Pilgrimages in the UK: how to turn road trips into spiritual journeys

Home » Pilgrimages in the UK: how to turn road trips into spiritual journeys

PAGE UPDATED: 17.06.2022

If you want to make road trips more meaningful, how about turning them into pilgrimages to some of the UK’s most sacred places?

On this page we’ll tell the stories of our ‘spiritual journeys’ in our motorhome to sacred sites like Avebury, Canterbury, and Glastonbury, journeys that somehow seem more significant than everyday road trips.

And we’ll look at 7 ways you can create a sense of reverence for all your adventures, pilgrimage or otherwise.

Let’s take a drive along the ancient routes of the saints and wise folks of yesteryear and find out more about pilgrimages in the UK…

view of Glastonbury from the Tor

Pilgrims in a secular world

According to the University of Oxford a pilgrimage is…

A devotional practice consisting of a prolonged journey, often undertaken on foot or on horseback, toward a specific destination of significance.*

The pilgrimages we’ve been on have taken us all over England, Scotland and Wales – not on foot or horseback, of course, but in our trusty old VW Cree. But is it even possible to maintain the sense of pilgrimage whilst travelling in a large vehicle along fast roads? We think so.

RELATED CONTENT: The Hero’s Journey in a Motorhome: how to make road trips reverent

Or what about whilst negotiating your way through chaotic and excited crowds or sight-seers? Yes, but it takes practice and determination – certainly to begin with.

Our pilgrimages to the UK’s most sacred places

Without being adherents of any particular religion – though certainly not atheists – our pilgrimages are more about connecting to nature, history, and some kind of ancient wisdom.

In Christian terms this ancient wisdom is often referred to as God. Native Americans might refer to it as Great Spirit or the Great Mystery. The Chinese might refer to it as The Tao, and Hindus, Brahman.

The thing is that if you’re able to get into a more receptive or reverent state – away from the everyday mindset of the 9 to 5 – your consciousness expands. A sense of wonder begins to reveal itself inside and outside of yourself. It’s like seeing reality with new eyes.

Go straight to our pilgrimages

Glastonbury – the Enchanted Isle of Avalon

The Pilgrims Way to Canterbury Cathedral

Walsingham – England’s Nazereth

pilgrimages in the UK: wooden carving of two pilgrims, near Canterbury, Kent

Let’s spend a moment and look at what goes into a pilgrimage and how you can make all your journeys more reverent…

The 7 stages of a pilgrimage

Having stumbled upon the work of the late poet, Jay Ramsey, in his wonderful book, Places of Truth – Journeys into Sacred Wilderness, we were intrigued by his notion of there being seven stages to a pilgrimage.

We’d like to summarize them here and add our own thoughts with respect to van life. After all, our pilgrimages have been made in our van, Cree.

So let’s look at these seven stages in more detail…

Stage 1: involves feeling what it means to be a pilgrim and how different this is from just travelling from A to B

If we are lost in our thoughts we are devoid of the immersive ‘felt-experience’ that a pilgrimage offers. This is the first challenge, if you like, of being a pilgrim.

It’s about learning to be present on the journey so that you can feel the process rather than just intellectualize it. Otherwise, the pilgrimage will be experienced only retrospectively, when you look back at the photos you’ve taken.

When you’re amidst the standing stones at Avebury, or high up on Glastonbury Tor, or standing on St Cuthbert’s tiny hermitage on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, you owe it to yourself to be fully present!

Stage 2: reading the signs; seeing that journeys are entities in themselves and that they take on a life of their own

It’s become a well worn cliche now but it’s absolutely true: it’s all about the journey – not the destination.

In Paulo Coelho’s book, The Pilgrimage, he talks about ‘omens’ and being able to ‘see the signs’ along the route. It’s as if God/Great Spirit/The Tao is speaking to us in a more intuitive language, pointing out to us what we need to know about life – and ourselves.

The Pilgrimage - Paulo Coelho - book cover

This reminds us of an old Zen story…

An ancient story: The Zen Master and the Impatient Disciple

Once upon a time in a far away land a young man started out on a long journey into the mountains. He’d heard that a Zen Master lived in a remote cave and he was desperate to meet him and ask a single question.

The journey took him several weeks, travelling mostly on foot and sometimes on a mule if he was lucky, and when he finally arrived he asked for an audience with the Master.

“Master,” asked the young man, “It is a great honour to meet you but there is one question I must ask before anything else…”

“Go on,” indicated the master, with a slight nod of his head.

“How long will it take me to achieve enlightenment and become a master like yourself?”

“Mmm,” thought the master, “About ten years of daily practice.”

“Ten years? That’s an awfully long time,” gasped the man. “What if I practice twice as hard and for twice the amount of hours every day?”

“Then it will take you twenty years!” declared the master, looking right into the man’s eyes.

“But how come? If I study and practice twice as hard, surely I can achieve my goal in half the time?”

“No…it doesn’t work like that,” continued the master, “for, if you have one eye on the destination you only have one eye to watch and learn all you need about the journey itself.”

Old Japanese picture showing Zen master and disciple in the mountains
So, what do you notice along the way? Are your eyes open? Are you open to life showing you possible detours or unexplored avenues?

This is the thing about pilgrimages in a van; you can end up in some surprising places – and sometimes dead ends. Like life is trying to teach you something, which, of course, it is.

Stage 3: becoming aware of one’s companions

Who are you travelling with? What do these people mean to you? How did they come into your life? What gifts do they bring to your life? What lessons are you learning together on this journey?

On Armistice Day, 2018, at the Shrine of Our Lady in Walsingham, Norfolk, we witnessed the ritual lighting of the beacon to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War.

We stood in the village square amongst hundreds of others, listening to stories and poems about those who had sacrificed their lives. Their memories live on; they are still our companions.

Stage 4: relates to the history; the story we are witnessing and its social, political, and spiritual implications.

What is the story behind the pilgrimage you are on?

When we walked to Canterbury Cathedral along the Pilgrims’ Way we dived deeply into the story of Thomas Beckett and his martyrdom. Come Evensong, we were fortunate enough to sit right by the candle that marks the place of his tomb before the reformation.

Canterbury Cathedral, destination of one of the many pilgrimages throughout the UK
One of the magnificent ceilings inside Canterbury Cathedral

Stage 5: is about losing our role as observer and becoming part of the landscape, part of the story

This is a major challenge on a pilgrimage. How do we viscerally connect to the landscape and environment and become part of the story? How do we move beyond merely witnessing a journey and become truly part of it?

What’s called for here is getting out of your head! To put aside your everyday worries, concerns, inner dialogues – pressing the pause button – and living in the eternal now. But this is not an easy task!

How do you do that? Meditation? Drink? Drugs? Fasting? Yoga? Walking?

The pilgrimage itself should become the ‘liminal space’ that creates an altered state within you. A state where your soul starts to re-awaken.

We’ve experienced this more than once on our van journeys: time slows down when you enter certain landscapes. We’ve noticed this most clearly on our road trips around the island of Anglesey and again on the Isle of Skye.

Stage 6: leads to a more visionary appreciation of the land, seeing it as a place where heaven and earth touch. Here we are seeing with the eyes of spirit

Like looking at and fully appreciating great works of art, to get the most from a pilgrimage you need to approach it in a certain way, an altered state if you like, similar to a state of reverie.

In this more ‘soul-conscious state’ you are free of the egoic mind with all its old personal stories and agendas. You are, instead, more connected to the bigger story of the pilgrimage itself.

When the soul awakens on a pilgrimage you really do see with different eyes, as taught by Richard Rohr in his excellent book, The Naked Now – seeing how the mystics see.

Stage 7: affirmation that we are all God’s people (whatever we understand by that phrase)

Deep down we are all spiritual (even those who claim they’re not). Pilgrimage is a way of opening ourselves up to a larger reality which is both confronting and revealing.

We won’t get caught up here in a discussion of what ‘spiritual’ means. To our minds it’s really about refining one’s perception of reality, like polishing the mirror to get a clearer vision of the truth, free from our old conditioning. Only then are we truly able to connect to the divine.

Gav talks more about the ways this might be fostered on his therapy website in a discussion about mysticism and oneness.

Getting out of the ‘everyday’ – not as a means of escape, but as a means of reconnecting to something eternal, both inside and outside of ourselves – is what pilgrimage is all about.

Maybe pilgrimage, like religion’s purest intentions – free from the dogma – is really about coming home to our true selves…and a greater reality.

The labyrinth, at Chartres Cathedral in France
The labyrinth inside Chartres Cathedral, France. Image: Robert Lukeman

No time for a long pilgrimage?

Pilgrimages can take weeks to complete but if you don’t have the time, have you considered a ‘micro-pilgrimage’?

It might be as simple as walking a labyrinth or walking attentively around a garden or church yard.

Hobo Trudi believes strongly in the benefits of ‘micro-pilgrimage’ and although purists would scoff at the notion, she insists that the lunch-break pilgrimage has a valid claim to the title. And it can be a life saver.

Let’s allow her to explain…

What is a micro-pilgrimage?

You will read on this site that I held a stressful job for many years. There were days when I genuinely worried that I would have a stroke at the desk. The pressure was constant, often without respite. Fool that I am, I allowed it to happen.

But I learned to take time out – really take time out – even if only for 15 minutes.

I would switch off as best I could by going into the garden for a walk, and adopt the mindset of reverent mindfulness. A micro-pilgrimage.

Time would stand still as I saw – really saw – what was around me, probably for the first time that day!

How does that count as pilgrimage? See the creator in everything! No matter what or whom you believe that to be…

Marvel at the delicacy of a flower in the gutter. Consider each stone in a towering building. Gaze with childlike wonder at a river, a sunset, a tree, and you have journeyed into another realm.

Be awed, be grateful – be enveloped by whatever attracts your spirit and if you can walk to somewhere sacred to you, then even better.

Or sit and travel inwards – take a pilgrimage towards that calm space where your God resides within you.

This can even be done in the passenger seat of a motorhome whilst sitting in a traffic jam!!

We’d love to hear of any pilgrimages you’ve made

We’ve just started writing the first pages of a book about pilgrimages we’ve made in the UK.

But where have you been? What was it about the journey that made it ‘spiritual’? Did it change you in some way? Please let us know.

Remember to check out the full stories of our pilgrimages to Canterbury, Glastonbury and Walsingham.

And join us as we hit the road to explore…

Ancient Wisdom

Celtic Spirituality in the British Isles

And the mystery of Ley Lines, Labyrinths and Stone Circles in the UK.

* Quote cited on https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/what-is-a-pilgrimage. The full quote is: “A devotional practice consisting of a prolonged journey, often undertaken on foot or on horseback, toward a specific destination of significance. It is an inherently transient experience, removing the participant from his or her home environment and identity. The means or motivations in undertaking a pilgrimage might vary, but the act, however performed, blends the physical and the spiritual into a unified experience.”

Make spiritual journeys romantic too….our blog post How to Keep Motorhome Road Trips Romantic

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