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New TV series will show Britain in a divine light

Shrine at St Alban's Cathedral

Shrine at St Alban's Cathedral

A travel and guidebook writer’s five year mission to visit and write about Britain’s most sacred sites and shrines is to be turned into a BBC television 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.

Britain’s Holiest Places, a joint commission from the BBC and SC4 (Welsh Channel 4), includes interviews with the Archbishop of Westminster, Most Rev Vincent Nichols, and the Dean of St Albans, Rev Jeffrey John.

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 moving account of how a relic of St Alban, England’s first local saint and martyr, were returned to England after an absence of nearly 500 years. The shrine was a major destination for pilgrims for hundreds of years until it was smashed to pieces by Henry VIII at the Reformation. It was reconstructed by piecing together the surviving fragments and reinstated in 1993. In 2002 Cologne Cathedral sent a relic of St Alban to be placed in the shrine. 

Britain’s Holiest Places is a world away from Nick’s first venture into print – a guide to the world’s best beaches for nude bathing. And this time, Nick himself will appear on screen:

“I avoided television interviews for the last book because of the inevitable requests to broadcast in the buff,” said Nick. “But this time I was delighted to accept the invitation and will appear in the first programme where we dip into the wonderful world of water rituals and sacred bathing here in Britain.

"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 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 felt ready to take the plunge at last, 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!”

Britain’s Holiest Places is scheduled for broadcast on BBC Four in the six weeks leading up to Easter (starting week-commencing February 25). Other shrines and sacred places visited during the filming of the series include:

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

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

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

* 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

* Lady Julian's shrine in Norwich - the tiny church room where the first female English author lived in devout contemplation for thirty years

* 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 scheduled for broadcast on BBC Four in the weeks leading up to Easter (starting week-commencing February 25). Further details to be released soon.