A modern pilgrimage through Herefordshire’s Golden Valley

I’m lying on my back. Directly above me is “a vault of heaven” with great wooden beams. I’ve never woken before under such a high ceiling – but then I’ve never gone to sleep in a church before.


We have arranged pew cushions on the stone slabs for increased comfort and, while this may sound austere, my fellow pilgrims and I agree we have slept remarkably well – helped by pies and cider from the Bridge Inn nearby. Just as in Chaucer’s time, there’s no point doing a pilgrimage if you can’t eat heartily and swap stories with your fellow travellers, accompanied at the inn by local musicians having an impromptu ceilidh.

St Michael’s Church in Michaelchurch Escley, in rural Herefordshire, is one of the churches that has signed up to the new and innovative night sanctuary scheme arranged by the British Pilgrimage Trust. Pilgrims can sleep there for a nominal £15 each – as rural accommodation can be costly or scarce. The Trust also arranges guided pilgrimages where luggage is transported for you by a “sherpa van” from church to church. All you need do, happily, is carry a day pack. They will even supply a pilgrim’s staff, hand-whittled from fallen wood and with a satisfying heft.

Our pilgrimage guide, Simon Lockett, assembles us in the churchyard where we lean on our staffs – inevitably someone makes a joke about a staff meeting – and talks us through the day’s journey, then leads us in a short prayer from the First Nations of North America about respect for animals.

St Michael’s church at Michaelchurch Escley. Photograph: Philip Chapman/Alamy

While this is ostensibly a Christian pilgrimage, in that we travel from church to church and are guided by a vicar, the Pilgrimage Trust is always clear that this is for those who “bring their own beliefs” and is nondenominational. The pilgrimage route visits many pagan sites with spiritual resonance, such as old water sources and Arthur’s Stone. The emphasis is on those making their own personal journeys who might want peace and quiet at times to do so. Guides suggest some stretches of the walk are done in silence.

But that is generally later in the day when everyone has had time to do a bit of chattering. We set off along a wonderful green holloway carved by generations of travelling livestock, down into the Golden Valley – surely the best branding in the country – with its fields of high maize and deep broadleaved forests, where startlingly bright rowan berries are out in profusion.

The group is a mixed one: some from Norfolk, some from the south-east, one from Sweden – which replicates medieval pilgrimages, when people would often travel from overseas. Aneka is amused by the British penchant for stiles, uncommon in her native country.

Having crossed a fair few, we reach an unusual tree formation, where an oak and ash have fused to grow up out of the same trunk and a hawthorn has come to join the party. Michael, a builder from Kent, decides the triumvirate has to be climbed and heads up it in sandals, to the group’s general admiration.

One pleasing thing about the pilgrimage is that it’s all about the journey and not the destination. Nobody is concerned about how fast we get anywhere, as happens on more competitive guided walks. With swallows flying around our heads, we stop for a late breakfast at Chapel House Farm, welcome after three or four miles. Proceedings are extended when, in addition to scrambled eggs, sausages, beans, roast garlic and Mexican salad, we discover their supply of chilled Herefordshire perry – which has to be sampled now, because if carried in our packs it will warm up too much. This is the sort of logic that always make sense at the time.

Guide Simon tries out the local perry. Photograph: Hugh Thomson

It’s a happy party of pilgrims who crest the hill above Craswall for our first view of the great bulk of the Black Mountains as a ridge to the west, so out of scale compared with what we’ve seen before that it’s like coming up from underwater to find an aircraft carrier looming in front of you.

These mountains form the great natural barrier between Wales and England. We don’t need the motte and bailey castles we come across to remind us that this was the scene of almost constant medieval warfare. Some swallows are determinedly mobbing a sparrowhawk that has had the temerity to fly down among them.

I’ve walked the Offa’s Dyke Path along the top of those Black Mountains and looked down on England from Wales – and speculated on how tempting those green fields of Herefordshire must have been for Welsh raiders determined to test the resolve of the marcher lords guarding them; but this is the first time I’ve seen the view looking back up.

After a delightful walk that heads south alongside the mountains, we reach the church at Clodock, which is defiantly flying a union jack in case any Welsh are peering down. The pub next door, the Cornewall Arms, is so small it’s essentially a living room with a hatch to the kitchen. One beer only is kept on draught and a few shaven-headed farmers take on the passing pilgrims at a game of quoits.

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In St Clydawg church there is still a list on the vestry wall from the local assizes of 1805 detailing the tithes that must be paid: two-and-a-half pence for each milking cow, but only two pence for any cow that is barren; four pence for any colt; and two pence for every day’s supply of hay stored. Parishioners memorialised in the graveyard, such as the wonderfully named Theophilus Cope, must have forked out considerable dues.

A plaque in the porch of 12th-century Clodock church, where the group also stayed a night. Photograph: Mick Sharp/Alamy

A stream with a pool and a weir runs past the pub and provides a perfect way to wake up the next morning, with a swim under overhanging trees. Then it’s into more of the deep forest to find the charismatic “lost” Llancillo Church which, while no longer in service, is not entirely abandoned – a fine organisation called The Friends of Friendless Churches maintain its upkeep. The large Celtic cross has a plinth big enough to accommodate our group of nine as we eat packed lunches.

This is a created pilgrimage walk rather than an ancient one and very much the initiative of our guide, Simon. Simon has been a local vicar for the past 18 years and has also been a farmworker, countryside ranger and environmental activist. He wanted a way for locals and visitors to experience Herefordshire’s deep spiritual past, prehistoric and Christian. The full walk takes seven days – shorter options are available – and begins and ends at Hereford Cathedral, so loops round the Golden and Wye Valleys in a wide circle of about 60 miles. Detailed instructions on the trust website mean you can either self-guide and still stay in the churches, or sign up for occasional group walks such as ours.

While the British Pilgrimage Trust has promoted the revival of some ancient routes – such as the Old Way from Southampton to Canterbury in honour of Thomas Becket, later suppressed by Henry VIII because he didn’t want to honour a troublesome priest – it also wants to create new ones, and in doing this it is reviving the vibrancy of the call of the pilgrimage. It’s a sign of spiritual health that new routes should be created.

Perhaps now more than ever pilgrimage has an allure – it’s why the famous Camino to Santiago de Compostela in Spain has grown from fewer than 10,000 pilgrims 30 years ago to more than 200,000 today. For those who want a chance to reflect on their own lives or perhaps on the life of someone close to them who has recently died – or for anyone who wants to tap into the deep waters of the English past, such as the well of Saint Clodock we visit – a pilgrimage may answer a need.

I found the communal aspect appealing. There is a different and interesting dynamic in a pilgrimage group: less a feeling you’re a paying customer – although you are – who expects everything to be delivered and more a sense that you’re giving yourself as you go. That you are contributing to a group and sharing experiences, some of which can be revealed slowly over the course of the journey as you come to know each other. The range of subjects I learn about is enormous, from how to make blue cheese to the difference between a native and a turkey oak. And, as must have happened with pilgrims in the past, with the liberation of being away from home, people say things to strangers they might not share with family or friends. We are, in any case, all sleeping together every night – albeit each time in a different church.

Guided walks by the British Pilgrimage Trust in 2024 run from 8 May to 12 May (four days at £450), 10 June to 16 June (7 days at £740) and 18 September-22 September (four days at £450). Or self-guide using the instructions at

This article was amended on 18 April 2024 to correct a misspelling of the village of Craswall.


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