Beyond Belief: The Rise of the Radical 21st-Century Pilgrimage
Think pilgrimage, think Chaucer? Think again. The term is laden with religious connotations but the humble act of pilgrimage is having a renaissance, particularly among those looking for a spiritual awakening, but on their own terms.
20 February, 2020
Lydia was clinking glasses around a fire circle in Bali with a ragtag bunch of fellow 20-somethings when she was first introduced to the idea. Pilgrimage was the buzzword on everyone's lips, and no, she hadn't been extradited to a religious conversion camp.
Back then, she was holidaying like many other urbanites; on a sun-and-surf tour of South East Asia, enjoying some hard-earned respite from her frenetic London life. A year later, Lydia swapped her bikini for Gore-Tex and spent 36 days schlepping a rucksack's worth of provisions through Spain on the epic Camino de Santiago.
Her trips before had been about kicking back and having fun, but this one was loaded with spiritual intention. "I decided to do it during a period of personal change," she says. After quitting her job and packing her London flat into boxes, she set forth. "It reaffirmed my life choices and philosophies. It was about tapping into something more primal."
While reports suggest that young people are increasingly ditching organised religion - too proscriptive, misaligned with 21st century gender politics, a weak crutch during times of economic and political instability - Lydia's story forms part of a broader cultural shift towards spiritual travel, and pilgrimages specifically.
If you're a cynic who doesn't buy into the squeaky-clean yoga influencers or astrology meme accounts found jostling for space on Instagram, it might sound a little hokey, but some hard travel truths belie the hashtags. In 2018, 18 per cent of pilgrims traversing the Camino de Santiago were students, and almost a third (27%) were under 30 years old - that's more than 90,000 millennial pilgrims, three times the reported number in 2005.
So why, at this current apex of technological history, when cheap plane tickets are only a tap of a button away, are a growing strand of young people fobbing off fly-and-flop budget getaways and choosing instead to plod time-honoured primordial paths? A heightened eco-conscience, yes. Beastly debts, undoubtedly. But there's more to it than that.
Pilgrimage reaffirmed my life choices and philosophies. It was about tapping into something more primal
For Guy Hayward, who first picked up his pilgrim's staff aged 28, it was the promise of a simpler way of life after years spent toiling behind a laptop screen - an opportunity to temporarily close all the tabs. "I got introduced to the camps, the fires, the trees, to bathing in the springs and rivers and I just thought, 'this is a completely different way of living, one that feels very primal.' People have got into such a tangle about what they believe; whether you believe in this or that, you like the word 'god' or you don't," he continues, "but actually, going out into nature and engaging with the landscape feels very modern."
Six years later and he's now one of the world's leading voices when it comes to the modern pilgrimage. "I'd never come across pilgrimage before and thought, 'why is this not happening more in Britain? This is too great a thing to not be a thing'". In 2014, Guy co-founded the British Pilgrimage Trust and has been evangelising the ancient practice ever since - evangelising and refashioning, that is.
What fragile remains were left of the pilgrim's rulebook are being respectfully ripped up, along with the traditional passages: today's millennial wayfarers are personalising their journeys as they might a phone case. When Lydia's route didn't quite deliver the paradisiacal pilgrim path she'd imagined, she consulted her OS map and forged her own, hanging about just long enough to 'gram a photo when she finally arrived at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, 500 miles later. In her defence, it was raining.
While the architectural colossus didn't deliver any heaven-sent epiphanies - "Is this it?" she remembers thinking - the journey was still life-affirming. "People asked me if I had any magical, transformative moments. I didn't, really. But it was a confirmation of the kind of life that I want to pursue. Simplicity. It was so simple, and there was something really beautiful in that."
Others, like 23-year-old Cristina, who walked the Camino del Norte across Spain's north coast, were simply in it for a good time. "I just loved that you'd wake up in a new place, walk in the morning, pitch a tent or check in to a hostel somewhere completely different that evening," she says. "And the constant exercise meant my mind was really fresh and clear."
While he acknowledges that such a cavalier approach might have disciples of yore turning in their graves, Guy's a pilgrim liberal: "If it feels meaningful enough for you to walk all that way then that's fine". He's currently working hard to lay the foundations for a great pilgrimage revival in Britain, convincing parish churches along some of Britain's most appealing routes to set up "pilgrim pods" - outfitting crumbling edifices with contemporary sleep capsules and Wi-Fi routers in a bid to revolutionise the practice.
"The holy heritage of this land [Britain] is Christian and Pagan. It's not offensive to say that," he says. "But I'm also talking to Druid, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, Buddhist and Atheist communities to ask how can we bring it all together. We're working on this idea that it's beyond belief." As pilgrimages broach new ground, Guy is hopeful people will follow suit by picking their own meaningful landmarks.
I'm talking to Druid, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, Buddhist and Atheist communities. We're working on this idea that it's beyond belief.Guy Hayward, The British Pilgrimage Trust
While he's not proposing a total overhaul of the tradition, his vision of the future isn't bound by religious doctrine but centred on inner and outer discovery, community and grounding - "it's kind of the ultimate form of grounding". He's paving a path for progressive pilgrimages, ones that can not only provide opportunities to bridge ideological divides, but also bolster marginalised or minority groups.
Churches, wells and stone circles? Too obvious. Instead, women's rights advocates might organise a group trek culminating at Brompton Cemetery, where Emmeline Pankhurst is buried, while LGBTQ+ folk could meander through the somnolent folds of North Yorkshire en route to Rievaulx Abbey, former home to historically overlooked gay icon, Saint Aelred. The potential is nothing short of radical.
Whatever the motive, a pilgrimage is a chance to meet new people. For some it's a bar crawl, for others it's a romantic escape. It's low carbon and high smug factor; a perhaps surprising product of our 21st-century digital landscape yet also completely understandable. You heard it here first. Forget your religious hang-ups, pilgrimages are back - and this time, they're personalised.