, and walking. It’s choosing where you need to go — somewhere that offers a sense of completeness in some way — and going. There is no prescription in modern pilgrimage, but there has to be an intention behind it, whether that be personal, physical, emotional, or global. This deliberate, chosen, conscious intent is a crucial opening factor of pilgrimage.
Guy: For me, pilgrimage is the holy grail of journeying because it integrates all the aspects of being human. By making a pilgrimage you get free access to some of the land’s greatest places, which, in turn, provides you free healing. While many think pilgrimage is primarily about pain and hardship, the reality of modern pilgrimage is that it promotes a blissful, simple, and joyous life.
How is pilgrimage different than, say, going on a hike?
Will: Hiking is essentially identical to pilgrimage, if done well. Many hikers are already making a pilgrimage; they’re just not calling it that. But hiking can be more vague, an activity that is solely focused on the journey. Much of pilgrimage is basically hiking — it’s walking through nature without a care in the world, feeling great, and being alive among glorious views and fresh air. But pilgrimage takes this a step further by giving the journey a purpose. With pilgrimage, you align your journey with an emotional release at a significant destination. This can be tremendously powerful. Hiking seems to be, in my opinion, pilgrimage that has slightly forgotten what it is.
Guy: Walking to “holy” places is the differentiating factor between pilgrimage and hiking. Holy places — both natural and man-made — offer much to the soul. Secondly, I’d say pilgrimage inspires your imagination much more than hiking does. You end up reflecting on what’s around you in nature and what’s happening in your own mind, which generates great inner storytelling.
How did pilgrimage become such an important aspect of your lives?
Will: When I was 21, I inherited my father’s walking boots. The following year, I decided to research Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” for my literature degree. I wanted to investigate the reality of a British pilgrimage experience. Then, when I was 24, I went on a nine-month singing hike, where I made a living entirely off of singing traditional British songs in villages and towns. It was great. Over the next 10 years, I made many more epic British singing walks. Then I met Guy, and we tried pilgrimage in a more formal method — for six days to the origin of a song written about 37 hop-pickers who died in 1852. We wanted to sing that song at the place where it happened. This intensive focus was an experiment for me — I had never set such limits on my walks before. But it worked. When we arrived, we met two descendants of the hop-pickers who were there for only five minutes and who had never heard the song! So, in a sense, we got to return the song to its bloodline. This synchronicity shook me. Pilgrimage worked even better than wandering!
Guy: I was finishing my Ph.D. and was feeling rather lost when I met Will. Our first journey proved to be an incredible antidote to my lostness, with its very clear intention of taking a song back to its homeland. Ever since then, I’ve known that other people could benefit from our discovery of the lost art of pilgrimage, and I personally still benefit from regularly making pilgrimage.
You’ve said that you don’t do a pilgrimage; you make a pilgrimage. Can you elaborate on that distinction?
Will: Pilgrimage is a creative act, like a work of art, with you as both the artist and the canvas. As an experience, pilgrimage is so rich with associations, and so rife with meaning, that it becomes an open story you are free to tell as you need —- but that is somehow also telling you at the same time.
Guy: When you pilgrimage, you create a story out of your journey. It’s your choice whether you help a stranger, turn left rather than right at certain points along the way, open yourself to learning the lessons of the journey, or simply listen to the birds sing. The journey provides the structure, but you provide the life force and attention to that journey. You become an active traveler, not a passive passenger.
Pilgrimage is often associated with religion, but you tend to say that it’s more tied to tradition and a sense of mindfulness. Can you elaborate on that?
Will: Pilgrimage is a pan-global tradition, with deeper roots in human culture than any book-based belief. It goes back to the earliest migration rituals. It is the ultimate trope, the journey, the way, the path. We are all on it, from birth to death. The activity of making pilgrimage is really a ritual reenactment of our shared human condition within reality. And the reason that almost every faith uses pilgrimage as a core ritual form is simply because it works.
Pilgrimage is neither religious nor non-religious. It is open to all to bring their own beliefs. As we see it, pilgrimage is basically as simple as saying, “Go to places of peace and wholeness, and go there on foot.”
Guy: Swallows, salmon, and buffalo all make pilgrimage, and to our best knowledge, they don’t have complex systems of thought governing what they believe. For people, pilgrimage is a chance to go back to the basics of being human. Out on the path, there is no priest dictating your next step — you author your own experience. Mud, leaves, and sky don’t force particular beliefs. Not even churches can tell you what to think when no one else is there but you.
You’ve mentioned that pilgrimage allows you to “connect to the forgotten bits of you.” What do you mean by that?
Guy: Walking slowly through the land, with much less to do than in your normal life, opens up your heart and mind to experience emotions and memories that have been dormant for perhaps many years. For me, the wonder of truly experiencing what’s around me while pilgrimaging certainly reminds me of how I used to be when I was five years old.
Will: In the West, “normal life” encourages a survival tactic of avoidance. We have wonderful tools to help with this, like colorful flashing screens. If a truck drives past, 10 yards away, many people don’t even register it happening — they’re busy staring at their screen. Ignoring things makes modern life easier, because we’re not doing a fantastic job of things in the modern world right now.
But I’m an optimist, and believe great things are possible, and they’re only a short journey away. Pilgrimage helps this process along by making people encounter themselves more deeply, as well as other people, the land, and whatever else is going on around them. While pilgrimaging, you meet yourself outside the context of your job, house, car, friends, and family. You become far less about what surrounds you, and far more about yourself, alone. You think about that niggling shoulder, the way you don’t look at certain people in the eye, your anger … all of these things are within your soul, and pilgrimage shakes them out.
How has pilgrimage changed the way you see yourselves and the world at large?
Guy: I now see myself as more “in the world,” and more embodied. I feel safer, more confident, worldly-wise, and kinder. It’s helped me realize the vastness of the world around me. Living in a city behind a laptop rather narrows one’s view — quite literally, in fact! Pilgrimage has pushed me to get beyond that.
Will: Since discovering pilgrimage, I feel more connected to my body — how it works, what I can ask of it, and what it does for me. And I feel more aware of my emotions and thoughts. Pilgrimage has helped me connect to my animal reality, as a creature among nature. It has helped make my interconnections more clear. Spending time in nature makes other life become more relevant and reminds me that I am not an owner of the planet, but simply a guest co-habitant.
As I understand it, pilgrimage, the slow and dedicated journey toward wholesomeness, is not so much a spiritual holiday option as it is a fundamental habit of reality, like gravity. However people take this, by whatever name or flavor, pilgrimage helps bring you closer to your chosen source. Love, Gaia, universal resonance, God, Allah, allness, the Universe, Jah, Shiva, the Force, pure material reality — whatever it is, the journey of pilgrimage takes you along your path and supports your search toward what you need, by whatever name.
And lastly, what advice would you give someone who wants to make their first pilgrimage?
Guy: You can’t get it wrong. Just set foot and walk to your destination. Let the journey show you the way by opening your eyes, ears, and heart.
Will: Choose your destination wisely. Think carefully about your intention. Be your best you. Go slowly. Improve along the way. Be natural. Give gifts and be grateful. And walk well. You will not pass this way again.
To learn more about pilgrimage and discover the top pilgrimage sites in the U.K., visit britishpilgrimage.org.