Pilgrims, not Tourists

January 20, 2022

I've come up on to Anglezarke Moor this morning to write this blog and am sitting in one of my favourite writing spots amongst the ruins of an old farmstead looking out across the moorland. I never fail to find my inspiration from places that are high up in the hills or mountains, and am not alone in this. I know many people who also reflect and receive revelations when they are out in the wild places. Maybe it's because we are closer to the gods. Maybe it's because of the wilderness. Maybe it's a bit of both.

Perhaps it's no coincidence then that Jason and I run our The Way of the Buzzard retreats in these wild places, on the side of mountains, overlooking mountains, hidden within the mountains. If you are intrigued to find out what happens during these deep experiences together in community out in wild places, read on.

Soul work

Something transformational happens when we visit a landscape with a particular intention. This is different to being a tourist. The Oxford Dictionary defines a tourist as: 'a person who is travelling or visiting a place for pleasure’. Yes, when we go away on our retreats, we do have a lot of fun, but there is a deeper intention behind the experience. We aren’t tourists, we are pilgrims.

The Oxford Dictionary defines a pilgrim as: 'someone who journeys to a sacred place for religious reasons’. I will rephrase this for our purposes and replace the word religious for spiritual: 'someone who journeys to a sacred place for spiritual reasons’.

When we approach the land with the intention of doing soul work, something changes. I noticed this when Jason and I started to run ceremonies at stone circles. Until that point, I used to visit stone circles on every holiday and day trip I made into the national parks, but I visited as a tourist and found I didn’t know what to do when I got there. I could see the other tourists felt the same: they would walk the circumference of the circle looking at each of the stones, stop briefly to take in the view and then wander off back to the car.

When we ran our full moon ceremonies at Arbor Low stone circle, this changed for me. Arbor Low is a stone circle in Derbyshire, located 10 miles southeast of Buxton. It is a large stone circle and has an incredible outlook, but isn’t as frequently visited as others because the stones are lying flat on the ground. This is good for us as it’s always nice and quiet up there!

We arranged gatherings at Arbor Low to work with the energies of the land, moon and sun, guided by what we had learned through our shamanic training with Jayne Johnson and Ceremony training with Glennie Kindred and Annie Keeling. Arbor Low is located on the convergence of several ley lines. Where the energy is heightened at these points, our brainwave frequency changes, and it's easier to hear the messages from the Otherworld.  During these full moon and sabbat festival gatherings we celebrated, reflected, journeyed, asked for guidance, drummed and sang songs.

A few years after we started to hold these ceremonies, we began to run retreats out in the beautiful landscapes of the northwest of England. It was then that we noticed the same shift was happening in people when we gathered in community in these places. When we approached the land with a spiritual intention: the land spoke back, and nature spoke back.

Community in wild places

So, this is one of the reasons why we are passionate about gathering people and creating community in wild places. Here in Britain, as all the land is managed, we don’t have true wilderness. However, in the far-away places nestled in the uplands of our national parks, we can come closer to the wild.

Then, we were devastated at the start of the pandemic in spring 2020. We had a full retreat programme booked for the year, beginning with our Space to Emerge micro-festival great runaway to the woods in the Lake District. When the pandemic struck, we could no longer run our events. Now, after a two-year break, we are itching to get back out there with everyone. So, despite the uncertainty that the pandemic still holds over us, we are gearing up to go back out to create community in beautiful places once again, meeting with soulful intention. After all, what can be more natural than gathering together in community in this way? It's how our distant ancestors lived, and it feels important that we do all we can to reclaim this back.

Each retreat has a slightly different focus, but they are all around tuning in with the wisdom of nature, our spirit guides, our higher selves and the land to help move our soul an inch or two closer to where it wants to be.

We reclaim a little from what we no longer do very much in our modern-day culture. We gather around the campfire and stare into the flames, listening to stories, drumming and singing songs. We watch the sunset over Lake Windemere or behind Ingleborough Mountain as the moon rises and the stars appear one by one. We swim in rivers, lakes and waterfalls. And we feast together, sharing delicious, nourishing food.

Woodland hideaway

Over the May Day bank holiday weekend we disappear into the woods to bathe in bluebell perfume. Almost forty years ago, woodland owner Barry had the foresight to buy Fell Foot Wood, which runs up the hillside overlooking Lake Windemere, and create an outdoor event venue but with a twist. The space he has created here is quite incredible and just perfect for what we are looking for.

Beltane is one of the old Celtic fire festivals. It marks the time when the Ice Queen is fended off by the Green Man, who wins the battle and then dresses the land with his green cloak over the next few weeks. We gather to tune into these energies, ready to launch ourselves into the warm months of the year.

In the heart of the sixty-acre woodland, we have the Glade, where we gather in the evenings as a larger community of two hundred people. Everybody disappears to our workshop tents and sacred spaces in the woods in the daytime. We are lucky to have so many special places to spend time in this woodland. If you climb to the top of the site, you will find the Yew Tree Grove.

This is where we have our male altar to the Green Man, under the thick canopy of five yew trees. We share this space with a pair of Tree creepers. These little brown birds make their way up the tree trunks each morning in spirals looking for their breakfast, which is a treat to watch.

A little way down the hill, after catching views over lake Windermere you will find our labyrinth. This is an ancient pattern we mark out on the grass next to a babbling mountain stream that is ripe for dipping your feet into. A labyrinth is a meditation walk, a mini-pilgrimage in its own right. This sunny woodland glade is another space for quiet contemplation.

Further down the hill, we have the moon pond and female altar, which we dedicate to the Earth. Many of us gather here first thing in the morning to sing Earth songs, joining in with the tail end of the dawn chorus. The birds stay with us, singing from the tops of the trees.

At the lower level of the woodland, we have the stone circle. This is a place for gatherings close to the heart of the site. And, should you want to freshen up, Lake Windemere is just a ten-minute walk from this spot.

Space to Emerge is a coming together of people awakening to a different sense of being. This is a time for rest and recuperation, for self-healing and the friendship of a community of like-minded souls who will then step back into the world with renewed courage and vision. It is a space where people can listen to their inner wisdom and find the courage to take the next step on their path through life. Folk spend their day in a whole range of workshops, from movement to craft, meditation to drumming, then gather together in the evenings for fireside stories and music. This year the New Moon coincides with Beltane eve on Saturday night, so we are in for a special treat as the solar and lunar cycles converge.

Lying in wildflower meadows

At our Summer Solstice retreat to the Yorkshire Dales, we spend our weekend at the beautiful Lower Winskill Farm. It's a craggy landscape nestled in the upper valleys, with limestone pavements and outcrops across the eighty acres of farmland. Tom, the farmer, has been the caretaker of these beautiful meadows for over thirty years. Using traditional farming techniques, he looks after for his meadows with the same tenderness that he does for his sheep. These pastures are rich in wildflower species that were flowering when the land was farmed centuries ago. It is an important resource for our country as the seeds are harvested and included in native wildflower seed packs to re-establish traditional wildflower meadows.

Tom is an admitted butterfly farmer. His fields are teeming with insects pollinating the plants. Here we can lie in these wildflower meadows, watching the bees, butterflies, and other insects move from flower to flower.

We are treated to perhaps one of the Yorkshire Dales' greatest spectacles in the evening: the sun setting behind Ingleborough mountain. We have our campfire in the meadow overlooking Ingleborough and drum the sundown at the Summer Solstice, on or as close to the Solstice as we can get. As the sun reaches its peak in the sky, the energy at this time of year is at its height. Perfect for tuning into our creative selves.

And there is a beautiful waterfall just thirty minutes stroll along the limestone pavements and green lanes. Catrigg Foss has been voted one of England’s top ten most beautiful waterfalls. Perfect for a mid-weekend dip to freshen up, or just to take yourself off and enjoy the walk there and watch the dippers as they forage for food along the river bed.

Tree speak

The Cae Mabon retreat centre in Snowdonia is another jewel in our British landscape. This is a new venue to us but we know when we arrive it will feel like another homecoming.

Nestled in the lower valley of Mount Snowdon, the highest mountain in Wales, it's an oasis of hobbit houses and wooden cabins, the heart of the woodland where there is a roundhouse. Our ‘Beneath the Emerald Boughs’ retreat is a smaller gathering of around thirty people who have come together for a deep experience running over a long weekend at Lammas.

Lammas is another Celtic fire festival, with a different energy to Beltane, where we celebrate the first harvest. Over this gathering, we will tune in with the trees, and bend our ears and listen to what they have to say to us. We will be held in the loving energy of Hawthorn, learn what Birch has to say about nourishing ourselves and Oak about strength and building good foundations. Again, there will be stories and songs around the campfire in the evening, with our bellies full of delicious home-cooked food.

The holy

Our wild places are holy places, for within the wild we can look into the eyes of the divine, god, great spirit, the creator, whatever you want to call that universal energy that is behind creating life, the Earth and ultimately the universe. Where better to find ourselves than in the wild places, the beautiful places, the places that ignite a bone memory of a time when we were living close to nature, when we were nature, before the trappings of the modern-day world took hold. That world might seem like it is all but lost, but we can claim it back: we can go to sacred places in nature together and have soulful times. Together in these special places away from the artificial constructs of Western civilisation, we can remember what it is really like to be a human on Earth.

So, are you tempted to join us? We would love to share these weekends with you. We know it is an effort to get to these places, but it's so worth it. The land responds to our efforts, and our spirit guides see the commitment we show when we step up and make the pilgrimage.

Ancient trackways

Our landscape here in Britain is crisscrossed with hundreds if not thousands of ancient trackways leading to special places: sacred places. These paths are whispers from a time long ago when pilgrimage was an important part of culture.

The alignments of ancient stone circles and other megaliths from thousands of years ago tell us something important. They show us that there were certain times in the year when groups of people gathered together to carry out ceremonies and connect with each other and the Other.

One of my favourite books is the Sun and the Serpent, written by dowsers Hamish Miller and Paul Broadhurst. It documents the Michael and Mary ley lines that run from the easternmost point of Britain, in East Anglia, down to the most south-westerly point in Cornwall. There are many places en-route where these male and female lines converge, and this is where the earth energies are at their strongest. One of these places is Avebury.

At the end of the book Hamish and Paul use their artistic licence to describe the Beltane ceremony that was performed at Avebury and connected with points along the Michael-Mary line. They describe how fires were lit at beacon points at the moment when the sun rose on the eastern point of Britain. Avebury marks the centre point location, and it was here that a great fertility festival was held. Reading Hamish and Pauls interpretation of this spectacle is a feast for the imagination. It was the first time that ceremony and landscape came alive for me.

There was a time when our ancestors lived close to the soil, when aligning with the Earth's cycles and aligning with nature held great importance to them. These people made pilgrimages along ancient tracks to converge together in community, walking hundreds of miles. Why would they go to such efforts if it wasn’t of significance?

In our small way here at The Way of the Buzzard we are rekindling this ancient tradition. By coming together at heightened points in the solar calendar, conducting ceremonies, working together with intention and finding a little more of ourselves, we are rekindling what was once lost to us, forbidden even.

As Freddy Silva, author of Legacy of the Gods: The Origin of Sacred Sites and the Rebirth of Ancient Wisdom, says:

“Unless the myths are preserved, the rites performed and the sites maintained as spirit sanctuaries, the living bond is broken, man and nature are separated, and neither man or nature has any assurance of life in the future.”

Come and join us at Beltane and the New Moon, the Summer Solstice and Lammas. Let’s be pilgrims together, journey to the wild places and following our souls pull where it wants us to reside.

Links to our retreat information

Follow these links to find out more about the three retreats we talk about here in this blog:

Space to Emerge: Friday 29th April to Monday 2nd May 2022

Flight of the Solstice Swallow retreat : Friday 24th to Sunday 26th June 2022

Beneath the Emerald Boughs: Friday 29th July to Monday 1st August 2022

About the Author


Nicola Smalley is an edge-dweller, shamanic practitioner and writer living in Anglezarke on the edge of the West Pennine Moors in Lancashire, England.
Following a career in corporate sustainability, she now runs The Way of the Buzzard with her husband Jason. Her passion is anything connected to nature and the mysteries of the Earth.

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  1. Great blog Nicola, as always. What you say about being a tourist really rang true for me. I've never really thought about the difference between pilgrim & tourist before, but it makes perfect sense. I've visited special places & have felt a little disappointed at not getting a real feel for the place, sensing a true connection. Now I see why.

    I've never been on any type of retreat or community gathering before but I've booked my place on The Emerald Boughs & can't wait. Unfortunately I can't attend Space to Emerge but I eagerly await booking details for the Summer Solstice retreat.

    I've spent way too long on my path alone & relish the thought of spending quality spiritual time with like minded people. Connecting with so many other people online via TWOTB fills me with positivity & hope that there are enough folk across the world ready to reclaim our ancient past & reconnect with nature. Exciting times lay ahead.

    1. Hello Gaynor, I have loved reading your note here. Thank you for sharing! Coming together in community in this way to rekindle the old ways – with your modern day interpretation – is so nurturing. We are very much looking forward to sharing this with you and delighted you are joining us for our Emerald Boughs retreat. The details for our Solstice retreat will be out on Monday. Roll on summer 🙂

  2. A really thoroughly enjoyable read, I really hope I am able to join you in Yorkshire this year. Love being a part of The Buzzard, so love all the information and book recommendations. Ley lines I am so fascinated with and have been for the last 10 years, so I have The Sun and the Serpent on my book wish list. Thank you, Much love.

    1. Oh I recon you will LOVE Sun and the Serpent then Bethan 🙂
      Thank you for your kind feedback here – we really appreciate hearing your thoughts, and shall look forward to sharing time in the Yorkshire Dales if you are able to join us!

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