Britain's Holiest Places
The all-new guide to 500 sacred sites. Published in 2011

The guide to 2,000 years of Christian history... now on TV!

LATEST NEWS: Six-part TV series now showing on BBC Four. Thursdays at 8.30pm



Britain's Holiest Places has been turned into a major BBC television series, presented by the Welsh poet and broadcaster Ifor ap Glyn (pictured above left with author Nick Mayhew-Smith at Whitby Abbey). Nick acted as consultant on the series and also appears in the second episode, about water rituals.

The programme's quest to unearth Britain's hidden holy treasures was featured on the front page of the BBC News website on 12 March 2013. The TV series has attracted positive reviews and the first episode attracted double the channel's usual audience figures.

Showing on BBC Four at 8.30pm on Thursdays from 7 March 'Pagans and Pilgrims: Britain's Holiest Places' is a six-part series following the footsteps of our holy ancestors across some of the most beautiful and moving parts of Britain. The BBC website about the programme can be found here.

It follows a Welsh language programme broadcast by S4C in January and February 2013.

For BBC Four programme information click here

For S4C information and details of a free Welsh-language app accompanying the series click the link.

An English language app version of the book is currently under development by S4C and TV production company Cwmni Da; more details soon.

About the book and TV series

Former financial journalist Nick Mayhew Smith spent five summers visiting all corners of England, Scotland and Wales to research his book. 
And the fruits of his hard work – which often involved camping unglamorously in remote, muddy fields with just cows or sheep for company – is to be brought to life on our television screens in a unique six part series.

Pagans and Pilgrims: Britain’s Holiest Places, a joint commission from the BBC and SC4 (Welsh Channel 4), includes interviews with the Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, and the Dean of St Albans, Jeffrey John. Due to be broadcast on the evening of Maundy Thursday, the programme makes some eye-catching comments about the ongoing importance of saints and their shrines.

Archbishop Nichols makes the thought-provoking claim that the Reformation in England ended in the 1990’s. The pivotal moment, he says, was the funeral of Princess Diana, comparing the public's reverence for the memory of a much-loved figure with the tradition of venerating saints' shrines.

Jeffrey John gives a very moving account of how he and his cathedral have responded to the reappearance a decade ago of relics of St Alban, England’s first local saint and martyr, in their cathedral and worship after an absence of nearly 500 years.

The series casts a new light on some of Britain’s oldest stories, shedding light on some remarkable landscapes, eye-catching traditions and gloriously unexpected Christian rituals. “I will appear in the second episode, where we dip into the wonderful world of water rituals and sacred bathing here in Britain: this is Christian tradition at its most refreshingly unexpected and moving.

"From the first sighting of the Loch Ness Monster by a sixth century missionary, who supposedly drove the beastie away with the sign of the cross, to the oldest church in the country at Bradwell-on-Sea in Essex, there are some mysterious places and wonderful tales to enjoy.”

The series will be presented by the Welsh poet Ifor ap Glyn who last year hosted the critically acclaimed BBC4 series The Toilet: An Unspoken History.  Ifor comes from the Welsh Methodist independent chapel tradition which values simple church interiors and minimal ritual, and so has a fascinating personal journey exploring some of the more ornate rites and ancient rituals associated with our broader landscape and history.

Nick, who travelled with Ifor and the film crew as an advisor and associate producer throughout the series, recalls witnessing a ‘miracle’ during the filming – and how he and the team came close to disrobing for the cameras in the first programme:

“The ‘miracle’ occurred during filming on the Isle of Arran. We were walking along a remote stretch of coast when Ifor spotted a brand new £20 note floating on the water, undamaged by the sea. It reminded me of the Lindisfarne Gospels which were supposedly lost at sea for three days before being washed up, miraculously undamaged by the tide. Our own miraculous piece of beachcombing felt rather more worldly and materialistic, more so when it paid for a round of drinks in the pub the next evening!

“We wanted to recreate an authentic Roman era baptism for the sacred water episode, so visited an ancient holy pool, a very rare survivor from the early church, hidden away amid fields in Northumberland. The original baptism ceremony insisted on full nudity in public for all baptismal candidates. Ifor was game for the experience and I have long been ready to take the plunge, having written a book on skinny dipping 10 years ago, until we spotted a National Trust sign warning that the pool should not be disturbed because it was piped directly to domestic water supplies – so twenty-first century health and safety rules prevented our planned re-enactment of ancient ritual. Such is our loss of innocence!”

Britain’s Holiest Places is broadcast during the six weeks around Easter 2013. Other shrines and sacred places visited during the filming of the series include:

o Barnes, South West London - the roadside shrine to poet and glam rock singer Marc Bolan at the site of his death in a car accident in 1977 

o Roche Chapel, St Austell - remote and other-worldly as it appears in the movie Omen 111, the Final Conflict 

o Ingleby Anchor Church in south Derbyshire - the rarest of rudimentary churches, carved into a remote riverside cave where hermits once hid from the world

o Pendle Hill in east Lancashire - a curious landmark that inspired George Fox to establish the Quaker movement 

o Kendrick's Cave in Llandudno north Wales - traces of ritual burial dating back 14,000 years

o Glasgow Cathedral - the grand final resting place of St Mungo, the city's first inhabitant whose mass pilgrimage laid the foundations for the city's origins

o Lady Julian's shrine in Norwich - the tiny church room where the first female English author chose to be bricked up to live in devout contemplation for thirty years

o Buxton holy well - where Buxton mineral water is drawn and bottled.  But we discover that our modern-day love of bottled spring water has roots stretching back to before the Romans.

“Notwithstanding the sacred nature of the sites revisited for the television series, the locations are amongst the most evocative and tranquil parts of Britain, many lovingly cared for today by English Heritage and the National Trust,” says Nick.

“These are places where natural beauty and lingering traces of ancient devotions combine. It is a world that is so much more appealing than the sterile debates about religion in the media today. Britain's religious history is mostly Christian, but it is far more diverse and provocative than you would expect. We also visit sites touched by even older pagan rituals and design and visit a Celtic hermit’s remote island that is now a thriving Buddhist retreat.

“So much is written across our beautiful landscape, so many stories and beliefs that embrace creation and the chaos of human existence in all their glory. No-one climbs a mountain or rows to an island to pray today, but we show some extraordinary places where our ancestors did just that. With a bit of imagination and a love of natural wonder you can still use all these amazing holy sites for an unforgettable spiritual experience – as Ifor himself discovers again and again.”


Britain's Holiest Places is available from all major bookshops, either in store or on request, and from dozens of cathedral, church and Christian bookshops throughout the country. Or you can order your copy on Amazon.co.uk
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