Wednesday, 10 April 2013

New app launched as TV series ends

Not content with just a book and a TV series, we've now launched an app version of Britain's Holiest Places, available on Apple devices. It contains all the listings in my book Britain's Holiest Places: 500 of the country's most beautiful, interesting and unexpected sacred sites. It has been launched at the conclusion of the BBC Four series 'Pagans and Pilgrims: Britain's Holiest Places'.

The final episode on 11 April at 8.30pm looks at what happens when religion goes underground. Crypts and caves may seem at first glance like the least promising environments in which to gain any sort of spiritual enlightenment. And yet they are where pivotal moments in many different faiths have taken place: the Prophet Mohammed received his first revelation in a cave, and Buddha lived in one for a time. And as the TV programme explores, they are resonant throughout the life of Christ and Christians who came after.

The earliest known ritual activity in Britain, presumably of religious purpose, is a cave burial on the Gower peninsula, at Goat's Hole Cave near Paviland. A young man's body was covered in red ochre and a mammoth's tusk placed alongside, dating back around 33,000 years ago. In the TV programme we visit a similar burial of about 14,000 years ago, its grave goods providing some of the earliest art in Britain: Kendrick's Cave in Llandudno.

Quite what the Ice Age inhabitants of Wales believed about the afterlife is unknowable after so many millennia have passed. But we have been using caves as sacred places ever since. As we demonstrate in the evocative crypt of Ripon Cathedral, the tomb of Christ himself is a place of subterranean worship that has been instrumental in shaping the design of our worship spaces.

I spent five years travelling around Britain to seek out our most evocative and sometimes most remote holy places in order to write my book, and we spent four months doing the same with the TV crew to make this series. Cursing my way through nettles, creeping along hedgerows, criss-crossing barren moors and trespassing more times than I care to admit, an app guide to holy places would so often have been the answer to all my prayers. Our oldest human narratives are now available on the most modern of devices.

I once spent half a day trying to locate the bizarre, other-worldly chasm known as Lud's Church in Staffordshire (pictured above). Lud's Church also appears in the final episode of the BBC series. Its green dripping walls were the scene of both spiritual fiction, in the shape of a reference in the medieval saga Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and also the place where an early Lollard meeting of Christian reformers was lethally broken up in the 15th century by soldiers.

It makes a pretty convincing hiding place even today, evading me for hours on end. I practically fell through its hidden opening on to my knees in gratitude when I finally tracked it down. Now thanks to our new app it appears on a map at the touch of a screen, alongside my own location notes written to prevent any more wasted journeys. From grand city-centre cathedrals to obscure hermit caves miles from anywhere, Britain's religious heritage has never been so accessible as it is today.

The app is published by S4C, the Welsh-language TV station which has been hugely supportive of the project, no doubt inspired by the amazing spiritual landscape in Wales. A free Welsh-language mini-version of the app is also available, covering just the 38 or so locations in the TV series, which was filmed in both English and Welsh language versions.

The app costs £5.49, and has been developed by the TV production company Cwmni Da, where the TV presenter Ifor ap Glyn works. They and S4C have done the project proud, with an app and a TV series that open up this amazing landscape to anyone looking for life-changing encounters with the past.

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