Category Archives: Pagan Pilgrimage

Apple blossom and seasonal walking

Seasonal walking has been at the heart of my Druidry for some years now. I have a calendar of what happens where and when and I walk to meet various manifestations of the season. At this time of year I would normally be planning a big walk to take in bluebells, wood anemones, wild garlic and new beech leaves. Lockdown aside, my body is not in a good way so long walks aren’t currently an option. I will have to find alternative places to go.

Yesterday I had a surprise encounter with apple blossom. There is a cycle path near home, but one of the stretches runs down the side of a duel carriageway, so I don’t normally walk there. However, one of the gifts of lockdown is far less traffic, so that stretch of footpath has become far nicer to walk. It also tends to be fairly quiet at twilight, and I’ve walked it a few times in recent weeks.

Last night all of the apple trees on that stretch of cycle path were in bloom, and it was incredibly beautiful. Normally this wouldn’t be part of my seasonal walking because traffic noise and air pollution have put me off. I’ve been feeling unsettled by not being able to do so much seasonal engagement through walking, so this was an uplifting gift of an experience.


Tiny adventures

I crave adventure and new experience. I have the kind of budget that does not allow for travelling, and I would not fly if I could afford to. My energy levels are unreliable. I don’t have the physical strength, stamina, balance, or co-ordination to do exciting, dangerous sports. This combination of factors does not, at first glance, lend itself to the adventurous life.

However, my life is full of tiny adventures. I’ve found all kinds of small ways of taking myself out into my locality and having intense, unexpected and rewarding experiences. Here’s an example. Recently there was a thunder storm. As it was also warm weather, Tom and I headed out into the rumbling darkness, bearing an umbrella.

We watched the storm erupt in the next valley. Sheet lightning, tinged with yellow and orange lit up the nearby hill. All around us, birds called out in alarm, and then the skies opened and we huddled under the umbrella as the cloud burst turned the air around us into water. It was dramatic, and intense, and right outside my door.

We’ve sat out in summer evenings to watch for bats and listen for owls. We’ve been on the hills to watch the sunset, and this summer we’re going to be exploring the dawns more, with a bit of luck. Our lives feel rich and interesting. We don’t have to travel far to find something worth seeing or to have a novel experience.


Seasonal wandering and snowdrops

This is a difficult time of year for walking. Footpaths through fields and woods are muddy, which can make them slippery and treacherous. For anyone less than perfectly confident on their feet, this kind of walking condition can be really off-putting. Add to that the unpredictable weather conditions, the cold, the potential for ice, or for rain turning into ice as it hits the ground, and it really isn’t walking season. Shorter days in terms of light also make longer walks less feasible.

However, walking is what I do to commune with nature, it is a big part of my spiritual life, so even in January when it’s cold I need to get out. I’m lucky in that there’s a lot of canal towpath in Stroud, and a good length of cycle path – both of which are reasonably passable in all weathers. There’s also a fair amount of lanes in villages around the town, so winter road walking is an option.

Lane walking is a bit of a mixed bag. On the whole lanes are good because they take you through the countryside without requiring you to tackle a mudslick at any point. Predictable footing is worth a lot. Mostly lanes are quiet, and you can hear vehicles coming. However, close encounters with passing tractors can be unnerving, and all it takes is one idiot racing round the bends at high speed to make it a dangerous place to be. Having done years of walking and cycling in country lanes, I remain unscathed, but I’ve been worried a few times.

The margins of lanes tend to be good places for wildflowers throughout the year. That starts now, with snowdrops putting up leaves and already flowering along the lane margins.


Glowbugs and the walking calendar

A walking calendar is something not quickly created. It’s been a significant part of my personal Druidry for some years now. What I’m doing is developing a calendar that allows me to make pilgrimages to encounter what for me are key seasonal things. It’s a long term commitment, as my glowbug experiences demonstrate.

For several years I’ve been seeing occasional glowbugs at any time from midsummer through to late July. One turned up at our summer solstice sit out last year. Also last year I made my first serious attempt at a small act of pilgrimage to spend time with them. However, I ran too early, and the group had lost the will to look for wildlife before it was dark enough.

This year, drawing on last year’s experiences I was able to time things better and we were out at twilight – it helped that we had a cloudier night so it was darker earlier. A great many glowbugs were located during a slow saunter. One of our party hadn’t seen one before. They are enchanting – incredibly small bright gem like things. You only really get to see the glow, not what it’s attached to.

Building a calendar, year on year as a deliberate act of communion with the rest of the world, is something I’ve found powerful. It means identifying local, seasonal events, working out where best to see them and making the time to take that journey.


Pilgrimage to the flowers

In previous years I’ve managed both an Easter and a Beltain pilgrimage. The Easter walk talks me via two Iron Age hill forts to Gloucester Cathedral, and is very much a pilgrimage honouring the ancestors. Like most modern Pagans, I have my share of Christian ancestors, and the cathedral itself has family stories associated with it. The Beltain pilgrimage is all about wildflowers – bluebells, wood anemone, wild garlic. This year the flowers came before Easter, and I had to choose. I chose to honour the unsettlingly early flowering and to make my ancestral pilgrimage at some later point in the year.

Part of the route for my Beltain pilgrimage takes me along the edge of the Cotswolds, through an area dense with barrows. People have been walking that way – but not that path, I assume! – for thousands of years.

The flowers I go out to see, the garlic, anemones and bluebells, are all indicators of ancient woodland. It’s not my motivation, but it is certainly a bonus. Beech trees are not long lived, so the age of trees round here is not an easy indicator of woodland age.

It was a beautiful day. Bluebells in swathes, like a misty sea in the Woodchester valley. The scent of them subtle and gorgeous. Very small lambs out in the fields. We sat near some of them (but not too near so as not to cause alarm) to have lunch. As we ate, a raven sang to us from nearby trees, pausing for the odd fly past to make sure we didn’t miss any of its raven-ness. It’s such a distinctive voice though that we didn’t need to see in order to know. Later, we found the heronry, which we’d been looking for, and several herons who looked to be in the business of making more herons.

I have personal stories and family stories about Woodchester Valley. I have folklore and history as well. Repeatedly visiting an area at a specific time of year adds to the web of stories as things happening to us are woven into the tale of our relationship with the land. The year we saw a buzzard take a rabbit. The variations we’ve walked, the people we’ve walked with…

We walk fairly quietly, but it is about engagement and engagement includes the people around us. The valley is managed, and home to a lot of wild things. There was a large flock of tufted ducks, bigger than any group we’ve seen there before. Last autumn there were dragonflies in great number. It’s not a pilgrimage to somewhere, but a big, circular walk. It’s a pilgrimage into the land and the season, a deepening of relationship with place and a commitment to holding that connection.


Walking at first light

The sun hasn’t cleared the hill as I set out, so while it’s light, the cold from the previous night still hangs in the air. It’s startling cold given how bright the day looked before I headed out.

There’s a clear line across the fields. On the shadow side of the line, night lingers in the dew heavy grass, and it is so very cold. My path is also on the shadow side. I am under-dressed, and seriously consider going back. What keeps me moving is the line I walk in parallel with – because on the other side of that line is the land the sun has already reached. It shines with the gold of new light, and promise and all good things.

I don’t walk that far, and when I turn around to head for home, the sun has reached the larches and other tree tops, bathing them in colour. The air is warmer as I trot back. I see a small rabbit out in the field, hear a pheasant. Outside my door, two robins are engaged in a dance that could be about pair bonding, or territory. I’m not sure how to read it. They are untroubled by my approach.

Pagan Pilgrimage need not be about distance. It need not be away into some supposedly pristine environment.


Wandering in early spring

January and early February are quiet months in the seasonal walking calendar. I don’t plan big walks at this time of year, because the weather is too unpredictable and I don’t like slippery surfaces much. Plus, tramping about in mud can do a lot of damage to land and plants alike, so I tend to limit walks to lanes and solid footpaths.

My seasonal plants of preference – snowdrops and catkins – are available right outside my front door, so seasonal plant-orientated pilgrimage does not have to involve much effort!

However, we’ve reached that point in the year when there are odd warm days, its drier underfoot and it can be good walking weather. It’s tempting to get out, but still risky. How risky walking at this time of year will be of course depends firstly on where you live. Are sudden blizzards a risk? Could sudden loss of visibility put you in danger? What’s the footing like and can it change quickly if the weather changes?

I live in a fairly mild part of the world, and I don’t walk in the mountains. My risks for this time of year are about getting cold. With crappy circulation, I suffer a lot if I can’t stay warm and while walking is good for circulation, if the ground is cold enough, or the wind chill fierce enough, it can get challenging.

I know for a lot of people the great challenge of pitting self against nature is an exciting prospect. I don’t have a body or a mind for conquering anything, so I have to work cooperatively with the natural world. I have to walk when it’s passably sensible and stay in if it isn’t. I have to consider how cold I can afford to get when thinking about distance. There’s no one right way of doing this stuff, but I assert that it’s absolutely ok to be not in the least bit macho about it.


Walking for Beltain

The most obvious association with Beltain is the May blossom – the hawthorn flower, traditionally collected and brought into homes for this festival. Hawthorn is most reliably found as a hedgerow plant, so walking in country lanes around the start of May is the easiest way to find it. Blackthorn is also in blossom, and both hawthorn and blackthorn have white flowers, but they are easy to tell apart – blackthorn flowers before it leafs, whereas hawthorn flowers after its leaves are open.

For me, finding the hawthorn flowers is not the key thing for this festival. Instead, I’m drawn to the woodland flowers. It’s at this time of year – before the leaves are all out – that woodlands come into flower. My holy trinity of bluebell, wild garlic, and wood anemone fill the woods with scents and colours. There are places where vast swathes of bluebells all come up together – misty and sea-like between the trees. The subtle scent of the bluebells becomes discernible, in sudden, glorious washes of sweet perfume.

Bluebells don’t grow in this profusion just anywhere. Since the spring, I’ve been keeping an eye on the woods where I walk, looking at the leaves to see what’s coming – where the great swathes of garlic would be, where the bluebells dominate, and where there’s a mix. I’ve been waiting for the flowers. I walked to see them at the end of April, and again, more successfully, on Beltain eve. As an added bonus at the same time as all this floral delight, the first beech leaves are unfurling. Beech starts out an amazing, vibrant green and gradually darkens as the year progresses. There’s something giddy about them as they first show.

I seem to have found my ideal Beltain walk for my current location, which takes in two barrows, hilltop woodland, and a lush valley. A person can get drink on the colour and smell of a bluebell wood.


How far should I go?

How far do you have to go for it to be a pilgrimage?

As far as I am concerned, pilgrimage is not a matter of time or distance, but a matter of communion. The single biggest factor in how far you go, how often and for how long, is your own body. We’re all different. The more involved a person is with walking, or other forms of movement, the more attention they have to pay to their limits, and those limits change. Some of us can expect to see increased strength, stamina and mobility over time. Others of us will be dealing with deterioration. Some of us will experience shifts back and forth between the two.

For the person interested in embodied spirituality, knowing your limits is a good thing. There’s an intensity of feeling that comes from pushing to the edges of what you can do – regardless of where those edges are. Start modestly, with things you know you can do. There is no race here. Build confidence over time, build strength and stamina if you can, or strategies. If you have to choose between distance and time, choose time. It’s the being outside that really matters. Better to spend an afternoon pottering about that a frantic half hour that leaves you exhausted.

Perhaps the most important thing here is that time spent walking is time away from the rest of life. This is equally true for time spent sitting out. There’s a chance to change our inner pace, to slow down and notice what’s around us. Humans are increasingly prone to rushing, stress and overstimulation. The more time you can spend away from that, the better.

In most aspects of life, the really fertile places are the edges. In this case, it’s the edge of your ability to keep walking. I find that when I’ve gone long enough, and far enough, peace enters me. My thoughts become uncluttered. About this time I notice the way the deeper breathing of cleaner air is impacting on my sense of self. I’ll tend to feel cleaner on the inside. More so if I’ve walked amongst trees. A kind of euphoria kicks in. This takes longer to achieve than it used to, and lasts longer than it used to. On the far side of the euphoria is exhaustion, and pain.

I have no problem with pain being part of my spiritual experience. I may be slightly masochistic because I feel better about my body when I can barely put one foot in front of another. If, for whatever reason, you need an element of martyrdom and pain as part of your pilgrimage, that’s your business. It’s not necessary to bleed and hurt to be a pilgrim. It’s also not the case that you need to settle on one way of doing this. Some pilgrimages may be gentle, some may break you, and you have to find the balance that answers bodily, emotional and spiritual needs.


Easter Pilgrimage

What is Easter doing in a Pagan walking calendar? It’s a time when my son is likely to be off school. It’s close to the equinox, but I’ve never quite known what to do with equinoxes. It’s a massively important Christian festival and many of my ancestors were Christian. But the real truth is, it joined my calendar by accident.

I suffer from depression, and the relationship between mental health and walking is something I’ll explore in more detail later on. I was in a desperately bad state, and made the decision to spend a day walking with my husband, to try and take me out of myself, to create the space to feel differently. We walked, for hours, through woods and hills, on a route I’d not done before. Two Iron Age hillforts, at the Cotswold edge, huge skies, and then down into the city of Gloucester, with leg muscles tightening, feet sore, barely able to put one foot in front of the other, we came to the cathedral. And I realised it was Easter. I was almost in tears. This was the moment when the whole idea of pilgrimage started to make sense to me. I had not set out to make a pilgrimage, and yet at the same time knew I had definitely done that.

I have a longstanding relationship with Gloucester cathedral, and I have a story about my great grandmother seeing a ghost there. It’s a place of deep ancestry for me. Walking in, exhausted, and sitting in the cool quiet of the space, and letting the space fill me was a powerful experience that cannot easily be described. I was mind-blown from the enormity of the journey, wide open to the place, and profoundly affected.

We tried a second version of the walk the following autumn, with my son, and without one of the hill forts, and while that too was a powerful journey, the absence of a hillfort was clearly an issue.

We set out for the third time on what was explicitly an act of Easter pilgrimage, taking in both hillforts. Our route introduced us to an incredible oak tree, we met a lot of wildlife including a breathtaking close encounter with a deer. Coming into the cathedral my body and mind were, despite the challenges of preceding weeks, clearly in far better shape than they had been on my first Gloucester pilgrimage.

The cathedral used to be a major focus point for pilgrims – the tomb of Edward the Second (murdered just down the road at Berkley Castle) was the major attraction. These days very few people walk as we’ve done, and most people in the cathedral are there as tourists. There’s a strange irony to coming in as a Druid pilgrim to sit reverently in the cathedral while all around the tourists take photos and chat. One of the things I love about the cathedral is how it takes all sound and changes it into something like music.

It’s worth noting that historically, the lines between pilgrimage and tourism have always been blurred. Religious sites have made a lot of money out of pilgrimage, as well. It is not a thing set apart, but a thing of this world.
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