Pilgrimage to St. Albans – Student Experience 2023

08 June 2023

Having enjoyed the Pilgrimage to Canterbury in April again this year, I was very excited to be embarking on the second Pilgrimage of the season to my hometown, and the ancient Roman city of St. Albans in Hertfordshire. I grew up there as a child and lived in the district of St. Albans for over 26 years, so I was eager to re-visit this unique and historical city with a new perspective, with a pair of fresh eyes, and also a yearning heart.

The starting point was the village of Radlett, about 7 miles south of our destination by foot, where we gathered at 9.30am and were guided by our expert leader Andrew, to a quiet enclosed woodland green area to prepare ourselves for the aspirational day ahead. Our Captain Andrew, who has himself gathered many years of experience as a dedicated pilgrim on his own journeys, shared with us the true benefits and insights we might expect to observe and behold during this tried and tested pilgrimage route. He guided the group through consecrating the pilgrimage, and gave space for the opening meditation where each individual heart looks carefully inward, and is able to solidify and set their own intentions for the journey ahead.

As we departed the sheltered green space at 10am, I looked up and noticed the first rays of sunshine breaking through a gap in the clouds, which gave rise to a glorious day ahead, and the skies soon opened up and continued to be filled with light, depth and warmth to accompany us on our trial along the pilgrims way. God had witnessed and heard all our deep longings and intentions, and so blessed us with his presence and watchful eye, with no clouds to mask or cover us during our special, sacred journey together. My own personal aspiration for the day was a very simple and yet powerful intention to become closer to God every day, as I move ahead on my own spiritual path. I kept this clear vision in my mind’s eye and very close to my heart, during each and every step we took towards our shared destination, but more importantly towards the final goal I had personally created for myself, within the wider group of moving and aspiring hearts.

The practice of walking in mauna is recommended to us at the beginning of such a journey, where we can each silently tune in to that special space within us, to help support and even magnify our personal journey and intentions. Some individuals ardently chose to maintain this deep inward and outward silence throughout the whole day and process, which I truly admired, and marvelled at their quiet commitment and no doubt more intensely felt effects received from the shared pilgrimage. For me, I took the opportunity beyond the first 15 – 20 minutes to engage and speak to my fellow Tara pilgrims who were also receptive, and we were able to outwardly share our experiences as we gently progressed along the nature-filled trail. This was headed by Andrew accompanied by the trusty four-legged Lalla, while Kieran and Eabha (completing the pair of divine dogs) walked at the back of the group, ensuring that no one strayed too far behind, and the group always progressed as one entire body, whilst different paces were also accommodated, along with the dedicated bare-foot walkers, and those members who could not help stopping to greet animals, or photograph key moments along the way.

The route we joined on the Pilgrim‘s way took us from the sleepy village of Radlett, passing by Hill Farm, Netherwylde Farm, Waterside Farm, the Moor Mill, and quietly past the villages of Frogmore, How Wood, and Park Street (where I grew up) before passing Sopwell House and Cottonmill Bridge, and delivering us at the foot of Holywell Hill (aptly named), before our final gentle ascent towards the open grounds of St. Albans Abbey. The tried and tested trail we adopted was primarily rural, with key marker points along the way, and having passed through the picturesque and peaceful lakes and ponds of Moor Mill Fishery, we more or less followed the River Ver (short for Verulam or Verulamium) all the way to the grand Cathedral, situated on a gentle hill at the edge of the city centre of St. Albans.

I personally found that the constantly changing and ever emerging surroundings allowed me to become aware of my direct connection with a variety of abundant nature, wildlife, and country pathways, which was not only refreshing and revitalising, but this kept me very rooted in my own personal goal. In doing so this naturally brought me closer with my own connection to God, as I was continuously able to observe, appreciate, admire and also transfigure the diverse natural world that accompanied and infused our Pilgrims walk. And this was a constant reminder to perceive and value the true source and creator of all things beautiful, natural, and alive, which we encountered on the journey. A very simple yet effective mind-set with every step I took.

Once we gathered in the gardens of the Cathedral, we walked around the outside of the magnificent Abbey in our own time either once or three times, to make this the centre-point and focus of our journey and destination. The Abbey itself was founded in the 8th century, and the present building is of both Norman and Romanesque architecture of the 11th century, along with Gothic and 19th- century additions, and at 85m long has the longest nave of any cathedral in England. St Albans Cathedral stands close to the site of Saint Alban’s death by the Romans – he was the first British Christian Martyr or Saint during the 3rd or 4th century. Afterwards we gathered again as a whole group to perform a final meditation, to help crystallise the gifts that this pilgrimage had offered to us, and we also heard some beautiful personal sharings from the group.

After enjoying some free time to explore the Abbey or venture into the historic city centre, we ended the day with the Evensong, a choral evening service of prayer and praise, accompanied by the Cathedral Choir, and using the traditional language of the Book of Common Prayer. The sounds of the collective choral voices resonated through the very centre of the Abbey at the heart of the cross, and reverberated deep into the tall tower looming above us. I felt myself at such peace, and extremely blessed from the day’s events.

by Jonathan Freeman

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