The sacred sites of Britain

Tomorrow sees the launch of a huge project to protect stone circles, ruined abbeys and sanctified sites around the world. Paul Vallely expands on the definition of sacred and suggests some precious places of his own
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Just to be on the safe side they took the statue and burned it publicly in Smithfield as if it were a living heretic. The object in question was the Black Virgin of Willesden which had apparently drifted miraculously up from the bottom of a holy well in the 12th century and had become the centre of a cult of healing and the focus of pilgrimage. At the Reformation the early English Protestants did not, of course, believe that the lump of wood possessed any supernatural powers, but it was best not to take any chances.

For the next 400 years the well remained sealed beneath the 10th century church of St Mary's in the north London suburb - though until 1902 the parish had to pay an annual fine of pounds 1 6s 0d, originally imposed by Henry VIII, in penance for having ever given the statue nave-room.

Tomorrow the Archbishop of Canterbury will visit the re-opened well, with its new black madonna, to bless the waters in the company of representatives of eight other faiths - from Baha'i to Taoist - in the launch of an international Sacred Land project which seeks to protect sanctified sites in more than nine different countries.

The enterprise is something of a success even before it begins. With a five-year budget in this country of pounds 750,000 - backed by the Duke of Edinburgh and funded by the Worldwide Fund for Nature, the Pilkington Foundation and the Japanese organic agriculture giant MOA International - it set out to sponsor 2,000 sites by the year 2000 but has adopted 700 already and is now aiming for 5,000 in the UK alone.

But in addition to the predictable stone circles, ruined abbeys, sacred groves, holy wells and old pilgrimage routes its organisers have decided - in pursuit of their claim that everyone in the country is within 10 miles of a sacred site - that they have to invent some new ones. "The creation of new sacred places, particularly in urban areas," is one of the project's bullet-point aims.

You might think they would have no trouble in finding icons of our modern secular idolatries. How about a shrine at the legendary Mr Sifter's shop where the Oasis songwriter Noel Gallagher bought music when he was 16? Or the King's Road where Kate Moss and other queens of the catwalk were first spotted by fashion scouts? Or the square foot of turf at Selhurst Park where Manchester United's David Beckham scored from the half-way line on the first day of the season? Or, for those who locate sanctity in the innocence of childhood, the bridge in Ashdown Forest where Pooh sticks were invented.

This is not quite what they have in mind. At the launch of the Sacred Land project in Scotland last week the main ceremony took place in the town square in the ancient burgh of Wigtown, a depressed little place where unemployment is high, shops are boarded up and the town centre is empty.

Local worthy Andrew Patterson (a former clergyman and now an SNP councillor) spoke of the dereliction in the heart of the town since changes in agriculture forced the closure of its two creameries producing worse social indicators than urban problem areas like Toxteth. The Lord Lieutenant, Major Edward Orr Ewing, read out a letter from Prince Philip underscoring the close relationship between religions and their attitude to conservation. And the project's guiding light, Martin Palmer, insisted that in a place like this "it isn't enough just to do an urban redevelopment plan; if it's sacred we walk more gently and are God-guided in what we do to our surroundings".

All of which sounds a bit metaphysical for a fairly simple redesign of the gardens at the centre of the square and its adjoining market cross. What was sacred about that?

"We use sacred and special interchangeably," Palmer explains to quell my scepticism. The trouble is that while few would object to the project's three main aims - the protection of historic sites, wildlife conservation and urban regeneration - linking them together in situations which are in some cases rather tenuous is an invitation to all kinds of New Age guffery.

Palmer, who is director of the International Consultancy on Religion, Education and Culture and religious adviser to Prince Philip, has a wide view of what makes a sacred space. "Places can be holy through association; the River Jordan is just a muddy little stream compared with the Tigris, Euphrates or Nile but something special happened there. Places can be hallowed by prayer like Canterbury, which has nothing physically significant but is a place to which people went to pray for centuries. Or they can be inherently sacred like the druidic Silent Pool near Guildford, the island of Iona or St Ninian's cave at Whithorn.

He has a point there. Whithorn has plenty of history. It is the site of the oldest monastery in the UK, on the Galloway peninsula where Christianity survived in an ancient form outside the jurisdiction of Roman Britain when that outpost of empire fell to the barbarian hordes. And it is living history. Its archaeologist, Peter Hill, has been only this month piecing together a new theory from a reinterpretation of fourth-century stone inscriptions which suggest it may have survived as an outpost of Pelagian heretics. There, on a site which has been the focus of pilgrimage for 1600 years, Sacred Land is developing a Celtic monastic herbarium.

But it is half-an-hour's walk away, on the huge-pebbled foreshore of wide grey sea, that the true enchantment of Whithorn is to be found. At the Western extremity of the beach the eye is ineluctably drawn to the black mouth of the cave to which Ninian, the first bishop of the community, retreated for prayer. It stands at the foot of a huge gash in the rust- orange cliffside whose expanse is broken only by the odd tenacious fern and the pebbles placed in its crevices by pilgrims - pebbles which, thanks to the peculiar geology of the region, can be found with veins of intruded rock which form the shape of a cross. But its power comes from its isolation, from its uninterrupted vista of the horizon across which the sun rises, and from a silence broken only by the hiss of the waves drawing back across the stones and the cries of the kittiwakes that wheel overhead.

By the side of it the plans for Wigtown seem paltry. Andrew Patterson seeks refuge in theology, quoting Martin Luther's line "Where is God not?" This is, after all, a man who when he was a minister once told daydreamers during one of his sermons that they would be "better in the pub thinking about the church than to be in the church thinking about the pub".

But if God is to be found everywhere why are people - the agnostic as well as the religious - so drawn to places like Ninian's Cave?

It is a Buddhist nun who supplies the answer. Despite her shaven head and her wine-coloured habit, she introduces herself in a rich Highland burr as Ani Lhamo, though she eventually reveals that her mother, after eight years as a nun, still calls her Edith. Her Tibetan lama, Yeshe Losal, from the Samye Ling Tibetan Buddhist Centre in Dumfries, had been speaking of another Sacred Land project - to build a Buddhist retreat centre on Holy Island, off Arran. He was drawn to the place by a "strong warm feeling" which he said emanated from a hermit, St Molaise, who had lived there in the 6th century. A place where a great person retrained their mind and became very pure, he explained, retains something of them after they have gone.

"Ultimately everywhere is sacred," added Ani. "It's just that we are so imperfect that we can't see it. So we needed to find a place like this, and each of us will need to find somewhere different."

Such sacred places, says Martin Palmer, are signs that people have been grappling for thousands of years with the religious quest - and they have an added importance for those who live in a secular world which dismisses such notions. "They are places where we encounter something powerful," says Palmer. "Today many people - including many in the Church - are afraid of powerful language. But we surrender our powerful places to New Agers and fancy dress specialists at our risk."

Yet it is precisely to such romantic Aquarian nonsense that a project like Sacred Land is vulnerable. It is not helped by supporters who speak about "vibes and mega-vibes" or like the environmentalist David Bellamy, who talks of the sacred in terms of a "tingle" and says sacred places must have "an aura of peace and tranquillity, a sense of being safe". For the truly sacred must encompass not safety but attraction, dread and exhilaration beyond reason's grasp - what the ancients called the mysterium tremendum et fascinans.

In the sacred is a sense of the unpredictable and the not-to-be-touched but also a sense of empowerment. It is a place which enables change and sends the affected individual out to affect change elsewhere. It is the opposite of safe. It is precisely the sense of "I am not like this" which seizes the individual awed by the view from a mountain top or even by the power of a work of art. If it is a place where the veil between heaven and earth is particularly thin it is so because it enables us to sense new possibilities, to break step with our mundane realities and envisage something which transcends them.

Of course the numinous is subjective. Which is why some will reasonably hold as a sacred spot the clock at Old Trafford which stands, stopped, at the time the club's team perished in the Munich air crash. For those whose youth was encapsulated in the music of Marc Bolan the tree into which his car crashed on Barnes common does that, and the rest of us should not mock.

For others it might be the Kop at Liverpool or the Abbey Road zebra crossing which interrupts the quotidian and opens that window into another world. Perhaps, even, it is not just metaphor to speak of the "hallowed wicket" at Lord's in homage of that game which the English, not being a spiritual people, invented in order to give themselves some conception of eternity.

But in Wigtown, by the market cross? Perhaps Andrew Patterson knows something the rest of us don't.