Martin Palmer on Britain's Sacred Land

Martin Palmer tells how you can discover Britain's sacred places

8 mins

Everywhere in Britain, our surroundings contain a host of clues that can help unlock the country's social, religious and cultural past. Aspects of the landscape, urban and rural, hold hidden messages that tell the stories of Britain's history. Broadcaster and writer Martin Palmer talks to Peter Moore about his new book Sacred Land and how it equips you with the tools and information to decode the history of your own local area.

Can you explain the concept of Sacred Land? And why people should seek it out?

Sacred Land is about discovering the stories, the beliefs and the inspirations, which have literally shaped the landscape we live in – both the natural and the built.

The Sacred Land Project was set up in the UK by ARC and WWF in 1996, and later the ideas spread around the world. It stemmed from the fact that for many years we forgot to respect nature. And we need to remember that again – we need to walk more gently upon the face of the earth. If we don’t, we may push nature to the brink. So the question for environmentalists is: how do we stop ourselves from viewing our natural environment as something simply there to be exploited? An important way to do that is by seeing it as sacred, as special and as part of something far greater and more significant than just whether it is useful to us. Through seeing the world as sacred we learn to respect it and we learn to take care.

How do we find this sense of sacredness in a land so familiar to us: it is outside our front door, or on the way to work, or where we go on holiday? We can do it partly through discovering that literally under our feet, around us, in the names we still use for hills and rivers and in the layouts of our old towns, cities, buildings and landscapes we still have traces of older notions of sacred land. We are surrounded by hints that once we saw the world differently and we can rediscover these more holistic world-views, these kinder more gentle stories if we look.

But we can also start to create new sacred places that reflect a sense of reconnection with nature. Organic farms for example, are for many, harbingers of a new sense of respect and relationship with the land itself.

How did you become interested in Britain's sacred lands?

I was brought up in a family where my father was an Anglican priest. He worked in some very urban, tough parishes in the south-west, and although sometimes I would escape to beautiful, sacred places like Wells for solace, he also taught me to look wherever you are, however bleak it might seem, and find beauty. My mother taught me to love and respect nature, and to protect it whenever it was threatened. My godmother, who lived in the countryside, taught me to delight in stories and to always ask what story lay behind the bend in a road, the siting of a church, the shape of a burial mound or the layout of a town.

However, it took a visit to Moscow for me to really understand that we walked upon a sacred landscape. In Moscow, Russian orthodox bishops showed me how the city was laid out according to the Book of Revelation and that cities had been deliberately designed to reflect the cosmos, so that the very experience of being in the city would be constantly a sort of pilgrimage. This blew my mind and then I discovered that my own home city of Bristol had exactly the same basis. From then on, everywhere I looked I could see the sacred shapes in the land, the buildings and even in the fields.

What are some of the unexpected things you have decoded from Britain's towns, villages and countryside?

First of all, I’ve found that most of our rivers and hills have the oldest and most strangely sacred names. For example the river Don, which flows through Doncaster, and all rivers in the UK that start with Do, Da or De are named after the goddess of the rivers called Danu in India and who is honoured in rivers in India and across Europe. In fact many of our rivers have Sanskrit names, which tells us that over 3,000 years ago the people who arrived here and named them had probably originally come from Central Asia and while one branch had travelled west to Europe, another branch had travelled south into India.

The shape of our fields tell us we believed we had to care for nature and the poor, based upon one of the most beautiful books and stories in the Bible, the Book of Ruth, or whether we saw fields as simply economic units, which were purely there to fulfil our needs.

I also discovered that every town and city built before the 19th century was an attempt to create a microcosm of the universe!

In your book you say that there are four different kinds of sacred lands. What are they? How do they differ?

There are four kinds of sacred places, which also capture (I think) the four kinds of sacred experiences that run through time and faith to this day.

The first sacred places are the ones most people expect, and they are everywhere. They are the places that communities have decided will be holy to them, and where they have sited their local church, chapel, synagogue, mosque or temple. Whenever a site is chosen, marked out, blessed and made special, it becomes – through choice and use – a holy place.

It is a place that over time becomes redolent with prayer, with celebration, with mourning and with the cycle of the religious year. It might be a church as old as St Martin’s in Canterbury, built in the fourth century AD, or a new church on a housing estate. It might be a converted terrace house, which is now a mosque, as we have in Bath, or it might be the oldest mosque in Britain, purpose-built in 1889 in Woking, Surrey. We create sacred places for our everyday lives and they become sacred through our intentions.


The second kind of sacred places are where we are overwhelmed by the sheer beauty or magnificence of nature that surrounds us. It might be a raging sea, viewed from the cliffs, or a vast forest of mixed woodland, or it could be a stream with kingfishers, or a quiet sunlit grove where the light seems to dance. It is that moment when we are caught up in being part of something so much greater and grander than ourselves: thinking of these places as “sacred” is also about a sense of gratitude to whatever or whoever we understand to be the origin of all this beauty.

The third sense of the sacred in a place is when we visit somewhere that has been made holy by history or legend. A place I love is a small cave worn into the cliffs by the sea near Whithorn, in Dumfries and Galloway. Here, the fourth century Saint Ninian would come to pray and to be alone with God and with nature. The cave has crosses carved into its walls, testimony to centuries of pilgrimage. Today, it is the custom among visitors and pilgrims to find and take home stones on the beach, special to Saint Ninian’s cave, which have a cross on them created by the veins of quartz, millions upon millions of years ago by nature.

The holy valley of St Melangell in Wales is another such place. For many of us, visiting an ancient site such as Stonehenge or even just finding a 4,000 year-old burial mound in the woods can evoke a similar sense of awe at the idea of this being a meeting place between the past and the present; between heaven and Earth.

Not all such places are to do with joy. For instance Clifford’s Tower is a gaunt building in the medieval part of York where in 1190, more than a hundred Jewish men, women and children took refuge from a rampaging mob. Hoping for protection from either the Archbishop or the King, they were failed by both. Realising the mob was about to break in, the Jews decided to commit suicide rather than be torn apart by the mob. They all died. Today this is a terrible holy place.

Likewise, places where people were burnt to death for their faith have a holiness about them – for example, Tyburn in London is a place where many Catholics were brutally executed in the 16th and 17th centuries, and in 2010 was honoured as a holy place by Pope Benedict XVI during his 2010 visit to the UK.

And then there are the places where someone is said to have had a vision, or a similarly powerful sense of the presence of holiness: for example the holy island of Lindisfarne in Northumberland where in the seventh century Saint Cuthbert found peace and prayer and many have found it also ever since.

The fourth kinds of sacred places are ones that are personal to individuals. They might be places where you go to think; they might have special meaning because of something you or your friends and family experienced there, or perhaps because there you made a decision that has shaped your life ever since.

For me, the Quantock hills in Somerset are sacred because I used to go there as a child to walk the landscape with my magical godmother. I still return there when I need to recover or reflect. We each have our own sacred land map, even if we have never quite called it that.

The concept of sacred land is important in places like India and Japan. Why hasn't it caught on in the UK?

In places such as Japan and India, they never forgot their traditions of sacred land. We did. Britain was the first industrial country in the world. In 1851 we became the first country to have more people living in towns and cities than in the countryside. We left behind our old patterns and traditions because we thought that what you had to do to be 'modern'. So we have had to try and find these again after nearly 200 years of neglect. And often what happens is that a nostalgic romantic view is created, which is not really what this is about.


Sacred Land is about facing up to what we have done and planning for what we can do to restore our relationship with nature and to build a world of balance and wholeness. Our formal religious structures are not much help either. They too have largely forgotten their own traditions and stories – most church guides will never mention that the church is built like a ship; that the porch is the same word as port because from the porch you enter the ship of faith for the journey through the swirling waters of life and from this life into the next life. Instead they will tell you in what style and at what date in the 14th century the porch was built. We lost and still largely have lost confidence in our own sacred stories and landscape, or we never even knew it was there.

I find that once you help people to see what lies around them, then it is as if a new world has opened up. I am very excited by the scale of interest we have created through the Sacred Land Project and I believe this will grow and grow because everywhere else in the world this is happening.

What can we learn from the sacred land around us?

We can learn that the utilitarian, consumerist world-view, which we all live in to some degree or another, is just one world-view among many. We can learn that to know the sacred name and therefore significance of a hill means we view it differently and probably will therefore treat it with more respect. We can learn that we used to build our towns and cities as models of the cosmos and that gave us a sense of where we belonged. And we could do this again if we could only have the confidence to view all life, the earth itself as sacred because then we would see ourselves as part of nature, part of Creation, not apart from.

Sacred layouts. What are they? Why are they important? Is there a modern equivalent?

Sacred layouts are how we expressed our understanding of our place within the greater story – whether that was the greater story of our ancestors, of the gods or of God. Towns and cities were designed to literally spell this out. For example, many medieval towns and cities have their main roads laid out as a cross, with a circle around it to embody the belief of the unity of love. Similarly, most churches form the shape of a cross on the ground by their layout. Mosques face towards Mecca. They are important because they say anywhere can be sacred if it reflects the greater story of which we are part. Their importance therefore is in making the local as holy, as sacred as Jerusalem or Stonehenge or Rome.


Is there a modern equivalent? Sometimes. In the 19th and early 20th centuries towns and cities sometimes turned their backs on our rivers and they became sewers or used simply for transport. You can see this in Bath or Manchester. Increasingly we are reviving our relationship with the river that runs through our cities – cleaning them, wanting to walk beside them, opening up the space, enjoying them. I see this as a very important recovery of a sacred relationship to nature – a sacred layout, which works with what God/Nature has given us and rejoices in it.

What are your favourite sacred places in Britain?

First of all, the Quantock Hills of Somerset. These are not spectacular hills – in fact they are quite modest – but they were where my magic godmother took me and taught me to see the stories in the landscape. These hills are where I go to recover, and feel somehow that I meet the sheer beauty of creation.

The second sacred place for me is Wells Cathedral, also in Somerset. This is simply one of the most magnificent buildings and environments in the world and it both humbles me before the skills of humanity and draws me close to the transcendence of God. I go there to listen to Evensong and when I do all my worries fall away and I don’t know whether I am on Earth or in heaven.

The third place is the British Museum because of the sheer astonishing variety of materials, beliefs, stories and artistry that lie within that building. It is like glimpsing the best that humanity and God can produce. It is built like a Greek or Roman temple and frankly, it is a sort of temple for me.

Can the concept of Scared Land be enlisted in the fight to save environment?

It already has. In the 14 years since we (at the ARC) launched the Sacred Land Project – first in Britain and then around the world – Sacred Land has become an official term of protection for places of spiritual, cultural and environmental importance. For example, in Mongolia, the sacred mountains are now protected again after decades of communist rule and abuse by being rededicated as sacred land projects by both the Buddhist monks and the Mongolian government.


Tell us about the Alliance of Religion and Conservation (ARC).

The Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) is a secular foundation, which I founded with Prince Philip in 1995. I had worked as religious adviser to WWF for almost a decade, helping to develop partnerships with the world’s major faiths. In 1995, Prince Philip felt we needed to set up a specific, secular organisation to handle the sheer scale of opportunities that were emerging worldwide, from the faiths becoming major organisations working on conservation issues.

We work with 11 major faiths and within that many different traditions. For example, in Buddhism we work with Mongolian Buddhists, Chinese Buddhists, Cambodian Buddhists, Thai Buddhists, Bhutanese Buddhists and so forth. Each tradition has its own special teachings and practices and it is these we tend to help them explore and see why they are often so relevant to care for nature.

We are not an interfaith body. I really am not interested in what unites faiths because in the end people belong to a faith tradition because it gives them a specific identify. So we work with the specific insights and skills of each faith tradition.

The faiths we work with (Bahá’is, Buddhists, Christians, Daoists, Hindus, Jains, Jews, Muslims, Shinto, Sikhs and Zoroastrians) own between them, some 8% of the habitable land of the planet; they run or contribute to over 50% of all schools; they are the third-largest investing group in the world; and they produce more weekly magazines than the whole of the EU. And in many parts of the world they are trusted far more than any government, UN or NGO.

They also make up the most sustainable communities in the world. They have outlived every empire, dynasty and ideology and in a thousand years time they will still be here in some form or another.

Do you think religion and environment are natural bedfellows?

Sometimes. Both are deeply committed communities of people who want the world to be a better place and this means they can share a great deal with each other.

The environmental world has huge knowledge about the external world – the world of species, habitats and eco-systems. What the faiths have is a corresponding knowledge of the inner world of psychology, spirituality, ritual, stories and archetypes. Bring these two worlds together and you have a wonderful partnership as we have seen time and time again across the world.

Both can also, at times, have those within them who can be quite arrogant and want to believe that only they have the answer. I deal with as many fundamentalist environmentalists as I do religious fundamentalists. I have been doing this work for 30 years now, I have seen a growing recognition that each brings something to the work of the other and that together they are better than alone.


What are some of the international projects ARC have worked on?

One of the most exciting and relevant to travellers is a new programme we launched last year called the Green Pilgrimage Network. More than 150 million people go on pilgrimage each year. We want them to have a great time but not cost the earth. So we have created this network linking pilgrimage centres in China, India, Egypt, Armenia, Saudi Arabia, Italy, Norway, England, Scotland and Nigeria to help them in their determination to make the pilgrim experience greener and gentler on the earth.

For example, we have produced a guide for Muslim pilgrims to the Hajj that helps them plan from the moment they set off from home to the moment they return, how to live as ecologically as possible – simple travel, local food, energy saving devices, taking a water flask not buying plastic bottles of water and so forth. This guide is now being published in all major languages of the Muslim world and is beginning to be studied by Muslim governments as guidelines for their pilgrims.

With the UN we have a programme whereby the faiths make formal commitments to launch long-term plans to protect the environment. This September in Africa we will celebrate 28 new such plans from Christian, Muslim and Hindu traditions in Sub-Saharan Africa. Included in them for example are plans that will lead to over 70 million trees being planted and cared for by the faith traditions.

With UNICEF we are working with faith schools around the world on water protection and sanitation.

Building upon many different strands of our work over the last 16 years with WWF, this summer we are launching a major programme on protecting wildlife through challenging the wildlife trade. In particular we are working with the faiths to stop the killing of wildlife for traditional Chinese medicine and this we are doing with the full backing of the Daoists of China, whose philosophy of the balance of yin and yang is the foundation of traditional Chinese medicine.

I would urge readers to visit our website where they'll find hundreds of stories about our projects.  


Why is the ARC turning its attention to Britain?

We have always been working in the UK. However, we have found recently that many people who are happy to support work around the world also want to feel they can make a difference here at home.

To do this, we have created the guidebook, Sacred Land. We want to give people the power to understand their own landscape and environment and thus empower them to find ways to become involved, to either protect or celebrate the wonders that lie around us. We believe this will help our own country in its efforts to protect nature and we also believe this will further deepen people’s understanding of the scale of the challenges that face the world but not make them feel there is nothing they can do personally.

Finally, what simple things can people do to discover the sacred Britain around them?

Find out what the names of local hills and rivers, towns and villages mean, because they might well tell you of a sacred landscape right around you. Using the book, walk your local old town or city or village and find the meaning in the layout of the streets and in the names and positions of the churches. Explore the original names for your local pubs because many of these will tell you fascinating stories and have surprising links to religion and the sacred.

Most of all, walk the landscape and ask questions of it and see if you can discover the stories it is waiting to tell you.

Sacred LandSacred Land is a guide to decoding Britain's extraordinary past through its towns, villages and countryside. It published by Piatkus and can be ordered on Amazon now.


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