Want to make your van life journeys even more special? Then how about turning your road trips into pilgrimages by visiting some of the most sacred places in the UK?
On this page we’ll share with you some of our pilgrimages or what might be called ‘spiritual journeys’ to sacred sites like Avebury, Canterbury, and Glastonbury.
These are journeys that seem somehow even more significant than everyday road trips. They feed your soul and help you connect up to a bigger reality.
So, let’s take a drive along the ancient routes of the saints and wise folks of yesteryear…
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.
The quote above mentions the blending of the physical and the spiritual. The van, ourselves, and the roads and paths we drive and walk on are all obviously physical. But being on a pilgrimage awakens something else inside of you.
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 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.
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.
This reminds us of an old Zen story…
The Zen Master and the 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.”
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 – as if 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.
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 is it done? Meditation? Drink? Drugs? Fasting? Yoga? Walking?
The pilgrimage itself should become the ‘liminal space’ that creates an altered state within you, 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. It’s one of Hobo Gav’s favourite books.
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) and 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, but 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.
We’d love to hear of any pilgrimages you’ve made in your van!
We’ve just started writing the first pages of a book about pilgrimage and would love to hear your story.
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.
* 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.”