Whether it’s to rediscover long-hidden history, for faith, fitness or just for fun, a new collection of Catholic walking pilgrimage routes in England and Wales can now be found online.

‘Hearts in Search of God’ is a three-year project to encourage people of all faiths and none to experience a pilgrimage walk in their own locality. The combination of ancient and modern ways are mini versions of the long and arduous journeys across Europe which mediaeval and more recently celebrity pilgrims have trodden.

The Ways start at each of the 22 Catholic Cathedrals in England and Wales and strike out through town and countryside to one or more the local Shrines. The shortest distance is just 10 miles - easily achievable in a day. The new routes are greener too. Walking to some of Christendom’s holiest sites can mean beginning or ending the journey with an inter-continental flight - but local pilgrims leave much smaller carbon footprints.

The website listing the new routes was launched today. www.pilgrimways.org.uk provides walking guides, GPX files, prayers and other resources for the inner and outer journeys on the largely off-road paths and tracks. There are downloadable ‘Pilgrim Passports’ and at the end of your walk, you can get an official certificate, like the ‘testimonium’ available at the end of the Camino di Santiago de Compostela and the Via Francigena, as seen in the BBC TV series, Pilgrimage.

The man behind this project is retired GP Dr Phil McCarthy. Phil walked from Canterbury to Rome in 2008 and from Rome to Istanbul in 2015. Despite sciatica, he has so far walked seven of the Ways and plans to complete the rest over the next two years. A former CEO of Caritas Social Action Network (CSAN), Phil says: ‘I hope the Ways might be useful to Catholic charities for fundraising walks, but you don’t have to be formally religious or be walking as part of a big group to follow these Ways.

'Walking allows us all to pay attention, to notice small things and to enjoy ordinary places. I hope the new Pilgrim Ways will be an opportunity for Christians to deepen their faith, but also for people of all faiths and none to experience a pilgrimage in a Catholic context and with the minimum of financial and environmental cost.

‘To go on pilgrimage is to participate in a practice which is ancient and universal.  Walking pilgrimages are slow, humble journeys in constant contact with the Earth. They encourage awe at the magnificence of creation. As pilgrims, we are marginal people, always on the move, vulnerable to the elements and dependent on the kindness of strangers. We make these “covenantal journeys” because we walk where others have trod in the hope that many will follow.’

The inspiration and name for the ‘Hearts in Search of God’ initiative comes from Pope Francis' words about pilgrims: ‘Whoever they may be — young or old, rich or poor, sick and troubled or curious tourists — let them find due welcome, because in every person there is a heart in search of God, at times without being fully aware of it.’

Pilgrim Ways