what (on earth) is a pilgrimage, and why (on earth) would I want to go on one (on earth)?

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote

The droghte of March hath perced to the roote

… Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.

(Chaucer; The Canterbury Tales, 1388)

"Of which vertu engendred is the flour"

"Of which vertu engendred is the flour"

What is a pilgrimage?

A pilgrimage is an extended journey which physically enacts that simple metaphor that life is a journey. Although pilgrimage destinations are usually significant locations, as with the cliché, it is the journey, not the destination, which is really the point. The prolonged length of a pilgrimage makes it a microcosm of life; everything will happen along the route; every encounter, every emotion, every challenge. It is a deliberate journey towards a certain ending, the distilled nature of which means we are consciously alert to the richness of the learnings we meet along the way. A pilgrimage is life reduced to its essence and thus enriched, condensed and concentrated. Pilgrimage packs a punch.

Aren’t pilgrimages religious though?

Of course, many people go on pilgrimages under religious contexts, with the destination being a holy shrine or sacred place. Such pilgrimages can be interpreted as a sacrifice, a prayerful meditation, a celebration, or an honouring. Each religion will have its own traditions surrounding pilgrimages, and there are as many variations as there are denominations, sects and private faiths.

But other, non-religious, people go on pilgrimages too, as the popularity of the Camino de Santiago attests. On the Camino, you are asked to complete a form stating your reason for undertaking the pilgrimage. The options given are a) Spiritual b) Cultural or c) Sporting. Everyone I met (few of whom described themselves as religious) had ticked ‘spiritual’, presumably because it wasn’t just a tourism thing, and they weren’t hiking 500 miles just to get in shape. But, on further conversation, the majority also acknowledged that walking every day for 6 weeks was something of a ‘spiritual’ exercise for them, even if most of them air-quoted the admission, adding self-effacingly; ‘whatever that means!’.

a happy arrival

a happy arrival

Ughh, yeah, what does ‘spiritual’ mean?

The word ‘spiritual’ is one which has myriad connotations and is much used across a wide range of contexts, resulting in its acquiring a miasma of elusiveness. In the last 24 hours, I have heard it used in relation to yoga, glitter and deep-throating. It can basically mean whatever you want it to mean, which can render it so diaphanous as to be almost meaningless.

The trick to understanding what people mean by it is to ask them what they mean by it. Generally, they mean something transcendent, metaphysical, beyond the everyday. People doing the Camino seemed to be acknowledging that walking across an entire country was not a ‘normal’ thing to do, and making a stab at explaining why they were doing it; to find something, to recover from something, to understand themselves, others and their place in the world better?

The word ‘spiritual’ is what the ‘s’ in ‘ipse’ stands for, so in that context I define it as ‘connections in, out and up’. I.E your sense of connection to your inner soul/heart/desires; your sense of connection out to others; and your sense of connection to something higher/ancient/universal.

Right. But why would ‘normal’ people go on pilgrimages?

Whilst a religious pilgrimage is an act of devotion, dedication and commitment, a secular pilgrimage can be framed in similar terms. With every step along a long-distance walk, we are devoting ourselves to the journey, committing ourselves further to the process, and deepening our resolve to continue and eventually arrive. By taking a number of days out of our normal routine, we are dedicating time to ourselves; giving ourselves the gift of space, freedom and simplicity. Stepping out from our ordinary lives to walk for a week towards a destination sends a clear message to the world that we are taking ourselves seriously, investing in a journey, and embarking on a quest for real meaning. People go out mainly so that they can come back in; altered, enriched and inspired.

The full quotation from Chaucer suggests that the desire to pilgrimage is inspired by nature; by the awakening of birds and animals, the rousing breath of spring, the burgeoning forth of plants. The wonderful metaphor he uses for this: “so priketh hem nature in hir corages” is glossed: “so nature spurs/incites them, in their hearts/spirits”. Perhaps it is seeing nature in its awakening glory, witnessing its energy and abundance, which puts us in the cast of mind to seek out such richness of experience for ourselves and perhaps “pierce to the root” our own nature.

How is a pilgrimage different to a walk?

Pilgrimages are just walks. After all, walks have destinations and are deliberate, and they can be extended over many days. And walks can be serious, rich and inspirational. The word pilgrim derives from the Latin ‘peregrinus’ meaning ‘foreigner’ from the words ‘per ager’ meaning ‘through the fields’. A pilgrim is one who comes through the fields, a wanderer from afar, a person on a walk. But aside from the decline of religious faith in the modern world, there are reasons we don’t call ordinary walks pilgrimages. Choosing to label a walk a ‘pilgrimage’ elevates its significance considerably. So what distinguishes a pilgrimage from a walk?


A walk is filled with mini rituals anyway; the packing of the rucksack, the layering of the clothing, the lacing of the boots. A pilgrimage adds rituals on top of these routine actions, creating a sense of occasion and ceremony around the action of walking, which aims to encourage an expansive and receptive mindset. For example, pilgrims are given a token to carry with them, usually a scallop shell, to identify them as pilgrims. Pilgrimages are usually framed by opening and closing ceremonies, and days structured by morning and evening meetings, communal meals and pre-agreed rhythms of rest and movement.

the scallop shell symbol of the Camino de Santiago

the scallop shell symbol of the Camino de Santiago

Songs, prayers, readings and refrains might be used throughout the journey, embedding significance into simple actions and laying down patterns of speech and behaviour which create codes of meaning, building up into a container for the occasion. A space is created and permission granted for more to happen than just a walk. A pilgrimage is an outer journey and an inner journey. To walk a pilgrimage is to be on a mission, and that elevated sense of purpose is often detectable from the outside, as this blogger attests.

On the Camino de Santiago, our purpose evident from our appearance, kit and gait, locals called out ‘Buen Camino’ almost subconsciously in village squares as we passed. They meant ‘have a good journey’, but also there seemed to be in that vocalisation a projection towards our destination. It was a greeting, a blessing and a shooting of an arrow towards the shrine, a way of sending a little bit of themselves winging with us and their words towards Santiago. It always brought a lump to my throat to hear that ritualistic utterance, with its echoing cadence and sense of timeless respect.


A pilgrimage is a search for meaning. By setting out aiming overtly for a special destination, we are projecting a route onto the landscape. Because the ending is extant in the very beginning, and is, ostensibly the purpose for the journey, the route itself becomes meaningful; a line of hallowed intention connecting start point to end. The journey then becomes one of focused determination, a reaching for the ending. But a meaning which is an ending is not sustainable. It collapses upon arrival and becomes instantly the site of departure. We cannot walk for weeks on the fodder only of the ending; we would become starved and depleted, hollow and harrowed. The mind cannot bear such an etiolated diet. Hungry for meaning, it needs to snack along the way, nibble at ideas, munch on conversation, ruminate on larger topics, chew things over and suck the marrow out of the journey.

Alongside the dream of the ending, there needs also to be an abandon to the moment, a free-fall immersion in the slow, multi-day meandering, a mindful forgetting about the destination. A walking journey means that we experience the landscape in a much more immediate and intimate way than on any other form of transport. Self-propelled and operating at ground level, we feel each step in our very bones. We come to understand the lie of the land, we come into communion with the landscape and have no choice but to roll with it, to give in to what is there, and to receive what it is sending us. The aim is that, in so doing, we come also to know and understand better the shape of our own psyche, because we are constantly confronted with the bare facts of how we behave when we are alone, exposed, standing on the blind surface of the earth. The search for meaning best takes place when we are simply being.

The destination is responsible for the initial meaning of a pilgrimage, and delineates the route, but that meaning is, hopefully, surpassed by the learnings along the way. About a week from Santiago, we began to play ‘When we get to Santiago, we are going to…’ and listed all the luxuries we were going to lavish on ourselves; new underwear, ice-creams, a hot bath. Three days before our arrival, we started wanting to walk backwards. Our pace got slower, our fantasies less enthusiastic.

three unenthusiastic pilgrims

three unenthusiastic pilgrims

The mirage which we had had in mind for weeks was solidifying and palling simultaneously. The poem ‘Ithaka’ by C.P. Cavafy articulates beautifully the poignancy of reaching the destination:

Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

So what exactly is a therapeutic pilgrimage?

All pilgrimages are essentially therapeutic, in the sense of being healing; providing space for reflection, a healthy disconnection from technology and immersion in the natural world. However, some of the well-being wilderness walks run by ipse wilderness are labelled ‘therapeutic pilgrimages’. ‘I Am She’, ‘Sharing Stories’ and ‘Navigating Transitions’ are pilgrimages because their destinations are special sites; the plague village of Eyam, Canterbury Cathedral, and The Shrine of Our Lady at Walsingham, respectively. But it is the feeling of completion and significance which arriving at a hallowed site engenders, rather than the religious meaning of the location, that is the crowning feature of ipse wilderness pilgrimages.

And on these trips, as with all ipse wilderness walks, we build into the walk moments of focus on features of the landscape, which we use to create a metaphorical link to the emotions, thus inviting deeper reflection, and inspiring us to open up and share our feelings. Whilst crossing a set of stepping stones, we might reflect on the steps which have brought us to this point on life’s journey. Following a boundary footpath, we might discuss with a partner how we establish boundaries in our lives. At a fallen tree we might go out on a limb and speak the truth we have been carrying in our heart like hidden treasure. So a therapeutic pilgrimage has not just significance in its ending, but it seeks to make landscapes emotionally meaningful; we read the landscape and tell our stories as we pass, asking nature to help us ‘see into the life of things’ and see ourselves reflected in its contours.

Hmmm. How do I know a pilgrimage is really for me?

The symbol of the scallop shell is useful here. The radial lines converge at the base of the shell, representing the sacred destination, but each line has its own starting point. A pilgrimage begins from wherever you are when you begin it. Each step you take will be your own, and you can approach it from wherever you are emotionally, following your own path and carving your own experience. Only the geographical journey is written; everything else is yours to discover. The inner journey is intensely personal.

However, physically, a pilgrimage, even if walked alone or in a small group, is a richly communal activity. Hundreds might be walking the same route, just ahead or behind you, and thousands have walked this route in years gone by. The fact of sharing a common goal with others, either alongside or in history, creates a sense of pride, community and comfort. It places us in a pattern, makes us part of something larger, and reminds us of our place and purpose in the world.

you never walk alone

you never walk alone

Pilgrimage is for everyone. After all, we are all of us on a journey. Like cairns and inukshuks used to mark paths, pilgrimage pathways are often peppered with charming reminders that you are part of a shared journey; notes stuck to fence posts, hidden caches of water or blister plasters, news and gossip which ripples forwards and backwards along the route, so that you might have heard mention of a fellow pilgrim days before you encounter them along the route. One day on the Camino de Santiago, I had seen no one and been walking through woodland for hours feeling quite lonely when I stopped to tie my laces. Within a minute, a group behind me had caught up, and I realised that although I could not see them, there would of course be someone just ahead of me, who might soon stop to tie their laces. I was not alone, but part of a chain of humanity, stretching invisible through these woods, across Spain and forwards and backwards through history.

Ok, so are there any pilgrimages in the UK?

Yes! This site lists the hundreds of UK pilgrimage routes which people have been enjoying for centuries. And ipse wilderness runs frequent trips along three therapeutic pilgrimage routes; Peak Pilgrimage – Peak District; Pilgrim’s Way - London to Canterbury; Walsingham – Norfolk. And for the ambitious, the 600-mile Mary and Michael Pilgrim’s Way runs from Cornwall to Norfolk. See you on the trail!

I’m in! How do I set off on a pilgrimage?

Just decide to do one. Pick an existing route, or simply experiment with calling your next long-distance walk a pilgrimage; set your intention, ritualise your movement, and make your walk really mean something. And when you get back, tell us all about it on the ipse wilderness well-being walking community facebook group.

Or sign up for ‘I Am She’ over the summer, or ‘Navigating Transitions’ in September. Let ipse wilderness take care of the route, so you can enjoy the journey.

Buen Camino!