The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk (Photo by Chris Dorney)

The British pilgrimage problem

The UK could have Caminos galore

Artillery Row

Does the UK have a pilgrimage problem? As with most things vaguely religious, we Brits are surprisingly clumsy and prone to get flustered. Hence we miss opportunities, both economic and spiritual. Pilgrimage could — and should — be far more prevalent here.

That judgement is based on having just taken a bunch of footsore Brits on a 111-kilometre Camino pilgrimage to Fátima, one of the world’s most important Marian shrines, in central Portugal. The route is part of a network of Caminos crisscrossing the Iberian Peninsula, collectively known as the Camino(s) de Santiago. All along the trail to Fátima, there was excellent signage, tourism offices with helpful staff offering lots of free pilgrimage-related leaflets and maps, accommodation catering toward pilgrims, and access to a company that moved the group’s bags between each stopover. 

In typical contrast, the UK lags well behind, despite so much pilgrimage potential. As ever, Henry VIII bears much of the blame. He banned pilgrimage in a 1538 injunction by Thomas Cromwell, commanding his subjects “not to repose their trust and affiance in any other works devised by men’s phantasies besides Scripture; as in wandering to pilgrimages, offering of money, candles, or tapers to images or relics, or kissing or licking the same”.

“Because of this there has been a taboo against pilgrimage in Britain ever since, and the tradition [and] practice never recovered properly,” says Guy Hayward, who in 2014 co-founded the British Pilgrimage Trust that offers free access to a pilgrim route network that currently covers over 250 routes across Britain, supported with maps, photos and information. 

The undervalued state of UK pilgrimage, which the trust is trying to resolve, exemplifies the strength of the Reformation’s fallout, coupled with Brits’ ongoing hang-ups about (Christian) religion and reluctance to publicly “be religious”. It also highlights a particularly modern type of British sluggishness — which appears to have been cemented during the pandemic — that is hampering our economy and ability to move on from the double whammy of Brexit and lockdowns

Increasingly, we wait for things to happen, or just complain whilst clinging onto an odd array of threadbare comfort blankets that we like to think signal our worth. These range from winning two world wars to British banter. These are unrivalled achievements, undoubtedly, but they increasingly have little impact on the present in terms of generating momentum. Whereas, shorn of such past victories and a winning sense of humour, Portugal and Spain are doing all they can now to spur their pilgrimage tourism, amongst other things

Fátima drew 1.5 million visitors when Pope Francis visited in May 2017

I noticed how the Portuguese are also striving to establish and bolster entirely new pilgrimage routes. You can now do a 54-kilometre Camino between Fátima and Nazaré, the small fishing village that has become the Mecca of Big Wave surfing on Portugal’s Western coast. In Nazaré you can start or finish your Camino — modern pilgrimage is nothing if not flexible — at the Santuario de Nossa Senhora de Nazaré church, built to commemorate a 12th century miracle in which the Virgin Mary intervened to prevent a huntsman and his horse from following a deer over a cliff edge. The church is a short walk from the famous faro lighthouse, where people gather to watch daredevil surfers embracing a watery cliff edge as they ride monster waves crushing in from the Atlantic.

Just as Portugal and Spain were quick off the mark during the 1970s and 1980s in embracing and pushing their tourism potential, they are now doing the same thing with pilgrimage. Pilgrimage and “spirituality” travel is growing in popularity globally. Europe’s Catholic shrines have seen a marked increase in visitors during the past two decades. Fátima drew 1.5 million visitors when Pope Francis visited in May 2017 for the centenary of its Marian apparitions. The total number of visitors for that year hit 9.4 million, according to Church figures. Before Covid got in the way, in 2017 more than 300,000 people from 150 countries walked Spain’s Camino de Santiago — whilst technically a Catholic pilgrimage, it attracts a very broad church; on my first Camino I found myself surrounded by lesbian atheists — compared to the 3,000 who were recorded completing the journey three decades before. 

The good news for growing British pilgrimage, as the British Pilgrimage Trust notes, is that “much of the core infrastructure is already in place — off-road footpaths, under-used churches, pubs and village shops. We simply need to join the dots”. Hence there is a concerted push to create a sort of British Camino to the Norfolk shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, site of an 11th century vision of the Virgin Mary. Demolished during the Reformation, Walsingham currently draws 250,000 pilgrims annually, which isn’t bad going. 

“It is a large venture, aimed at nothing less than reviving the walking routes as part of a spiritual and cultural revival amongst those huge numbers in the population for whom pilgrimage and prayer are unknown,” Joanna Bogle says in a Catholic Herald article on the spiritual potential of the “Walsingham Camino” and its value for people today. “There is a spiritual hunger in Britain: you can feel it and sense it. Rather than lament it, or allow a variety of nonsensical, bogus or indeed sinister things to fill it, let’s offer the truth and beauty of Christian pilgrimage.”

Hayward describes pilgrimage as a “contracted journey with specific intent and purpose”; it may be religious or geared toward something else. There’s an argument that pilgrimage is facing an open goal in terms of potential growth. It offers the perfect antidote to many of the dystopian trends benighting the modern world that would have us view ourselves only as individuals and to communicate via electronic means. 

The Camino de Santiago took off after creative interest and a governmental cash injection

Pilgrimage facilitates the sort of rubbing of shoulders, new encounters and walking and talking together, that so many decry as not existing in their isolated, atomised lives. Hayward suggests that the overburdened NHS would do well to consider “socially prescribing pilgrimages” to treat a range of physical and mental health issues.

Bogle acknowledges there is much to be done to get a British Camino fit for purpose all along the 175-mile route to Walsingham. As confirmed by those working to bolster British pilgrimage, the UK government appears wary of getting involved and promoting something with the potentially “triggering” label of pilgrimage. (That Reformation again.)

“The main missing pieces are a fully committed government and Church of England to reviving the practice of pilgrimage,” Hayward says. “Particularly by establishing low-cost accommodation infrastructure along pilgrim routes and in churches.” He notes how the Camino de Santiago took off after a combination of creative interest — with Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho publishing The Pilgrimage about his Camino — and a governmental cash injection in 1993 of €130 million to construct cheap hostels (called albergues) along the way, after which pilgrims started “coming in their droves”. 

Brexit could be another factor. Using an EU-funded grant, the British Pilgrimage Trust helped establish an Irish-Welsh pilgrimage route from Wexford in Ireland to St David’s in Wales. There will be no more EU funds for pilgrimages in the UK for the time being, which is a shame as pilgrimage in the UK has historically been intertwined with pilgrimage on the European mainland. There is even a Camino Ingles — The English Way — in northern Spain. It is based on 12th century English and Irish pilgrims, who would set off from their homes and after sailing to the Spanish ports of A Coruña and Ferrol, and then walk on to Santiago de Compostela.

“The Camino is the Microsoft and Google of Western pilgrimage, whereas the understated start-up is British pilgrimage,” says Hayward, “So if you want to talk about where the excitement, the avantgarde is, about the coalface of change for pilgrimage, then come here.”

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