…the long read: grab a coffee and some carrot cake before you start…

A friend invited me to the British Pilgrimage Trust symposium on modern pilgrimage, and the topics were about finding our own way to engage in this tradition. The symposium was held in St James Church, Clerkenwell… and as I’m the Vicar of St James, Slaithwaite; I felt the desire to turn the travel into a pilgrimage. St James is, after all, the patron saint of pilgrims.

Walking is for the body, pilgrimage is for the soul

Guy Hayward, British Pilgrimage Trust

According to Kosuke Koyama, the speed of love is three miles an hour, it is a spiritual speed: the speed that God walks.1 God, however, has an eternity to travel and I had to be back to Slaithwaite to lead Holy Communion the following Sunday.

Travel is the finest educational system of all; and cycling is the cheapest, easiest and most educational means of travel2


Cycling would be quicker and easier than walking, but by that argument the train would have been even better. However, I wasn’t sure what I would learn from an evening of talks about pilgrimage and felt that I might learn more by making it a practical exercise. A pilgrimage to a meeting about pilgrimages: St James to St James. I hoped to enjoy some beautiful cycling, to re-engage with physical-prayer, and to worship God with my heart, soul, mind and strength in a whole body way. Jens Voigt famously said, “Shut up legs” when the lactic acid began to burn, but what if my legs are speaking a non-verbal language understood by their creator God? Then let them shout: let the hydrolysis of adenosine triphosphate be my body praying ceaselessly, without words. I hoped that the intention of my heart, which is always to grow in the knowledge and love of God, would be honoured in the activity of cycling on a pilgrimage. Perhaps on this journey, God would have a bicycle too.

Slaithwaite to London is about 185 miles by the minimum walking distance, but much of that would be alongside A-roads, and I would rather cycle an enjoyable (if slightly longer) route. Hours were spent on the website ‘Ride with GPS’, plotting a journey that seemed reasonably direct but prioritised B-roads and country lanes. In the end I devised a plan that headed south through the edge of the Peak District to Sheffield, crossing the River Trent at East Bridgeford, and continuing south-east to Peterborough. That would be about 125 miles and with a pre-booked Travelodge on the A1, I would be able to rest easy through the night.

The following morning, I would cycle more directly south, along the A1M service road to Godmanchester, before heading into country lanes around Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City. I would eventually cross the M25 halfway between South Mimms and Waltham Cross, into Enfield, before following cycle routes through London down to Kings Cross and another pre-booked Travelodge: about 100 miles of cycling from Peterborough.

The evening’s education would involve: Evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral, a mini-walking-pilgrimage from St Paul’s Cathedral via St Bartholomew-the-Great, Smithfield to St James’, Clerkenwell, the symposium itself and an evening mixing with other pilgrims.

  • Tom Holland, Apocalyptic Pilgrimage
  • Phoebe Smith; The emotional healing powers of pilgrimage
  • Dr Rupert Sheldrake; Pilgrimage in different cultures across the world
  • Galahad Clark; All about feet
  • Oliver Smith; Pilgrimage for a modern audience
  • Ruby Reed; Reconnection to nature
  • …finishing with pilgrim songs led by the Trust’s Guy Hayward.

St James Church, Slaithwaite, to Peterborough

There is no suggestion that God is any more present in Jerusalem than in my back garden, and neither do I have to earn God’s favour by travelling from one to the other. Pilgrimage should instead be seen as something which might help faith to grow, something within which we might meet God, but something which might also leave us disappointed

David Osborne3

The beginning of my pilgrimage took me south and east along the edge of the Peak District, through Crow Edge and down to the cyclist’s cafe at Langsett. An early start meant that I was too early for coffee and cake, a theme which was going to reoccur throughout my journey. In my planning I had relied on cycling heat-maps to find the roads cyclists preferred. As I climbed ‘The Strines’, I remembered that cyclists are a stupid bunch who often go out and find the hardest roads to cycle, however the rewards are often stunning views.

I paused for breath at the top of the climb from High Bradfield; where the Agden, Dale Dike, and Strines reservoirs were stacked up into the distance, and the call of Peewhits pierced through the noise of the wind. I love the isolation of these high places, the wilderness-ness; it is a place for crying out, and place where only God is listening and a sanctum sanctorum for wildlife.

Sheffield was hard work to cycle through because I wasn’t following the River Don from west to east, so I had to ride up and down a series of steep hills. A motorist sarcastically shouted “get a life” as he drove past. Winching myself slowly to the top of the hill I remembered psalm 23; “you lay a table for me in the presence of those who trouble me” and reflected on which of us had “life in abundance”. I’d been riding long enough to justify a coffee and cake, and the sign of a bakery with tables laid outside prompted me to stop.

Christian faith sometimes focusses rather heavily on the state of a person’s soul, neglecting the state of their body. I love that post-resurrection-Jesus ate with his friends. This simple act was a corporal thing, an earthy, basic, human thing. I imagine it was also a tasty thing. God understands me and my body better than I do, and the sugar rush I received from that delicious cake would have been like fireworks in my muscles.

With refuelled muscles, I tackled the countryside to Staveley. There was a lot more farmland around, watered by many streams, each at the bottom of a dip that was fast to approach and slow to ascend. With every drop and climb the hills became easier and the countryside flatter, until I crossed the M1 at Duckmanton and saw the ridge with Bolsover Castle: I took a deep breath and climbed once more.

Bolsover was the last serious climb of the day, 45 miles from Slaithwaite, and from this point on the landscape became a lot more gentle. Along the ridge after Bolsover, skirting around the west of Mansfield, I noticed for the first time that the countryside had changed from drystone walled moorland, to green and yellow fields surrounded by hedgerows.

I paused at a shop in Skegby for lunch and to refill my water bottle. There was a blue-badge-holder parking space next to the entrance, and while I was there half a dozen people stopped in it, as close to the shop door as possible. I’ve begun to think of my car as an expensive mobility scooter. I tend to use it when I’m unable to move myself around properly: if I’m too tired to cycle, feeling run-down and unwell, or I’m under so much time pressure that the car is the only option. I’ve tried to stop my internal criticism of other motorists because I now just see people, like me, who are trapped: victims of a culture in which the car is king. These people didn’t have the time or energy to park elsewhere and walk across the car park.

Cycling along more country lanes, the roads were almost totally flat. I passed through a small area of woodland, the road dipped into a stream. Although the depth marker showed it to be only 6 inches deep… it looked slippery, and experience has taught me that adventures can be ended abruptly by silly mistakes. I pushed my bicycle over the narrow footbridge.

So far these country roads had been empty, the cycling was easy, and it stayed like that until I approached the River Trent. Bridges over rivers act like bottlenecks and all traffic has to pass the same point. The A6097 ‘Epperstone Bypass’ is a mixture of dual carriageway and narrow A-road, but it was thankfully fairly empty as I was riding along, eventually crossing over the swollen River Trent at Gunthorpe.

The sky was deep blue and the afternoon was warm, and I had run out of water as I approached Harby. Flat roads can be harder to cycle than hilly roads because there is no respite from pedalling. At least with hilly roads, once I’ve worked my way to the top I get a rest on the descent. Flat roads just don’t give me that option. There was a small petrol station and I stopped for a sandwich, a drink, and to fill my water bottles again. I had cycled 82 miles and there was only another 43 miles to go. Thankfully the roads became a little more undulating after Harby.

I noticed something new on this next section, another change to the English scenery. There were an increasing number of thatched roofs. We have slate tiles in West Yorkshire. I love the way the landscape and agriculture change the way we live and house ourselves. I also began to notice churches a lot more. Cottage-core villages with pretty gardens and pubs-on-the-green, with church buildings that seem well-kept: buildings which appear to be important in giving rural communities a sense of identity.

My journey had begun at 8am in West Yorkshire and I’d cycled through a changing English landscape; the fields going from moorland to farmland, buildings from slate to thatched roofs, roads from steep valleys to gently undulating hills, and as the sun lowered in the sky I was treated to the sight of shafts of sunlight and silver lined clouds. It was around 7pm when I nipped down 100m of A1 dual carriageway to the Travelodge at Peterborough. I’d cycled 125 miles and was ready for a shower and a warm bed.

Peterborough to St James, Clerkenwell

Physical pilgrimages differ from simply travelling because they change us as a person, inside and outside, whereas holidays are often only about change on the outside

Craig Bartholomew4

Getting up in the morning after a long day of physical exercise is not easy. I love to start my day with Morning Prayer from the Church of England, and the New Testament reading was about Mary’s journey to see Elizabeth – and the joy of their greeting. Although this day would bring an end to my mini-pilgrimage, I was looking forward to the symposium and meeting other pilgrims. Evensong was to begin at 5pm, and I had 100 miles to cover, with 10 miles inside the M25, so I needed an early start to make sure I would arrive in time. I left the hotel at 7am, using Peterborough’s empty ring-road in the cool dawn light.

I was reminded that I’m not the only person to make journeys like this: I passed a roadside marker with the distances to Huntingdon and London painted black on a white stone. The “milestone society” seeks to preserve these waymarkers which have a history stretching back to Roman times. I was on the B1043, which was probably part of the Great North Road, or Ermine Street, near Sawtry. It would have been approximately 400 miles from Edinburgh to London along this route and taken about 16 days to cover on horse back. I felt a sense of connection to the land, and the people who would have travelled before me.

The B1043 runs parallel with the A1M south of Peterborough, as a fairly straight and flat road, so my bicycle whisked me south quite quickly. I was into Huntingdon and Godmanchester before the school traffic started, and as if to underline my Roman Road reflections, the Godmanchester signpost had an image of a Roman soldier looking across the River Great Ouse. It would have been nice to stop for coffee and a croissant, but I was too early for the cafes of Godmanchester and carried on into the open countryside beyond.

Breakfast called as I left Waresley and saw a sign to “Bean Theory”, a coffee roastery and cafe in the middle of private parkland and racecourse. I was drawn in like a sailor to a siren’s call. Coffee! Cake!

Dramatic English scenery, like the Pennines, the Peak District and the Lake District, gift cyclists with epic tales of climbs and descending, and gift photographers with stunning images. Thinking back to the ride south; I recall swooping around narrow country lanes, through green and yellow fields, occasionally dotted with copse and streams. I had a light tailwind and the day was blue-sky sunny. There was next to no traffic and I was alone with my thoughts and the songs I sing to myself when I’m happy. One of the lovely things about cycling is the activity itself: we’re doing the thing we want to do, and when we’ve finished we will no longer be doing the thing we want to do. Pilgrimages are often built around the destination, but I’ve found a real joy in the interim moment; the time between setting off and arriving.

Motorists are trying to get where they want to be. Cyclists are already there.

Dean Clementson

One of the interim-destinations I’d plotted the route around was Letchworth. I was perhaps 6 or 7 years old when I lived there and had my very first cycling adventure. I had a Raleigh child’s bike, and I set off from the housing estate on the edge of town, into the lanes and over the A1 towards Baldock. I didn’t make it all the way before I got scared that I was lost, and turned for home. This was, however, my first taste of exploration, and it has stayed with me. My ride took me over the same bridge, and into the estate along the same lanes. I hadn’t been here for 45 years, but it was instantly familiar.

Beyond Letchworth, I passed Stevenage and Welwyn Garden City. Traffic was increasing as I closed in on London, and I noticed another change in the housing. Here in the Home Counties, the houses were getting a lot larger, further back from the road, and protected by gates and security systems. The sense of community that comes from closely packed thatched cottages around an ancient church building was disappearing. The connection to the land that comes from slate tiled roofs was disappearing. For all the wealth, people seemed more contained; contained behind high walls and contained in cages of metal. From just outside the M25, the Shard was visible in central London, 10 miles away.

There was an immediate shift in the cycling experience as I entered Enfield. Cars, scooters, cyclists, motorbikes – people – everywhere. There was no gradual build-up… it went from quiet just outside the M25, to jam-packed inside the M25. My average travelling speed dropped as I found myself stopping at every red light, slowing down for pedestrians, and weaving my way through stationary cars. London was effectively a third stage to the ride that was completely different to the first two days. I wasn’t in a rush though and I was conscious that there is a social media perception of angst between motorists and cyclists in London, so I took care not to aggravate anyone. I also enjoyed a coffee and pastry at a Greek bakery, and was surprised to find a last steep hill inside London.

It was about 2:30pm when I checked into my Travelodge near Kings Cross, unpacked the clothes I’d brought with me and freshened up before taking a walk south to the Thames embankment.

Symposium on Pilgrimage

A pie and pint in a London boozer, on the banks of the River Thames. A walk to St Paul’s Cathedral, followed by Evensong and another walk back to St James in Clerkenwell. The British Pilgrimage Trust symposium had over 200 attendees.

‍Guy Hayward opened the symposium with a song, “To Be A Pilgrim”, then introduced the speakers:

The first talk was from Oliver Smith, who once wrote for Lonely Planet, but has since been exploring and writing about pilgrimage places in Britain. He referred to a pilgrimage as an inward journey to a unknown territory, and spoke about the practical experience of finding meaning and community in places which connect humanity with our past and with the world we are in. I thought about the different communities I had passed through and wondered if people living behind security gates would feel a stronger yearning for that connection – having lost it somewhat. Or whether those who live closer to the environment, in slated and thatched roof communities would be more likely to make the connection. I thought about the Roman waymarkers and how my slow journey connected me to those who had ridden horse-back on the same roads.

The second talk was from Dr Rupert Sheldrake, one of the founders of the British Pilgrimage Trust. He spoke about the diversity of spiritual connection to pilgrimage, especially in India. He joked about the establishment of “tourism” when pilgrimages were banned in 1538 by Cromwell and Henry VIII. I thought about the British way to rebel without breaking the rules… about the establishment of Cycling Time Trials in 1922, as a response to the banning of road racing for bicycles.

Galahad Clark spoke about our connection with the earth, the feel of the ground beneath our feet and the wonderful capacity of our feet to convey us places. He spoke about developments in shoes design which help feet become stronger, and reflected that until the modern era of shoemaking we were all cobblers. Once upon a time everyone had bespoke shoes that were made specifically for them. After the talk I asked him whether we could transfer any of this experience to cycling shoes, and our sports-driven development of carbon soled shoes. I’m not sure he took me seriously; he said “walk more”.

I was sorry that Ruby Reed and Phoebe Smith didn’t speak – I had been really looking forward to their talks on healing and connecting with nature.

The final speaker was Tom Holland, who I’ve heard speak before, at a Diocese of Leeds clergy conference. He is a wonderful speaker whose historical perspective enlightens contemporary experiences. He spoke about Chaucer, pandemics, black death, and the community aspect of pilgrimages. He joked that academic historians tend to be squeamish about attributing too much credit to religious or spiritual experiences as driving forces behind historical events. However, spiritual and religious drivers are significant: in 1033 there was a massive pilgrimage from all over Europe to the holy land, which came with an apocalyptic anxiety as 1000 years had passed since the death and resurrection of Jesus. I reflected that contemporary anxiety of apocalypse is less focussed on the return of Christ and more on trigger happy world leaders in Russia, Israel and Iran…but I wonder if there will be a similar Christian pilgrimage in 2033.

I’m grateful to the Diocese of Leeds for their support: encouraging me to go on this pilgrimage to a meeting about pilgrimage as part of my Continuing Ministerial Development. I found so much material to reflect on – much more than I’ve shared here. Not least, I re-read my dissertation on worship as a physical experience, and I loved hearing Dr Paula Gooder speak at St Paul’s, she wrote a wonderful book on the relationship between religion and the human body, and I learned from her that the neo-platonic concept of separation of body and soul are not the Jewish way of seeing humanity: we are not a soul trapped in an incarnated body… we’re more of an animated personality.5

Epilogue: A cyclist’s pilgrimage

Before returning to West Yorkshire, I wanted to visit some places of cycling pilgrimage… Condor on Gray’s Inn Road, the Rapha store, and Gandalf corner.

The Condor store is where my bicycle came from, and as it had carried me to London, I treated it to a visit to its birthplace. A trip to the Rapha store gave me another pause for thought: I saw thousands of cyclists in London, and there is no meta-demographic. Humans of all shapes and sizes riding bicycles because they are the easiest, cheapest and finest means of travel around London; Rapha makes tremendously expensive cycle clothing, and really only represents a niche of cyclists. Most people in London cycle in ordinary clothes – and look fabulous doing it.

Finally, a trip to Gandalf corner, and a few laps of Regents Park before a train from Euston to Manchester… and a ride home past one last pilgrimage location: The National Velodrome, home of British Cycling.

With the last 20 miles from Manchester city centre out along a familiar route through Oldham and Delph, I climbed back over Standedge and looked down into West Yorkshire one more time. After three days of sunshine, it was a refreshing change to have the soft south Pennine rain on my face once more. Standedge to Slaithwaite is 6 miles of downhill, and no need to touch the brakes…



  1. Koyama, Kosuke; Three Mile and Hour God, ISBN: 9780334061472 ↩︎
  2. Kuklos; ‘The Kuklos Papers’, The Warwick Digital Collections, https://wdc.contentdm.oclc.org/digital/collection/cycling/id/5091, 198 (visited 19/Apr/2024) ↩︎
  3. Osborne, David; ‘Grove Spirituality: Pilgrimage’, (Cambridge: Grove Books, 1996), 15-16 ↩︎
  4. Bartholomew, Craig, and Hughes, Fred; ‘Explorations in a Christian Theology of Pilgrimage’, (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004), 103 ↩︎
  5. Gooder, Paula; ‘Body: Biblical Spirituality for the whole person’, (London: SPCK, 2016), 34 ↩︎