St Ann’s Well, on the eastern slopes of the Malvern Hills, is my starting point for the day. The Victorian café is closed, despite a brief lull in lockdown regulations, but the spring water flows liberally through a marble, dolphin-nose spout into a scallop-shaped basin below.

The water is the main draw here — and has been for centuries. It is believed to be of such purity as to have miraculous healing powers. But the basin is significant, too, its shape the abiding symbol of pilgrimage through the ages. And I am a pilgrim, albeit for one day only.

Joining me on my 12-mile pilgrimage from Great Malvern to Worcester Cathedral is Guy Hayward from the British Pilgrimage Trust, a charity he co-founded in 2014 to encourage more people — even those with only a day or weekend to spare — to make pilgrimages in Britain.

And, though church congregations have been declining for years, interest in pilgrimages seems to be heading rapidly in the opposite direction. The annual number of people walking the world’s most famous pilgrim route, to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, has more than doubled since 2009, exceeding 347,000 in 2019. Then there are the books — the numerous guides to Europe’s celebrated pilgrimages are being joined by a rash of titles aimed at helping the rediscovery of forgotten routes in the UK. They include Hayward’s own book, Britain’s Pilgrim Places (published in August and co-authored by Nick Mayhew-Smith), and Andy Bull’s Pilgrim Pathways, published last month, a detailed guidebook to walking 20 ancient routes over one or two days.

Hayward turns out to be one of life’s enthusiasts, thirtysomething, easy-going, mildly eccentric and with the voice of an angel — more of which later. Mercifully, too, he handles religion with an open heart and mind, instantly dispelling any wariness I might harbour about being forced to confront my own confused, and largely lapsed, Christian faith.

“Setting an intention” for the day, in silence and with closed eyes, before we start to walk is about as awkward as it gets, my mind veering between noble thoughts of returning home a better person and less noble ones of what I intend to have for dinner.

“Bring your own beliefs,” says Hayward, quoting both the motto of the British Pilgrimage Trust and the words, he feels, that are at the heart of the modern pilgrimage movement. “Since Henry VIII banned pilgrimage in the Reformation 500 years ago, there has been a pilgrimage vacuum,” he explains, “which means we are in a pioneering position now to reinvent the tradition for modern times.”

Rather than pilgrimage being a purely religious construct, he prefers the idea of “an unbroken journey on foot” as a means to connect both with the earth and with the self through a holistic sense of wellbeing. “These are exciting times,” he says, as we arrive at the porch of Great Malvern Priory for a private guided tour by vicar Rod Corke.

The medieval stained-glass windows are the show-stealer here, but there are exquisite floor tiles, too, and the tomb of Prior Walcher, who died in 1135 and was a key figure in the history of medieval science and astronomy. According to CS Lewis, who was educated at Malvern College, the priory was the first beautiful building he ever saw.

And its beauty is sublime — all the more so for the fact that we are the only visitors here. Even the need for someone to follow us round with wipes and disinfectant, swabbing down anything we touch or breathe on, can do little to dampen the glory of this former Benedictine monastery. Then Hayward breaks into song — a soul-stirring rendition of an 1160 work by St Godric of Finchale, one of the first named English songwriters.

Music is almost as much a theme of our day as pilgrimage, our route peppered with folk songs, madrigals and chants delivered with the pitch-perfect aplomb of a Cambridge university choral scholar. That Hayward did his PhD on how singing forms community and that his alter ego outside the BPT is as one half of Bounder & Cad, a cabaret duo, go some way to explaining his love of music.

But I am most disarmed by his sheer bravado, that he is fascinated by the rediscovery and preservation of ancient songs, religious or otherwise, and is prepared to give voice to them at random. I hardly dare imagine what the dog walker thinks of us in the churchyard of St Peter’s at Powick, where in a strange act of submission I prostrate myself against the north wall of the church while Hayward sings an eerily beautiful madrigal.

Yet Hayward’s involvement with music and the founding of the BPT are closely intertwined. Peter Owen Jones, author, television presenter, Anglican priest and patron of the BPT, recalls how two young men, Hayward and his co-founder Will Parsons, stopped by his parish in Sussex on a pilgrimage along the Old Way to Canterbury in search of food and somewhere to sleep. “I invited them into my house and fed them”, he says, “and in return they sang for me.” Not a Christian song but a folk song about a group of hop-pickers who died in the Hartlake Bridge disaster of 1853.

“The British Pilgrimage Trust started from a love of folk songs and walking,” says Hayward. “We weren’t so much into the religious side of pilgrimage, more the natural side.” And this is the way it has evolved. If Owen Jones is less of a short pilgrimage man than Hayward, believing that a true pilgrimage must be “a very long walk”, the two men are bound together as one in their recognition of the deep-rootedness of pilgrimage in our culture and of walking as a useful time for reflection and renewal, regardless of faith.

Map of England showing Malvern Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Worcester

Our morning in Worcestershire, after leaving Malvern, follows an easy rhythm of walking and talking as we traipse through fields of grazing cows, past the mighty trees of Madresfield Court, over stiles, across streams, following a sometimes indistinct network of footpaths. “Our incredible gift,” is how Hayward describes this network, seeing it as a huge privilege that we have such access to ramble at will for mile upon mile of tracks and pathways.

Footpaths are the lifeblood of the British pilgrim — hence the BPT’s promotion of the Ramblers charity’s “Don’t Lose Your Way” project to reinstate thousands of miles of footpaths before January 2026 — and also the lifeblood, as has been shown during this year’s lockdowns, of swaths of the population who have been sustained by the freedom to walk.

It is hard to pinpoint one single reason for the pilgrimage revival, but the pandemic will surely provide a few more. “It has been a time for deep reflection,” says Satish Kumar, the self-styled “Earth Pilgrim”, ecologist and nuclear disarmament advocate, who is an adviser for the BPT. He is optimistic that the pandemic will bring a shift in focus, particularly in regard to travel and tourism.

He talks of a new mindfulness in travel, an acceptance of the way things are, rather than an expectation of how they should be. He talks of the age of economy giving way to the age of ecology, especially now that so many of us have discovered a connection to and a solace in nature. And he is hopeful, given that so many of us are choosing to holiday on home shores, that we might become pilgrims, not necessarily in undertaking the 2,000-mile, four-month pilgrimage round the British Isles that he completed, but at least a part of it.

As I sit in a grassy field with Hayward, Great Malvern Priory framed by the hills behind us and the tower of Worcester Cathedral beckoning us on, we discuss how walking has a strange way of making you think and say things you might otherwise never give thought or word to. Perhaps it is the jolt of a stride that churns things up; perhaps it is the freedom from direct eye contact with the person with whom you are walking; perhaps it is the space of the great outdoors that creates space in the head to wrestle with knots and thorns. We talk of the importance of that feeling of connectedness to the landscape through which we are walking.

This, believes Hayward, is a central tenet of modern pilgrimage and one that is much more appealing to younger generations — a kind of “earth-based spirituality”, he calls it, whereby in revering the land we heal the planet. I love the fact that one of the advisers on the BPT is Patrick Holden, founding director of the Sustainable Food Trust, who shares Hayward’s vision of pilgrimage as a means to reconnect us with our land. “The essence of a place”, Holden tells me, “is best discovered through its food”, and as we pass through Worcestershire’s famous apple orchards and asparagus fields, I can see his point.

We arrive in Worcester by mid-afternoon, the reflection in the river Severn of the city’s majestic cathedral sullied only by a multitude of swans. King John is buried here and the young Prince Arthur, older brother of Henry VIII, and indeed the remains of an unknown pilgrim.

But it is the medieval relics of St Oswald and St Wulfstan that have drawn devotees to Worcester through the ages. No one knows exactly where these relics lie, but the 11th-century crypt, the oldest part of the cathedral, seems a good bet. This is where Hayward delivers his final chant, “Wulstane presul inclite”, in honour of the Anglo-Saxon saints, and I feel the ghosts of the distant past stirring in my pilgrim bones.

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