South Downs Way

Pilgrimage for Life

Reading Time: 5 minutes

In a fragmented world, pilgrimage provides an opportunity to return to life’s beauty and interconnectedness in nature, along paths long trodden and amongst sacred spaces infused with centuries of prayer. Walking in nature has long been part of my life and was given fresh impetus in 2016 during my brush with cancer inspired by the recognised health benefits that exercise can bring. The call to pilgrimage came only in 2022 with the pain of a family member’s illness as I found solace carrying my beloved in my heart on walks led by the British Pilgrimage Trust and exploring one of their routes locally on my own.

Walking pilgrimages to Salisbury Cathedral in 2023

2023 became a year of pilgrimages seven years on from experiencing an aggressive form of stage 3 cancer. It felt time to give something back. The three twelve-mile pilgrimage walks I led, first as a volunteer for the British Pilgrimage Trust, and then independently raising funds for Action Against Cancer, were from St Mary’s Church in the Wiltshire village of Dinton to Salisbury Cathedral.

Ancient oak
Ancient oak

Our journey started with a candle lit inviting a silent intention for the journey, and a Celtic blessing with its lyrical resonance with nature. Moments of silence amongst the convivial chatter with fellow pilgrims gave space to appreciate the beauty all around. An ancient oak tree where we paused, home to an abundant web of life. A woodland carpeted with bluebells and wild garlic, the trees bringing a sense of peace and wellbeing if we allow ourselves space to be. The bark of a sweet chestnut tree woven into a diamond pattern by an intelligence in design which evokes wonder at its beauty if we stop and see from a space deeper within and around us.

Snippets of history were shared at the little church in the tiny hamlet of Baverstock, named after local Saxon Saint Edith, and in Wilton, once administrative capital to the Saxon kingdom of Wessex, home to a venerated abbey until Henry VIII’s dissolution. Walking along an old ox drove, we stopped to enjoy panoramic views of farmed landscapes interspersed with woodland before dropping down a track lined with majestic old beech trees. From the water meadows on the outskirts of Salisbury, we admired the view of the Cathedral famously captured in paint by Constable before arriving in time for Evensong, the voices of the choir soaring amongst the vaults of this ancient sacred space.

Salisbury Cathedral
Salisbury Cathedral

Cycle pilgrimage from home in Wiltshire to Canterbury Cathedral

Pilgrimage weaves a mysterious magic through and beyond the journey which is special to share with others. However, I chose to make my next pilgrimage, cycling from home in Wiltshire to Canterbury Cathedral, a journey on my own. I wanted space for reflection. The recipient charity was Action Against Cancer to support my oncologist Professor Justin Stebbing’s life-saving research to help prevent and treat cancer. I covered the costs of the pilgrimage in full to allow all funds raised to go to the charity.

First stop Salisbury Cathedral

The route I carved out was loosely inspired by the Cathedrals Cycle Route tailored to travel a significant part of the journey away from busy roads on my non-motorised mountain bike. I planned to cycle up to 40 miles a day. The journey visiting seven cathedrals – Salisbury, Winchester, Portsmouth, Chichester, Guildford, Rochester and Canterbury – and a small number of special churches, took nine days with a day of rest built in. Accommodation fell into place over time: hospitality offered by contacts, Air B&Bs and two Benedictine Abbeys.

Setting off with minimal belongings tucked into two small cycle panniers on an unfamiliar journey was a very different experience to my normal practice of overpacking. The terrain was varied, some days more road and lanes, others predominantly cross country, some days easy, others unpredictably challenging. Pushing my bike up a 23-degree rough incline onto the North Downs Way on a hot day, making slow headway across sandy heathland, and miles of track stretching into the distance along the Pilgrims Way became opportunities to try to return to awareness of the present moment. My arrival at each destination by early evening sometimes felt serendipitous.

Towards the North Downs Way
Towards the North Downs Way

The beauty of sweeping landscapes, early autumn fruits, woodland and trees, lakes and rivers, dancing clouds and early morning sun streaming through hedgerows were a call back to the tranquillity of the spiritual which lies in nature all around us. What a contrast to the urban spaces I passed through and cars racing along country roads, the stress of their drivers palpable. Visits to city cathedrals and rural churches provided a welcome oasis of peace.

Winchester Cathedral

Poignant moments punctuated the journey. Psalm 103 which touched my heart during cancer treatment, read in the intimacy of evening prayers at Winchester, brought tears to my eyes. In the ancient Saxon church in Bosham, I arrived as a stranger was practising her eulogy for her close friend who had died of cancer. An unexpected hug and donation from a generous stranger working in the shop at Guildford Cathedral made me cry. Lighting candles in each of the seven cathedrals I visited for those with cancer and those who have lost loved ones was deeply moving.

I felt touched and emotional to be met by my daughter in the Cathedral Close in Canterbury on the final day. Paradoxically the Cathedral itself was teeming with students graduating and their proud parents. It was only later at evensong and morning prayers in the crypt the following day that I felt a return to a sense of peace in this ancient pilgrimage destination which completed my journey. 246 miles peddled. £4,800 raised for Action Against Cancer.

Sometimes joyful, sometimes challenging, sometimes deeply spiritual, sometimes banal – would it have been a pilgrimage for me were it otherwise? A sense of mysterious grace felt at moments during the pilgrimage lingered beyond its conclusion – and gratitude to be alive.


Nature and pilgrimage can open a door to a place of care and compassion which I yearn for where beauty and wisdom are entwined. What hope do we have in a world of unfolding climate change, biodiversity loss, war and epidemic of chronic disease without this? Pilgrimage offers a space for hope and a new response to life to arise.

This year I will be exploring a further section of the Cathedrals Cycle Route. I will also be offering further walking pilgrimages in Wiltshire and Dorset. To find out more email For a broader range of pilgrimage opportunities as a group or on your own visit

Nature and pilgrimage

With grateful thanks to my oncologist Professor Justin Stebbing and all the healthcare professionals, family, friends and community who helped me on my journey through and beyond cancer –
and to all those who supported the pilgrimages with donations for Action Against Cancer.

Pilgrimage through bluebell woods
Pilgrimage through bluebell woods

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.


* indicates required