Britain's Holiest Places: Book offers insight into U.K. faith travel spots

This is a great year to combine some memorable anniversary events with a tour of at least some of the sites related to Britain’s cache of Christian heritage.

WASHINGTON, January 17, 2012 – Britain is or should be on most faith travelers’ bucket lists, because it has hundreds of sites and stories from nearly two millennia of Christian history.

This is a great year to combine some memorable anniversary events with a tour of at least some of the sites related to Britain’s cache of Christian heritage.

You might combine the faith places with events like Charles Dickens 200th Birthday (February 7 in Kent); Sailing of the Titanic, 100th (April in Belfast); The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee (June 2-5 in London); The Beatles’ 50th Anniversary (all year in Liverpool); and the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games (July 27-August 12). More commemorative options area at

Among the resources for faith tours study is a new book - Britain’s Holiest Places –  by a Church of England lay minister Nick Mayhew Smith. The author spent several years trekking the land and came up with the over 500 sites he includes in the book.

“The result of my research is a guide to more than 500 places where anyone can go and immerse themselves in the timeless faith and traditions of unnumbered believers before us,” he wrote in a recent Independent Catholic News article. “We are lucky enough to have some of the earliest and most moving Christian artifacts and experiences to be found anywhere in the world.”

Among the sites Smith observes: 

Oldest Christian painting in the UK

Discovered in 1939 in the ruins of the Lullingstone Roman villa in Kent, the painting of six priests standing in the “Orantes” position of prayer is partially restored and resides in the British Museum. It is the oldest known Christian painting in Britain. The villa is also an attraction and is open most of the year.

Oldest saint’s shrine, St. Albans Cathedral in Hertfordshire

St. Alban is the first known martyr of the British Isles, killed during the era of Roman persecutions of Christians before the faith became legalized in the empire. Fragments of the medieval tomb structure that were smashed during the Reformation, were rediscovered and reassembled in 1993. The saint’s relic was restored to the site in 2002, creating a shrine from Christianity’s earliest years. The shrine in its original chapel within the Anglican cathedral is said to be the exact site where the saint died at the beginning of the 4th century.

Old Priory, Caldey IslandWales

The monastery on Caldey Island is nearly as ancient as the Celtic one on Scotland’s Isle of Iona. It was also abandoned during the Reformation era and put to agricultural use. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was revived.

Other Christian heritage sites in England’s North and Scotland include these standout places:

Northumbria and Iona

When King Oswald of Northumbria (604-642 AD) called for spiritual help, the far north of England had been for centuries a wild and warring pagan land along the modern borders of today’s Scotland. Saint Aiden, an Irish priest from Scotland’s monastic Iona island community, answered the king’s call and established his ministry on Lindisfarne Island – one of Britain’s earliest Christian centers. It became a base for missionary work throughout Europe. Today, Iona’s abbey is base for an active Celtic spiritual community and a popular day or overnight trip from the mainland.

A visit to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne can be a mysterious and foggy encounter with several era on the North Sea – or a sunlit beachside romp in the sun. Weather controls the experience. But it’s a unique place and worthy of a full day or preferably an overnight.

In the early 700s, an illuminated manuscript known as the Lindisfarne Gospels, a Latin copy of the Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, was likely made at Lindisfarne by Eadfrith who was a Bishop of Lindisfarne. In the tenth century, a monk named Aldred added Anglo-Saxon (Old English) to the Latin text, producing the earliest surviving English copies of the Gospels, now in London’s British Library.

Durham Castle and Cathedral

These magnificent sites are tied to Lindisfarne because when monks fled the island from Viking attack in the 9th century, they took the remains of St. Cuthbert, their beloved bishop, with them. Cuthbert’s cross and coffin are on display beneath these vaulted medieval walls which date to 1093.

The castle and cathedral comprise a UNESCO World Heritage site in Durham City, and are considered to be the finest examples in the world of the Norman period. The castle was built to protect the Bishop of Durham from attack. It has been occupied since 1840 by University CollegeDurhamCity, and is open for tours and low-rate B&B accommodations during university holidays.

For a comprehensive list of Britain’s Christian sites, visit

Read more of Ruth Hill’s columns at Contemporary Christian Travel in the Washington Times Communities.


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Ruth Hill

Ruth Hill writes for magazines and newspapers about the business and pleasures of travel. Read more about her views and news of Christian heritage travel around the world at

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