How the Small Pilgrim Places Network started and how it has developed

How the Small Pilgrim Places Network started and how it has developed.

1. Beginnings

The story of Small Pilgrim Places begins in March 1997 with the Rev. Jim Cotter and his getting to know a little and rarely open church at Llandecwyn, between the mountains and the sea in north-west Wales.

His journal begins:

Good Friday, 28 March 1997
I’m at what must be one of the most extraordinary places in the whole of Wales, with a view hardly to be bettered anywhere in Europe. I’m looking almost due west down the estuary of the Afon Dwyryd, with the tide having been ebbing these past three hours, appropriate enough between 12 and 3 on Good Friday.

The parish and the church is that of Llandecwyn, ‘the church and enclosure of St Tecwyn’, a little known missionary from Brittany. The church was locked yesterday when I came in the mist and the rain, with but a hint of the magnificent view. During the last three hours there have been omens: a mountain biker with his cycle, a father and son walking with their Welsh collie; two car loads of two youngish couples, one with a camcorder. Both sets of couples have simply come to look at the view - it’s clearly a place that attracts - but neither stays more than a couple of minutes.

The idea was forming in his mind of a small place of pilgrimage, for quiet prayer, simple hospitality and thoughtful conversation, for rest and relaxation, and in this way to revive a place that had an ancient aura of prayerful presence. In September he borrowed the key, and he wrote:

I see inside the church for the first time. Benign, a little forlorn, the life of the spirit latent but not far away. Needs loving into life.

In the following year Jim was able to begin and develop his idea. Visitors came and their names are listed in a visitors’ book. It was an important part of his hospitality to offer formal prayer three times a day. Many of these times he was alone.

Late June to early October 1998
Received permission to borrow a key to the church for three months. No publicity, quietly there most days. Prayed formally at 11, 1, and 3. Used poetry and prayers of the Welsh tradition at 1. Also some evenings, Prayer at Night’s Approaching.

Jim could feel that the little church at Llandecwyn was a place with roots deep in Welsh Christianity, as well as in the primal religion of the centuries before, and in its simplicity could invite the stranger to be at home, could be a place where people of different churches and faiths, and all people of goodwill might find an atmosphere in which they could breathe freely without feeling pressured into a pattern of belief that no longer connected with their lives.

23 July to 31 August 1999
Similar to 1998. Joined on the first evening by those who have been my supporters’ group. Carol played her flute before and after the prayer one evening, at the end walking and playing around the outside of the church while the rest of us stayed still and awed inside. 64 people came to a deanery pilgrimage service on 1 August. On 12 August Bishop Saunders and Cynthia Davies gave a presentation on the Welsh poetic and spiritual tradition, to which 20 people came. 37 people came on 30 August to hear Donald Allchin talk on the Welsh poetic vision. Approximately 700 people visited during the almost six weeks.

During May to October 2000 the experiment was becoming a definite project. He secured an agreement with the Bishop and the church council for seven years. Jim was the host over the season which lasted from May to early October. He chose the name ‘hospitaller’ as the quiet and welcoming host who would could make a cup of tea or coffee and engage in thoughtful conversation if this was called for. Soon deputy hospitallers, friends and supporters and members of the Cairns network, began to help keep the church open. His journal continues:

For a while I kept the church open, with somebody, usually myself, there to welcome and pray, between 11 and 5 each day except Monday. Later, this was reduced to the hours of 2-ish to 5-ish, but on every day. This made it more practicable for others to help, and by 2006-7 deputies were at Llandecwyn some 35-40% of the days.

On the last afternoon of the ‘season’ in 2003, at the end of the half-term week in October, the very last visitors were a Muslim family from the Midlands, father, mother, two daughters aged about twelve and ten. They sat quietly for ten minutes or so, and then the father came up to me and said, Thank you, I find I can pray here.

2. Forming a Network

In 2004 Jim wanted to explore whether the insights and practices developed at Llandecwyn might be transferrable to other somewhat remote places, even to include those that might be special for other faiths. So supporters of the Llandecwyn project and subscribers to the former Cairns Network were invited to a Preliminary General Meeting. Fifteen met in Birmingham on Saturday, 9th October 2004, though a further thirty had sent their regrets. In October 2005 an Inaugural General Meeting set up a steering committee to prepare a submission to the Charity Commissioners, and to draft aims and objects, to list possible characteristics of a small pilgrim place. These were circulated in January 2006 with the following note:

We hope that these will help any person or place to decide whether or not the network is something they wish to be part of, and also help hospitallers of small pilgrim places to support and encourage one another.

In May 2006 a day meeting was organised for hospitallers, in which eleven took part and felt it very worthwhile. When Jim Cotter was at Llandecwyn there had been 66 ‘sub-hospitallers,’ but not all of them had become members of the SPP Network.

The AGM of 2006 decided that it was too soon to go for formal charitable status, but provisionally adopted the objects and characteristics of good practice that had grown from Jim’s vision. They acknowledged Jim’s pivotal role in starting the whole project. But now he was having to move on. Richard Woodham from Norfolk was now invited to take on the role of Visioner and also Chairman of the Committee.

The committee had produced and circulated 3,000 leaflets about the project and in the following year many places were showing interest. It was now important to establish a clearer vision of what kind of place should be a Small Pilgrim Place and how it should be run.

3. The Network spreads

The network continues to grow, both in members and additional Small Pilgrim Places. The National Gathering/Annual General Meeting is held, usually in October, in different places and introduced by people who can contribute to the movement.

At the 2007 AGM it was noted that there were now twenty Small Pilgrim Places on the list and interest was increasing. It was decided that members should visit a number of places in the network and that their reporting back and comparing would help to ensure the qualities expected. In particular, some places were struggling to maintain the right quality of silence. Meanwhile a website was being developed.

By the 2008 AGM, the practice of intervisitation was bearing fruit and it was clear that a structured and systematic approach was helping to bring out the desired characteristics of a Small Pilgrim Place. There were more new applications.

The 2009 AGM recognised that the Visioner had worked very hard. But he said that there had been differences about the focus of SPPN and wanted to withdraw. He was warmly thanked.

The AGM in 2010 discussed some of the difficulties met in running a Small Pilgrim Place. An atmosphere of silence was hard to maintain in places where providing tea and coffee could be noisy, and it was hard to know when and how much to welcome or speak to visitors. Some larger churches had wanted to keep one part as their place for pilgrims, but it was hard to keep talking groups away. Another problem was to work out whether there could be guide lines about when and how to keep a place open, and whether hospitallers needed to be present.

By the 2011 AGM in Leeds, some members were in favour of welcoming all new SPP applicants, while others felt that the Network should be more cautious and discriminating.

In 2012 the AGM was in the Wesley Chapel in London EC1, and Ann Lewin led meditation with poems to consider the pilgrim place experience.

The AGM in 2013 was in Durham in September, where the Lindisfarne Gospels were on exhibition. Robert Cooper, (co-author with Euan Clayton of Embracing Change: Spirituality and the Lindisfarne Gospels) focussed on St Cuthbert and the difficulties he had to cope with after the Synod of Whitby (664) tried to settle differences between the practices and traditions of the British Celtic church and the Roman. Perhaps there was an example for modern ecumenism.

In 2014 we met in Exeter at the Mint Methodist church and also visited St Pancras, a Small Pilgrim Place in the centre of Exeter. Averil Swanton opened the meeting and Richard Skinner, himself a poet, read four poems by other poets around the theme of pilgrimage. Fabio, a pilgrim from Italy, was introduced and spoke about his pilgrimage to Cornwall in visiting churches of St Michael in different parts of Western Europe.

In 2015 we were in London again at Holy Cross church near King’s Cross. Two main speakers were Nigel Lacey who spoke about the Church Tourism project: he asked what the many who wander into churches actually find. Then Alan Hargrave spoke about his Small Pilgrim Place (Prior Crauden's chapel within Ely Cathedral). At Ely eight advertisement length films had been made and could be seen by visitors, whether tourists or pilgrims to the cathedral.

Abergavenny hosted the 2016 National Gathering and AGM. Esther de Waal's inspiring talk was entitled “The Garden of the heart - a place to be alone with God“. She spoke of the importance of the sense of interior space, something known and acknowledged across the world, across religions, through the ages - the need for an inner space. It is there in the monastery - the cloister round the enclosed central (often green) breathing space; in the roman house, the mosque, the temple, the farmstead - sometimes even in the shopping centre. And there in the breathing space so often will be a fountain. Esther shared a poem from Bonnie Thurston - "At the monastic centre is always a cloister, an orchestrated emptiness, a place of light a fountain to feed the heart’s garden. Give me this life: a centre empty of all but light, the stillness of Eden before fruit was plucked, my heart a spring of living water."

4. Looking forward

The network continues. As new pilgrim places join the network, it is apparent that some will leave the more spiritual stress on prayer and pilgrimage to the visitors, and maybe just provide leaflets and suggestions for meditation. But the vision which Jim Cotter followed and developed at Llandecwyn is still the foundation of the project. This includes the bond between hospitallers and the place they tend, whether they are there or not when it is open. Regular times of prayer should be offered, or silent contemplation in keeping with the tradition of the place itself.

So each Small Pilgrim Place in the network will find its own way to encourage silence, to make thoughtful space for pilgrims who come either alone or in small groups, and to provide simple focus points. In these ways they will be able to encourage the doubtful and distressed and maintain the atmosphere of prayerful love.