It started with the Living Churchyards Project in 1986. By bringing together church authorities and statutory bodies concerned with nature this initiative recognised that churchyards could be models of sacred eco-systems, maintained to favour biodiversity.It included mowing the grass only once or twice in a year and avoiding all pesticides, encouraging insect, bird , mammal and reptile life to flourish. Over 6,000 British churchyards adopted the Living Churchyard model.
In 1997 the Sacred Land Project was launched as a collaboration between WWF UK and the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC). It arose because members of some faith communities were concerned that the ecological significance of their sacred sites was not being taken seriously. It was launched by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and aimed to restore sacred sites and remind people that the landscape where they live can be as sacred as any holy land.
In Britain the project involved Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and secular communities, as well as Christian traditions. Communities created and revived inner-city and community gardens; conserved and celebrated holy wells; rediscovered and renewed pilgrimage trails; protected trees and woodlands; regenerated community meeting places and their eco-systems; and celebrated sacred places with works of art and poems. Over time this work expanded overseas to become a worldwide movement helping to protect sacred landscapes from Mongolia to Mexico.
As part of the Sacred Land project, ARC’s secretary general Martin Palmer wrote, with his brother Nigel Palmer, Sacred Britain: A Guide to the Sacred Sites and Pilgrim Routes of England, Scotland and Wales (Piatkus, London 1997). With a foreword by celebrated naturalist David Bellamy this illustrated handbook provided a comprehensive guide to a wide range of places that hold a special meaning to people of many different faiths.
It was an inspirational conversation Palmer had with a Russian Orthodox priest that led him to take the Sacred Land concept in a new direction. The old priest told him that Moscow was laid out according to images in the Book of Revelation. And, moreover, that every city in Europe built before the 18th century incorporated circles, triangles and crossroads symbolising the Unity of God, the Trinity and the crucifixion.
Palmer looked at his home city of Bristol from this new perspective and found the most astonishing sacred landscape still visible. This revelation prompted further studies, resulting in the publication of Sacred Land (Little, Brown, 2012) exploring how people have expressed their spiritual understanding through history in the way they create buildings, roads and cities.
As part of the launch in 2012 Martin Palmer offered to take a group around central Bristol, pointing out the often-overlooked clues that had helped him decode the sacred history of the city. This walk proved so successful that he was asked to repeat it as part of the Bristol Festival of Ideas that summer, and on many occasions since. He has subsequently led similar walks for festivals including in Saffron Walden, Hay-on-Wye and Edinburgh.