Britain’s sacred places

15/06/2015 16:50

Written by Martin Symington

The idea that a place is ‘sacred’ means myriad things to different people. For some, the word simply implies a place of devotion to a deity or creed. For many more, it is a multi-purpose term, suggesting that a particular location, monument, structure or journey evokes responses of emotion, soul or spirit.

Such sentiments cannot be pinpointed, much less rationalised, but my starting point is that sacred Britain is a reality. That there are places in England, Scotland and Wales that are sacred in the sense that they hold the power to move people to feelings of wonder, awe or transcendence. Many of the places I travel to are prehistoric in origin – ancient monoliths, stone circles, burial mounds or chalk hill carvings. The faiths of the people who created them are lost to us, and as religious sites they have changed entirely. Why are such places ‘sacred’? My answer is that from world-famous monuments such as Stonehenge, to forlorn chunks of rock attended only by half-forgotten legend, these ancient signatures on the British landscape have powerful moods attached to them and so hold a grip on the imagination. They can transport the visitor into a realm beyond the weariness of mere historical or archaeological information.

Similar senses of the mystical are waiting to be discovered at destinations of pilgrimage, which are another cornerstone of Sacred Britain. Travel to sacred places is, after all, the world’s oldest form of tourism. In Britain, the heyday of pilgrimage was the Middle Ages when millions made journeys to the sacred, trying to score credit against the whims of fate and hoping for reward in this life or the next.

Tombs of saints and martyrs, scenes of visions and miraculous cures, or simply places associated with revered people, were the targets. Vast edifices, such as the cathedral that rose around the relics of St Cuthbert at Durham, safeguard some; others are obscure shrines or holy wells whose existence will, I suspect, frequently surprise. And many more places of pilgrimage are at remote and far-flung extremities of Britain, such as the islands of Iona, Lindisfarne or Bardsey where holy people have found refuge from worldly temptations.

Such sites are, in the words of George MacLeod, ‘thin places, where only a tissue separates the material from the spiritual’. It is no coincidence that these are often also places of raw beauty and elemental high drama. Then, as now, the dividing line between pilgrims and tourists is blurred; the Canterbury Tales, for example, paint pictures of high jinks among the hair shirts. And it is in this spirit that, in an age when we can speed in a couple of hours along a route that took pilgrims weeks to walk, I have chosen as sacred places, some of the Christian pilgrimage trails of the pre-Reformation era.

In more recent times, the flowering in Britain of other religions, particularly from the East, has woven fresh threads into the weft of sacred Britain. ‘Guests in Quest’ meditate at a Tibetan Buddhist temple in the Scottish Borders; followers of Islam make pilgrimages to London’s Regent’s Park, there to pray facing Mecca under a huge gilded dome; and devotees, as well as tourists lured by tales of the exotic, flock to a dazzling temple in Neasden, Hinduism’s largest outside India. All these, and numerous other places of worship, are part of sacred Britain.

And so to the places of ‘secular pilgrimage’ which also take their place in my choice of sacred sites. The term sounds oxymoronic, but it is apparent that in this rationalist age where scientists seek to strip the mystery from existence, the yearning to visit places that evoke responses of emotion, soul or spirit remains immutable. Karl Marx’s irreligion contributes pointedly secular overtones to his tomb in Highgate Cemetery, but his philosophical soulmates nevertheless seek to commune with him at the site.

Marx himself famously described religion as ‘opiate of the masses’, but might he have concluded that sport was a new religion, had he witnessed the stadiums, stars and crowds which echo cathedrals, prophets and devotees? And what to make of the extraordinary, constantly changing shrine to Princess Diana at the railings of Kensington Palace? Despite lacking any specific spiritual focus, this has become the most resonant pilgrimage destinations in modern Britain. In the end, the innate and acquired atmosphere of a place – which is what makes it ‘sacred’, or otherwise – is a matter of how visitors experience it and hence is individual to them. My feeling is that a sacred place is one that needs to be felt in the heart, as well as viewed with the eye.


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Sacred Britain, Bradt Travel Guides


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