How long have the pilgrimages been running?
St Albans Diocese has run occasional pilgrimages to overseas locations for many years, but the present comprehensive programme began in the year 2000 when the then Bishop of St Albans, the Rt Revd Christopher Herbert, made a commitment to ‘Pilgrim 2000’, a project supported by Bishop Riah Abu El-Assal, then Bishop of Jerusalem, which sought to encourage churches, church groups and dioceses to make a special effort to run a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the Millennium year. The project was overseen by McCabe Pilgrimages, and by the end of 2000, dozens of groups of all denominations had travelled, not only to see the ancient stones at the sacred sites, but also to meet and build relationships with the ‘living stones’, the local Christians who were, and remain, a minority in the Holy Land.
What locations have been visited on St Albans Diocese pilgrimages?
Who acts as your travel agent?
McCabe Pilgrimages, mentioned above, has been our agent since we began our current programme of Diocesan group pilgrimages in 2000. A Christian company, McCabe specialises in Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land and to other locations such as the Seven Churches of Asia and to Jordan/Sinai. Over the years we have been impressed with McCabe’s attention to detail, their extensive knowledge and experience of group pilgrimages, and their preparedness to work closely with group leaders and to ‘go the extra mile’ in ensuring that the itineraries and specific arrangements requested for our pilgrimages are realised.
How does the leadership and guiding work?
All our large group pilgrimages have the services of a full-time English-speaking guide, accompanied by a driver, who remain with the group for the duration. In addition, an experienced member or members of the diocesan staff, typically a Bishop or Archdeacon, will act as the spiritual leader for the tour. She or he may be accompanied by one or more assistants who look after practical matters.
A typical daily programme consists of taking the coach to the location and there receiving a short tour/talk by the guide. The spiritual leader may well then offer an act of worship, ranging from a hymn and a short prayer and a reading to a communion service, depending on the setting and facilities. There is usually then time for individual exploration, with an agreed reassembly time.
Coaches are normally around 50 seaters and all have air conditioning. When we reach about the 40 mark in terms of numbers booked to travel, we begin to think in terms of adding a second coach. In this way, there always some spare seats on the coach for ‘spreading out’. Where we have two coaches, as we did for our 75-80 pilgrim tours in 2002, 2004 and 2005, we naturally have a guide for each coach, and also additional leaders.
Our guide(s) will oversee meal arrangements and hotel arrivals/departures. Guides and leaders work closely together with the common aim of making the the pilgrimage as fulfilling as possible, whilst paying attention to practicalities to ease issues of transport and logistics.
Do I have to be physically fit to join a pilgrimage?
The pilgrimages we run are designed to be as accessible to as many travellers as possible, but inevitably, some of the sites we visit can be a little challenging. We have described below, as candidly as possible, the issues that may affect those who have health and fitness concerns. Please feel free to make a personal enquiry, in absolute confidence, if you wish to discuss such matters in more detail.
In Jerusalem, for example, pavements in parts of the Old City are sometimes uneven, and steps are encountered quite frequently. Further afield, some of the open-air sites such as Qumran and Masada are characterised by rocky ground, although paths have been developed in the main areas of interest. A few sites, for example Priene and Miletus in Turkey, have moderate ascents or steps to reach the major areas of interest.
The daily programme involves some walking, but the longest of these in the Holy Land – which is probably the day at the Western Wall and following the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem – is not more than about 3 miles (5 kilometres) spread over the course of the day with sightseeing and meal stops intervening.
For the 2019 Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage, walking is an intentional part of the programme. The walks are however not hugely long, 6km (4 miles) being typical, and over fairly flat land on established paths.
To make the best use of the day, we shall sometimes have fairly early starts from our hotel – typically 8am, although some days will be a little later.
Hotels with more than one floor will have lifts. Porters will take cases to rooms, and will return them to the lobby on departure days.
Do please note that even if coaches are equipped with on-board lavatories they are seldom in use due to the lack of maintenance facilities at service stations. On coach journeys, regular comfort stops are scheduled.
We recommend, of course, that pilgrims bring a good supply of any prescription medication that they are taking. In addition, leaders are very happy to be advised, in complete confidence, of any existing medical conditions, in order that this can be borne in mind. We are usually able to ensure that a qualified first-aider travels on our pilgrimages.
What about travel insurance, innoculations, currency etc?
Our agent requires that all travellers have adequate insurance. McCabe provide their own policy and this can opted into at the time of booking. Alternatively, travellers may wish provide their own insurance. In this case, McCabe will need to see a copy of the schedule to ensure that it meets minimum requirements.
Naturally, you must have a valid passport to travel. Some countries, e.g., Israel, require that this is valid for at least 6 months after the travel dates. A few locations, e.g., Turkey, will require the purchase of an entry visa on arrival. At present the cost of a visa in Turkey is about £14. Increasingly visas can be purchased online ahead of the visit. In all cases we will provide comprehenslve details of the requirements.
Must I participate in the whole programme on the pilgrimage?
We hope that most of our pilgrims will wish to be involved in the daily programme as scheduled, but as a paying traveller, you are of course free to ‘opt out’. We aim to schedule free time to allow for rest and relaxation.
Is there any specific preparation I should make for the pilgrimages?
We have developed a pre-departure programme which offers a pilgrims’ meeting, typically 3 – 5 months before departure, where there is an opportunity to meet fellow travellers and the pilgrimage leaders, to watch a presentation on the itinerary, to ask about and discuss practical matters and to pray and reflect. In addition, McCabe will supply a comprehensive reading list. Books can be purchased direct from McCabe’s charitable arm, the McCabe Educational Trust, and a percentage of receipts go directly to Christian-based projects in the Middle East. On occasions, as we learn of suitable lectures, events, online resources and new books etc, we will write to let pilgrims know if this.
Depending on the catchment area of pilgrims and the number interested, we are sometimes able to arrange for the hire of a coach in the UK to take us to the airport and back, leaving from one or two local points. This is an ‘extra’ to the main pilgrimage and it is necessary for us to charge at cost the service, which in the past has varied between £15 and £23 per head for both journeys.
I have another question. Whom should I contact?