Many of you will have heard of the Camino, but did you know that across Europe there is a vast network of other pilgrim routes? This network stretches from the far north to the far south, including the collection of pilgrim trails that meander across Sweden, Norway and Denmark. This network includes St. Olavsleden – the path I walked last summer.
Here in my home county of Kent, we have several trails running through the county. The start of the Via Francigena pilgrim trail which runs through France, Switzerland and Italy. The Pilgrim’s Way from Winchester to Canterbury and the trail that runs partially parallel to it, the North Downs Way.
The Green Pilgrimage Project
I was recently invited by Explore Kent to attend the launch of the Interreg Europe Green Pilgrimage Project, which is an EU funded initiative aiming to support the development of pilgrim trails across Europe.
Green Pilgrimage is an innovative project which will show how growth and development policies can economically exploit AND protect natural and cultural heritage. Key to this is a focus on the power of pilgrimage. It’s recognised as one of the fastest growing segments of the travel industry, with over 300 million pilgrims every year.
The week long launch programme included talks and activities exploring the development of pilgrim routes across Europe, with representatives of long distance pilgrim routes from countries such as the UK, Norway, Latvia, Sweden, Italy and Spain in attendance. As part of the event, I attended the Green Pilgrimage Conference at Canterbury Cathedral.
Learning from the Camino
The conference discussed established long distance pilgrim routes such as The Way of St James to Santiago de Compostela. Its development has been a huge success in Spain. Over 277,000 walkers (both religious and non-religious) visited the trail in 2016, from all over the world; a huge increase from less than 3000 in its first year in 1986. This influx of pilgrim walkers has had positive impact on local communities along the trail and has boosted the local economy.
It’s clear from the booming success of the Camino and the surge in growth of smaller trails, that the development of pilgrim routes across Europe can positively impact the areas around them. These benefits include the creation of jobs, the protection of natural spaces, historical places and heritage sites for future generations, and the preservation of local culture.
Reconnecting with people and places
As well as the positive impact on the local area and community, they also have a profound impact on people who use them. It was said during the conference that many people ‘start as hikers, but finish as pilgrims’. This does not mean that you become religious (nor do you have to be religious to start). But that it is rare, impossible even, to hike a long distance pilgrim trail and not be internally changed.
Pilgrim walking can give you the perfect combination of solitude, physical challenge and immersion in nature to reflect on your self and your place in the world. Interactions between pilgrim hikers and the local community are one of the most important and special aspects of making a pilgrimage. Walking a pilgrim trails can lead to social and spiritual growth. Nurturing the relationship we have with people from different countries, backgrounds and cultures.
The connection we have with the natural world is becoming weaker. We are in a time where adults and children are spending less time outdoors than ever before. This makes it evermore important to preserve our natural spaces and our access to them. Especially in England where true wilderness already no longer exists. Before we lose the opportunity to reconnect altogether.
Green Pilgrimage is about influencing the behaviour and attitudes of millions of pilgrims to care for the environment and reconnect with the natural world – both while on pilgrimage and also when they return home.
Over a million pounds of EU funding has been dedicated to encouraging the expansion of pilgrim tourism in Europe. Led by the Kent Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, this funding will be used to develop the pilgrim paths of Kent, so that the county can benefit from the rise in popularity of both secular and religious pilgrimage.
Pilgrim trails in Kent
The trails we have here in Kent receive only a fraction of the amount of visitors that the Camino does; the Green Pilgrimage project hopes to change this. It aims to persuade local organisations, church leaders and business owners to invest in pilgrim tourism. It aims to do this in a sustainable way, addressing the challenges highlighted from the success of the Camino. Challenges such as over commercialisation and stress on local infrastructure.
Many of the challenges are environmental, so a focus on sustainability is very important. Wherever possible, efforts should be made to make eco-friendly adjustments to the ways in which trails maintained. This also includes the places which serve hikers along these trails. Accommodation, restaurants and churches need to provide green food choices and sensitive waste management. Other important areas of consideration are eco-friendly transport and land conversation. The overall aim is to lessen the overall carbon footprint of pilgrim tourism.
Its vision is that Pilgrims leave a positive footprint on the earth, and that pilgrim places become models of care for the environment.
This conference has left me excited for the future development of our trails here in Kent. Hopefully this will lead to more people from all over the world coming to enjoy our beautiful countryside.