The Experience of Pilgrimage

The Experience of Pilgrimage

by Guy Hayward (with Will Parsons)


What can pilgrimage do for us? In a time when people seem ever more disconnected from land and spirit, my friend Will and I took a quest to discover what pilgrimage in modern Britain really ‘does’.

What follows are my ramblings, told as a modern pilgrim…

Ebbor Gorge Deerleap

the path onward

Late last year, when I finally agreed to walk the three-week South Downs Pilgrims Way from Winchester to Canterbury, I felt strong internal resistance. Pilgrimage was an obscure pursuit, and it meant taking time off from earning money, my career, and my new girlfriend. Furthermore, the cold nights of October/ November were not inviting for wild sleeping. But I agreed to go.

Preparations were intense before leaving – I barely did anything else for a whole week, all the while uncertain of my goal. But our first night atop St. Catherine’s Hill, the old Saxon hill-fort of Winchester, brought everything into clearer focus: the drinking of wild river water, the refreshingly oxygenated sleep, the morning view from my sleeping bag. My resistance still clamoured, but now my soul was singing too.

St Catherine's Hill

temporary accomodation

Our pilgrimage was made without money, trusting (and testing) the path to provide. With a handful of old local songs and various foraging skills, we were relying on strangers and the ‘pilgrim’ password. It was a risk, but sometimes absurd commitment is required to draw the result. Britain has a deep cultural memory of pilgrimage, an unending precedent of helping each other along the way. King Henry VIII’s abolishing this 450 years ago was like Cnut commanding the tides. As Will said: “How can you destroy a song?”

This was first confirmed in Winchester when we took the Wayfarer’s Dole – the oldest continuous pilgrims’ charity in Britain, a horn of ale and slice of bread from the Hospital of St Cross, free for anyone who asks. We next met the cathedral, to drink sweet water from the holy well (where King Alfred was baptised) in the crypt below the High Altar. In town, after a quick round of song, refreshed with donated food and compliments, we set off feeling strong.

Winchester Holy Well

the centre

The real challenge began early next morning. We had slept beside the ‘Gospel Oak’, under whose once mighty boughs Augustine preached 1400 years ago. This was also the last tree left standing in Hampage Forest 500 years later when the roof was built for Winchester Cathedral.

Gospel Oak

keep out/in

Here, by this ancient holy tree, Will awoke and was violently sick. He gamely powered through a hard day’s walking, despite my unwelcome protestations that it couldn’t be that bad. But it was, as I learned when I caught it too. Winchester Cathedral’s holy well, we reasoned, must be of the purgative variety (despite our filtering it). The spiritual tradition of purging, intense cousin of fasting, is mostly forgotten in Britain, but globally it’s well known as a powerful cleansing preparation to ritual. Accidentally, we’d chosen wisely. Of course, such apparent wisdom didn’t make walking the Downs easy. Without food energy, we were running on what Will called ‘clear-fire’, a ghostly power whose source is nowhere. But I think I enjoyed the bonus trial. That it happened at the beginning of the pilgrimage gave it extraordinary significance. Nevertheless, I was happy in a few days when the ordeal ended.

Rainbows on the South Downs


As pilgrims, we carried on our backs everything needed to sleep anywhere. As well as hilltops and woodlands, this meant laying low in donkey sheds, lambing pens, summer-houses, yurts and barns. It was not until a day of relentless freezing hailstorms on top of the Downs that we first enjoyed the hospitality of the Church of England. Phoning a vicar after dark, we were spontaneously offered a Church Hall for the night. It was our first night indoors. The thin carpet was dry and the loos didn’t need digging – and this luxury cost only one verse of ‘To be a pilgrim’. It was the beginning of an unexpected seam of hospitality. We started phoning more vicars to ask if we could sleep in their churches. When nine out of ten said yes, the village landscape transformed before us. The soaring spires of medieval churches took new relevance, evolving from places to ‘merely’ discover local history, make music, enjoy sumptuous architecture and find peace – they became even more fundamental sources of water, electricity and sanctuary. We discovered the different flavours of sleep in holy places, as we lay down to dream as close as possible to the high altar. Such slumber is both elevating and grounding. Try for yourselves, and you’ll see what we mean…

Altar Sleep

within sanctum

It was not just the Church who looked after us. Throughout our pilgrimage we were helped by many people, who gave food, shelter, suggested improvements to our pre-planned route (sometimes sending us in whole new directions), and even outdoor baths under the stars. The challenge of asking for help, and being willing to receive it, was difficult and humbling. But people were grateful for the opportunity to help us. It almost felt like we were the ones providing a service. My vague fears of being cold and alone in the dark were banished like the wolves, as people gathered round with kindness and warmth. We asked and we received. We knocked and the doors opened. In response we were as ‘questful’ as we could be – such as when we made a special trip to sing Kipling songs for a lady in Hastings hospital, on the request of her son who we met in Eastbourne. The circle of reciprocity became visibly real – if beautifully unpredictable. One man gave us food for precisely the reason that fifteen years earlier, when he needed it most, no-one had helped him. Twenty seconds after receiving his boon, another man stumbled over saying he was hungry. It was an uncanny opportunity to complete the broken circuit.

Hobbit's Third Breakfast

hobbit’s third breakfast

On pilgrimage, intense meetings came thick and fast. I don’t think I’ve ever met so many people, and engaged with them so deeply so quickly, as when I walked out in Britain calling myself a pilgrim. It is a password and shortcut to a community’s inner secrets. We met local grandees like Laetitia Yhap, the artist at the centre of Hastings’ fishing community who has painted the changes for over fifty years, who showed us secret springs and caves; another was Claire, the landlady of the Harrow Inn at Steep, whose mother and grandmother ran the pub before her, and whose locals have been drinking there for sixty years. It was her pea and ham soup, cooked to the same recipe for 100 years, which finally settled the turbulence caused by Winchester holy well.

Claire of the Harrow

medicine pub

Pilgrimage is a powerful way to reconnect with past ways of life, to learn how our land and nation became what they are today. A poignant expression of this for us was singing Rudyard Kipling’s poem My Boy Jack – his lament for the loss of his son in WW1 – at every war memorial we passed, including Kipling’s home in Rottingdean.

We also sang and slept at the Weald & Downland Museum, a ‘rescue’ centre for old buildings and traditional crafts like carpentry, woodcutting and thatching. Pilgrimage showed me that modern urban lifestyles can often insulate us from more ‘whole’ and beautiful ways of life that Britain once knew well.

Weald and Downland

junior baggins

It was not all about days gone by, however. Walking through lesser-visited parts of Britain also revealed lesser-known aspects of modernity. One example was a Downland vicar explaining the local church ritual of ‘climping’, where the community hold hands and dance around the church to offer the building a blessing, and ‘Downs Day’, where the congregation walk and sing to bless the Downs that surround them. Another more prominent example of a modern tradition was the bonfire night of Lewes, with its majestically anarchic procession and bonfire on which effigies of unpopular political figures are burned.

Lewes 5th


Yet it is not only the rituals of others from which one benefits on pilgrimage. We invented rituals of our own. I loved our daily practices, such as ‘meeting’ the places where we would sleep through prayer and silent conversation, singing over food before eating, or greeting trees with a friendly tap from our wooden staffs. We also improvised special ‘one-off’ rituals, such as when we stirred in opposing directions the waters of Winchester Pool near Wilmington in an attempt to connect us (and distance us) from the holy water of Winchester Cathedral; or when I placed a rose on the grave of my landlord Geoffrey Rose’s nanny Rosa in St. Martin’s churchyard in Canterbury, whilst singing ‘Maria durch ein dornwald ging’ (watch video) – a song about roses blooming which we had sung in every church along the way. It was a veritable ring of roses.

Will smells

a ring a ring

Rituals happen with particular frequency at holy sites – which can be wells, trees, river sources, hilltops, prehistoric burial sites, or anywhere that has meaning and resonance for you – and seeking such power-spots is a core pursuit of pilgrimage. But like many people in 21st century Britain I was a novice to such things, having to follow my intuition to know how best to behave. To give examples: when laying my head in churches for the night, I discovered the need to thank the church first, to assure it we were there as humble guests.

St Mary's North Stoke

here in peace

When meeting the Long Man of Wilmington, a hillside chalk-carved pilgrim, we climbed up opposite sides with our staffs both tapping his.

Long Guy of Wilmington

just like you

At the holy well of St. Helen near Hastings (watch video) we cleared the water channel of debris and thanked the great oak and beech trees guarding it, before ‘auto-baptising’ ourselves with three full immersions.

St Helens Ablutions

spa treatment

At the labyrinths of St. Catherine’s Hill and Itchen Stoke (microcosms of pilgrimage?) and at Chanctonbury Rings we walked winding journeys to the centre and back again.

St Catherines Hill Labyrinth


At Hythe Ossuary  a place of four thousand skulls, we sang a song of how life is like leaves on a tree, fading and falling with the seasons (watch video).

Charnel grins

those gone before

On arriving in Canterbury Cathedral we sang ‘Maria’ at the site of Becket’s Martyrdom and reliquary, kneeling in concave flagstones worn down by the knees of millions of pilgrims previous.

Christchurch Cathedral Canterbury

sodium-lit cathedral

What I learned of ritual is that within the bounds of respect, one is free to engage with a place in any way, unfettered by dogma. Usually some ways feel more ‘right’ than others. Pilgrimage offers a chance to rediscover and hone this innate ritual intelligence. Of course, ritual is not limited to isolated encounters on pilgrimage. The whole journey becomes a ritual act, revealing great inner truths. I rediscovered myself as a part of living nature, eroding the old illusion of separation between self and the natural world. I encountered trees, wayside plants and herbs (often using them for medicine), birds, water, insects and rainbows in a heightened ‘present’ way, rather than just fumbling along, lost in my head. This ritual awareness offers something like grace. I greeted, smelled, tasted and felt the landscape without any particular effort. Of course, I was not always perfectly present to everything, but nevertheless this deep immersion in nature, journeying at the speed of my perambulating soul, gave me a more conscious connection to life than any day walk I’ve previously made. Perhaps this was due to destination – short walks are blinded by its imminence – while on pilgrimage the end is mythic and distant, allowing present reality far more space to breathe.

Guy approaching Lewes

the narrow path

It is strange I have got this far without yet talking of the important equipment required for pilgrimage: a pack, a bowl and spoon, sleeping bag and mat, good woollen clothes and stout boots (barefoot we were not). But most of all, the key to our pilgrimage was the walking staff.

For Wayfaring Only

getting the staff these days

I cut my wands of hazel a few days in. The act of choosing a staff is a journey in itself. We ‘charged’ these staffs by tapping all the great trees and stones we met, as well as the ground with every step. A sturdy wooden stick is good old technology. It let me test the depth of puddles, gave me propulsion going uphill and balance coming down. It took the risk out of misplaced footsteps, turning potential sprains into minor stumbles. It was my protector, my connector and accumulator, the lightning rod of my pilgrimage. How I longed to keep it, smoothed by my hand and potent with its accumulated mana. But on arrival at Canterbury I let it go, throwing it into the River Stour to make its own journey to the sea. Why? Well, pilgrimage is essentially a shortened dramatic representation of our lifelong journey from birth to death, and one of its greatest teachings is to stop clinging to things we believe we need. After all, it’s what we will do with our bodies upon death, so best to start practising now. Releasing my walking staff was a natural but difficult exercise of this lesson.

Hastings at Remembrance Hour

great resting place

My other staff was my dear companion Will, who I did not throw in the river. Our time together was fun and not fun, loving and not loving. But of all the people I met on pilgrimage, our ongoing meeting was the most revealing. He was my most constant mirror, and spending so much unbroken time together (more than most married couples!) in such intense conditions, it was inevitable that the uglier aspects of my character would find space to shine through. Yet this presented great opportunity: both to love (myself and him), and, even stranger, to ask for love. Behaving lovingly when challenged does not always seem possible; yet the need to continue in open unity toward our journey’s goal meant I had no real choice. On pilgrimage, following the footpaths, there are no doors to slam nor comforting televisions in separate rooms to slump before. Thus, pilgrimage has probably taught me the lesson of companionship more powerfully than any other activity in my life so far. And that is a serious gift.

St Rumwolds song

singing pilgrim pals

To conclude, what pilgrimage in Britain does is rare and wholly real. It cultivates fearlessness through discipline, freedom and joy. What is more, it is un-owned and open to all at almost no financial cost. Though it appears challenging from behind the starting line, the world always looks dark when you’re sat on a sofa indoors. The fear of stepping out is just that – a fear. But the truth of Britain and the truth of yourself cannot be found elsewhere. The way must be walked, the path known and the challenge met.

I hope to see you on the footpath.

On the path

on our way



If like us you feel that Britain needs more pilgrimage, please help us to make this happen. Our charitable trust is striving to make pilgrimage accessible and inclusive, but we have a long way to go. Your help on this journey is vital. Thank-you for your support.


7 Responses to “The Experience of Pilgrimage”

  1. Dunstan says:

    Extending the pilgrimage to Glastonbury, and vice versa to Canterbury, brings an old union.
    The walk is pleasant along the ridgeway, and brings Avebury and Stone Henge along the way.

    • Branching Arts says:

      Hello Dunstan,

      Latest thinking is to try and create a Southern Way – from Cape Cornwall to Sandwich. So yes, we agree wholeheartedly, Glastonbury and Salisbury Plain need to be included. Avebury also – the great roundabout of Britain…

      Thanks for your comment…


  2. james roche says:

    Dear Guy.
    You kindly played my father at Gill Purce’s February course. Lovely photos in your article here, and where is the Romanesque crypt shown? Is it Winchester’s Holy Cross?
    Cheers, yours, James

  3. Charkes Hayward says:

    Beautifully written. I suppose one needs to try it out in order to know what it entails.

    Interestingly, I met an older couple today who like me had run the Bath half for the local homelessness charity, Julian House. They said they had developed their stamina whilst walking a 3-day pilgrimage in France. They agreed that pilgrimages were part of British culture, too.

  4. Barbara says:

    Guy, A joy to read your account. What a journey!

    One would expect the outward journey to be the most challenging though you met constant support from all nature’s elements in return for your respect.

    Aah but the inward journey, I read as perhaps the place of more unexpected and deeply profound challenges that you had the choice to meet and took.

    Thank you for sharing your experience so openly, honestly and clearly. It inspires me to try that path though I do wonder if I would find the courage. Barbara x

  5. Bruce says:

    Utterly wonderful!!!! I will say no more and leave you to bask in the adoration of your eloquence <3

  6. Lizzie says:

    This is just beautiful – I have followed your blog and travels for a few years but never commented until now. Thank you for sharing this reflection on your ‘pilgrimage’ – it’s deeply human and deeply divine…Here’s to companionship!

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