Secular pilgrims: why ancient trails still pack a spiritual punch

The numbers are striking and puzzling in our secular, sceptical age when organised religion in the west is in steep decline. In the early 1980s, the annual tally of those walking the Camino, the thousand-year-old Christian pilgrim route from France to Santiago de Compostela in north-western Spain, had dropped to a few thousand at best. By 2019, before Covid got in the way, it was almost 350,000.

And this countercultural, modern-day resurrection of pilgrimage is not just limited to the Camino. As we dare this Easter to start making holiday plans again, plenty of pilgrim paths and destinations offer a chance to step back and get a perspective on the trauma we have lived through these past 12 months.

Inspired by the Camino’s resurrection, its medieval rival, the Via Francigena, stretching from Canterbury to Rome – once walked by kings, cardinals and abbots but until recently alive only in the minds of historians – is once more back in operation. It markets itself to walkers variously as “the journey of life” and “the Camino to Rome”, with spedali – hostels for the foot-sore, like the refugios on the real Camino – opening up again on the Italian leg.

Closer to home, in an age of travel restrictions, is the North Wales Pilgrim’s Way, which for centuries carried pilgrims from the healing shrine of Holywell in Flintshire all the way down the Llŷn peninsula. It was reopened with new signage in 2011, thanks to the efforts of a couple, Jenny and Chris Potter, who were Camino returnees.

There is even a “Camino Ingles” in north-east England, a three-day walking route between Finchale priory, via Durham cathedral to the Saxon church at Escomb, where those prevented from going to Spain can clock up miles that can be redeemed for a pilgrim’s certificate (known as a “compostela”) if they ever do get to Santiago.

Meanwhile, the Spanish city has been formally paired with Japan’s 88-temple Buddhist pilgrim route on the island of Shikoku. It has seen a marked rise in numbers of “foreigner pilgrims” – gaijin henroplenty of them Camino veterans. One couple, he American and she Japanese, who met on the route in Spain have opened a pilgrims’ hostel on Shikoku.

So what exactly is going on? Are we quietly coming over all religious again? Alan Bennett pondered the question in his 2018 diary. On a visit to the medieval abbey of Moissac in south-west France, which stands on the Camino route, he spotted what he took at first to be a group on a walking holiday. When he was told they were pilgrims, he was dismissive. “[They] look exactly like the eager middle-aged walkers we see at home,” he complained, “where their pilgrimage is to the top of Ingleborough” (the peak near his Yorkshire village).

Bennett is not alone in suspecting that today’s pilgrimages are just another word for going on holiday, a resonant tag to attract those seeking walking, life- and health-enhancing, history-laden group packages. It is rather like the surprising numbers of non-believers who mark the Christian season of Lent by fasting, not because they want to prepare spiritually for Lent, but as a helpful format for losing weight.

Once these pilgrim paths were lined by wayside chapels, convents and abbeys displaying what were claimed to be the toenails and eyeballs of saints, or splinter-like fragments of the True Cross on which Jesus died. Miracle cures were promised to those who touched them. Today any religious houses offering accommodation to pilgrims stick to B&B. Attending chapel services is optional.

Even the most hardcore of Catholic shrines, Lourdes in south-west France, has been working of late to embrace this new world of pilgrimage, after seeing numbers on more traditional visits tumble by a quarter in the noughties. The place I went to in the late 1970s on a school trip with my Christian Brother teachers to witness the sick and dying bathing in holy waters has now become a destination on cycling’s Tour de France, and is linked in with the Camino trail over the Pyrenees, which passes not too far away.

Pilgrimage has always had a business side to it – as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales makes plain. And – contrary to the tight-lipped, pious image that the more religious pilgrimages still enjoy to this day – it also had a fun side. The Wife of Bath in Chaucer’s Prologue, a veteran of Rome, Jerusalem and Santiago, is mocked for her worldliness and appetite for a good time.

There are, it should be pointed out, time-honoured pilgrimage sites and routes that make a virtue out of not courting the more secular audience. The hajj to Mecca, a religious obligation in Islam, remains restricted to Muslims only, but for the 2.3 million who come at the anointed time, modern hotels and shopping malls now dominate the skyline. And since 2019, the Saudi authorities have allowed non-Muslim visitors to go to nearby Medina, where the Prophet is buried (but not to his tomb).

Even if modern pilgrimage is religion-lite, it is not without a spiritual dimension. Significant numbers of those who walk the Camino, even among the more than 50% who disavow the label of religious, arrive at journey’s end in Santiago, home to the relics of Saint James, talking of how the experience has changed them – and not just in terms of firmer muscles and toned bodies.

You can glimpse in microcosm how this process works in the findings of a survey of visitors to York Minster: 90% of those going in stated that they had no conscious intention of saying a prayer. The building was just a museum, they insisted. Yet nearly half subsequently reported having been sufficiently moved once inside to light a candle or leave a written prayer.

Guy Stagg, whose 2018 book The Crossway recorded his walk on the pilgrim path from Canterbury to Jerusalem, describes being “drawn upward”, despite having set out with no sense of religious purpose. And Colm Tóibín, the award-winning Irish novelist, brought up Catholic but later to reject the church, has written of going as a post-Christian to Lourdes and still being “aware of having entered another atmosphere”.

Religious folk have long liked to talk of pilgrim routes and their destinations as “thin places”, where the worldly brush up against something more ancient and transcendent. That certainly felt true when I found myself at the far end of the North Wales Pilgrim’s Way on Bardsey island. Shaped like a whale basking on the surface of the Irish Sea, it turns its back on the Welsh mainland and focuses visitors’ gaze out to sea. Now all but uninhabited, this was where the Celtic saints of the first millennium came to contemplate life and prepare for death. Walking in their footsteps, whether here, on the Camino, or at any of these ancient pilgrim places, somehow gets under your skin.

TS Eliot captured it best in Little Gidding, written after his visit – not intended as a pilgrimage, though he was a Christian – to the church that once stood at the centre of a high-minded, 17th-century Anglican religious community in the Cambridgeshire countryside. “You would have to put off/ Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,/ Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity/ Or carry report. You are here to kneel/ Where prayer has been valid.”

Talk of prayer probably wouldn’t go down well with the modern breed of pilgrims, the American cultural historian Rebecca Solnit suggested after visiting the Camino spin-off at Chimayo in New Mexico. Its early 19th-century adobe church had long hosted Easter processions by believers, but it has now developed its own, 115-mile Camino del Norte trail.

“The town exudes a sense of ancientness that sets it apart from the rest of the forgetful United States,” says Solnit. “Walking cross-country let us be in that non-believer’s paradise, nature, before we arrived at this most traditional of religious destinations.”

What is going on there is repurposing, rather than resurrection. Yet, whether drawn by the glories of God, the gods or the environment, what all modern-day pilgrims seem to be engaging with is a search for meaning. And that is implicit in the term pilgrimage. It is what sets it apart from plain tourism.

For Alan Bennett, the Camino – when it eventually starts filling up again – may just be full of hikers on holiday, but they are also sharing a path and a purpose with pilgrims down the ages.

Peter Stanford’s Pilgrimage: Journeys of Meaning is published by Thames & Hudson

The Camino in northern Spain

The route can be travelled all year round, on foot, on bicycle, on horseback and, in winter, on skis. Most pilgrims favour the 500-mile trail from the foothills of the Pyrenees on the French side to Santiago de Compostela, where the relics of St James are buried in the cathedral. In 2019, more than 347,000 people completed the route, up 6% on the year before.

The Buddha trail in northern India

The Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha first achieved enlightenment 2,500 years ago, is the main attraction on this four-stop trail that retraces the footsteps of Siddhartha Gotama, who turned his back on a life of luxury to become the wandering monk, teacher and inspiration for the world’s 550 million Buddhists. Up to 7% of tourists arriving in India today are estimated to be on Buddha trail pilgrimages.

The North Wales Pilgrim’s Way

The three-mile strait between the Llŷn peninsula and Bardsey island was thought so treacherous that three journeys were of equal value, a medieval pope declared, as walking all the way to Rome. The 140-mile route, reopened in 2011, starts at Basingwerk Abbey in north-east Wales.

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