A date with a Religious Icon of a Place

My mission was to go on 60 dates with friends & family to celebrate my 60th birthday.


When you come to celebrate a milestone birthday it’s inevitable that you think back over the years and to the friends who have been with you on a large part of your life’s journey. These are the friends who’ve become sacred to you, so what better than to organise a date to a holy place.

Anne and I first met as students in 1972, on a train from Sweden to the UK. When we went through Cologne later that night we shared the wonder of the illuminated-green cathedral, glowing in mythic splendour, with its two gothic towers looming high over the city. We made a promise to come back to visit the cathedral.

Forty-two years later, as one of my 60 dates, we managed it.

A date with a Religious Icon of a Place (or two)
A magical view of Gothic Splendor Photocredit: Jason Mrachina

Rule 1: See if there is something you shared years before as young people you could revisit as a celebratory date.


Cologne Cathedral, Germany

Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom) did not disappoint. Overlooking the Rhine, its construction began in 1248 but was not completed until 1880, due to a break of 400 years when building work stopped. One of the facts we were told on the English guided tour.

Advance research had pre-warned us that tourists are not allowed past a certain point during services of worship. As it turned out, the guided tour allowed us special access to the resting place of the remains of the three Magi, the three wise men of the Christmas nativity story. I felt a bit sorry for the other tourists as the gate to the inner choir, behind the medieval high altar, was unlocked and our little group filed in to gaze in awe at the golden shrine while they were kept out.

A date with a Religious Icon of a Place (or two)
The Shrine of the Three Magi

We were told that because of these relics, Cologne Cathedral was considered an important place of pilgrimage.

Twenty thousand visitors a day!

It was difficult not to be impressed and to enjoy thinking the bones of Melchior, Balthazar, and Jasper are resting in such glorious splendour. Gold filigree panels set with precious stones, gold and silver embossed figures, cameos and enamels. A masterpiece of adoration.

It made me wonder which one of the magi brought which of the three gifts of gold, frankincense and Myrrh. I made a mental note to look it up. *

Rule 2: Before you go, research the best way to see the religious site and book tickets if need be.

After such an intense educating couple of hours it became essential to sit and stare at the outside of the gothic masterpiece, drinking a glass of German wine (or beer) while doing so.

A date with a Religious Icon of a Place (or two)
With Anne at a café in the Cathedral Square

Rule 3: Don’t rush away from such a sacred history. Enjoy the outside as much as the inner magical bliss.

 *Jasper brings myrrh, Melchior frankincense, and Balthazar gold.


Mont St-Michel, France 

My next Religious icon date was again with two friends who’d been on the long journey with me, my school friend Pam and our university friend Swati. Despite knowing them for 50 and 40 years respectively the three of us had never been away together. That was about to change as we set off by car, travelling through the tunnel and along the French coast on our date to Mont St-Michel in Northern France.

A date with a Religious Icon of a Place (or two)
The first view of the Abbey

The first sight of the Benedictine Abbey sitting high on a rock in the distance turned us into seven-year-olds with cries of ‘look, look’ and ‘are we nearly there?’

Up close it’s even more impressive. How did they build the Abbey on the top of that high rock?

We had decided to stay in a small auberge on the island itself which meant lugging cases from the car park, via shuttle bus across the causeway, up the sloping street to our rooms. It was worth it to be able to walk around at night when most of the tourists had gone.

A date with a Religious Icon of a Place (or two)
A breathtaking view at night

The next morning we climbed the 350 steps to the top of the rock and the 11th century Abbey entrance, stopping frequently to take in the views across the bay, and for me to get my breath back. A determination had taken hold – I was not going to miss out just because I wasn’t very fit. Even if it meant being lectured by my two friends on the need to exercise more.

Rule 4: If access is difficult, take it slowly so you don’t miss out.

We decided to take the audio tour of the Abbey, timing it so we could attend the service by the ‘Brothers and Sisters of the Jerusalem Community’.

The three of us, one a church-going Christian C of E, one agnostic and one who says ‘science is her religion’ bagged seats in the front row. Worth the twenty-minute wait to hear the harmonising voices chant the opening of the service. Such was the beauty of the angelic voices it was easy to forget it was a time of worship and not a concert.

Our naughty schoolgirl moment came when, as we listened to the Holy Communion service in French, I realised we had got to the ‘Peace’ and ‘let us offer one another the sign of peace’. As I placed a hand on each of my friends with the words forming on my lips, Swati the doctor, jumped into action ready to resuscitate me, thinking I was having a heart attack (after all those steps) and Pam spun round to catch me, sure I was passing out.

‘I was just saying peace be with you,’ I said before the three of us collapsed into giggles, earning disapproving looks from others in the congregation.

A date with a Religious Icon of a Place (or two)
Pam, Me and Swati on our way to the Abbey

We celebrated later with a Kir Royale in true French tradition.

As we drove away, after two days together, we had covered such topics as feeling old, looking old, knee supports, insomnia and whether it would have been better to have caught the ferry instead of the long drive. Such a change from decades earlier when the conversations had been of parties, boys and forging ahead in our careers.

But we did take one last look at the Mont and the Abbey which, from a distance, seemed to be floating on the sea and we agreed we’d had a great time together. And that we should do it again.

On the way home, I decided I should start ‘collecting cathedrals’.

The Moral of the Date: Even if you are not religious these UNESCO sacred sites are like special friends. See them before it’s too late.


With many thanks to Anne, Pam and Swati for coming on these dates with me.


9/60 dates completed

Next: A date near and about at home

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A Family Date with History

My mission: To go on 60 dates with friends & family to celebrate my 60th birthday

Various surveys over the last few years have shown family time spent together is as low as three hours over an entire weekend. Between work, household demands and creeping fatigue, families often turn to non-active togetherness such as watching TV or a cinema trip.

So figuring out how I could go on a date with my gadget-loving husband and video-game playing son, the number one criteria had to be a date outside the home. I wanted something active, educational and linked to British History.

I decided on a date to Danebury Hillfort, followed by a visit to the Iron Age Museum in Andover. To my surprise both places were free entry. So ignoring the moans and protests, dragging both away from their computers, I drove us to the site in Hampshire where the hill rises up above the surrounding chalklands.

Rule 1: Arrange a family date away from home

After parking the car, we climbed the path to the hillfort to find the grassy rampart, all that remains of the settlement from 550 BC. We walked the entire circle which once protected several hundred people from neighbouring invaders.

En route, I talked about hillforts and their significance to British History.

My son told us the early fortification was destroyed sometime before the invasion of Julius Caesar (55 BC). I looked at him suspiciously; was he gleaning knowledge from his phone? His indignant protest included visual proof of phone in pocket. He studied Danebury, he said, as part of his classics course at university.

A Family date with history
Danebury Hillfort, reconstruction drawing by Karen Guffogg

We stopped to imagine the timber faced ramparts, virtually impossible to attack, the wattle and daub huts where the iron-age people lived and traded. We wondered if animals would have been corralled outside the fort, unlike the sheep who wandered freely over the hill with us.

Rule 2: Gather some information about the place before you go

We left Danebury Hillfort and headed to the Iron-Age Museum in Andover, only a few miles away.

Once a Town House, the museum holds many of the items excavated from the hillfort. Entering the exhibition we were greeted by a Iron-Age warrior in full armour.

A family date with history
Iron-Age Warrior – takes you back in time

His shield made of wood, a helmet made of leather and a long spear with a nasty looking iron head. By his side, a sword made of iron. We discussed his battle worthiness, Jake having played many a videogame where battle armour makes a difference to the outcome.

Rule 3: Make sure the date relates to present day interests

The exhibition is set up to make visitors feel they are inside one of those wattle and daub huts, with a cooking pot on a fire in the centre of the room, where smoke could escape through a hole at the top.

We looked at the reconstructed oven and grain grinder. We read about how they made bread. The iron-agers also used grain to make porridge and beer. It’s fun to imagine they ate such things over two thousand years ago.

A family date with history
The Museum of the Iron-Age, Andover

We discovered the people of Danebury traded as far away as Italy, importing wine and figs in exchange for metals, hides and slaves.

As we left, I asked my two how they enjoyed Danebury and the Iron Age Museum.

Husband said it for us all.

“Hidden gems”.

Moral of the date: Family outings are fun

With many thanks to Brian and Jake for making such a special date with me.

Dates completed 7/60

*Picture of the aerial view of Danebury Hillfort courtesy of Hampshire County Council, Central Countryside Sites

*Picture of Danebury Interior courtesy of Historic England.

*Pictures from inside the Iron-Age Museum courtesy of Hampshire Cultural Trust.

Next – a Date with a religious site.

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