I’ve done the Camino to Santiago and I’ve always wanted to go to Rome (the Via Francigena). I’d been vaguely thinking next year would be good because it’s the 900th anniversary of the Priory of the Hospital of Saint Bartholomew, which is said to have been founded by Rahere, reputedly the jester of Henry I. He went to Rome and had a vision of Saint Bartholomew. So I thought that would be a wonderful opportunity to follow in his footsteps.
Would you make any special stops?
It’s a fabulous route – there are so many great stops along the way. There is Reims, you go through Switzerland up over the Alps, which I’ve never done, you go through Siena. There would be a whole host of places! What I found doing the Camino in Spain was that you feel quite proprietorial towards sites on the route because of the path that you’re taking. You feel a sense of affinity to these landmarks that are links back to all the people who have taken the pilgrimage before you – it’s incredibly moving and powerful.
Who would be your travelling companions (excluding partner/ children)?
Archbishop Sigeric (known as Sigeric the Serious) who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 990 to 994. It would be a challenge to see if I could make him smile. I might take Alfred the Great as well, because I’d have so many questions for him: did he really burn the cakes?
You can transplant your favourite pub, bar or restaurant onto the route. What is it?
I don’t know its name but it’s a restaurant outside Epidaurus in Greece my wife and I found down a lane. It was the best meal we’ve ever had. We have never been able to find it again. I can’t remember what we ate, but it was perfect – the greatest Greek meal you’ve ever had but 20 times better. If we could find that and transport it onto the route, that would be fantastic – a pre-glimmering of heaven.
Camp under the stars, or find a church hall to sleep in?
Which books would you take with you?
I’d be doing this pilgrimage very seriously – I’d be wanting to see what I found on the route. I think pilgrimages work because you don’t know what you’re going to find. I’d be a lot more interested in the Christian context of it. It would have for me a metaphorical value as a spiritual journey and I would want to see where that journey would take me – what beliefs, what insights it would give me. So I think I’d take the Robert Alter translation of the Psalms and Origen’s Homilies on the Psalms.
What Bible verse would you ponder as you walked?
For the same reason, I would have Genesis 33: 24-30, Jacob wrestling with the angel. It’s very odd. It’s about a transformative experience and I would hope for that kind of experience on the journey.
You stop in a church. What’s your go–to prayer?
There’s a great prayer by Alcuin of York who became the chief spiritual adviser to Charlemagne.
O eternal Light, shine into our hearts.
O eternal Goodness, deliver us from evil.
O eternal Power, be our support.
Eternal Wisdom, scatter the darkness of our ignorance.
Eternal Pity, have mercy on us.
Grant that with all our hearts, and minds, and strength, we may always seek your face.
In your infinite mercy, bring us into your holy presence.
Strengthen our weakness that we follow in the footsteps of your blessed Son,
obtain your mercy,and enter your promised joy. Amen.
It’s a great prayer, and very appropriate or our walk.
It’s your turn to cook. What’s your speciality?
If I’ve got Alfred the Great as a companion, everything’s going to be great – isn’t it? –because he burns everything. So I can cook anything I like and know it will be better than anything Alfred could rustle up.
What’s the singalong to keep everyone’s spirits up?
I’d choose Seabird by the Alessi Brothers. My daughter played it all summer so it would make me think of her and the lyrics are very apt: “There’s a road I know I must go/ Even though I tell myself/ That road is closed”.
You’re allowed one luxury in your bag. What is it?
I think a phone – it has everything on it that I ever need. I’m as addicted as everyone else. It’s a universal translator, a library, it allows me to keep up with the cricket – it’s everything.
What would you most miss about ordinary life?
I’d miss my family and friends – it’s wholly unoriginal but it’s the truth. I guess that’s part of the pilgrimage – you’re meant to miss things.
What would you miss the least?
Diaries: the single best thing about the lockdown was not having to worry about diaries.
Tom Holland is a writer and an historian. His most recent book, Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind is published by Little Brown. He presents the podcast, The Rest is History.
You feel a sense of affinity to these landmarks, that are links back to all the people who have taken the pilgrimage before you – it’s incredibly moving and powerful.
This article first appeared in the February 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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