Spaces for pondering, meditating, praying and ‘being’: 10 of Britain’s best small pilgrimage sites

Health & wellbeing

Remote churches, peace monuments and Celtic-style hillside etchings make for a meditative – and free – new year pilgrimage

Tamlin Magee

Fri 31 Dec 2021 08.00 GMT

If the holiday period has left you in need of some calm, the Small Pilgrim Places Network might have the answer. Founded by the late Reverend Jim Cotter, the network consists of meditative places, gardens, holy wells, ruins, churches and open spaces in England and Wales that are “small, simple, welcoming and inclusive”. The network’s online directory lists more than 70 places, from an ancient church carved from a quarry crag to woodland sanctuaries and tiny labyrinths. Here are 10 favourites: all are free to visit and most are open to the public, although in some cases advance notice is required.

Brent Tor is a rock outcrop on the western edge of Dartmoor that soars 330 metres above sea level, and perched on the summit, surrounded by the remains of iron age earthworks, is the tiny church of Saint Michael de Rupe (“Saint Michael of the Rocks”). This ancient sanctuary dates from the 13th century when, according to legend, “Hugh the Merchant” endeavoured to build a church at the highest visible point after surviving a shipwreck nearby. Overlooking Dartmoor, the Tamar Valley and Bodmin Moor, Saint Michael de Rupe is always open, and is reached by clambering up the tall hill – while, of course, keeping an eye on adverse weather conditions.

Chapel of Our Lady of the Crag, Knaresborough. Photograph: Mark Sunderland/Alamy

Carved into the rock face above the River Nidd, half a mile from the 12th-century market town of Knaresborough, North Yorkshire, the Chapel of Our Lady of the Crag is thought to have been completed in 1408 by “John the Mason” who, according to legend, built the chapel after his son survived a rock fall. It was probably conceived as a wayside shrine for pilgrims and local quarry workers, and its entrance is guarded by an austere stone knight, who is mentioned in William Wordsworth’s poem Effusion in the Pleasure-Ground on the Banks of the Bran, Near Dunkeld.

Visit the chapel and explore its intricately carved interior by walking up Abbey Road, a stone’s throw from Knaresborough high street, itself a noteworthy site for pilgrimages. The Chapel of Our Lady of the Crag is open in summer from 2pm to 4pm, and at other times a visit can be arranged by contacting chapel volunteers.

The Labyrinth at Windsworth, with views south-west

Crop circles have long captivated UFO-watchers, but the source of this earthen etching is a little less mysterious: in 2009 local landowner Caroline Petherick set about carving a Celtic-influenced spiral pattern, adjacent to a scenic coastal footpath. The “sevenfold labyrinth” offers gorgeous views over the seashore, and Petherick, who dabbles in dowsing, picked the site for its location at the cross-section of two “energy lines”.

Adventurous ramblers can find it by walking east, at mid to low tide, along the shore for a mile from Millendreath, climbing about 20 metres up a shale slope with the aid of a thick knotted rope, then walking a very steep path for a quarter of a mile. Alternatively, they can email Caroline, who runs the Windsworth guest house, and access thesite via her garden.

In the gardens of a house in the small village of Llanfoist, on the edge of the Brecon Beacons, is a statue of Sadako Sasaki, a Japanese girl who was in Hiroshima when it was bombed and folded hundreds of origami cranes in her hospital bed when she was dying, 10 years later, of radiation-induced leukaemia. Sculpted by Hazel Reeves, the statue was erected as a “focus, in a quiet space for reflection, healing and renewal” and stands opposite a “peace wall”, where written prayers for peace hang in the gardens. Hedd Wen is the female spelling of the pen name taken by Welsh-language poet Hedd Wyn, who was killed on the first day of the battle of Passchendaele in 1917, and the private gardens, whose name means “tranquil place”, can be visited by walking about 35 minutes from Abergavenny station along the River Usk and through the Castle Meadows; visitors just need to email in advance.

Hidden in 10 acres of woods on the Hawkwood estate, half an hour’s walk from Stroud, the Hawkwood Woodland Sanctuary is a cabin resembling the cross-section of a pointy hat. A small group meets regularly for meditation between 8.30am and 9am every Wednesday, but the public can visit any time, provided you notify reception in advance. The estate is home to a “centre for future thinking” and runs regular courses and retreats. The grounds include a walled garden, a natural spring, an organic farm, ponds, wetlands, a labyrinth and the occasional beehive, and views extend as far as the Forest of Dean and south Wales.

Completely off grid and powered by historic gas lights, this remote Saxon church in the North Downs is mentioned in the Domesday book and contains Roman bricks and tiles. To access this wildflower-ensconced “eco church” on the edge of Kent’s Wichling Wood, ramblers can follow footpaths through farmland from nearby Lenham (an Ordnance Survey map or app is advised); or it is a six-mile drive from the A2. Music is played with medieval folk instruments during church services from spring to autumn, when it is open to visitors every day. Winter opening times are more limited: it is worth checking on the St Margaret’s website. Back in Lenham, there are a few cosy pubs where you can quench your thirst.

Photograph: David Lyons/Alamy

In Hiroshi Teshigahara’s 1964 Japanese New Wave drama, Woman of the Dunes, the titular woman is doomed to spend day after day shovelling away the sand encroaching on the entrance of her home. Saint Tanwg, the “Church in the Sands”, has repeatedly been rescued from a similar fate, having been dug out of the sandbanks on a semi-regular basis over the centuries. One of the oldest places of continuous Christian worship in Britain, Saint Tanwg dates from AD425 but was probably built on the site of an earlier temple. The interior contains remnants of a gothic window, plus traces of medieval wall paintings and a Celtic cross from the ninth century. Saint Tanwg is usually open daily, but occasionally shuts in poor weather. It is on the 870-mile Wales Coast Path (or a short walk from the Llandanwg request stop between Barmouth and Harlech on the Cambrian Coast Railway Line).

Had Dominic Cummings’s eyes not supposedly betrayed him on his trip to Barnard Castle, he might have spotted Saint Andrew’s church, high on a ridge over the River Tees in Winston. On clear days the tranquil spot offers views far into North Yorkshire. Building buffs might be interested to know that prolific South Shields-born architect John Dobson re-arranged the church, originally built in 1245, in the Victorian era. It is a Grade I medieval building, one of two listed churches called Saint Andrew in the area (the other’s down the road in Aycliffe). Along with its peaceful location and gorgeous views, it boasts three lancet windows in the chancel with very fine “grisaille” glazing dated from the 1860s. From October to Easter, Saint Andrew’s is open every Saturday 9am-5pm; visits can also be arranged by phoning 01325 730392.

Photograph: David Hastilow/Alamy

Everyone loves a good peninsula, and the forking tongue of the Lizard in Cornwall, lashing at the sea with its serpentinite-bearing rock, is particularly striking. This most southerly point on the British mainland has one of the mildest climates in the UK, and is packed with natural beauty, from the unspoiled beaches of Kynance Cove to the clear waters of Frenchman’s Creek. A coastal footpath north from sandy Poldhu Cove leads to the ancient church of Saint Winwaloe, the “Church of the Storms” – the only one in Cornwall that’s on a beach – built atop the remains of a sixth-century monastery. In addition to its beautiful surroundings, the site contains an engraved Cornish cross and a font dating back to Norman times. Saint Winwaloe is usually open daily.

Constructed on top of a burial place thought to have been in use 2,500 years ago, this is a remote, picturesque Victorian church that offers spectacular views. Adventurous walkers can reach it with a long hike based on a bronze age route through the Snowdonia foothills, or a shorter journey from Llanfihangel-y-traethau, a few miles south-west of Llandecwyn – a traditional pilgrimage called “Saint Tecwyn’s Way. It is also reachable by road or rail: it’s signposted off the A496 and close to Llandecwyn railway station request stop. Whichever way you travel, you’ll be treated to vistas of Snowdon, Cardigan Bay, the Dwyrd estuary and the Rhinog mountains.
Saint Tecwyn and its simple interior is open daily for visitors, and private “quiet days” can be arranged for individuals or groups with notice. If you’re in the area, don’t miss Pen Llandecwyn, the tiny 203-metre hill between Saint Tecwyn and Llyn Tecwyn Uchaf, which surely wins a participation trophy for being the 2,033rd-highest peak in Wales.












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