While armchair travel might just be about the only way to experience holiday destinations at the moment, National Churches Trust, has thought about how Wales’ churches and chapels, and their surrounding landscapes, could play a role in offering future visitors fulfilling and meaningful travel experiences.
The charity, which is dedicated to supporting the UK’s places of worship by promoting church visits and tourism, as well as providing grants for repairs and support with maintenance, has unveiled a series of bespoke tours combining Wales’ sacred places and beauty spots as part of its ‘Exploring Sacred Wales’ programme.
From kayaking along the Pembrokeshire coast and cycling through Anglesey, exploring pilgrim churches en route, to churchyard stargazing and willow weaving workshops, the experiences are designed to reveal the very best of Wales’ rich culture, history, heritage and environment.
The tours, which will be hosted on the ExploreChurches website, come as Booking.com and Airbnb’s 2021 travel trends have revealed real changes in the way people travel. After a year of living with the pandemic, many future travellers will not only be opting for staycations over international travel, but they will also be seeking out more pastoral, off the beaten track locations, where they can fully immerse themselves in the outdoors and avoid the potential for crowds. It is believed that future travellers will also be looking to prioritise meaningful activities and engaging experiences, while traveling at a slower pace.
With its impressive countryside and coastline, Wales is expected to grow in popularity as a staycation destination in 2021, with many Brits having visited the country for the first-time last year.
The National Churches Trust is working with a number of local partners, businesses and experts in the region, including Visit Wales, the Church in Wales, Addoldai Cymru and Cadw, to develop original tours and experiences that showcase Wales’ historical sacred treasures and hidden gems.
Each of the tours will shine a spotlight on some of Wales’ finest churches and chapels – widely thought to be among some of the most beautiful and ancient religious buildings anywhere in the world.
A number of itineraries are available to visitors, appealing to a variety of audiences from families to solo travellers, both young and old. These include hands on activities and themed visits, complete with trips to local pubs and restaurants for a full Welsh experience.
- Pilgrims from the Sea: Coasteer, Kayak & Surf Outdoor lovers can enjoy a morning coasteering, kayaking and surfing around the Pembrokeshire coast, followed by lunch in an ecolodge and an afternoon exploring the pilgrim churches on the ‘Saints and Stones’ trail – a route which takes visitors on a journey through the scenic beauty of Pembrokeshire’s beaches, mountains, and holy places, culminating at the famous Cathedral of St Davids.
- Medieval Tower Climb: St Giles Wrexham History enthusiasts and thrill seekers will relish the experience of climbing the 135ft medieval tower of St Giles Wrexham – one of the Seven Wonders of Wales – where they see will see the 300-year-old church bells up close and learn the art of bellringing, all while enjoying stunning panoramic views of the surrounding region.
- Off the beaten track: Five Sacred Spaces on Ynys Môn For cycling fans, a number of cycling experiences are available including a leisurely guided bike tour of the isle of Anglesey, delivered in partnership with Green Lane Bike Tours, which will give visitors the chance to enjoy spectacular views, while stopping off at some of the island’s smallest country churches and learning about their history and the region’s archaeology.
- Ride out to Sea: A tidal church and a proper Welsh Tea Also available for bike enthusiasts is a spectacular tour cycling across land that was once water, to visit churches surrounded by sea that were once on the mainland. Trip highlights include a ride out to visit the iconic St Cwyfan’s – a tiny island church also known as the ‘Church in the Sea’, which is only accessible at low-tide. Participants will finish their journey via a picturesque rural inland route, complete with a Welsh tea at a popular cyclist’s café.
- RS Thomas Poetry Reflection: Stations to the Untenanted Cross Those looking to make the most of the calming presence of sacred places will enjoy a poetry reflection and meditation by candlelight inside St Hywyn’s church in Aberdaron. Moving around the building, guests will read through Thomas’ spiritual poetry, which connects with features within the church.
- Darksky Stargazing at Capel y Ffin churchyard For a truly special experience, visitors will be able to take a tour of the night sky in the atmospheric surrounding of Capel y Ffin church, located in the heart of mid Wales, where they will view the constellations of the northern hemisphere, find various deep sky objects such as the Orion Nebula and learn the correct use of binoculars and navigation via star maps. With no prior knowledge or equipment needed, those on the experience will be shown how to set up a telescope correctly before viewing and then photographing aspects of the magnificent night sky.
- Willow Weaving in a country churchyard How peaceful does a relaxing willow weaving workshop in the atmospheric setting of an ancient church sound? At Llanrhian church in Pembrokeshire workshop attendees will learn a new skill, creating their very own willow basket from scratch using willow grown organically on a local farm.
- Secret Histories: The Insider’s Guide to the Plough Chapel, Brecon Learn about the history of 17th century Plough Chapel – a Grade II* historic building known for being one of the earliest independent chapel congregations in Wales. The experience will give guests the chance to explore the chapel’s striking interior and marvel at the extraordinary craftsmanship on display; from its rich carved woodwork and water powered organ to the ornate panelled ceiling, which even conceals a Victorian ventilation system. Finish the day by joining chapel members for tea and Welsh cakes after the tour.
- Welsh language survival: Dr John Davies and the Red Bandits of Mawddwy Discover how the survival of the Welsh language was boosted with the help of Dr John Davies, a prolific Welsh scholar who is believed to have been responsible for first translating the bible into Welsh in the 17th century. Individuals on this experience will learn about his life and how he kept faith with his work at a time when religious tensions were high.
- Tea & tour of St Asaph Cathedral Pay a visit to St Asaph Cathedral – the smallest cathedral in Britain – to learn about its history, uncover its hidden stories and admire its magnificent architecture and stained glass. Finish off the trip with a selection of homemade cakes and fresh locally roasted coffee from the church’s very own on-site tearoom.
- Discover ancient churches in the beautiful Usk Valley Explore the tranquil countryside setting of Usk and visit four outstanding historic Welsh churches along the way. Each church, which has been specifically chosen to cover a wide range of styles and periods, will give visitors the opportunity to witness the craftsmanship of the different centuries. With the tours led by a leading ecclesiastical historian, visitors will learn about the architecture and history of the churches and have their attention drawn to unique details they might otherwise have missed.
- Pilgrimage walks in west Wales Join Guided Pilgrimage, a not for profit travel company, on three walks along ancient Celtic pilgrimage routes across west Wales. Enjoy six miles of Welsh countryside, woodland, clifftop views, coves and smugglers caves with spells of quiet meditative walking.
As well as these twelve new itineraries, National Churches Trust is also in the process of developing a number of walking tours along Wales’ Coastal Path – a spectacular route spanning Wales’ entire coastline – which will be added to the list of available experiences later this year.
Sarah Crossland, Church Tourism Manager for National Churches Trust said about the launch of the new experiences: “The past year has encouraged many of us to search for greater meaning in our lives, with more people than ever practicing mindfulness, exploring their spirituality and revisiting their faith – in whatever form that may take – or perhaps even discovering it for the first time.
“Our churches and chapels are steeped in history, art, architecture and mythology – and have so much to offer visitors. They are so much more than places of worship, you truly don’t have to be religious to appreciate their heritage and beauty.
“There’s no doubt that our churches and chapels have played a fundamental role in shaping our national heritage, and continue to do so. We believe that encouraging more people to visit and experience their deep connections with landscape and community, is the key to securing their future.
“Wales is already famed for its majestic mountains, magnificent castles and stunning coastline, but it’s high time its churches and chapels also received the recognition that they deserve. We want more people to discover these very special places. And thanks to the support of local travel providers, we have been able to put together some truly unique experiences that showcase the very best of Wales’ sacred history and heritage.”
Learn more about the Exploring Sacred Wales Experiences on the ExploreChurches website, where you can search for specific itineraries using key words and by geographical location. The website showcases the fascinating history and stunning art and architecture of over 500 historic places of worship across the country with suggested itineraries linking them together.