Category Archives: Pagan Pilgrimage

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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The ethics of trespassing

Sometimes I trespass deliberately, often it’s a consequence of not being able to tell where the official footpath went. Often if you are walking in the UK, stepping off the path means trespassing, but it’s not a law that tends to get enforced much unless there’s also criminal damage in the mix. The thing about walking is that if enough people do it for long enough, a footpath can exist, a space can become a village green, and scope for legal protection for that access becomes a possibility.

I am offended by land ownership that limits access. To be clear here – I will respect the privacy of a person’s home and the land immediately around it (unless the footpath goes through their garden, which is always weird). I will respect private property and not damage fences, or anything else that someone has put in the landscape. I am respectful of crops and mindful of livestock. This seems both fair and reasonable to me. I will also stay off land if there’s a wildlife consideration – wildlife also deserves privacy and the freedom to do things quietly and on its own terms without me making a nuisance of myself.

My default as a walker is to want to pass through a landscape without inconveniencing anyone – human and non-human who might also want or need to be using the space. Nothing makes me want to climb over a fence like a big ‘private keep out’ sign. They aren’t always true, either. Footpaths are ‘lost’ or hidden, where landowners would prefer not to have them. When they tell us not to trespass, sometimes they are lying, sometimes we have the right and they do not.

One of the worst examples of this I have thus far found, was on the Severn Way. Come at the path from one side, and you were clearly walking the Severn Way – it had little signs on it and everything. However, at one point the path brought you out through a lane where signage said there was no path, no access, and there might be people out with guns shooting waterfowl. This is one of the reasons it can be worth carrying a map. I’ve also seen locally, places where council signs have gone up to confirm the existence of a right of way, clearly in answer to attempts at hiding or blocking the path. Not all councils would take this seriously, I suspect.

In the UK, we have some of the most uneven distribution of land ownership in Europe. It may be due to the Norman conquest. Wealthy land owners own a lot of the ground, and the right to walk, to ramble, to get out on the grouse moors and the mountains has long been fought over. Especially lovely areas may now be owned by the National Trust, the Woodland Trust, or the Forestry Commission, but with government inclined to sell off everything for private exploitation, we cannot afford to be complacent about access to land.

The right to walk, to see, to move through a landscape should be a given. The obligation to walk responsibly, close gates, avoid upsetting livestock or trampling crops should also be a given – we can’t have rights without responsibilities. The right to own vast swathes of land and keep it inaccessible should be questioned.

I’d go further. I think that a great deal of inequality owes to the fact that a few people own land and most do not. This is the ghost of feudalism, still with us. Land is basic and intrinsic to life. Without land, there is no food, and there is nowhere to live. Land ownership, when you trace it back, has a lot to do with ancient fights, historical politics, royal favour. Outside of Europe, ownership of land has rather too much to do with colonialism, theft, and the forced displacement of native peoples.

Trespass should not exist as an issue, but while it does, we should consider it an ethically sound undertaking.


Ideas of sacred land

What makes a place sacred? Perhaps there’s a religious event associated with it, or a human construction there to hold that sacredness and alert us to it. Maybe the construct’s purpose is obvious – as with temples, maybe more elusive – as with stone circles. Often we’ll travel vast distances to visit the sites that humans have framed as sacred by building something. Be that Stonehenge, Greek Temples, Nazca lines or ancient cave paintings, or anything else of that ilk.

Repeated use of a place by people approaching it in a state of veneration has an effect.  However, these designated sacred places also attract tourists, who come to look, but not to experience the sacred. A sacred site full of loud, photo taking, irreverent site seers doesn’t always feel very sacred at all. Of course being Pagan does not prevent us from showing up as tourists, and our showing up does not guarantee anything will happen.

I’ve been to Avebury more times than I can count. It’s a place I love visiting. I’ve participated in rituals there and spent time contemplatively amongst the stones and on the earthworks. For the greater part, I’ve had no really spiritual experiences there. No flashes of awen, nothing numinous. A sense of awe at the vision and determination of its builders – every time. The most profound experience I had there was a few years ago when, for the first time, I had chance to walk the site. I went out to Silbury Hill and West Kennet long barrow and back to the stone circle. There are many sites in the Avebury complex aside from the main stone ring, and seeing some from afar and moving through that landscape was by far the most profound thing I’ve ever done there.

I’ve been to the Nodens temple site at Lydney, once, as a visitor. There were a lot of visitors. It was an interesting experience, but not a profound one. As a ‘pilgrim’ coming in for one visit, what are we expecting from the place we land at? Does that expectation psyche us up to a heightened state so that things feel more profound than otherwise they might? Thinking back to my first visit to Stonehenge, sleep deprived and deeply invested in the experience, I think the answer is ‘yes’. Making an event of pilgrimage, of arrival at the sacred site, we can enchant ourselves into feeling more than otherwise we might.

It may be a bit like the difference between the chemical rush of falling in love, and the depth of a long term relationship. The wildest reactions to another human can be fleeting and soon lost. It takes active, dedicated involvement to make a relationship, with another human or with a place.

All of this suggests to me a case for making pilgrimages over and over again to the same places. Ideally not just driving up and looking around, but moving thoughtfully through the whole landscape, putting the place in its context. Where does the sacredness stop? Of course it doesn’t, there is no line in the land. There’s the limit of how far the tourists normally walk from the car park, and it’s important to find ways of going beyond that limit. If you can’t walk out of and around a site, time spent at the edges, looking out will take you further than you might otherwise have gone. Time spent in the site paying attention to it takes you beyond gawping and into experiencing. The more touristy a site, the more important it is to figure out how to be something other than a tourist in that place if what you really want is a spiritual experience.


Ancestors in the land

The presence and nature of ancestors in the land are going to vary a lot depending on where you live. For people of European descent living in formerly colonial countries, ancestors of land raise issues of appropriation, and of awful histories. Having never worked with this, I can only flag up the issue, I can’t really answer it.  I think relating to those who went before us as part of the land may help to make honourable relationships that take nothing, but maybe give something back in terms of respect. It wouldn’t be about visiting their places, but about recognising their continued presence, and knowing the stories of their presence in the land, and knowing what happened to them. As someone who lives in the UK, I’m not well placed to discuss these matters. Working with ancestors of place is certainly easier if there’s been no conflict between them, and your ancestors of blood.

Rather than trying to imagine all possible ancestors for all people in all places, I’m going to talk about my own experiences and hope people can use that as an effective jumping off point.

 

Ancestors in the geology

I live on Jurassic limestone. The internet is your friend when it comes to finding out about the rock where you live. Different rocks come from different eras and have different qualities, so there’s a lot to engage with here. Some of the soil here is thick clay, some is a more sandy loam, and there are areas of good topsoil for growing produce. Where it’s thin, sandy soil over rock, there’s often a history of quarrying, and a current presence of grazing livestock.

The Jurassic limestone is full of fossils – generally small sea shells, and other relics of a long departed shore. I’ve picked up fossilised crab shells, sea urchins, and all kinds of things that were probably plants. That these ancient ancestors of place can appear, so perfect and undamaged by time, is a startling thing. I cannot make any sense of the vast swathes of time between their lives and mine, and yet I can hold them in my hands. A dinosaur skull was found locally, some time ago, and I remain in hope of finding one myself. But then, having grown up on this limestone, I’ve spent much of my life finding fossils and longing for dinosaurs.

 

Ancestors in the archaeology

Prehistoric human life is only available to us as archaeology. I’m lucky – there are four barrows within viable walking distance, and more I have yet to visit. There are three Iron Age forts I can walk to from my home. I’m a short distance from a churchyard that was discovered to have a Roman villa on it, and an incredible mosaic, which is dug up at intervals – I have yet to see it. There’s a site reputed to be a Roman camp site, and stories and histories go forwards from there, becoming more certain as we go. Not so many miles away is the city of Gloucester, known to have been inhabited since people returned to these shores after the last ice age. Ancient ancestors are all around me, and visible. Much of the UK is like this.

There’s a great deal I cannot know about them, but I can walk the paths they used – some of the paths around here are 4,000 years old. I can visit their graves, and I can look at this land and try to imagine their lives in it. Currently, the Severn River is cut off from the Cotswold hills by a motorway, crossable on foot at only a few points. For much of history, there was no barrier to walking between the river and the wooded hills. It’s easy to imagine a mobile population doing just that – shifting out in times of flood, going where the hunting would be good, and coming to the hilltops above the river to bury their most significant dead.

Of course my imaginative engagement with them does not give me certainties about who they were and how they lived. However, I’ve walked from the river to the hills, I have a physical knowing of this place that must, to at least some degree, be held in common.

 


Personal landscapes and the contents of a map

What would you put in a map? It’s an important question to ask, because when you pick up someone else’s map, you are dealing with their values and priorities, not your own. Would you make a map that described the topography? The Ordinance survey is very much about getting an accurate sense of the geography onto the flat surface of the page. Most of the maps you will find otherwise are road maps, and are entirely about the places cars can go. Wild places are just patches of emptiness, with little or no detail offered. Perhaps the ultimate in transport maps is the London Underground map – which gives you no sense at all of the geography of London, but makes a beautiful, easily read representation of where the trains go.

Would you draw your maps as pictures, like map makers of a few hundred years ago? Or would you make a narrative map like a Saxon perambulation, a story of a journey rather than an image of the place?

Would you put wildlife sightings on your map, or really good views? Would you put in pubs, or ancient sites, or especially good places to duck out of sight for a quick pee? Would your map have seasonal information on it, or notes about the wind so as you knew which walks would be best depending on where the wind was coming from?

I was walking in some very popular local fields, when I passed a local archaeologist who was chatting to someone else. A fragment of conversation reached me. He said “Everyone could draw their own map of the Heavens, and they’d all be different, depending on which bits were important to you.”

We aren’t encouraged to make our own maps, but to use official ones, on which no one has written ‘here be dragons’ or ‘the swinging tree where Eric broke his leg’ or ‘where granny fell off the horse’. Making your own physical map is a way of finding out what’s important to you.

We all have the potential to make maps inside our heads as well. Most people who drive have inner maps for the routes they habitually take. People who walk for leisure will often have a few favourite routes mapped out in their heads as well. Taxi drivers are legendary for their ability to map vast and complex cities in their heads. However, aside from taxi drivers, most of us do not set out to build maps inside our heads, and we aren’t taught how to map a landscape. We pick up routes by use, from signposts, from official maps, and the like. It’s worth noting that back before there were signposts, drovers took animals over vast distances from the places they were reared, to the urban markets where they were sold. We have a capacity for inner maps, far beyond anything most of us normally explore.

To have an inner map is to know where you live. It’s to have little anxiety about ever getting lost. It is also a consequence of relationship with a place, and as such it has a massive rooting influence. When we make our own maps – on paper or in our heads, what we plot onto them are the things that matter to us. This changes your relationship with the things that matter to you, as well. Part of my personal mapping is a mapping of wildflowers, noteworthy trees, and wildlife sightings, so when I’m out and about, I have a greater awareness of what I could see, and thus more chance of seeing it again. My local maps are full of stories – family stories, local history, folklore, and things of my own. I can never feel lonely in a place where there are so many stories.