Meeting a modern-day pilgrim: insights from Iain Tweedale, pilgrimage guide

Pembrokeshire hiking holiday experts Journeying go a lot deeper than pretty day walks: a holiday with them is a spiritual journey retracing the footsteps of the early Celtic saints and the historic sites associated with them. We talk to trip leader Iain Tweedale on the current popularity of pilgrimage, St David, Pembrokeshire’s strange and special beauty and life on monastic Caldey Island.

Journeying concentrates on pilgrimage-themed walks. What is your take on pilgrimage in the modern sense of the word?

Our guests come on pilgrimage for lots of different reasons: Some come to immerse themselves the amazing natural landscape of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path with its rich bird life, dolphins, seals and wow-factor cliff top views. Some come for the rich cultural and spiritual heritage on the route from ruined Celtic chapels like St Non’s (traditionally thought to be the birthplace of St David) through to the grand Norman cathedral at St Davids. Many also come because they are facing some kind of transition in their life and need to take time out to think about decisions to take them through this transition. This is what makes the modern-day pilgrim different from simply being a tourist.

The pilgrimage is a safe space away from the day-to-day where pilgrims walk, talk and share meals and thoughts on all sorts of things. As we walk, we enter a new kind of rhythm and we start to perceive time in a different way. This Celtic perception of time focuses on the waves and tides, the journey of the sun and the stars. As this new perception sinks in, we absorb this living landscape and start to experience a feeling that we are part of something bigger than ourselves.

Offering pilgrimage holidays is niche enough – to concentrate on those related to Celtic saints even more so. What is the special appeal to your customers for making a pilgrimage in the footsteps of a Celtic saint? Was it because of their early embrace of Christianity compared to other peoples?

We have a saying in Journeying that by going to the edge you can discover the centre. The Celtic lands are “edge places” where the natural landscape feels like a sacred space. When you walk along the coast path heading towards St Davids you can just feel it. The Celtic mind was traditionally not burdened with the dualism that separates the human from the divine and you can still experience this as you walk through this unique ancient landscape. It was a place where Christianity took hold very: early probably in the third century. St Patrick came here and you can still sit on his stone seat overlooking the Irish Sea at Whitesands Bay where legend has it an angel gave him his mission to leave for Ireland.

Taking the Camino de Santiago as an example, pilgrimage seems to be getting more popular. Why do you think that is?

For people who have no connection to organised religion, pilgrimage has become a new kind of space to consider the bigger things in life, where you can share experiences and ask questions on the way. The pilgrimage path is literally common ground where you can walk and talk with people who may have a faith and are happy to discuss it. Interestingly, many of our guests have already been on the Camino de Santiago and are looking to do a Celtic Camino next. Once you have done it once you want to go back for more.

This year marks the 900th anniversary of St David’s canonisation. How do Journeying hope to honour this most famous of Celtic saints in their hiking program?

We piloted the five day 100km “Way of St David” in 2019 in partnership with St Davids Cathedral. This route begins in Llangwm on the Cleddau Estuary and runs through Gelliswick Bay near Milford Haven, Marloes, Little Haven, Solva and St Davids over five days. The shrine of St David in the Cathedral is the end point of our pilgrimages and each person who completes the 100km journey receives a “Way of St David” certificate verified by the Cathedral, rather like the Compostela certificate on the the Camino de Santiago. It is proving very popular and we will be offering regular pilgrimages on the northern and southern coast path routes to St Davids when we can get out again. If anything, pilgrimage is even more important in the post-lockdown world as people re-visit the assumptions they had made about life before Covid-19 struck. We’ve all been shown that the certainties of life are perhaps not so certain after all, and that perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate what we want from life.

In the Age of the Saints, the Irish Sea was the main highway of its day and St David had close connections to Ireland through his protege St Aidan. So we’re also working with the local authorities in Pembrokeshire in Wales and County Wexford in Ireland to introduce a new pilgrimage route to St Davids from Ferns in Ireland, including the crossing over the Irish Sea. This is something that Covid-19 has delayed, but will be up and running by 2021.

Additionally, I also do a Journeying holiday that starts in Tintern and goes to Margam and Neath Abbeys before ending up on Caldey.

So what does it feel like to be in charge of a group actually fulfilling their goal of making one of the pilgrimages Journeying offer?

It’s a real privilege. I love being able to show the pilgrims our beautiful places and to be alongside them as we talk and share thoughts and experiences on the way. We all learn from each other and friendships are forged on the pilgrim trail that continue after the event is over and we find that people come back again and again.

What might people see on one of your pilgrimage walks that they might otherwise miss doing the walk themselves?

Journeying leaders are a lot more than tour guides in that they facilitate the whole pilgrim experience. A typical day starts with a reflection, when we introduce a theme to consider during the day. On the way we pause for other reflections, where we might read a poem or read a Celtic prayer at the site of a former monastic settlement overlooking the sea. Our leaders know the way inside out, and point out places that are not in the tour books or marked on the maps. In Pembrokeshire in particular, the Welsh place names and folklore give a hint of the spiritual connection and history of a particular site. The day ends with a shared meal followed by another reflection and discussion about what we experienced. The other thing our guests like is that they don’t have to worry about any of the logistics. We organise everything from transport through to meals and accommodation, so you can just get on with the pilgrim experience.

Journeying is based in Pembrokeshire, as are you: can you tell us one of your favourite places here to walk and why?

Yes, we are and we love to share the beauty of the landscape, the sea and the history. The obvious place is St Davids: as both a pilgrimage destination and a beautiful place to visit. This is the focal point for our ‘outer’ pilgrimages. I’m a Cistercian, connected to the monastery on Caldey Island, which is a 20 minute boat ride from Tenby. There has been on monastery on Caldey for 1500 years and it is a very special mix of monastic prayer, empty beaches, and amazing wildlife. This is my own spiritual home and if anyone wants to go deeper after completing the outer pilgrimage to St Davids I welcome them to join me on Caldey to go on a related ‘inner pilgrimage’ to find our more.

READ ON: The first of our slow reads is an in-depth reflection on the Welsh and devotion throughout history – Holier than thou: the Welsh, pilgrimage and why 2020 might be the time to make one to Wales