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Pilgrimage walks

16/12/2010

Across faiths and centuries, pilgrimages have always been a significant reality and in many cases walking has been a core part of that pilgrimage. For many this was part of a penance and the issue of pain and hardship was not uncommon. There is also a large body of written material on the history of Pilgrimages and where the 20th and now 21st century people stand regarding such activity. This blog does not intend to cover this ground other than to identify that in our current times there is a significant renewed interest in pilgrimage walks and a demand for more routes and opportunities for such pursuits.

This blog is only going to consider Pilgrimages that are related to the Christian faith, not that I want to ignore other faiths but simply because I have little knowledge of them and their pilgrimage experiences tend to be in areas of the wold where I have no knowledge or experience. Christian pilgrimage is different, right on my doorstep is a walking route that has its name and routing defined by one of the 7th century Christian Saints, namely St Cuthbert.

Image of St Cuthbert on church stained glass window

This walking route is enjoyed by thousands, perhaps the majority walking it simply because of its attractive route and countryside, but it is clear that some are walking this for other reasons that are of a spiritual nature. Even in this category it would be true to say that many would not consider themselves to be Christian or religious, but they are looking for some form of questioning and inner understanding which they may not experience in everyday living, due to the pressures of time and activity.

 
This example of present day pilgrim may be a pale shadow of the earlier day pilgrims who would travel across vast distances to arrive at holy sites such as Jerusalem or Rome. For many it was also a form of penance for past wrong doing and sin while for others it could be part of a judicial punishment. The distances travelled and the proportion of the population that were involved in pilgrimage has varied significantly over the centuries but in the 12th century it was not unknown for people to walk across the width of Europe to reach the Holy Land.
 
Even in the 20th and 21st centuries distances walked by some pilgrims can be up to 500 miles in length and the numbers walking routes such as the Camino to Santiago were 180,000 in 2004. In general however, the pilgrim is undertaking only a part of a route like the Camino to Santiago or the St Olav – Nidaros in Scandinavia, spending perhaps a week or so. Alternatively pilgrims are walking the full length of shorter routes such as St Cuthbert’s Way.
(For those wanting to read more about this development of Pilgrimage we would recommend a book written by Ian Bradley titled “Pilgrimage – A Spiritual and Cultural Journey ” ISBN 978-0-7459-5270-3)
 
Our own experience of pilgrimage walks comes through the planning and support of group walks across the St Cuthbert’s Way and in discussions regarding the possible development of further walking routes that have a pilgrimage focus. We have handled groups from the continents of America, Africa and Europe as well as more local UK groups where the primary focus for walking the St Cuthbert’s Way is that of a Christian pilgrimage. For many we have embellished the trip by additionally arranged times on Iona and retreat time at the end of the walk on the Holy Island. For many of the groups there is a group leader who is a cleric and this walking experience is certainly more than just an enjoyable trek. Indeed with one group it was clear that for some the 100km of the St Cuthbert’s Way was a very significant physical challenge and caused them considerable discomfort, but that was for them a part of the overall experience of Pilgrimage.
 
Independent research would suggest that activity holidays that are driven in part by a spiritual searching are experiencing substantial growth. In a time when organised religion is in decline in many countries perhaps the personal searching for some spiritual answers while in the relative peace of the countryside is understandable. So is there a need for more opportunities for pilgrimage walks, and do the support businesses that service these routes and walkers need to be more focused on the walkers’ needs and the potential business opportunities?
 
Walking Support is of the opinion that this is a sector of the walking market that is important and has significant potential. We also feel that this is a niche but large market that can be developed if a group of like-minded business and organisations were able to get together and provide pilgrim friendly support. Additionally we believe that there are new pilgrimage experiences that can be developed within the UK and we would like to talk with others that see a similar opportunity and need.
 
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