Last year, in the BBC Two series The Road to Santiago, a group of celebrities walked the famous Camino pilgrimage across Spain from Biarritz. I really disliked it. I thought the approach was shallow and facetious and the participants ill-chosen. The atheist Irish comedian Ed Byrne refused to set foot in the Cathedral of Compostela at the end of the 485-mile walk. He should have been docked his fee for not complying with terms and conditions, in my opinion.
So I had rather low expectations of this year’s pre-Easter TV pilgrimage The Road to Rome, another BBC three-parter, starting last Friday. More celebrities making silly jokes and showing off, I imagined. But how wrong I was: this new series is strikingly different, assembling a cast of characters with a much more reflective approach to the road to Rome which has been part of English Christian pilgrimage since the year 990.
The group of eight are varied in age, background and attitudes to faith. They are known personalities, although for those of us who don’t watch programmes like Celebrity Big Brother we might not be familiar with them all.
Lesley Joseph is a thespian of mature years who says “I’m Jewish and I don’t know what I believe in.” Brendan Cole is a professional performer from Strictly Come Dancing, and a declared atheist, but willing to listen. Greg Rutherford is a lapsed Jehovah’s Witness and a former Olympic athlete – a fit, genial young man who soon assumes the role of practical leader. Stephen K Amos is a comic of Afro-Caribbean heritage whose twin sister died recently, and is looking to deepen his understanding. Katy Brand is also a comic who was an Evangelical Christian as a teenager but, similarly, is now questing. Les Dennis is a “searching” Anglican, Mehreen Baig is a pretty young Muslim woman and Dana – the former singer who once won the Eurovision song contest – is a practising Catholic.
They have their joking and bantering moments, but they grasp the deeper meaning of pilgrimage: a journey of discovery into the soul, as well as a physical challenge surrounded by inspiring scenery.
Each of the characters has a back story: most touching was Les Dennis’s feeling for the Ave Maria, because his mother had sung it as a young girl in Liverpool Cathedral (but she left the faith when a priest refused to baptise her child born out of wedlock – a very wrong clerical decision, surely). Dana didn’t say a lot, but when she spoke to illuminate a wayside shrine to Our Lady, she was so patently sincere in her faith that the whole group seemed moved.
The pilgrims have a sense of awe that they are following in the footsteps of so many who went before, on the same route, from Canterbury to Rome (although in this instance, they started off in Switzerland). They are also in the tradition of Chaucer, where adventure was part of the journey too.
And The Road to Rome has another striking dimension: in these Brexity days of adversarial debate and shouty political arguments, here’s a genuinely European experience which is about crossing frontiers in peace, discovery, spirituality and merry companionship.
I had a birthday last week which took me ever deeper into Senior Citizenship, and, by the same logic, nearer the departure lounge of life. When young, birthdays are for jollification; when old, birthdays are for reflection.
I counted my blessings, rather than my years.
And how strange it is that as one grows older and the decline of body and brain become evident, so much of human – and natural – life seems ever more beautiful, and precious.
Yes, there are advantages to old age – there are advantages to every age group simply from being alive.
Highways England, which spent £319 million last year on road improvements, reports that several of their plans to reduce traffic congestion have had the opposite effect: traffic jams have increased on many major roads and motorways, including the M6, the M40, the A49 and A5.
The Germans have a word for this process: Verschlimmbesserung – “the improvement that makes things worse”. It happens quite a lot.