Reading reclaims its heritage as a place for (modern) pilgrims

A new project to attract modern-day pilgrims and walkers to Reading is being launched on 14 July to coincide with the return to the town of ‘The Hand of St James’, the relic which attracted pilgrims to Reading in medieval times.  

Hand of St James 035The launch of the new guide, Reading for Modern Pilgrims, highlights the town’s historic and modern place on one of the world’s oldest and best-known international pilgrim routes, the Camino de Santiago. Ahead of the annual Feast of St James on Sunday 25 July, the Hand of St James is being hosted by St James’ Church in the Abbey Quarter for people to see from 14-26 July.

Reading for Modern Pilgrims highlights Reading’s location as the departure point for the St James’ Way, as well as its many medieval pilgrim sites of interest. It encourages visitors to explore and to spend time in the town before heading off from St James’ Church on the 68.5 mile long-distance walk / pilgrimage route, which ends at Southampton and forms part of the international Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route culminating in Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain.

Hand of St James 018The tradition of pilgrimage in Reading dates back to the gift by King Henry I of the ‘Hand of St James the Apostle’ to Reading Abbey in the 12th century, inspiring a four century-long tradition of pilgrimage to see the relic. Carbon dating has proved that the Hand, currently held by St Peter’s RC Church in Marlow,  could not have actually been the hand of St James, but the existing relic dates from the 7th century, was found hidden in the walls of Reading Abbey by workmen clearing the site to build the new county gaol in 1786,  and was believed to be the relic that attracted so many pilgrims to Reading during the medieval period. 


Medieval pilgrims often continued their pilgrimage to the place of burial of St James himself, the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, north-west Spain. The Cathedral was the destination for numerous medieval pilgrimage routes, known as ‘caminos’. The routes of pilgrims from England were known as the Camino Ingles, and involved a journey by sea from England to the Galician ports of A Coruña or Ferrol, from where pilgrims continued by foot. In modern times, the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route is one of the most travelled long-distance walking routes in the world with over 350,000 pilgrims a year taking a variety of routes to Santiago from different parts of Europe and beyond. The UK leg in the south-east of England starts in Reading.

Reading for Modern Pilgrims is the first outcome of a new partnership established to highlight Reading’s place on medieval and modern pilgrim routes, linking to the historic Camino Ingles. It has been published by Reading UK in partnership with A Coruña Province Council in north-west Spain, the Association of Councils on the Camino Ingles (ACCI), the Confraternity of St James, who have developed the St James’ Way in the UK, Friends of Reading Abbey and Reading Borough Council.

Reading was a recognised and important place of pilgrimage in medieval England and focused on two key sites: Reading Abbey, where The  Hand of St James made Reading the centre of the cult of St James in England; and the Shrine of Our Lady of Caversham, a leading shrine to the Virgin Mary which as late as 1532 was visited by Queen Catharine of Aragon.

Key places to visit in Reading for modern-day pilgrims include:-

  • St James’s Church in Reading Abbey Quarter - the starting point for people setting out on the long-distance walkingshrine04 4 768x768 route St James’ Way. Pilgrims/walkers can get their trail passport stamped there.
  • Reading Abbey, founded in 1121 by King Henry I, which held over 230 relics including The Hand of St James, one of Christ’s disciples.  Now in its 900th year, the Abbey Ruins are a popular visitor attraction in the heart of Reading.
  • The Shrine of Our Lady of Caversham, a leading shrine to the Virgin Mary located in Caversham in medieval times, was closed down during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. A modern shrine, which includes a shrine chapel with a statue of Our Lady and Child, exists at the Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady and St Anne in Caversham. (pictured right)

Other places in Reading in the guide include St Anne’s Well, Caversham Bridge, Fry’s Island, St Laurence’s Church, the Hospitium building in the Abbey Quarter, Forbury Gardens, the Abbey Gateway and items in the collection of Reading Museum.

HandofStJames St JamesChurchReading 1The Hand of St James (pictured left in St James Church on 14 July 2021) returns to Reading from Marlow to coincide with the Feast of St James (25 July) and will be available for people to see in St James’ Church in Reading Abbey Quarter every day before Midday Mass from 14 -26 July (open - noon to 12:30pm every day)





Alex Brannen, Tourism Lead for Reading UK: “Reading’s medieval pilgrimage heritage and location as the start of the St James’ Way long-distance walking route will be attractive to the growing number of people looking for healthy, active, outdoor holidays or a spiritual experience. Reading is set up to provide a leisurely, relaxing and engaging prelude to the start of your Camino.”

John Painter, Friends of Reading Abbey: “Reading Abbey was founded by Henry I in 1121, who was buried there in 1136. It remained a royal abbey until its dissolution in 1539, when it was one of the 10 richest foundations in England. It held a very extensive collection of relics, of which The Hand of St James was the most important and made Reading the centre of the cult of St James in England in the High Middle Ages. The feast of St James (25 July) was celebrated every year with a fair lasting four days, which attracted both pilgrims and traders to the town.”

Robin Dorkings, CSJ: “The Confraternity of St James (CSJ) is delighted to participate in this exciting new partnership with Reading UK, Reading Council and our colleagues on the Provincial Council in Galicia, chief sponsor of the Camino Ingles/the English Way to Santiago de Compostela.  The CSJ is the longest established English-speaking organisation dedicated to helping pilgrims to plan their Caminos in Spain and France.”

Antonio Leira, Councillor A Coruña Province Council: “The partnership between Reading and A Coruña Province through the Camino Inglés is a great step forward in recovering our history and heritage in common. Both territories will only benefit from this initiative, raising awareness among those interested in the values associated to modern-day pilgrimage.”

Cllr Karen Rowland, Reading’s Lead Councillor for Culture, Heritage and Recreation: “I am delighted Reading is being reinstated on the international pilgrimage map with the creation of Reading for Modern Pilgrims and our inclusion as the start of the St James’ Way long-distance walking route. 2021 is an incredibly auspicious year for Reading - marking 900 years since Reading Abbey, originally one of Europe’s largest royal monasteries, was founded by King Henry I of England. Highlighting the town’s historic and modern place on one of the world’s oldest and best-known international pilgrim routes, the Camino de Santiago, is a fitting part of our celebrations this year and will help enhance Reading’s profile as a destination resplendent in heritage and culture.”



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