Monday, 30 December 2013

Full circle in 2013


A new BBC Two series on sacred sites has just been launched, ending a year in which holy places have enjoyed a relatively high profile on the television.

Sacred Wonders of Britain, presented by archaeologist Neil Oliver, takes a historian's perspective on the subject as one might imagine. The programme was shown on BBC Two at 8.30pm on 30 December, and is available on iPlayer for a few weeks.

Neil Oliver was certainly in his element in the first episode, which looked at Stone Age sites from across the country. Avebury, Stonehenge and Orkney's stone circles are familiar territory, icons of a mysterious past that fascinates us as much as it continues to puzzle.

Undoubtedly the greatest problem with describing the rituals, traditions and beliefs of our ancient ancestors is that we have almost no idea what these were. The first scraps of written information about Britain come from the Romans, several thousand years after many of our most evocative ancient sites were built. Neil Oliver tried a number of theories during his grand tour. A few touched on some of the eternal questions that religions try to answer, passing references that were more thought provoking than informative (review in the Daily Mirror).

Neo-pagans have made attempts in recent years to recreate or reinvent some of these beliefs, and with such a tempting and largely blank canvas to fill the creative process seems set to continue. One of the advisers to the programme is Professor Ronald Hutton, an expert and adherent of this revival movement.

Quite what Neil Oliver will make of Britain's Christian heritage in the remaining two programmes remains to be seen. It is possible the three-part series is only going to address our most recent 2,000 years of spiritual history in a single episode, and terminate the narrative at the Reformation. It is an alternative view to treat our country's many great religions as a sort of spiritual fossil, lifeless artefacts from an unfamiliar past. Our own series on Britain's Holiest Places stressed a continuity of use that is just as accessible and relevant today as it was to previous generations. Archaeologists perhaps feel most comfortable among the dead, but to my mind any truly holy place remains very much a place for the living.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Back after centuries of neglect


It has come racing back to life after aeons of neglect, delighting the faithful and drawing thousands of website hits… Alas I'm not talking about this blog - though it has indeed been shamefully neglected this autumn - but rather a spectacular medieval wall painting which is in the news this week after its breath-taking rediscovery at a church in Glamorgan.

The church is St Cadog's in the little village of Llancarfan, south Wales. I wrote about it in my book on Britain's holy places, even though the restoration work had only been fragmentary at the time of my visit in August 2010, revealing a few faces and a queen with a lamb on a leash. The painstaking cleaning work has revealed the largest known mural of the life of St George to be found anywhere in Britain, and restorers have recently removed the scaffolding to allow visitors a proper look.

It might make me sounds like a nerd, but I have to admit I did often wonder about what more was lying hidden under centuries of whitewash in this seemingly modest little church, with its short tower and sparse parish. The BBC News item linked above offers a long look at the central figure of St George on his horse attacking the mythical dragon, something that was impossible to make out when I visited from the scattered patches of brushstrokes that had then been revealed.

Some tales and some places linger in the memory. The rediscovery of such a vast work of forgotten devotional art in the past five years is without recent precedent. It was only the presence of a thin red line of paint high up on the wall that alerted the experts to the existence of this magnificent and extensive treasury of medieval art.

It is an irony perhaps that St George is likely to be one of the least popular subjects to adorn the walls of a Welsh church, given his close identification with the English monarchy, and in particular with the knights of the realm. And yet there he sits on a magnificent horse, shown in lingering detail on the BBC News piece.

We considered visiting this little church for a follow-up television series to our BBC Four series Pagans & Pilgrims. It is a building that vividly demonstrates the interplay of patriotism and religion in the medieval mind, and also possibly the finest Welsh wall paintings yet to be uncovered in any church.

So far our second series has not been commissioned, despite the success of the original. Even so BBC Four seems to have picked up a habit of making programmes about holy places and our country's amazing religious heritage, with two other series also broadcast this autumn: Cathedrals, which looked at the inspiring people who work at my own mother church in Southwark, and Pilgrimage with Simon Reeve, a new series which seems to be showing a spiritual journey from the point of view of a benevolent but disengaged non-believer. Something for everyone there perhaps.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Back on the screens, summer 2013



Pagans and Pilgrims: Britain's Holiest Places (the TV series) is back on our screens this summer, and hence available on iPlayer for those who missed some episodes last time round. The series was first broadcast in March/April 2013 and will be showing again starting 4 August 2013. It is based on my book, which was published in 2011.

The BBC's programme website has information about upcoming episodes and also links to iPlayer versions, which remain active for about six weeks after first broadcast.

The series proved a ratings and a critical hit. But alas it probably won't make a second series in its current guise: the subject has attracted the interest of other presenters, so the topic will at least live on. Celebrities are everything in the media, but I'm sure the power of holy places to tell their own stories will shine through whatever the format.

Sales of my book and the new iPad/iPhone version (available on iTunes) have helped open up our sacred landscape to a new generation of pilgrims, but it is the subject itself that generates all the enthusiasm. Holy places have lost none of their power to enlighten and enchant.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Holy heritage: a boost for Wales


Welsh Assembly member William Powell has called for his country to do more to promote its amazing spiritual heritage. Our recent television series has helped to raise the profile of an amazing legacy of landscapes and histories to be found in Wales.

It is fertile territory in every sense, a land full of Celtic mystery, grand ruins and striking landscapes to attract visitors from all over the world. And it also offers quieter places where local people can gain a sense of identity and connection, a community hub. Or both combined in one, as at St Davids Cathedral where the congregation recently restored its shrine to the patron saint of Wales in 2012 (pictured above in all its revived glory).

This article in Wales Online today (9 May 2013) refers to our recent TV series, which did indeed show off many of the more eye-catching sites and stories around the country. 'Pagans and Pilgrims: Britain's Holiest Places' was funded jointly by BBC Four and Welsh-language channel S4C - which meant that two out of every six sites in each episode were in Wales. Finding beautiful places with exotic tales to tell proved to be very easy.

By way of example, the country is home to "the oldest site of ritual activity in the whole of Britain and western Europe", as the article quotes me saying. Which is true... but for the record I should add that the ancient site in question is so difficult to reach you would risk life and limb to get there if the tides were against you. It's unlikely to become any sort of visitor attraction soon, but the entertaining tale of its discovery shows just how much meaning we invest in our sacred sites.

Goat's Hole Cave on the Gower peninsula is where a slightly dotty 19th century academic discovered the ritual burial of a young man. We mentioned it in the caves episode of the TV series (described in the post below). The body was covered in red ochre and placed inside the cave with shell and bone ornaments. A ritual burial so ancient it involved the tusk of a woolly mammoth, dating back some 33,000 years.

All of this was of great interest to Professor Buckland of Oxford University, who arrived at the cave in a hurry in January 1823, following the cave's discovery by a local doctor and his curate friend the year before. Professor Buckland examined the remains at length before declaring this to be the burial of a woman from the Roman era, probably a witch of some sort. And so the burial is known erroneously as the Red Lady of Paviland.

In fact it remains to this day the oldest known ritual burial in western Europe, offering a tantalising glimpse into a world of forgotten devotions, seemingly a belief in the afterlife that we will never fully understand. Dealing with death is one of the founding principles in pretty much any religion, and Wales can proudly lay claim to the earliest such evidence in this region.

The reason for Professor Buckland's wildly inaccurate dating is also of religious origins: as a devout Creationist he believed the world to be no older than a few thousand years. An interesting handicap for a Professor of Geology.

It is a timely reminder there is much to inspire in our sacred past, and also much to learn from.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

New app launched as TV series ends


Not content with just a book and a TV series, we've now launched an app version of Britain's Holiest Places, available on Apple devices. It contains all the listings in my book Britain's Holiest Places: 500 of the country's most beautiful, interesting and unexpected sacred sites. It has been launched at the conclusion of the BBC Four series 'Pagans and Pilgrims: Britain's Holiest Places'.

The final episode on 11 April at 8.30pm looks at what happens when religion goes underground. Crypts and caves may seem at first glance like the least promising environments in which to gain any sort of spiritual enlightenment. And yet they are where pivotal moments in many different faiths have taken place: the Prophet Mohammed received his first revelation in a cave, and Buddha lived in one for a time. And as the TV programme explores, they are resonant throughout the life of Christ and Christians who came after.

The earliest known ritual activity in Britain, presumably of religious purpose, is a cave burial on the Gower peninsula, at Goat's Hole Cave near Paviland. A young man's body was covered in red ochre and a mammoth's tusk placed alongside, dating back around 33,000 years ago. In the TV programme we visit a similar burial of about 14,000 years ago, its grave goods providing some of the earliest art in Britain: Kendrick's Cave in Llandudno.

Quite what the Ice Age inhabitants of Wales believed about the afterlife is unknowable after so many millennia have passed. But we have been using caves as sacred places ever since. As we demonstrate in the evocative crypt of Ripon Cathedral, the tomb of Christ himself is a place of subterranean worship that has been instrumental in shaping the design of our worship spaces.

I spent five years travelling around Britain to seek out our most evocative and sometimes most remote holy places in order to write my book, and we spent four months doing the same with the TV crew to make this series. Cursing my way through nettles, creeping along hedgerows, criss-crossing barren moors and trespassing more times than I care to admit, an app guide to holy places would so often have been the answer to all my prayers. Our oldest human narratives are now available on the most modern of devices.

I once spent half a day trying to locate the bizarre, other-worldly chasm known as Lud's Church in Staffordshire (pictured above). Lud's Church also appears in the final episode of the BBC series. Its green dripping walls were the scene of both spiritual fiction, in the shape of a reference in the medieval saga Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and also the place where an early Lollard meeting of Christian reformers was lethally broken up in the 15th century by soldiers.

It makes a pretty convincing hiding place even today, evading me for hours on end. I practically fell through its hidden opening on to my knees in gratitude when I finally tracked it down. Now thanks to our new app it appears on a map at the touch of a screen, alongside my own location notes written to prevent any more wasted journeys. From grand city-centre cathedrals to obscure hermit caves miles from anywhere, Britain's religious heritage has never been so accessible as it is today.

The app is published by S4C, the Welsh-language TV station which has been hugely supportive of the project, no doubt inspired by the amazing spiritual landscape in Wales. A free Welsh-language mini-version of the app is also available, covering just the 38 or so locations in the TV series, which was filmed in both English and Welsh language versions.

The app costs £5.49, and has been developed by the TV production company Cwmni Da, where the TV presenter Ifor ap Glyn works. They and S4C have done the project proud, with an app and a TV series that open up this amazing landscape to anyone looking for life-changing encounters with the past.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

No man is an island



In the landscapes of the Old Testament, God is to be found in the wilderness. On mountains and in the desert, He is encountered where people are not. “They looked towards the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared,” as the writer of Exodus puts it.

Here in Britain our green and mostly pleasant land lacks the parched earth and waste places that make the Holy Land so special. But we do have rather a lot of islands, and the fifth part of the BBC Four series Pagans and Pilgrims: Britain’s Holiest Places sets sail to explore the insular devotions that have marked so many as special. The episode was broadcast on Thursday 4 April at 8.30pm, and will be available on iPlayer for a month or so afterwards. It is based on my guide book Britain's Holiest Places.

My book includes 20 islands that have seen significant spiritual activity, five of which appear in the TV programme. Many remain active today, including the famous Holy Island of Lindisfarne. More surprising is the reinvented spiritual continuity to be found at Holy Isle off Arran. During our visit there we speak to a Buddhist community leader called Choden about the latest incarnation of this very special holy place, now called the World Centre for Peace and Health.


Other beautiful and evocative places of retreat include St Herbert’s Isle on Derwentwater, which graces the cover of my book (pictured at the top of the page). Alas on the day we visited with the film crew it was grey and raining, yet the natural beauty which inspired St Herbert here in the 7th century remains. Presenter Ifor ap Glyn can be seen in the picture above, wisely opting to be towed back from the island as the storm gathered strength. The two images show St Herbert's Isle in very different moods.

And being a proudly Welsh-leaning programme, we also visit two evocative islands in the west of Britain. Llanddwyn, off Anglesey, is where a princess fled from a failed marriage, nursing her broken heart to become a devout hermit.

And finally there is Bardsey Island, or Ynys Enlli in the native tongue, the island in the currents with a treacherous sea crossing and a sacred pedigree like no other. So many great church leaders and their faithful followers chose to be buried on Bardsey it gained the name ‘Island of 20,000 Saints’. Although fewer than a dozen are formally recognised as saints, it was declared in the 12th century by the Pope himself that three pilgrimages there were of equivalent penitential value to one trip to Jerusalem. Alas another storm blew up during our attempted visit, and instead we watched the sun set over the sea behind this magical island from a striking windswept headland (pictured below).


A previous episode showed how water was seen as a place of rebirth, so perhaps it is logical that paradise should be located on an island across the sea, a journey that the soul alone makes when freed from earthly constraints. An illuminating interview with Canon Chris Pullin at Hereford Cathedral literally maps out the theology of such a poetic concept, as he describes the cosmology encoded into Britain’s largest medieval map, the Hereford Mappa Mundi.

The Garden of Eden was once believed to be a real, earthly paradise that acted as a sort of stepping stone between this world and heaven, where souls gathered to await the Last Judgement. It appears as an island in Hereford's 13th-century map, on the eastern most extremity of the world: a pleasant surprise for Japanese tourists, no doubt, since it sits roughly where their homeland is located.

It is no mere spiritual accident or even a purely Christian innovation to place the afterlife beyond the shores: Norse warriors would send their dead out to sea in a funeral boat, a great pyre set over the water in the tale of Beowulf, or simply bury them on land in a complete boat, such as the Sutton Hoo ship burials. In New Zealand the Maori legends record how souls depart from the northern tip of the islands on their final journey. In India cremated remains must be placed in the Ganges which carries them out to sea.

This is perhaps one of the things that draws us all to contemplate the sea’s horizon, the vast openness: infinity and eternity stretching before us.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

The consolation of a shrine



What is a shrine? English is one of the few languages that has a term for this specific kind of holy place. In other languages you need to describe it by using a general word such as tomb, sanctuary, chapel or church and elaborate from there.

Our language gives us a head start when it comes to marking out somewhere special. In this week’s episode of Pagans and Pilgrims: Britain’s Holiest Places we take a tour round some of the most surprising examples of shrines to be found in this country. The programme is broadcast at 8.30pm on BBC Four, and will be available on iPlayer for some weeks after.

Our somewhat unexpected starting point is the roadside shrine to Marc Bolan, the musician killed in a road crash in Barnes in 1977. I went to school near this colourful memorial, which continues to attract flowers, messages and visitors in great number, honouring the memory of a modern-day star.

It may seem a far cry from the scenes of medieval devotion that shaped this country’s landscape, centres of pilgrimage that dominated our spiritual and cultural life for centuries. And yet our programme contains interviews with two of the country’s leading churchmen, who both describe the witness of saints and their shrines in strikingly human terms.

The Very Reverend Jeffrey John, Dean of St Albans Cathedral (pictured above), gives an eloquent explanation of the desire to remember a loved one, an instinct that anyone can understand. “The main thing is that it’s a physical connection with the saint. We do this kind of thing in ordinary life… people sometimes keep a piece of jewellery from a loved one who has departed, or even a lock of hair.”



The Most Reverend Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, leader of the Roman Catholic church in England and Wales (pictured above), also describes shrines as a testimony to human love for the departed. “There’s if you like not just a memory of the relationship but a living relationship with saints. I think it is sometimes a misunderstanding that we worship saints. We don’t. We offer them our love and we ask for their prayers.”

Archbishop Nichols goes on to describe the public outpouring of grief for Princess Diana after her death in 1997 as an authentic example of such reverence. This moment, he suggests, makes a return by the English to older ways of thinking about loved ones who have died, an end to the Reformation. It's a thought-provoking comment, as the Daily Telegraph has picked up among other commentators, but one that helps explain the restoration of shrines in British cathedrals and churches in the past two decades. 

Our programme ends at a place as far removed from the mighty cathedrals and grand shrines of Britain as it is possible to be. The remote church at Pennant Melangell in north-east Wales was filmed on a bright winter’s day, golden sunshine on freshly fallen snow that looks a vision more of heaven than earth. It contains the shrine of someone whose witness is mainly remembered as nothing more complicated than a love for the land and the wildlife that kept St Melganell company as a hermit in the 7th century.

She is often shown in the company of hares, in memory of the time she saved an animal from a hunter’s dogs. There is no city-centre cathedral to honour her memory: the valley remains as unspoiled as it was when she called it home. It is a place to commune with the elements. St Melganell’s emotional connection to the natural world somehow endures unaltered.