If you are a committed Christian looking for a romantic location to take your partner on a date with a difference, the choices are many.
Of course, the Christian couples enjoy wine bars, restaurants, theatres and cinemas as much as anyone else; but there are times when the very nature of location and landscape can heighten the sense of spirituality and create a wonderful feeling of human intimacy overarched by the sense of a nearness to God.
Man’s devotion down the centuries has both shaped our natural landscape and created some extraordinary features within it.
Today, that very devotion still resonates for all those who are able to open their eyes and their hearts to the love which inspired it. Here are just a few of the places which will bring you and your loved one nearer to one another – and nearer to the eternal truth.
Church of St Thomas a Beckett, Fairfield, East Sussex
Situated seemingly in the middle of nowhere, tiny Fairfield Church sits solidly and in splendid isolation in the middle of Walland Marsh – next to the better known Romney Marsh.
The village of Fairfield has long since disappeared and, today, this squat little House of God is surrounded by dykes, waterways and a seemingly limitless prospect of green grass and blue sky.
Sheep graze peacefully even up to the church door. Believed to have had its origins in the 13th Century, the church was encased in protective brick 100 years ago to preserve it.
Inside there is a black and white photo of worshippers arriving there by boats when the land was completely flooded in the 1960s.
The church is accessed over fields from a remote lane on the road between the villages of Brookland and Brenzett. Strangely, this little island of tranquillity and devotion is not well-known and there’s a very good chance the visitor will have the place to themselves.
Cathedral of the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God and Holy Royal Martyrs, West London
When it comes to sacred music, there’s nothing to compare with the voices that soar into the very dome of a Russian Orthodox Church.
It’s music that has a depth and a richness which touches the soul of even the most world-weary cynic. This cathedral, with its blue onion dome with golden stars, with its white exterior and fantastic interior of iconography is visually stunning, too.
The London Russian Orthodox Church Parish is one of the oldest in Western Europe and dates back to the 17th Century when Peter the Great visited England. For many, the services and rituals will seem strange but simply to stand quietly on the sidelines and listen to the voices raised in praise will be one of the most powerful and moving experiences of your life.
This is the ancient land of Avalon where sacred sites abound. More famous today across the world because of the rock festival at nearby Worthie farm, Glastonbury has been a place of pilgrimage and devotion for time out of mind.
The ruins of the abbey date from the 12th Century and it is said that King Arthur and his queen Guinevere were buried below the high altar.
Glastonbury Tor dominates the landscape for miles around.There is also a legend that Joseph of Arimathea, the man who donated his pre-prepared tomb to receive the body of the crucified Jesus, travelled to Britain and to Glastonbury bringing with him the Holy Grail.
Indeed, legend has it that the Holy Grail itself is still hidden somewhere on the site of the abbey. These may be myths and legends but they have imbued the place with a unique sense of spirituality to go with its natural beauty.
This beautiful tidal island off the coast of Northumberland is also known as Holy Island. The monastery on the island was founded by the Irish Saint Aidan who was sent from the Scottish island of Iona. It then became a centre for the evangelising of much of Northern and Eastern England.
It was on the island also that the magnificent Lindisfarne Gospels were created, probably in the 700s. The illuminated and illustrated manuscripts were Latin representations of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Despite raids by the Vikings, the community and monastery survived.
Today, there is an old-world peace on the island with much to see and do. At low tide it is possible to walk from the mainland and back again using a marked route known as The Pilgrims’ Way. There are even raised platforms along the way for those who have miscalculated time and tide and do not relish completing their journey by swimming!
St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall
At the other end of England – and about as far away from Lindisfarne as it’s possible to get – is St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall. Like Lindisfarne, it played host to a monastery and was also a destination for pilgrims – a kinder one, too, as Cornwall enjoys a sub-tropical climate thanks to the Gulf Stream waters while Lindisfarne sits in the chilly North Sea.
The church built on the summit of the island is truly a feat of engineering and was built after the Norman Invasion when St Michael’s Mount was given to the Benedictine Abbey at Mont St Michel in France.
However, the place had already been a place of pilgrimage for hundreds of years as it was said that the Archangel St Michael had appeared to local fishermen in the 5th Century. Today, the sense of history is still imbued with a sense of ageless spirituality.
The George Inn, Southwark
A famous old pub, The George holds two claims to fame. In its own right the George is indisputably one of the oldest pubs in London. Established in the medieval period on Borough High Street, Southwark, the pub is currently owned and leased by the National Trust.
It is located on the south side of the Thames near London Bridge and is the only surviving galleried London coaching inn. The first map of Southwark clearly shows it marked as ‘Gorge’. It was formerly known as the George and Dragon. Its second claim to fame is that it is right next door to the site of another famous pub, The Tabard Inn, immortalised in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The Tabard stood in Talbot yard next to The George.
It was destroyed by fire in 1669 after having stood for centuries following its construction by the Abbot of Hyde who wanted somewhere to stay when business took him to the capital. He also wanted to create a resting place for those about to leave London on the pilgrimage to the shrine of Thomas a Beckett at Canterbury Cathedral.
Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire
Not, perhaps, the most famous cathedral in England but certainly one of the most spectacular. It’s known as the ‘Ship of the Fens’ and was utterly dominant in the landscape. It was said that, right across the flat Fenlands, when people raised their eyes to the horizon the majestic shape of the cathedral was what they saw sailing, apparently, in the sea of green.
The building was started in 1083, escaped relatively lightly from the destructive excesses of the Commonwealth period and even features a magnificent Gothic door on the northern side which was designed by one Christopher Wren who was the nephew of the then Bishop of Ely, Matthew Wren, and who, of course, went on to spectacular success with St Paul’s Cathedral.
Ely is also close to the university city of Cambridge – perfect for walking or even punting on the River Cam.
Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh
Edinburgh is a vibrant city with stacks to see and do. However, one of the sweetest and most poignant sites to visit there is a rather grand grave just inside the gate of Greyfriars Kirkyard. This is not a human burial, though, for the engraved granite tombstone commemorates a little dog.
Greyfriars Bobby was the faithful companion of a policeman in the city called John Gray. After the death of his master the faithful Skye Terrier stood guard over the grave for nearly 15 years until he died in 1872.
Today there is a monument of statue and fountain – actually Edinburgh’s smallest listed building – commemorating the dog’s loyalty at nearby Candlemaker Row. There is even a pub called the Greyfriars Bobby where a toast can be raised to a simple loyalty and devotion that can serve as a lesson to everyone.
St Non’s Well, St David’s
Set in beautiful countryside, close to cliffs above the blue waters of the Atlantic on the St David’s Peninsula, this discreet little well celebrates St Non who was the mother of St David himself, the patron saint of Wales.
A short way from the chapel of St Non a small stream emerges from a stone archway. The well’s reputation as a wishing well, and the use of its waters to cure various complaints, goes back into the depths of time and continued well into the 18th Century when repairs were made to the structure. In its present form St. Non’s Well dates from 1951, when the Roman Catholic church restored it.
Open all year round, entrance is free and the well is a wonderful place to either start or end a meandering walk through the beautiful countryside that now forms the spectacular St David’s Peninsula Heritage Coast.
Walsingham Priory, Norfolk
This charming corner of East Anglia almost serves as a potted history of England’s attitude to church and religion. It became an important place of pilgrimage in the 11th Century when a vision of the Virgin Mary was seen here. Indeed, it was second only to Canterbury in its importance.
Here also royal patronage played its part with Henry III being the first recorded monarch to visit. Ironically, Henry VIII, who also visited as a bare-foot pilgrim, was the author of Walsingham’s violent downfall when he dissolved the monasteries.
In desperation, the monks at Walsingham tried everything from petitions to bribes to save their priory but, when it became clear that they could not save it, they led an insurrection which was savagely put down and the priory was later destroyed.
It seems hard to picture, in these green and leafy environs, how a site of sanctity and devotion could be turned to violence and destruction. Surrounded by the echoes of our turbulent history, Walsingham is nonetheless a wonderful place in which to picnic, to wander and to meditate on what is wonderful – and not so wonderful – in human nature.