27 February 2012
For thousands of years, the coast, where land meets the sea, has been a deeply spiritual place. Walking the South West Coast Path offers the opportunity to go on a spiritual pilgrimage to discover some of the most inspirational religious sites.
Cornwall is particularly notable for its spiritual heritage and is awash with saints, mostly Celtic, as reflected in the many places named after them including St Agnes, St Ives, St Just and St Levan to name but a few. Its patron saint, St Piran is thought to have travelled to Cornwall from Ireland in the 5th or 6th Century on his Mill stone and landed at Perranporth where he set up a church. The county celebrate St Piran’s Day on 5th March every year.
It is a common feature along the Coast Path to find parish churches, which were often built in prominent coastal locations. As well as serving the spiritual needs of the parish, they would also offer places of refuge. The tall towers would be seen by incoming trade and fishing fleets.
Little wonder then that Cornwall has more than its fair share of these places of worship since the entire history of its people is inextricably linked to its proximity to the sea. The entire Cornish coastline stretches for 299 miles, almost half of the entire length of the South West Coast Path – the longest National Trail in the UK at 630 miles.
Some of the most profound churches are often in the most remote and rugged parts of the coastline. There’s St Helen’s Oratory at Cape Cornwall for example, which has had continuous church occupation since the late Roman period.
A favourite for many residents and visitors to South West Cornwall is the iconic St Michael’s Mount with its 14th century priory church. Only last week, I followed in the footsteps of travellers on one of the most famous pilgrimmages in the world, since this section of Coast Path around Mount’s Bay follows St Michael’s Way, which in turn is linked to the Santiago de Compostela.
Like the South West Coast Path, the Camino de Santiago is one of Europe’s great walks. St Michael’s Way led Irish and Welsh pilgrims across Cornwall from Lelant to Marazion who would visit St Michael’s Mount as well as Mont St Michel just off the coast of Brittany, France before heading on to the North-West coast of Spain.
There are short circular walks and day long linear walks that you can download from www.southwestcoastpath.com to explore some of these locations for yourself just by searching along the theme of Heritage and Religious sites. Follow in the footsteps of pilgrims with this short walk on the South West Coast Path that follows part of St Michael’s Way.
Post by Alex Green, South West Coast Path Team.
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