On the far eastern edge of Essex, within the sound of the sea, stands a small, serene and ancient stone chapel. One of England’s oldest extant ecclesiastical buildings, St Peter’s on the Wall was founded in 654 by St Cedd, who sailed down the coast from Lindisfarne to bring Christianity to the East Saxons.
On the first Saturday in July, a few hundred pilgrims, drawn largely from Essex, walk the two miles from St Thomas’ church in the village of Bradwell-on-Sea to this isolated Anglo-Celtic chapel chapel which stands on the edge of fields facing out to sea. There is no shrine here, no relic, no icon which pilgrims come to worship, but the magnetism of the chapel derives from the invisible and intangible layers of meaning that have been laid down through 1300 years of prayer and contemplation. We instinctively recognise such special gathering places, and when we encounter them, we cannot but help but add another layer of meaning, like walkers placing a stone upon a cairn, acknowledging those who have gone before and signalling to those who may follow.
First abandoned in 1099, after the Great Martinmas Tide ravaged England’s east coast, St Peter’s still proves irresistible to worshippers and daily services are held here by the Othona community close by. The few hundred pilgrims who come to St Peter’s each year represent a tiny fraction of the ‘200 million pairs of feet’ who make up the bigger picture, but this simple site provides a key to the complex layers of meaning and motive behind the act of pilgrimage: retreat, redemption, reinforcement of faith, and the importance of place through custom.