In the chilly darkness of an October morning 38 people boarded the coach at St Nicholas, bound for the Holy Land. We came from Farnborough parish and from churches in Beckenham, Streatham and Keston and we were going to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, each in our own way.  By nine o’clock that evening we were driving past olive trees in velvety warm darkness to arrive for the first of our copious buffet meals, before falling into our beds.  The wake-up call came promptly at six o’clock the next morning, to be ready to board our Nazareen Express coach at seven thirty.  It was like this for all of our ten days.

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On average we visited four of the biblical sites each day.  Our beds on that first night were in the Ron Beach hotel on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where we were to stay for the first four days.  Picture a low white building with balconies, palm trees fringing a swimming pool and the gentle lap of waves on the beach.  Our trips started with prayer all together on the coach and on this first day we visited Mount Tabor where Jesus was transfigured, followed by Nazareth village (a reconstruction of first century Galilean life) and then a pause for lunch. 

After lunch we walked to Mary’s Well, quite a long walk to the only freshwater spring in Nazareth.  As our informative guide Sayeed said – trust men to site a village in a defensible position, never mind about the distance the women have to trudge to fetch fresh water.  After this we visited The Basilica of the Annunciation over a first century cave where Mary is thought to have lived.  Then on to Cana, the place of the first miracle at the wedding.


The next day our wake-up call at 6.30am allowed us a lie-in.  On to the archaeological site of Capernaum, which was a regional and fishing centre where Peter lived with his mother and the focus of Christ’s Galilean ministry.  Or as Sayeed put it, where Jesus lived so he could carry out his teaching away from the notice of the Romans.  But it was here that the Centurion came to Jesus asking for his servant to be healed, “Just say the word...for I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me...” Jesus recognised the man’s faith and understood the politics of power.  

We had three communion services in the course of the ten days, the first being at Tabgha, believed to have been the site where Jesus fed the five thousand.  Everywhere we went on our pilgrimage others were going by coach too.  Every holy site and church was managed by a Christian denomination, often Franciscan but also Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant.  In the grounds of each site there were groups of seats often around a simple table where the parties of pilgrims and their leader could talk and worship together.  This meant that while we were listening to Alison or Sayeed we could hear on all sides devotions and faint singing in many other tongues.  At Tabgha on that Saturday morning we were able to celebrate our communion together away from the sun quietly under trees on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  One gets the impression the Feeding of the Thousands at the time was also very pleasant (“There was plenty of grass in that place”. John 6 v 10), but rather more fraught, with the disciples asking Jesus for advice and then organising loaves and fishes and the clearing-up afterwards.


Next was the Roman town of Caesarea Philippi, sacred to pagan gods, especially Pan.  We were able to appreciate that Jesus brought his disciples to this pagan spot so that he could emphasise his relationship to the one God, “Who do people say I am?”  It was Peter (of course) who answered, “You are the Messiah”.  In Mark’s gospel it says at this point he “warned them not to tell anyone about him”, not surprisingly in these dangerous surroundings.  After this we visited the Kibbutz of Kfar Blum for our lunch, which was as delicious as usual.

Then we journeyed south to the river Jordan at the point where John the Baptist is said to have baptised Jesus.  Here the trees and vegetation went down into the cool of the water and we took off our shoes and sandals and paddled (with the small fish nibbling at our toes), renewing our baptismal vows.

During our time in The Galilee (yes – it is like The Cotswolds or The Lebanon), we paid an unexpected visit to the hilly north eastern area of the Golan Heights as far as the border with Syria.  It was remote and peaceful.  From the top of the hill, among the disused trenches and gun emplacements we looked down on a green Syria with its blue reservoirs and dusty tracks.  The waters of the River Jordan and its tributaries rise in the Golan Heights and the need to safeguard this essential resource in a dry land is one of the reasons why Israel waged war on Syria to claim The Golan Heights in 1967.

We packed up and left our beach hotel on the Monday to travel to Jerusalem, still following in the footsteps of Jesus, visiting Sepphoris and Caesarea Maritima (Roman Palestine’s capital) on the way.  Jerusalem was noisy and dusty after the open spaces of The Galilee.

Day one took us to the Mount of Olives, which was the first goal of the first pilgrimages.  Then we walked down the hill past the Pater Noster Church, where the Lord’s Prayer is written on plaques in over 60 languages around the cloister, descending again to the Dominus Flevit Church (see Luke 41-44) and downwards to Gethsemani.


A short coach ride across Jerusalem took us to St Peter in Gallicantu (from the Latin for the cock crowing) and the possible site of the High Priest’s house.  The basilica over this site was built in AD457 and we descended the rock-hewn steps beneath it to view a series of cell-like caves.  At the deepest level was a large hole in the ground with the original entrance halfway up a sheer wall, so that once a rope or ladder was withdrawn the prisoner(s) would be shut in a black and soundless pit without any hope of escape.  We all stood shoulder to shoulder there and listened to the reading of psalm 88, “...You have put me in the lowest pit, in the darkest depths...”  Was this the prison where Jesus spent his last night before state execution?


It was helpful to visit the model (scale 1:50) of the ancient city of Jerusalem in Herod’s time which occupied a quarter of an acre.  This explained the position of buildings and sites which we were later to see.  But next day we drove the eight miles to Bethlehem, through the intimidating and ugly wall which now encircles the Palestinian heartlands.  We were to hear sad stories of Arab land being stolen to build motorways for Israelis and time-wasting harassments for those trying to go to Jerusalem for daily work.  I expect the occupying Roman State was just as efficient at petty tyranny at the time of Jesus.

In Bethlehem we queued for an hour and a half in the Church of the Nativity to see the grotto of the birth of Jesus.  As this is the oldest church in the world we could spend our immobile time admiring the great church built by Constantine with the restored wooden roof given by our English King Edward III.  There followed a visit to the low caves in the Shepherds’ fields where the sheep were herded at night with the faithful shepherds sitting round their fires at the mouth of the caves.  Then on to the Bethlehem Arab Rehabilitation Centre.


On the Thursday we walked all day through the old city of Jerusalem visiting the Wailing Wall and the Temple Mount, followed by a devotional walk with a communion in a convent along the Via Dolorosa and the fifteen stations of the Way of the Cross.

We ended at The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, looking at the place where according to tradition Jesus was briefly buried.  There has been a church over this site since Constantine’s mother Helena built the first in the fourth century.  Since then it has suffered various vicissitudes and rebuildings and is currently overseen relatively peaceably by all the denominations who worship in the church – The Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Copts, Armenians, Ethiopian and Syrian Orthodox.  

The last full day was a “day out” from our pilgrimage into the spectacular Judean wilderness to Masada, the Dead Sea and Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.  Masada was Herod’s remote desert fortress where the last Jewish zealots held out against the superior forces of the Roman army before dying together in a last ditch stand. #


We fitted in a visit to the Garden Tomb (another possible site of Jesus’ burial place) on Saturday morning and a visit to the souks before travelling back to Tel Aviv airport and onwards to Heathrow, arriving in the darkness to Orpington’s damp drizzle at 10.30pm.
What is a pilgrimage?  It was an individual journey of discovery for each of us 38 fellow travellers, just as it was for Chaucer’s 29 pilgrims gathering together in April 1387, as described in the prologue to The Canterbury Tales:

”..Wel nyne and twenty in a compaignye 
Of sondry folk, by aventure yfalle  
In fellaweshipe, and pilgrims were they alle,  
That toward Caunterbury wolden ryde.”


For Canterbury read The Holy Land and there you have us in October 2013.  

Clare Allen,  Photos by Mike Dancer

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