Return of the Pilgrims to Wales
January 12 2004:
By David Williamson, The Western Mail
THE SACRED and often secret history of Wales is to be celebrated with the mapping of a 650-mile pilgrimage route around the nation.
Ramblers, historians and environmentalists are collaborating to define a path which will follow many of the ancient routes of Welsh pilgrims.
Named the Cistercian Way, after the order of monks who would give hospitality to pilgrims on the way, walkers will encounter coastline, Stone Age burial mounds, medieval castles, sheep farms, and sweeping landscaped gardens.
Each year thousands of people follow pilgrimage paths to European shrines such as Compostella and Rome.
Dr Maddy Gray, history lecturer at the University of Wales College, Newport, believes that within a decade several thousand people could be coming to Wales to make similar journeys.
Local authorities are now being urged to clear the footpaths and right-of-ways which pilgrims used in centuries past; funding is being sought from a wide variety of sources to ensure the infrastructure is in place to support a new breed of tourists in Wales.
Dr Gray said, "What I'd like to see is the footpaths open so people can walk them for themselves. I want people to be able to improvise. "As well as local authorities, farmers will also have to be encouraged to remove barbed wire from some stretches.
|Whitland Abbey, mother monastery of Cistercianism in Wales was founded in 1140. This Norman order of White Monks(named after the abbey of Citeux in Burgundy) became popular throughout Wales in the 12th century, partly because the Cistercians were not answerable to England but to France.
She said, "We have got to explain that it's in his best interest that people of goodwill will be walking on footpaths over his land. People have got to want this at a local level."
In 2005 a group behind the project will walk the entire circuit, taking in abbeys including Tintern, Grace Dieu, Cwmhir, Strata Florida and Margam. The idea of mapping the holy routes of Wales has been in gestation for years, but a new energy has come to the project with the support of the Alliance of Religions and Conservation.
The organisation, which has its origins in the work of the World Wildlife Fund, aims to encourage environmental work among the world's major faiths.
ARC, which has previously preserved sacred mountains with the Taoists in China and mapped religious grounds with Mongolian Buddhists, believes this project is an historic opportunity to identify and preserve some of the sites of the most religious, historic and ecological significance to Wales.
Secretary General Martin Palmer said, "I think we can bring a professionalism to the enthusiasm. I believe between us we can create something which will be hugely, absolutely, astonishing."
John Winton of the Churches Tourism Network Wales is also excited at the potential of the project to give churches an incentive to find new ways of serving communities. Mr Winton believes that if modern churches can be inspired to follow the example of the Cistercian monks and open their doors and their heritage to present-day pilgrims, Wales will be enriched. At the time of the Cistercians, sick pilgrims were carried by friends and family on the path, and one of the challenges today is to make it as accessible to disabled people as possible.
Newport Pro Vice-Chancellor, Geoff Edge, was excited by the potential of the Cistercian Way to introduce a new tourist audience to Wales. He said, "I think this project is potentially extremely significant.It links together so many historical sites."
Here in Wales we have some of the best scenery in the world and I know that it isn't sometimes fully appreciated."
The European Union is now promoting awareness of pilgrimage routes to demonstrate the shared Christian history of much of the continent.Routes are being revived, including La Via Francigena from England to Rome.
THE Alliance of Religions and Conservation was founded to help religions with environment and development work.While religious attendance figures are declining in western Europe, the opposite is true in most of the rest of the world.
The founders also realised that religious organisations are some of the most powerful mass-membership partners it is possible to find.Today, the world's leading 11 religions own 7% of the habitable planet, and with investment funds of US$7 trillion are the third biggest global financial players.
Secretary General Martin Palmer said, "If you believe [the Earth] is the manifestation of a loving God, or if through reincarnation you are intertwined with the fabric of the universe, you will treat it as sacred and special."