In the index to Emma J Wells’s latest book, in which she revisits various ancient routes first trod by medieval pilgrims, some of the country’s most famous religious buildings unsurprisingly get a mention. Canterbury Cathedral is there, along with Winchester and Walsingham. However, sandwiched between the various places of worship, saints’ names and abbeys, there is one less obvious inclusion. There in the index, part way down the third column, is George Clooney.
The actor gets a mention for having bought the Georgian mansion Mill House in Sonning Eye in Oxfordshire. The impressive property stands on the route of the Our Lady Caversham Pilgrimage Walk and while Clooney occupies only a few lines in Emma’s book his presence says much about her approach to history.
“I realise that writing an entire book on pilgrim routes might sound a little niche,” says Emma, who grew up in North Yorkshire. “But the whole point was to use these ancient pathways to take a fresh look at the landscape and the historical monuments you can find along the way. I wanted it to be a book for the modern traveller not an ancient historian. More than anything I wanted it to be accessible.”
Emma, who is an associate lecturer at York University, says her own love of the past was inspired by her grandmother who would take her on day trips to the county’s historic sites as a child.
“I grew up in the heart of North Yorkshire and that meant we were surrounded by so many of religious institutions our faith was built on. Many of them like Rievaulx and Byland Abbey are now just ruins and yet they stand as reminders of an era of religious life that was once so grand.
“I wanted to retrace the footsteps of the many thousands of pilgrims who once walked these routes to see what had changed and what someone following those paths today could expect to see.”
In the medieval period, churches spent significant amounts of money acquiring the supposed relics of saints. Those early pilgrims would pay good money to glimpse the little finger of St Jude or the big toe of St Patrick and the more high profile the saint and the more unusual the relic, so much the better.
“The buying of relics was vital to the income of a church,” says Emma, who did an MA at York University in stained glass windows before heading to Durham to study for her PhD. “It was believed that the possession of these saintly relics increased a church’s spiritual authenticity and virtually every level of society journeyed to see them.
“The peak of these pilgrimages in Britain occurred during the mid to late Middle Ages and they all but came to an end following the Reformation when Henry VIII outlawed everything associated with pilgrim culture. Saints’ days, which had been official celebrated, were no more, the shrines were dismantled and the relics removed.
“And yet what is interesting is that centuries on these routes have survived and people are still drawn to walk them. While many churches of the Christian world remain rather empty, pilgrimage walks are enjoying an extraordinary revival across Britain. I think it’s perhaps because there is something within us that makes us want to travel to places that have been significant to others for a very long time.”
Emma says that in 1985, 2,491 people received a certificate to say they had completed Spain’s Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route, which ends at the alleged burial site of St James in the Catedral de Santiago. However, since it became a Unesco World Heritage Site, it has seen a staggering rise in visitor numbers and in 2010 more than 270,000 people finished the route.
Closer to home, figures show that a quarter of a million people a year now converge on the north Norfolk village of Walsingham, site of the 11th century shrine of the Virgin Mary and self-branded England’s Nazareth.
As Emma walked St Andrew’s Way, which stretches from Edinburgh Castle to the Fife coast, or Cornwall’s Saints’ Way, she says she was often struck by a sense of isolation.
“There were definitely times when I felt a real distance from the rest of the world and I guess it was exactly that quality which attracted the early saints to these landscapes and which still attracts people to them today.
“While I knew some of these routes a little already the whole writing of the book was a journey of discovery and there are some corners of this country which are breathtaking no matter how often you see them.”
Emma’s own personal favourite is Lindisfarne, which marks the culmination of St Cuthbert’s Way which begins at Scotland’s Melrose Abbey.
“Lindisfarne claims to be the holiest place in all of England and it is certainly one of the most famous Christian sites in Western Europe,” she says. “The atmosphere on the island is perhaps enough for most visitors today. It simply has an almost holy feeling, so isolated, peaceful and entrenched with history. As you walk round the island there is a real sense of having stepped back in time and a real connection with the Anglo-Saxon world of old.”
As well as lecturing and writing books, Emma also offers her services as a building detective, using the architecture of a property, along with the deeds and related papers, to uncover the story of its past.
“I just find it endlessly fascinating,” says Emma. “Every building, regardless of how old it is, has a story to tell and what I do is try to tell that story in the most coherent, interesting way possible. And it was really much the same approach that I took with the book.
“I didn’t just want to write a history of pilgrims in Britain, I wanted to take readers on a journey. I wanted to open up a really interesting chapter of Britain’s past, but I also wanted to show how that piece of the jigsaw fits in with how we live our lives today.”
• Pilgrim Routes of the British Isles by Emma J Wells is published by Robert Hale, priced £19.99.