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A Pilgrimage In Britain


Editor's note: This was previously published on June 28, 2023, in The Journal Era, a newspaper which serves Central Berrien County in Michigan. Reprinted with permission, this includes new version edits. 

The journey not the arrival matters. —Leonard Woolf

My wife and I just returned from three weeks in Great Britain, including a week spent on a 63-mile pilgrimage with 15 other like-minded walkers. St. Cuthbert’s Way is a trail from Melrose, in southern Scotland, to Lindisfarne on England’s northeast coast. Lindisfarne, also called “Holy Island,” connects to England only at low tide. Saint Aidan founded the Abbey there in 634 AD. Saint Cuthbert, described as “possibly the most venerated saint in England,” was a monk and later its bishop before his death in 687. Eleven years later, when Cuthbert’s body was reburied in a decorated oak coffin, his remains reportedly had not decayed. That news, plus reports of multiple miracles helping some who came to pray at Cuthbert’s shrine, caused people to revere him as a saint. Lindisfarne Abbey soon became the recipient of gifts from grateful pilgrims. Rich abbeys also were a target for Vikings who regularly raided England’s coast. One such raid culminated in the abbey’s destruction in 793, but devoted monks managed to escape with Cuthbert’s casket. Over the next couple years Cuthbert’s remains made their way south including via Cuthbert’s Cave. The monks eventually founded a cathedral—now Durham Cathedral—to house Cuthbert’s remains. The city of Durham grew up around that cathedral. 

So how did we find ourselves on that 63-mile walk? There is background. My wife and I regard travel as a great education and agree with the saying that “not all classrooms have four walls,” so in late 2019 I had asked our grandson what country he would most like to visit. He said “England,” and I responded “let’s go there next summer!” Then COVID-19 hit, wiping out our plans. Last fall I saw Spectrum's announcement about walking the St. Cuthbert’s Way pilgrimage and was immediately enthusiastic. I’ve made several long treks in the past, and I thought this could be part of fulfilling our England trip promise. He was less enthusiastic about the hike, responding (accurately) that “it sounds like a lot of walking,” but we chose to sign up while planning for some additional travel that he might enjoy more. My wife and I walk often, bike sometimes, and go to a gym occasionally, so I was fully confident we could do this. Yes, some days included “a lot of walking,” but having reeled off six miles in two hours more than once, I knew we could handle this. Just walk six miles, take a rest, and then walk some more, right?

We stopped over in Edinburgh, Scotland, for a couple days before making our way to Melrose. That gave me the chance to buy a couple things I had forgotten to pack (note to self: pack earlier next trip). Once in Melrose the full group enjoyed a pre-pilgrimage dinner and chatted about why we were joining the walk. A pilgrimage can be made as an act of religious devotion, but although we all came from a similar religious background, none of us were making the trip specifically for that reason. Pilgrimages also provide an opportunity to step out of the non-stop busyness of our lives, and to seek a time of quiet and reflection. It can give us a chance to "walk through" issues that we may have on our minds, or it can be simply a time of being rather than always doing. A pilgrimage can be a highly sociable activity, allowing us to enjoy the company of others we meet on the road, as well as giving us a chance to re-energize mentally, physically, and spiritually, while reconnecting with the natural world.

As far as the physical aspects, the hike turned out to be considerably more strenuous than I expected. The well-marked path took us through fields and pastures, up and down hills, and past small villages. We covered 15 miles on Day 1, and my wife and I were both exhausted. We ate dinner in a mediocre restaurant and wondered if we could manage 18 miles on Day 2 as scheduled.

Things looked brighter in the morning, however, and off we went to face the day’s challenges. The path was beautiful, at one point through a lush forest with shoulder-high ferns, as well as through pastures (“don’t get between a cow and her calf!” we were warned). It was a long slow day. After 10-12 miles we limped into the village of Morebattle for a rest and a bite to eat. Then it was up over the highest point on the journey, just over 1,000 feet above sea level—helped by the encouragement of one of our group leaders—and then down to Yetholm where we caught up with the rest—all of whom had beaten us there. We had been offered a ride for some of those last miles, but were determined to walk the whole way. Our fellow pilgrims gave us an ovation as we (hot, sweaty, and tired) joined them for dinner. I didn’t feel up to a full meal, so I just ordered a waffle with ice cream and chocolate syrup. Upon hearing that I was going straight for dessert, our young tattooed Scottish waitress exclaimed, “My kind of man!,” which brought gales of laughter from the rest of our group.

Day 3 (12 miles) and Day 4 (also 12 miles) followed. The bucolic landscape was beautiful and we forged onward, despite some blisters. We occasionally met and chatted with other walkers. One man was hiking solo from Land's End to John o’Groats, from England’s southwest tip to Scotland’s northeast tip, a distance of over 800 miles! On Day 5 we walked the final six miles to Lindisfarne, crossing at low tide. We visited the abbey ruins and rested in a small church there. We pilgrims discussed the experience over dinner. All were glad they had joined.

Some have asked me if I would do it again. My wife and I both agree that the trip was fully worth it. We walked and talked outdoors together and enjoyed it. We felt like we pushed ourselves physically (important as we get older), and it also was pleasant to befriend new people. Mark Twain once said that “I have found out that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.” We’re glad to add that all of our fellow pilgrims were congenial people and we finished the journey liking all of them. We hope they felt the same.

Ambassador (ret.) John Nay served in the United States Foreign Service for 36 years. He and his wife Judy Ashdon Nay live in Southwest Michigan where he teaches part-time at Andrews University and at Lake Michigan College. 

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