The way to prehistoric Avebury and Silbury Hill is full of good intentions as that is what separates a pilgrimage from a stroll
Both festivals mark the beginning of spring, Dr Guy Hayward, co-founder of the British Pilgrimage Trust, booms across East Kennetts village church, a couple of miles from Avebury. Its a welcome thought and apt, given that despite the bitter wind and squally sky, snowdrops and daffodils are peeking out of the sodden ground outside.
Two days shy of the festivals of Imbolc and Candlemas (1 and 2 February), Guy is explaining their significance. Celtic Imbolc is a celebration of fecundity and new beginnings (it translates as ewes milk); Christianity morphed it into Candlemas which celebrates the coming of light. Battling with lingering winter lethargy, Ill take either.
Im not the only one. Twenty-five of us different nationalities and ages have come to Avebury, Wiltshire, for a nine-mile pilgrimage organised by the British Pilgrimage Trust. Founded in 2014, the charity is restoring Englands ancient pilgrimage ways and hopes to make holy places more accessible. There are 110 routes in its online directory but its flagship project is the re-creation of the 250-mile Old Way from Southampton to Canterbury. Other 2020 initiatives include opening the doors of some Old Way churches for pilgrims to stay overnight, and one-day pilgrimage routes to more than 45 cathedrals in England and Wales several taking in mosques and synagogues.
The trust operates a bring-your-own-beliefs ethos. Im not sure I have any beliefs to bring but within minutes Im swept up in the mix of folklore, songs and rituals.
Guy is accompanied by two guides. Softly spoken ritual-maker Charlotte Pulver helps us celebrate water and Imbolcs patron, St Brigid (also known as Brighid, Bride, Brigit) along the trail, with blessings and poetry. Chris Park, druid, beekeeper and expert on ancient Avebury, unravels the landscapes folklore. Dressed head to toe in tweed and wool, with wild curly hair and a homemade wicker bride (a small woven cross, pronounced bridey) over his shoulder, Chris certainly looks the part.