Passing Through but Once: Sacred Travel

Baptismal font at Coventry Cathedral | Faith Journeys

Five uncommon places for a pilgrimage in the British Isles

By Darren S. Herring

Going on pilgrimage to the British Isles is a dream for many Anglicans. Our common heritage can be traced back to when Augustine landed and established an abbey at Canterbury, and several other saints are known for their contributions to spreading the faith throughout the region. Christianity was established in Ireland with the arrival of Patrick, who founded a church near Downpatrick. In Scotland, Columba (or Colmcille) led a group of monks to the Isle of Iona. St. David was the driving force in evangelizing Wales.

Journey is a wooden sculpture by Fenwick Lawson at St. Mary’s Church on Holy Island. | Faith Journeys

When pilgrims plan journeys to England, Ireland, Scotland, or Wales, we often focus on the traditional sites of Canterbury, York, London, St. Davids, St. Andrews, and Downpatrick. Many additional locations, often overlooked, can be fascinating and compelling additions to any Christian pilgrimage to the British Isles. Here are five locations to consider on your next visit.

1. Lindisfarne (Holy Island), England: Lindisfarne is midway between Edinburgh and Newcastle upon Tyne along the North Sea coast. It is a tidal island, meaning when the tide is out, a causeway stretches about one mile that allows visitors to walk or drive onto the holy site. A monastic community was first established on the island in 635, and soon became a center for Christianity in the north of England.

The island was the home of St. Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede and was known for the scriptorium that compiled the Lindisfarne Gospel, which is considered the best example of a manuscript to survive from Anglo-Saxon England. Lindisfarne was also where the Vikings first landed in Britain, killed all the monks they could find, and looted the church.

Today, Holy Island is a meaningful addition to any pilgrimage. The site is peaceful and slow-paced, and it is a powerful testament to the faith of the early Christians who inhabited the area. Be sure to visit the ruins of the monastery, the Parish Church of St. Mary, and Lindisfarne Castle, and walk along the rugged coastline.

St. Julian’s Church, Norwich (cropped) | Julian Walker/Flickr

2. Norwich, England: In the county of Norfolk, about 90 minutes from Cambridge, is the cathedral city of Norwich. With many half-timbered buildings and cobbled winding streets, Norwich is considered the most complete medieval city in the United Kingdom.

One of the best-kept secrets of Norwich is St. Julian’s Church, where Julian of Norwich lived much of her life as an anchoress, secluded from the world, in prayer and reflection. It was here that she wrote Revelations of Divine Love. Today, pilgrims traveling to Norwich can visit a chapel in St. Julian’s Church, built on the site of her cell. While in the area, pilgrims should also consider visiting Norwich Cathedral, completed in 1145. It is known for more than 1,000 medieval, stone-carved roof bosses and for the second-largest close in England.

The bombed-out shell of the 14th-century Coventry Cathedral serves as the entryway to the new post-war cathedral. | Faith Journeys

3. Coventry, England: Located about an hour north of Oxford is the see city of Coventry. The modern city is predominantly industrial and is often overlooked as a pilgrimage stop, but the center of town hosts a site of stirring spirituality. The first purpose-built cathedral on the site was begun in the 14th century and stood until November 14, 1940. On that night, the cathedral was bombed by the Nazi Luftwaffe, which devastated over two-thirds of the building.

The foundation stone was laid for the new building in 1956, and the cathedral was consecrated in 1962. Many construction materials and items were donated by countries around the world. If you have the privilege to visit the site, you will enter through the bombed-out shell of the original building and into the new cathedral. It leads pilgrims on a path from violence and hate to unity and cooperation. What could be a more fitting expression of the pilgrim’s journey?

Loch and cross at St. Kevin’s Monastery, Glendalough, Ireland | Faith Journeys

4. Glendalough (St. Kevin’s Monastery), Ireland: About one hour south of Dublin, you will enter the Wicklow Mountains and Glendalough, the site of St. Kevin’s Monastery. On the drive south, you will see a respectable number of sheep and small markers along the road that show a little man with a staff and an arrow with a cross. This is the Way of St. Kevin. If time permits, stop and walk some of the well-trod path. It is a scenic and a terrific way to connect to pilgrims past.

When you arrive at Glendalough and walk onto the grounds of the monastery, you will experience a Celtic thin place. The sheer beauty of the site is said to lower the veil between heaven and earth — thus the term “thin.” Kevin, believed to have been born in the sixth century, tried to escape his followers’ attention, and fled to the mountains to become a hermit. But they soon followed him, and a monastic community grew up around his hermitage. Visitors to the site can walk the path between the two lakes, visit the ruins of several churches and buildings, gaze on beautiful stone crosses, and see a thousand-year-old round tower.

St. Andrew’s Cathedral, Aberdeen | AberdeenBill/Wikimedia Commons

5. Aberdeen, Scotland: Aberdeen is about two and a half hours north of Edinburgh along the North Sea coast. While the area is not known for attracting many visitors, it played a crucial role in the Episcopal Church’s history. The Rt. Rev. Samuel Seabury, the Episcopal Church’s first American bishop and second presiding bishop, was consecrated here.

The consecration occurred on November 14, 1784, at the house of the Rt. Rev. John Skinner, Bishop Coadjutor of Aberdeen. The house is located about 500 yards from St. Andrew’s Cathedral, which opened in 1817. The Rev. Isaac Poobalan, rector, is happy to welcome visitors to the cathedral and to share the story of Scottish Episcopalians and their American cousins.

Darren S. Herring is an Episcopal musician and composer, and the national director of sales for Faith Journeys/Episcopal Journeys, a group pilgrimage tour company. He and his wife, the Rev. Canon Holly Herring, live in Tempe, Arizona.


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