We all know that walking is good for health in so many ways: cardiovascular fitness and bone density to name but two aspects. Exercise in the fresh air also bestows a sense of wellbeing. It undoubtedly lifts our spirits. And for those of a religious inclination, Devon’s pilgrimage routes can also uplift, in a spiritual sense, those who follow them.

I have to confess that I was only very peripherally aware of these pilgrimage routes until the launch of the Eden Way came to my attention last summer.

Encompassing a circular route of 18 miles around the Teign Valley, the Eden Way, which is themed to celebrate creation, traverses an area ‘of great beauty, with the rugged hills of Dartmoor looking down on rich farmland and the wooded river valley. It is a Garden of Eden full of abundant life, which invites all our senses to wonder as we wander in pilgrimage, exploring and celebrating God’s creation,’ explains The Rev’d Ruth Frampton, Rector of the Teign Valley & Haldon Hill Mission Community.

The launch, during a mellow-weathered weekend last August, saw some 40 people taking part in all or part of the two-day event, covering 10 miles on the first day and eight on the second. The route uses existing paths and bridleways, covering a very varied and undulating terrain.

Great British Life: Along the Eden Way, near Sheldon Retreat Centre. Photo: The Diocese of ExeterAlong the Eden Way, near Sheldon Retreat Centre. Photo: The Diocese of Exeter

‘We stopped at each of the churches for meditation and some wonderful refreshments to keep our energy levels up, and to keep our pilgrim mindset to the fore,’ says Ruth. ‘Some people were from local villages, others were folk from across the UK. There was a wonderful sense of journeying together, allowing time for good conversations, as well as for stillness and contemplation, as we walked the route in our beautiful valley. There was a definite sense of ‘awe and wonder’ as we trod the paths together.’

Since then Ruth tells me that hundreds of the guide booklets have been distributed from local pubs and churches, and walkers have been spotted on the route, clutching their copy.

Six churches are dotted along the 18 miles, and in each of these Ruth has written a reflection on the creation story.

‘The Eden Way offers an opportunity to walk mindfully through the beauty of God’s creation in the Teign Valley,’ she says, ‘experiencing all the contrasts: wild and cultivated, bleak and densely foliaged, craggy quarries and gentle fields grazed by sheep and cattle.’ Ruth also adds that the walk passes through ‘an environment very conscious of the climate emergency’.

I ask her how this environmental aspect of the walk manifests itself and I’m left in no doubt that the Teign Valley is very eco-conscious, bristling with initiatives such as the Teign Greens, which involves community volunteers growing organic vegetables and selling or distributing weekly veg bags, and the Teign Climate Hub, which is active on social media and organises awareness events and lectures, covering issues such as climate change, sustainable living, rehoming surplus goods and recycling.

Great British Life: Stopping for a break at St Michael's, Doddiscombsleigh. Photo: The Diocese of ExeterStopping for a break at St Michael's, Doddiscombsleigh. Photo: The Diocese of Exeter

Pleasingly, the churches also liaise with parish wildlife wardens and their village communities, in order to foster the biodiversity of their churchyards. Ruth tells me that ‘St Mary’s in Dunsford has achieved a Silver Eco Church Award from A Rocha [a group of Christian conservation organisations] and we are currently exploring putting swift boxes on our other church towers.’

The six churches of the Eden Way are at Ashton, Bridford, Christow, Doddiscombsleigh, Dunchideock and Dunsford. Each has a distinct character, with its own treasures, quirks and stories.

I well remember calling into St Michael’s in Doddiscombsleigh on a walk some years ago. This lovely church has notable carving around its pillars. The west end of a church was often referred to as the ‘devil’s end’ and there I found, quite literally, the devil in the detail. The figure depicted amongst the foliage of the pillar at this end is rather different to the more conventional green man on the pillar at the east end: this head bears little pointed ears and a hare lip – and is possibly a representation of Lucifer at his end of the church.

The church is also famous for its 15th-century stained-glass windows, including the Seven Sacraments window by glaziers involved with the windows in Exeter Cathedral.

Great British Life: St Thomas-a-Becket, at Bridford. Photo: The Diocese of ExeterSt Thomas-a-Becket, at Bridford. Photo: The Diocese of Exeter

Ruth tells me that St Thomas-a-Becket’s in Bridford not only boasts a beautiful painted rood screen, but also ‘some of the nave roof bosses are of special interest and speculation. As you face the screen, the second boss from the left in the front row shows three hares in a circle apparently sharing three ears. This is one of 29 examples to be found in 17 of Devon’s churches, the earliest dating from around 1450. The meaning of the symbol is unknown, but the church guidebook presents some intriguing theories. Another boss shows the green man but with foliage emerging from an unusual part of his anatomy!’ Now there’s something to look out for!

St John the Baptist in Ashton features in Todd Gray’s book Devon’s Fifty Best Churches and St James’ Church in Christow houses the Pellew memorials and family vault. ‘In 1812 the patronage of this church was sold to Admiral Sir Edward Pellew (1757-1833) the gallant admiral who served with Nelson. Memorials to him and his successors hang on the chancel walls,’ says Ruth.

Great British Life: The view from Webberton Cross, Dunchideock. Photo: The Diocese of ExeterThe view from Webberton Cross, Dunchideock. Photo: The Diocese of Exeter

St Mary’s in Dunsford has a quantity of memorials to the Fulford family, while St Michael and All Angels in Dunchideock is another place for its interesting roof bosses. ‘Some of the bosses are quite remarkable and have been touched up in colour,’ says Ruth. ‘Among them are a number of heads – many of these are women wearing the wimple round the chin as normally worn in the 14th century. Some are grotesques: a crescent moon, elaborate knots, a pig’s head, a Turk’s head and three fish with their tails in each other’s mouths, thought to be a symbol of eternity.’

Throughout the Eden Way walkers are encouraged to ‘appreciate Nature as Creation,’ explains Ruth and even for the non-religious, the walk encompasses a deeply beautiful part of our county. The 31-mile long River Teign rises on Dartmoor and finds its way to the sea at Teignmouth. In spring, to misquote Wordsworth, ‘a host of golden daffodils, beside the river, beneath the trees’ light up the riverbanks – they appear in their thousands, Ruth tells me. ‘Otters have been spotted playing along the river near Dunsford and kingfishers can make a fleeting appearance if you are very still,’ she adds.

Great British Life: Near Haldon Belvedere. Photo: The Diocese of ExeterNear Haldon Belvedere. Photo: The Diocese of Exeter

Overlooking the valley is one of my favourite buildings in Devon (I have many!): the iconic, three-sided tower of Haldon Belvedere, also known as Lawrence Castle. It was built in the latter half of the 18th century by Sir Robert Palk, owner of nearby Haldon House, who had amassed his fortune whilst working with the East India Company and the Indian Army. The tower was built as a memorial to Major-General Stringer Lawrence, Palk’s friend and military colleague, who spent his retirement years at Haldon House. I’ve stayed in the apartment of the Belvedere and waking up in an entirely circular room was a strangely disorientating experience.

Whether you’re walking to raise your secular spirits or for reasons of spirituality; for fun, or to follow the pilgrim path, the Eden Way is an enriching journey. Go!