The Telegraph - "The British art of hospitality is not dead yet – trust me, I’m a pilgrim" by Guy Hayward

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The Telegraph - "The British art of hospitality is not dead yet – trust me, I’m a pilgrim" by Guy HaywardThe Telegraph - "The British art of hospitality is not dead yet – trust me, I’m a pilgrim" by Guy Hayward

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Article by Guy Hayward, first published in The Telegraph, 29 March 2024


I’ve been making pilgrimage around Britain for years now, for several reasons, such as wanting to feel belonging in my homeland and on the Earth, to connect with my soul and nature more deeply and to feel the humanity we all share. Those living in Britain I have met along the way have been many things: eccentric, jolly, convivial, as well as forlorn, unsure and lost. But on the whole they are kind.

There is something about employing the word ‘pilgrim’ on a walk that functions a bit like a password to a traveller’s welcome, one that people here have not yet forgotten to give. Identifying yourself as a pilgrim to strangers creates trust, as being on an unknown path evidently makes you dependent on the kindness of others, and this is understood implicitly by everyone involved.

Also, as a pilgrim you are in constant transition between one place and the next, and therefore do not pose a threat to strangers if they tell you about themselves, because you won’t be hanging around to tell their neighbours. This creates the conditions for an honest exchange: they can offer you a bed, shower, washing machine and a charging socket, and you can offer them your open heart to hear their story. The magical thread of life can be traced through unexpected encounters, and in such scenarios we speak differently to each other, and it can often be cathartic for both parties.

'As a pilgrim you are in constant transition between one place and the next,' says Hayward
'As a pilgrim you are in constant transition between one place and the next,' says Hayward. Credit: Emily Garthwaite

One such encounter was stumbling across a family outside their house as my companion and I came to the end of a long day of walking. The parents asked us what we were doing with our backpacks and wooden staffs (sticks), and we proudly announced we were pilgrims. They were initially reserved because almost immediately they worked out we might be wanting a place to stay; however, after a few minutes of ordinary conversation that revealed we weren’t an obvious threat, they wondered if we might want to come in for a shower, “as that’s what pilgrims need”.

This shower offer quickly turned into a dinner invitation, which ended up lasting a few hours, with the four of us adults (and, to begin with, their two slightly bemused children) discussing the ups and downs of our life stories and the struggles we had shared around mental health issues within our families. It wasn’t entirely easy, given how tired we were after a few days’ walking, but we knew this was the deal so we gave them our best. The dinner experience was clearly affirming for them, especially as they had not done anything like inviting strangers into their house before, so they offered us their guest beds upstairs.

On pilgrimage, simple things such as sleep, being warm, fed and clean, and drying one’s wet clothes and charging one’s phone become luxuries. This reset of expectations is facilitated by people you have never met before, and their letting go of fears they might have and trusting you.

Other encounters have been with local artists and historians, pillars of the community, churchwardens and other good folk we have met either on the path or the street. They have approached unafraid and asked what we are doing, and often say something like: “I should offer you a bed then, or at least a cup of tea.”

Though a backpack in a city generally predisposes you well to others – if you are polite and charming – the countryside lends itself particularly to encounters like these. Not everyone feels comfortable inviting strangers into their home, of course, but there are usually other options. Pub landlords sometimes let you sleep in their gardens (especially if you have sung them a few songs first) and churchwardens and vicars, if asked respectfully, will let you sleep in their church porch or, better still, inside their ancient church.

Church sleeping is a particular delight, often leading to unusual dreams in spaces that are charged with holiness and prayer. It’s called ‘dream incubation’ and is a practice that goes back thousands of years to the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and even King Solomon, who at the Temple of Gibeon incubated the famous dream in which he was granted wisdom. Churches are often silent and peaceful, and plug you into the heart of the community network. Contrary to popular assumption, they are not haunted. The whole point of a church and a churchyard is to send souls on their way safely through carefully designed and performed ceremonies, and so spirits generally don’t hang around, and you can sleep soundly.

'Church sleeping is a particular delight, often leading to unusual dreams in spaces that are charged with holiness and prayer'
'Church sleeping is a particular delight, often leading to unusual dreams in spaces that are charged with holiness and prayer'

As a result of these pleasant church-sleeping experiences, and the warm receptivity of parishioners to the idea, the British Pilgrimage Trust, of which I am director and co-founder, is building a Sanctuary network of churches, church halls and village halls offering pilgrims low-cost accommodation. The average price per night per pilgrim for a Sanctuary is £10, which makes multi-day pilgrimages accessible to society at large. It also provides much-needed revenue to churches and shared community buildings such as village halls (we take no commission).

Clearly we are not as religious as we once were, for better or worse, and a lot of people feel like the Church is not a place for them, but when you stay overnight there, as if a house guest, it can’t help but soften any hard feelings you might have. And even if you don’t stay overnight, entering a church when the door is open with no-one inside is an experience that everyone should have.

In addition to churches, I have also been welcomed at gurdwaras, monasteries, mosques, synagogues and the goddess temples of the druids. I haven’t stayed the night in all of these places but have always felt welcome and have felt a different experience of peace in each.

Places of worship can take many forms, such as the ruined remains of St Luke's Chapel in the Woods, accessible only on foot and hidden away in woodland on the Dorset coast
The ruined remains of St Luke's Chapel in the Woods, accessible only on foot and hidden away in woodland on the Dorset coast

Pilgrimage is not only about the destinations, however, it is also about the footpaths in between, and Britain boasts a magnificent network of freely walkable paths, enshrined in law. And it looks like this network will improve even further if The Ramblers continues to be as successful as it has been with its campaign to protect our more forgotten footpaths. But we must exercise the rights we do have! It’s no good having this treasure unless we actually walk this beautiful inheritance and in so doing preserve it.

Our prehistoric heritage is also comparatively widespread, largely thanks to Pope Gregory the Great in the early seventh century calling off the destruction of our pagan shrines and groves that he had previously ordered, having been advised that we British would be more likely to accept the new religion if the old places were not destroyed. Thanks to this, we still have so many stone circles, henges, long and round barrows, tumuli and ancient yew trees.

Our landscapes are also remarkably varied. Think of the temperate rainforests along the west coast, the flats of Norfolk, the lusciousness of Cornwall, the unspoilt Cambrian Mountains, the Shire-like Olchon Valley with its fairy woods, the glory of the mountainous waters of the Lake District, the mystical peace of Anglesey, Bardsey and Iona, the sacred remoteness of the Western Scottish Isles and the windswept majesty of Orkney and Lindisfarne, the pristine wilds of the Peak District, the rolling Downs of Sussex. You get the picture…

The perfection of these external landscapes is strangely linked with our own inner landscapes. A kind of resonance occurs, and through walking, meeting others, connecting with nature and feeling through emotions that come up, pilgrimage is a way that we can intensify the brightness of our inner life so that it can shine out in everything we do and for everyone we meet. Pilgrimage is a practice, not a belief system, so feel free to bring your own beliefs. By walking in beautiful landscapes and sensing the peace of holy places we come into contact with a truth that goes beyond the ordinary, and on return from pilgrimage it can come alive for us every day.  

Pilgrimages take you off the beaten track and enable you to explore Britain at its best
Pilgrimages take you off the beaten track and enable you to explore Britain at its best, says Hayward

Six brilliant British pilgrimages to try

The Old Way: Lewes to Cuckmere Haven

20 miles, 2 days

The Old Way from Southampton to Canterbury (along the South Downs) linked European and British pilgrims alike who sought Thomas Becket’s shrine. This 20-mile section, perfect for a weekend, starts at Lewes in Sussex, with its 11th-century Priory, the first Cluniac house in England. Then experience the awesome silence at Bible Bottom valley before climbing to panoramic Mount Caburn and descending through Bloomsbury set country around Firle, where you can stay in the church and meet the earthy and vigorous vicar Peter Owen Jones, before continuing to Berwick’s brightly painted church. Leaving the Downs, sense the fifth-century Wilmington Yew tree before meeting the ocean at the unspoilt natural harbour of Cuckmere Haven.

An online guide provides everything you need to know to walk the Old Way. There are 16 low-cost Sanctuary accommodation sites along the route.

Ewyas, Olchon & Monnow Valleys Way

16 miles, 2 days

This pilgrimage meets three remote valleys that straddle the Welsh-Herefordshire border. You start at St Issui’s well, sacred from at least Celtic times, and very nearby is Partrishow Church and Shrine, positioned on high ground overlooking a beautiful valley, and the wonderfully wonky church of Cwmyoy, perched on a Shire-like hillside. In the Vale of Ewyas you follow the River Honddu to the majestic ruins of Llanthony Priory, nestled amidst elegiac mountains. You can see why monks sought solace in this seclusion. You can stay the night here too at the hotel.

From Llanthony, walk towards Capel-y-ffin, where a magical circular churchyard (denoting Bronze Age burial sites) is surrounded by several ancient yew trees. Then up Hay Bluff at Nant Vision, where a vision of the Virgin Mary was recorded. The way is steep but rewardingly breathtaking. Next is the enchanted Olchon Valley and its Cae Mabon well, where pilgrims encounter an oasis of angelic waters. Then the Monnow Valley, the Bull’s Head pub of Craswall and Chapel House Farm, where you can delight in local cider and food. After a moment of silence in St Mary’s Craswall, you finally approach Craswall Priory, the oldest and remotest Grandmontine Priory in England, nestled within a delta of springs that form the source of the River Monnow.

You can get a train to Abergavenny and then a taxi, though a car makes things easier. Lodge at one of the various accommodation options around Llanthony Priory (hotel and B&Bs) at the end of the first day, and at Craswall (there are pub “pods” and the Chapel House camping site) at the end of the second. See the Pilgrimage Trust website for more information.

St Mary's, Capel-y-Ffin
The Cornish Saints’ Way: Padstow to Fowey

27 miles, 3 days

The Celtic saints of this country engaged with nature deeply, and risked everything to bring Christianity to Cornwall in the sixth century AD. Like them you will discover holy wells, hidden glens, ancient churches, standing stones and carved crosses.

This three-day Saints Way comprises part of the Cornish Celtic Way, and you begin at the 15th-century church of St Petrock, then up onto the St Breock Downs, past a huge standing monolith stone, then 15th-century church of St Nivet, the geographical centre of Cornwall, in the parish Lanivet, a word meaning both “church site” and “pagan sacred place”. Then up to the Helman Tor nature reserve overlooking the marshy Red Moor, and towards Lanlivery and its medieval St Brevita Church and 12th-century Crown Inn. Then to Golant, a riverside village associated with Tales of the Riverbank by Kenneth Grahame, and its St Sampson’s Church and Holy Well, the alleged site of the wedding between King Mark and Iseult (who was already fatefully in love with Tristan), and therefore is associated with the birth of the modern myth of romance. From Golant you follow the river to its mouth at Fowey Harbour, from which pilgrims of old would have subsequently embarked on a sea voyage to Brittany and the European mainland.

And along with the beautiful Cornish Celtic Way guidebook, if you acquire a ‘passport’ and get it stamped in places along the way, you gain access to Sanctuary low-cost accommodation in the churches and church halls, allowing pilgrims carrying a mat and sleeping bag to sleep affordably and authentically.

Pick up a copy of Nigel Marns’ Cornish Celtic Way guidebook and Passport. If you get the latter stamped in places along the way, you gain access to Sanctuary accommodation along the route.

Golden Valley Pilgrim Way

35 miles, 3-4 days

This Way links the Wye Valley with the Golden Valley and the flower meadows and foothills of the Black Mountains. You may even stay the night in the cathedral cloisters – and to our knowledge this may be the first time that pilgrims have been able to stay in Anglican cathedral precincts since medieval times.

You will come across apple orchards and cider-producing farms, sacred springs, ruined castles, holy wells and Arthurian legends. Gentle wooded river valleys (with wild swimming) meet mountain landscapes.

You can camp overnight along the way with a rollmat and sleeping bag in one of three medieval churches in Tyberton, Dorstone and Madley (all Sanctuaries), each with a fine country pub nearby. With the route being circular, and starting near a train station, travel options are flexible.

Find out details of low-cost Sanctuary accommodation along the route (only bookable by holders of the route’s passport).

St Alkelda’s Way: Giggleswick to Middleham

33 miles, 3 days

Walk through the spectacular Yorkshire Dales National Park amongst the Swaledale sheep, following a Roman pathway that St Alkelda must have taken on her journeys between the villages of Middleham (Wensleydale) and Giggleswick (Ribbesdale) around 900AD, both of which she is now the patron saint. Alkelda is remembered in these two localities as a saintly lady famous for her use of nearby holy wells for baptism and for her martyrdom at the hands of Danish women.

St Alkelda’s Way wends through the exhilarating and sometimes challenging scenery of the Yorkshire Dales National Park – a landscape of “hollow mountains”, caves and disappearing rivers. The Dales are full of the contrasts of limestone and millstone thrown together by the upthrusts of the Craven Fault – a scenery fashioned by the dynamism of water and long-gone glaciers creating intriguing land formations and different plant life, trees, forests and vegetation. There is deep history both within the human-fashioned stone churches and their enigmatic “cross shafts”, and, of course, the rocks of the Dales. Stone crosses line the route, at which pilgrims of old would have prayed for safe passage, maybe even to Alkelda herself.

There are low-cost hostels along the route; see Malham YHA, Kettlewell YHA and Visit the website of the British Pilgrimage Trust for more information.

Malham Cove
St Magnus’ Way: Finstown to Kirkwall

22 miles, 2 days

A pilgrimage route across Egilsay and mainland Orkney, inspired by the life and death of Magnus, Orkney’s patron saint. Orkney was formed by ancient glacial activity, and a typical landscape is flat with gentle hills leading you to the high cliffs of the west coast. You can see for miles around you and up to a huge sky wherever you are on the island. Be warned, the coastal walking along this section can be affected by storms and tides – Orkney is subject to the full force of Atlantic weather! The Magnus Way website recommends planning extra days into your schedule in case of unpredictable weather.

At Finstown, the focus of the journey is Magnus’s cousin, Hakon, who ordered Magnus’ death so that he could rule the Earlship. From here Magnus’ bones were carried via the Round Kirk of Orphir (maybe inspired by Hakon’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem) on the final leg to the magnificent St Magnus Cathedral at Kirkwall, following the gentler coastal waters of Scapa Flow, the largest natural harbour in the northern hemisphere.

Low-cost hostels can be found along the route in Birsay and Kirkwall. See and

Article by Guy Hayward, first published in The Telegraph, 29 March 2024

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