Category Archives: Pagan Pilgrimage

To be a Pilgrim

Over recent years I’ve been developing a seasonal walking calendar. The idea is to visit the places where I can best encounter key seasonal events in my locality. This is primarily about what the plants are doing, because these are predictable year to year. Good places to see the bluebells and the spring beech leaves. Good places to see the wild orchids, especially the bee orchids. I also know the best places to see glow bugs, and some migrant birds. I also know where the herons nest, where to see ducklings, where the bats go, where I am most likely to find young owls in the summer, which paths open or close in which conditions and so forth.

This walking calendar has been built over years of exploring, and finding out how different parts of my surroundings change through the seasons. Creating it has been a rich and interesting process, and a body of work I don’t imagine it is possible to complete. There’s always more to know, and more plants to learn about and encounter.

Last year, covid limitations meant I didn’t get to a number of my key places at the right time. We were encouraged not to be out for more than an hour per day to exercise, and in some areas that was enforced by the police and by neighbors reporting each other. This had an awful impact on my mental health. What made it worse was knowing that it was total nonsense. Transmission requires people. If you’re outside and you don’t see another person, you can hardly spread a disease. Time spent outside is not an issue unless you are trying to alleviate pressure on inadequate amounts of green space. And there’s a whole other set of problems that needed better consideration.

This year I’ve struggled with fatigue, and various other bodily problems that have really impacted on my ability to walk. I managed to see some bluebells, but not the wonderful blue swathes that make the hilltops so enchanting. I may not get to see the bee orchids. These walks and encounters have been the heart of my Druidry for years, and it is hard being without them.

I’m focusing on doing what I can, seeing and connecting with what I can, and accepting my limitations while doing my best to push against them. Perhaps later this year I will be able to be a pilgrim again on my own terms. It’s something to aspire to, and to work towards.


Tiny Pilgrimages

Up until last year, what pilgrimage meant to me was a really epic walk. An all day sort of effort that would bring me a feeling of deep connection with the landscape, probably coupled with feelings of euphoria.

My ability to handle longer walks has largely gone. There have been a lot of days in the last year when I’ve not made it outside my home. Often I get about twenty minutes or so before the low blood pressure makes me too dizzy to continue. Hills are currently beyond me. Longer walks of a few miles leave me exhausted.

When I started thinking about pilgrimage, I knew I didn’t want to write something abelist and excluding. I wanted to explore the topic in a way that would work for people with fewer options. But, I also didn’t really know what that might mean. I had assumed you could just do this kind of thing at the level that works for you.

That’s not been my experience.

It is difficult to make a very small walk seem like an act of pilgrimage. Even if it takes as much out of me as the bigger ones used to. Even if it is a really hard slog. The major issue is time. On a longer walk I get time to really connect with the land, the sky, the day. I’ll have more wildlife encounters. If I’m only outside for half an hour, I see less, I experience less and the emotional impact is smaller. When walking is a struggle, the struggle itself becomes the dominant experience, not the opportunity for connecting with the landscape. Pain and dizziness are obstacles to connecting.

I’m coming to the conclusion that time spent on this is more important than how far you go. In the warmer part of the year I should be able to sit and rest more during outdoors time, and this will increase how long I can spend outside. Will that be enough? I think it could be, but I don’t know.

At this point the whole experience has me asking a lot of questions about what pilgrimage is for me, and what it means and what makes it powerful. I’m also asking a lot of questions about what scope there is for helpfully reflecting on a topic to the benefit of people whose experiences are radically different from your own.


Druidry, walking, and not walking

Walking is my primary mode of transport and is also how I engage with the natural world and the seasons. It’s a major part of how I exercise, and a key strategy for managing my mental health. As a consequence, not being able to walk is a bit of a disaster. There’s been a lot of that this year, and in the last six weeks or so it has been a massive problem.

Usually the limits on my walking come from pain, stiffness and lack of energy. I’m used to having days when I can’t do much, and fitting what I need to do around what’s possible. However, I’ve had a bout of very low blood pressure (for reasons) and it’s made walking really hard. I haven’t been able to get up hills, I’ve been able to manage twenty minutes at most, and I’ve felt awful. I’m aware that for a lot of people, twenty minutes would be a good amount of walking, but with the role walking plays in my life, not being able to walk for a few hours at a time is a real problem.

It’s meant I’ve had very little access to the landscape. Places I find spiritually nourishing – especially the hilltops – have been unavailable to me. If I had a garden, I could develop a spiritually nourishing outdoors space closer to home – but currently I can’t do that.

I’m lucky in that the underlying causes of this problem have been dealt with, and I should be able to recover and rebuild my strength and stamina. Not everyone who has a bodily crisis gets to do that afterwards. Many people live with sorely limiting conditions.

This experience has taught me that there is nothing I can do inside my flat that does for me what getting outside for long hours at a time does for me. My Druidry is so very much about my relationship with my immediate landscape. Much of the time that’s quite an understated presence – I do think about my connection with land and spirits of place whenever I am out, but that’s often so normal to me that in some ways I don’t notice it. Absence is a great teacher, and what I’ve not been able to do has taught me about what I need to do.

There’s an interesting balance around internalising things and losing sight of them. With any spiritual practice, you want to embed it so deeply in your life that it is your life. But when you do that you can stop noticing that it’s there, which is problematic. This in turn brings me to consider the usefulness of deliberate spiritual action for reminding us of our spiritual lives, and how necessary it may be to have things that aren’t so deeply embedded that they become invisible. This might mean I need to make a labyrinth once I’m back in shape. That’s a good jolt out of everydayness.

I certainly need to look at what I can do with my Druidry that is real and immediate to me, and soul satisfying, and not so dependent on being able to walk for a couple of hours. Alongside this, I have a lot of practical work to do rebuilding body strength and stamina, getting my heart fitter again, and getting back up the hills. I’ve come to understand in recent years that taking care of my body is a necessary consideration for how I do my Druidry – my body is where I experience everything else, and if I don’t keep it well and fit, I can’t get out there and do anything else. I’m very glad to have at least some options around improving wellness and fitness.


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.