Reclaiming the lost art of walking pilgrimage in England and Wales

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Phil McCarthy is a man on a mission – to rebuild a culture of walking pilgrimage that has been somewhat lost in England and Wales. “England is quite unusual in that pilgrimage was actually banned by Act of Parliament in 1538 by Thomas Cromwell,” says Phil. “So we lost the shrines, very often the cathedrals, and we lost the religious infrastructure along the way.”

Catholic News
Catholic News
Walking pilgrimages in England and Wales

That’s where Pilgrim Ways comes in. It’s Phil’s brainchild and is a digital resource that provides walking routes to key pilgrimage sites in each of our dioceses:

“My idea is to create a ‘pilgrim way’ in each Catholic diocese – from the cathedral of that diocese to one or more shrines within the same diocese. So I’ve created a website which has all the routes on, and gradually I’m walking them and adding the directions so people can follow them easily.”

When we spoke to Phil, he had just set off from St David’s Cathedral in Cardiff, heading north for two Marian shrines, the first at Penrhys and the second at Abercynon. The Way of Our Lady of the Valleys.

“The shrines are very interesting in different ways because the one at Penrhys is actually ancient. There was a holy well there and people visited in the medieval period, right up until the Reformation, when the shrine was destroyed and closed down and the statue itself was taken to London and burned…

“The Rosary Shrine at Abercynon has a very interesting history. In 1926, a little boy was in the river and thought he was drowning. He said he was saved by a ‘lady in blue’ who he identified as the lady on the religious medallion he was wearing. Consequently, the area became a site of pilgrimage for local miners, particularly Irish and Italian miners. When they were striking in 1928, they actually spent their time creating the shrine there, which was restored by the Archdiocese of Cardiff a few years ago. So two very interesting and very different shrines, one very ancient and the other quite modern.”

Interested? You can visit the Pilgrim Ways website to access a number of resources to assist in preparing for a walking pilgrimage in England or Wales. Worried about maintaining a solid connection to the internet in order to follow the routes? Don’t be. Take the routes and maps with you on your phone:

“You can download GPX files and follow on your mobile phone. There are also ‘Pilgrim Passports’ for you to get stamped along the way and certificates at the end to show that you’ve done the walk. This very much parallels what they do at the Camino with the passports and the testimonium at the end.”

Deepening one’s faith is the simple aim as, to borrow a Pope Francis phrase, within us all beats ‘a heart in search of God’:

“I hope these are routes, not just for Catholics to deepen their faith, but for everyone to experience pilgrimage within a Catholic setting. Really the title for the project, which is ‘Hearts in Search of God’, comes from a quotation from Pope Francis where he reminds us that pilgrims, whether old or young, sick or in good health, or just casual tourists, in all of us beats a heart in search of God – whether we’re aware of the spiritual journey we’re on or not. I think that’s a marvellous image.”

Plan your walking pilgrimage

Visit to access the routes and resources.

Our interview with Phil McCarthy was first broadcast in our Summer 2023 ‘At the Foot of the Cross‘ podcast.