3 mins

Secret and Sacred: five little known holy places in Britain

There are thousands of sacred places in the UK. Religious historian Martin Palmer shares his favourites

Priddy Pond (rxx blade)

There are literally thousands of sacred places in Britain, many well known, like Avebury or Durham Cathedral. But tucked away are smaller treasures, places where to use the words of the poet George MacLeod: “the veil between heaven and Earth is gossamer thin.” Martin Palmer, author of Sacred Land, reveals his five favourites.

1. Ribchester in Lancashire

A tranquil and delightful spot beside the river where the Romans built a small town and fort. The little museum contains one of the best exhibitions of sacred head carvings from the Celtic-Roman period, as well as other religious objects that bring alive the sacred landscape and stories of the Celts and Romans in Britain.

hang the heads of their captured enemies over the holy wells. The Romans banned this so the Celts carved heads and placed them around their holy wells instead. Walk beside the quiet river and explore the outline of this old settlement – and end up in a splendid pub.

2. Vortigern’s Castle and Tre’r Ceiri hill

Near Llanaelhaern, Llynn Peninsula, Gwynedd.

Tre’r Ceiri hilltop is crowned by the most perfectly preserved Iron Age town in Britain. You can walk down the streets and wander into the remains of the houses and barns that were lived in 2000 years ago, or climb the town walls and see the magnificent views. From here you descend towards the sea to find the site of the mystical castle of Vortigern. Vortigern was one of the last Roman rulers of Britain who in 450 AD invited the first Anglo-Saxon hordes to come to Britain to help him fight his enemies.

The Anglo-Saxons never left and eventually drove the Celtic Romans out of England and into wild Wales. Legend has it that Merlin came here because Vortigern was trying to build a castle but every night it collapsed. Merlin went into a trance and saw that there were two dragons living at the bottom of a pool beneath where Vortigern wanted to build the foundations. In his trance he saw the red dragon overcome by the white dragon – the Celtic Romans overcome by the Anglo-Saxon invaders. But then he saw the red dragon rise up and defeat the white dragon. This is why the flag of Wales is a red dragon.

Now the place is overgrown, but as you descend the road (try and do it on foot) towards what is now a Welsh language centre, there is a sense of arriving somewhere that is back in time.

3. St Ninian’s Cave, Whithorn, Dumfries and Galloway

This ancient pilgrimage site is spectacular in its setting and in its sense of spirituality. An ancient tradition is that as you walk along the beach to the cave you look out for pebbles upon which there is a cross, created millions of years ago by quart in the rock.

A tremendous fusion of nature, evolution and spirituality.

4. Priddy, Somerset

Probably one of the most extraordinary ancient landscapes in Britain, yet it is almost unknown. On the hill above the village are the Nine Barrows – a long line of barrows with a smaller line running parallel. What moves me here is that they seem to be all from the same period. Are they the burial mounds of great warriors after some terrible battle 3,500 years ago in Stone Age times? Was this the Royal Burial Ground for a dynasty now lost to time? Just across the road from them, but now barely visible (though very clear on Google Earth) are the Priddy Circles – huge circles cut into the ground. This is a bleak area so why was it also considered so sacred so long ago? I don’t know, but I like going there to try and work it out, before heading to the pub in Priddy or into the delights of Wells nearby.

5. Knowlton, the Gussages and the Dorset Cursus, Dorset

The Cursus is a prehistoric monument just over six miles long and about six to seven feet tall and at times 100 yards wide, which runs up and down the landscape. Built around 3300 BC no-one knows what it was for but the whole landscape is filled with burial mounds so it probably has a role in ritual and in sacred rites.

Down in the valley of the river Gussage are three villages named All Saints, after those who will pray for you; St Michael who will fight evil for you and protect you in this life and the next; and St Andrew who, as one of the friends of Jesus, will stand beside you in Heaven. All to do with death and its meaning for life. Here also are 4,500 year old henges and in the middle of one of these is the ruins of a medieval church.

The whole area is a wonderful reminder that the quest for spiritual answers to the meaning of life, about death and whether there is anything beyond death, and about who we are and why we are here has been going on in our landscape for at least 6,000 years and probably a lot longer. Walking here you know that asking those questions is part of what makes us human and finding different answers has helped us to understand a bit more about who we are.

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.


More like this

For more closely-guarded intell from travel industry professionals read our Insider Secrets blog

Sacred LandMartin Palmer on Britain's Sacred Britain

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


Wales5 things to do in Wales

Whether you’re after a wilderness escape or a slick city break, Wales has something for every type of traveller   More


Cornwall13 things to do in Cornwall this summer

As thousands descend on Cornwall's fishing villages, winding alleyways and the dreaded A30, we look at some unmissable things to do in the sea-bordered county More

Related Articles