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Five breathtaking British pilgrimage sites off the beaten track


Pilgrimages are rising in popularity once more; here are some that deserve more attention

During this year many readers will have visited some of the well-known sites of pilgrimage throughout the world. It is wonderful that we have such places which help us express our faith and share our experiences with others on our journey. Whilst the large and popular pilgrimages places are thriving it is also encouraging that less known centres are also flourishing in their own way. Here are five of the lesser-known holy places in the UK which are worth visiting.

St Non, West Wales

This holy place is about one mile down a single track lane from the tiny cathedral city of St David’s. The site is located on what is believed to be the house of St Non who was the mother of St David, patron saints of Wales.

Until 1951 all that remained was a ruined chapel. The Passionist fathers were the catalyst for the redevelopment of the shrine and they helped to rebuild the well and construct a guest house. A new chapel was built in the traditional Pembrokeshire style using local materials and craftsmen. The original chapel is still ruined and stands within the fields.

Tradition says that the well sprang up around the year AD 500 when St David was born and became renowned for its healing properties. Even after the reformation local people came to draw the water.

Within the ruined chapel is a 7th Century creed stone incised with a Latin ring cross which has become known as St Non’s Cross and has been replicated around the site.

Today the well, chapels and guesthouse are managed by the Sisters of Mercy. The modern Pembrokeshire Costal Path passes through the grounds and many walkers discover this peaceful place by pleasant chance. The clifftop location gives panoramic views out to sea which provides this shrine an additional and stunning dimension.

Harvington Hall, Worcerstershire

Harvington Hall claims to have the largest number of priest’s hides in the country, many of which were designed by St Nicholas Owen. Today the hall stands as a testimony to the survival and determination of many recusant families who remained faithful to the Catholic Faith following the Reformation.

Harvington Hall manages to combine being a holy place and a visitor attraction. Many visitors are non-Catholic who are drawn by the history of the place. The house contains are rare collection of Elizabethan wall paintings and the moated island upon which the house stands is home to numerous wildlife. It is a peaceful setting in this corner of rural Worcestershire.

I visited Harvington a few weeks ago with my parish young people and it was wonderful to be able to say Mass in the Georgian Chapel, disguised externally as an outbuilding to avoid drawing attention to Catholic worship. One of the highlights of our trip was the priest hides and a number of those in our pilgrimage group were able to climb into one of the larger hides tucked away in the library. It certainly helped them to think more about some of the sacrifices that many people have made for their faith.

The hall and grounds are now owned by the Archdiocese of Birmingham and are open on most days from March to October. Over the years much work has been undertaken to preserve this special place and safeguard it for the future. The main pilgrimage each year takes place in September when there is a large open air Mass. Groups are welcomed throughout the year and Mass can be offered in the church or the various chapels within the site.

St Trillo’s Chapel and Well, Rhos on Sea

St Trillo’s Chapel claims to be the smallest place of worship in Wales and possibly the UK. It can barely hold six people. It sits in a small churchyard on the main promenade with views out to sea. Cyclists speed past as the chapel is also adjacent to the North Wales Coast Cycle Path.

I have visited this chapel many times. When I was a child we used to holiday nearby and visited here often. I remember being captivated by this miniature church which once featured in the Guinness Book of Records. Even today it remains open during daylight hours and attracts the curiosity of passers-by.

Beneath the altar is the small fresh water well where pilgrims continue to draw water. Local parishes still use the water for baptisms.

There is some debate today about the age of the present building. The site is certainly thought to date back 1500 years. St Trillo is a 6th Century Saint and he is depicted in the minute stained glass window behind the altar.

Shrine of Blessed Cyprian Tansi, Mount St Bernard Abbey, Leicestershire

Mount St Bernard Abbey attracts many visitors today who are drawn to its peace and tranquillity. There is a fantastic bookshop run by the monks and the landscaped walk up the high Calvary and sepulchre is a place of real devotion.

The abbey was founded in 1835 as Trappist monastery and is now dominated by the gloriously undecorated Pugin church. The community seems to be thriving and any visit should involve visiting the Church during the one of the Daily Offices, which are usually sung by the brothers.

On the South Wall of the Church is the shrine of Blessed Cyprian Tansi. He was a monk of Mount St Bernard’s Abbey for fourteen years until his death in 1964. He was born in Nigeria in 1903. Blessed Cyprian entered a seminary when he was just 22 years old and was ordained priest in 1937.

He had a great love of God’s people and was a renowned pastor and preacher. His growing commitment to a life of hidden prayer within the Church led him to Mount St Bernard’s. He found the transition to monastic life challenging but was determined that his life should be entirely directed towards God. He was beatified by St Pope John Paul II in 1998.

Many people visit the shrine each day and there is an annual pilgrimage with a large and lively open air Mass each summer. This celebration has a significant African flavour. I attended this year’s summer pilgrimage and joined the hundreds of pilgrims who had travelled many hours by coach to be there.

Shepherd’s Law, Northumberland

Shepherd’s Law is a modern holy place which has an ancient feel. The sense of prayerfulness is very tangible and the beautiful church is a great place of peace.

Brother Harold Palmer came to this remote and lonely hill top in the 1970s. At the time he was an Anglican Franciscan friar but felt called to a life of solitary prayer. A former farmyard became available thanks to the generosity of a local landowner. When Brother Harold first occupied the site it was in a ruinous state and he lived for a number of years in a caravan. Gradually the buildings took shape and out of the ruins something beautiful emerged.

The main focus of the site today is the hermitage of St Mary and St Cuthbert with its church of St Mary the Glorious Mother. The Church is a curious blend of the byzantine and Romanesque, which reflects the diversity of current day pilgrims. Brother Robert is now a Catholic but all visitors are welcomed at the daily offices or to pray quietly in the Church. There are also basic facilities for overnight guests. Christian unity is one of the main focuses of life at Shepherds Law and it is a place that speaks of hope and healing.

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