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The sustainable pilgrim

The sustainable pilgrim

Hannah Eves reflects on the unexpected benefits of slow travel. 30/01/2020

It seems to me that, with the move towards greater sustainability, society is trying to recapture something our grandparents already knew. It is almost as if we’re re–learning to mend clothes and fix household objects, to cook from scratch and use real fruit and vegetables; ultimately, to understand that there is value beyond how fast and cheap something is. There is much to gain from thinking this way, particularly, as I found out this Christmas, in our approach to travel. In fact, I don’t think it’s too sentimental to say that to travel slowly and sustainably could constitute an environmentally friendly pilgrimage. Not every eco–warrior choosing to travel by cargo ship is a modern pilgrim, but there is something in the wisdom of our walking ancestors that can help those who seek to make a sustainable choice and those who are nervous about the time cost it may incur.

Slow travel, as the name suggests, is a trend encouraging the average traveller to slow down. It generally means spending time in one place, usually involves choosing a slower form of transport, and can include becoming more ‘conscious and connected – connected with yourself, those around you, and the world.’ In fact, a travel company told Lonely Planet that it works as a sort of antidote to modern busyness: ‘with an ever–increasing pace in our daily lives, full of overflowing schedules, clients are wanting to slow down, relax and reconnect with travel.’ As such, it’s not dissimilar to the ancient spiritual practice of pilgrimage. In his review of Guy Stagg’s The Crossway, which recounts the author’s epic walk in the footsteps of pilgrims from Canterbury to Jerusalem, Nick Spencer defines pilgrimage as a ‘different way of seeing and being in the world’ which does not necessarily solve anything, but can ‘reframe much’. An intrinsic part of pilgrimage is a more conscious and connected way to journey.

In September 2019, Greta Thunberg made headlines when she chose to sail across the Atlantic in a zero emissions yacht. As part of an effort to draw attention to the environmental costs of flying, Thunberg chose to spend weeks at sea rather than hours in the air to get from Plymouth to New York for the Climate Action Summit. While it’s not an example that is easy to emulate without access to a fancy ‘eco-yacht‘, it nonetheless inspired me to take my own voyage. To fly from London to Belfast and back generates about 270kg of CO2, compared with around 51.4kg travelling the same distance by coach and ferry. And yet, this was the journey I needed to make to get home for Christmas.

There were several things to consider. It would cost a lot less financially and environmentally to take a bus and a ferry home, but on the other hand it would mean 17 hours of travel rather than only a couple of hours on a flight. Small lifestyle changes are worthwhile and important, however I felt that the bamboo toothbrush on my bathroom shelf, the keep cup in my workbag, and the beeswax food wraps on my sandwiches represent only small steps in the right direction. So, I booked the National Express coach which would take me from London Victoria station almost the length of Great Britain, through England and into Scotland, reaching Cairnryan. I booked the ferry across the Irish Sea to the port at Belfast, and I braced myself for a gruelling and individually costly experience. What I found instead was a form of spiritual renewal.

Perhaps I could gain wisdom from slowing down.

On the 19th December, I sat with my face to the glass and watched the bus leave the streets of London behind and thought about the journey ahead. I took stock, I embraced inaction and stillness, and found blessing in that quiet solitude that I would be hard pressed to find in the chaos of an airport at Christmas. I balanced the quiet of that coach with listening to podcasts and audiobooks, to the voices of Malcolm Gladwell (Revisionist History podcast) and Michelle Obama (Becoming audiobook) describe their philosophies and tell stories from their lives. I had the time away from the pace of my routine to take in what I was hearing. It’s easy to feel overstimulated when you’re sitting in the corner of the tube, with busyness all around you, listening to a podcast and then going from that into work. It’s the path of least resistance then, to go from the same commute home to the news or a programme, then to bed and back into it all again. Like many, I tend to multitask in these moments. Fitting content over content, not taking something in as it was intended, not moving at the speed my body or brain was designed for. There is quiet in the act of doing one thing at a time.

On the ferry I stood on the sun deck and felt the wind on my face, smelt the salt air, and just breathed. There was something in the sight of the expanse of the Irish Sea from the deck of the ferry that provided a sense of proportion. It also allowed me to take the time to properly process going from my life in London back home to Northern Ireland, two places of different cultures and paces. Sometimes, in moving so fast from one place to another there is a cognitive dissonance that may leave the traveller unsettled. Taking the time to cultivate patience, watching the hours on the road tick slowly by, taking a longer, harder path, and using that time to reflect and just be, felt like an antidote to the pace of modern life. Spiritual renewal came in that act of slow travel because it forced me to be still.

If you resolve to live more sustainably this year, I urge you to pause and find the blessing in that resolution. There is something valuable to be gained by moving away from convenience culture. It seems to me that the slow travel trend speaks to deeper longing, a spiritual stirring to value time and stillness which can be found by embracing the slow wisdom of pilgrims.

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 Image: franz12/

Hannah Eves

Hannah Eves

Hannah is a Former Research Assistant at Theos. She joined Theos in August 2019 and is working on the Social Cohesion and the Religious London projects. Hannah has a MA in Governance and Political Development and prior to her role at Theos she worked with the Jubilee Centre on a research project looking at food and the environment. She is the co–author of the new book ‘Thoughtful Eating’ and the co–host of the podcast series ‘Eating Thoughtfully’.

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Posted 30 January 2020

Environment, Faith, Pilgrimage, Pilgrimage


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