Jonathan Wright is enthralled by Peter Stanford’s tour of Britain’s sacred places
The Extra Mile
BY PETER STANFORD CONTINUUM, £16.99
Christian pilgrimage has always served many purposes: everything from the piety-flaunting publicity stunts of Renaissance princes to the gruelling, penitential punishments of medieval people who had fallen foul of ecclesiastical justice. The cast of characters was always wide (repentant heretics, those in search of miraculous cures, priests and laymen fulfilling idiosyncratic devotional obligations) and the journeys ranged from month-long jaunts to a nearby shrine to continent-straddling odysseys that took years to complete. For all this diversity, it would be fair to assume that many pilgrims had a couple of things in common. They had God in their thoughts and they must have been curious about the people and places they encountered.
Peter Stanford, who spent a year visiting eminently sacred sites around Britain, therefore has a legitimate claim to be counted as a modern, authentic pilgrim. Faith and curiosity were his touchstones. He wanted to take the spiritual temperature of Britain: a place in which commitment to organised religion is clearly in decline, but also a nation that boasts a powerful, if ill-defined, appetite for spiritual experience. That, for me, is as good a reason as any to embark upon a 21st-century pilgrimage.
Stanford is a well-informed and sympathetic guide. He encountered all sorts of intriguing groups (druids welcoming the sun at Stonehenge; Charismatic Christians assembling at Walsingham; drumbeaters and fire-jumpers at Glastonbury; the Jacob’s Well healing mission on Bardsey Island) but he treated them all with respect. He watched their deeds and rituals, quizzed the participants, and even joined in on a few occasions. He freely admits that he sometimes found proceedings rather uncomfortable, and he isn’t shy about voicing his puzzlement at some of the things he witnessed. He admires the druids’ sincerity, for instance, but he can’t help but compare them, in their finery, to a “gathering of the teaching staff from Harry Potter’s Hogwarts”. That’s not an insult, just an affectionate aside and, throughout his travels, Stanford tried very hard to abide by the cardinal rule of any good investigative journalist: to watch and learn with an open mind and to stifle any grins or grimaces that might have been bubbling towards the mental surface.
The book is brimful of reliable historical accounts of the places Stanford visited and it is much enhanced by regular injections of wit. During an Orthodox service at Holywell (the site of St Winefride’s alleged seventh-century postdecapitation resurrection) he first feels the liturgical difference in his legs. “No pews,” as he puts it, “is a challenge.” Best of all, we get a real sense of Stanford’s own spiritual journey. As he insists, pilgrimage should be about more than “a ramble in the countryside”.
To arrive at a place that has been held sacred for so long is to become connected to a “human chain that stretches back through the centuries”. There is comfort in such a pursuit and perhaps even the potential to glimpse the transcendent: a chance to step “out of time and out of character”. His book also reminds us that the private moment of reflection in a silent, isolated, mysterious place is the perfect antidote to the bustle of the noisy, fran tic modern world. It could be argued that Stanford has plucked low-hanging fruit from the British pilgrimage tree. All the usual suspects, Iona and Lindisfarne included, are here but, as Stanford reports, Britain is unusually blessed with obscure sacred hideaways. In his defence, he wanted to investigate how the famous places have been revivified as a result of Britain’s much-touted spiritual renaissance, so heading to the obvious hot spots was an astute strategy. Vox pop exercises always require a pop, after all. And besides, those who require something a little quirkier will be thrilled by Stanford’s account of the well-dressing ceremonies in Derbyshire: all very odd and all very fascinating.
Pilgrimage, it seems, is alive and well. Stanford is clearly caught between bafflement and admiration when it comes to the fluorescences of 21st-century British spirituality.
To return to those druids at Stonehenge, he enjoys the sight of grown men and women acting “like children skipping along the pavement on the way to the school gates” but he also recognises the moment when he’s had enough, when everything “feels too much like every pagan cliché I’ve ever imagined”. Similar tensions crop up time and again in this book but Stanford is simply being honest. He had the grace and good manners to meet, ponder and chat with such enthusiastic people even though he has no intention of joining their parade.
Ultimately, Stanford admits to being optimistic about the various byways of modern British faith (however we might choose to define or calibrate that elusive cultural phenomenon). He likes the emotion, independence and innovative glee that course through its veins. So do I, but I’m obliged to sound a grumpy note of caution. I have no particular axe to grind and I am not in the business of inventing bugaboos, but for those who want to sustain the concept of an examined, disciplined belief (and, for many, that’s the best kind) there is an inherent risk in embracing the cavalcade of random, amorphous, modern British spiritual outpourings. This can easily morph into a “better than nothing” strategy and that is unlikely to do anyone any good.
Cavils aside, please read Stanford’s wonderful book. It will teach you things you never knew and it will remind you that pilgrimage is not about leisurely strolls and picnic baskets. I don’t expect you to put stones in your shoes as you tramp along, but please don’t sign up for a comfy trek to Santiago in which sampling the local jamón and bedding down in wellappointed B&Bs are put on a par with contemplating your soul. That, surely, would be a wasted trip. Pilgrimage should be hard work.