Simon meets Mary and Joseph (BBC)
Interview Words : Peter Moore | 13 December

Pilgrimages with Simon Reeve

TV presenter Simon Reeve has a new series about pilgrimages. Were those that took them really that different to modern travellers?

For centuries, going on a pilgrimage was one of the greatest adventures you could have, involving epic journeys across the country and around the world. In his latest series for BBC 2, Simon Reeve retraces some of those journeys.

It's called Pilgrimage with Simon Reeve, and along the way he meets inspirational modern travellers, sees extraordinary sights and learns about the forgotten aspects of pilgrimage, including the vice, thrills and danger that awaited travellers. He explores the faith, the hopes, desires, and even the food that helped to keep medieval Britons and more recent travellers on the road.

He spoke to Peter Moore about how, as travellers, pilgrims weren't that different to the rest of us.

Were medieval pilgrims that different to modern travellers?

We like to think we are different to our ancestors, but we’re not, other than that they had significantly more longing to get to Canterbury or to Rome than we do. But they brought back memories of their journeys, proof of it, in a similar way to now. We have digital photographs. They had medieval pilgrim badges.

So they have accoutrements as modern travellers – the souvenir stalls, extortionate prices in the high season, a medieval version of Lonely Planet?

Completely. There were lots of guidebooks. I read one on the road to Santiago de Compostela and it talked about costs as well as who to trust and who not to. There was even a bit about the best rivers to water your horse on the road to Santiago. One river was particularly notorious and the book warned that: ‘This river brings death on its banks.’ According to the book, two local people made a good living butchering pilgrim’s horses that died after drinking the water.

I’m guessing it also gave pointers on what to eat.

There was lots of stuff about the food. It suggested avoiding a fish the locals called ‘shag’ in Galicia. There was plenty of honey, millet and pig, apparently, but huge flies which you needed to protect your face from were a problem.

Were there any differences with modern guidebooks?

The guidebooks in the past were not restricted or limited by political correctness and could say what they liked about people along the way. Gascons were described as ‘loud-mouthed, talkative, drunk and greedy, clad in rags and poverty stricken, but they are skilled fighters and known for their hospitality.’ The Nazarenes, on the other hand, were ‘malignant, ugly of face, debauched, perverse, dishonest, corrupt, lustful, drunken and skilled in all forms of violence, past masters of all vices and iniquities.’ They also fornicated shamelessly with their beasts. Modern guidebooks tend to keep those sort of thoughts to themselves!

I imagine when pilgrims returned they talked at their local church, presenting the medieval equivalent of a slideshow for the parishioners.

It was like today, you can’t shut a traveller up! That’s part of the joy of going off on a journey. You come back and you have the right, almost, to tell people about it.

You’ve got to remember that in some years, up to a tenth of the population of Britain was going to Canterbury. There would have been a lot of people wanting to tell their tale about their experience, how awful the people in London had been to them, what fun they’d had on the merry road to Canterbury. And a lot of people who would have wanted to know the best route to go, what to see and what to do.

Was there always a religious motive behind pilgrimages? Or was it a bid to have an adventure, to escape their dreary lives?

Definitely. And there’s plenty of evidence for that. In the 13th Century, a French bishop complained that people were going on pilgrimage out of ‘mere curiosity and the love of novelty.’ In the 800s, priests were criticised for going on pilgrimage just to escape their duties.

So it wasn’t even just peasants. Everyone was using it as a means of escaping from difficulty, annoyance, drudgery and because it offered a taste of the new. And that’s what humans love and go for. I think it’s coded into us, otherwise we would never have left Africa. We’ve got that desire, we’ve got that yearning. But we’ve also got that belief that there’s something else, better, out there, if only we could find it.

In the programme you suggest that a lot of people went on a pilgrimage looking for love.

For sure. They would have thought, ‘I’m not going to find anyone around here. Old Sally or old Tom, I can do better than that.’ So they would have used pilgrimages as a means of exploring other options, so to speak. They may well come back with someone from exotic Kent.

Was there a debate about being a ‘real’ pilgrim, like the traveller/tourist thing today?

There was a real argument about that. And, of course, people were often accused of going on a pilgrimage ‘for the craic’, as it were. There was a snobbery about it, but it was a fair question to be asked. Ultimately, it was up to the individual to decide what their motivations were.

In the last episode for example, you go to Bethlehem, where Jesus was supposedly born. The veracity of something like it is hard to determine. Do you think that veracity is important?

I think it matters historically whether or not it is the right place. Or whether indeed the figure who is the focus of the shrine or the holy site actually existed in the first place. But ultimately, in practical terms, it just matters if people believe it to be the right place and believe in the story. And there’s no doubt people do believe about Bethlehem. It has enormous historical, religious, cultural and military power as a result.

You seemed very moved by your visit to Bethlehem.

I found it a really overwhelming place to visit. I’m not a religious person. I didn’t approach these journeys from a religious aspect. I approached them as a traveller and as someone who is interested in what motivates people to get on the road. But when I arrived in Bethlehem, I found it really quite an emotional place to go.

I guess it was because, as much as anywhere, it represented my culture, my childhood, my innocence, my happy Christmases for a dozen or so years of my life. It felt very much that it’s a place that belongs to us. To all of us, not just Christians, but people on this planet.

It’s such a tiny little site, a place where a child was born and this story began, but war and culture and civilization has emerged from it. It felt like I was going to the absolute heart of who we are, what we are. So for that reason alone I’d rate it and recommend it. It was very moving.

Has the modern world lost touch with that? When you went through England, for example, you found it very hard to find any pilgrims.

There’s not a lot of modern day pilgrims on the road in Britain. But there are lots of people following pilgrimage routes. It’s just that we’re quite a Godless country now. It doesn’t detract from the fact that it’s something our ancestors did in huge numbers and it is something that helped to shape and form the layout of the country, the roads and so on.

We did find more pilgrims in other parts of Europe and into the Middle East but maybe that’s because it’s much more pleasant to go on a walking adventure across northern Spain than it is across northern England. You take the Camino, for example, across northern Spain to Santiago De Compostela. It’s now the most popular long distance walk in the world, a couple of hundred thousand people doing the walk each year, which is gobsmacking.

How many are doing the walk for religious reasons though?

To be honest, I think that ‘I’m going to walk the Camino’ has become the focus of so many people’s aspirations. They don’t necessarily believe in religion, they just do it for the adventure, for the quest, for the achievement. It’s often people choosing their route, choosing their time in life to be able to do it. There were lots of people in their 20s and 50s, before and after having children. It does take time. It’s not just a quick weekend break it’s a quest, with an amazing sense of achievement as a result.

Is it the quest aspect that makes a journey, pilgrimage or otherwise, worthwhile?

Well, I think so. The enormous value of a quest for travellers nowadays is that it comes with its own built in sense of purpose and that is so often lost in modern travel. It does require a bit more investment and involvement in the journey but with massive rewards as a result. It’s definitely not just skipping off a plane and getting on the shuttle bus. It’s actually having a bit of a struggle, you decide how much. One of the things I realised is that the journeys I’ve been doing, they do give a quasi-religious sense of satisfaction about them.

So purpose and meaning are the key?

That is what so many religions are about, giving a meaning to life, a sense of direction and they give a point to everything. And a journey can offer that as well. They help you get the point of life to a certain degree and I think there is an enormous value in that for people nowadays. You meet a lot of people who are drifting a bit and what they need is a focus in life, they need some shape to their existence and a journey and a pilgrimage can help to provide that.

And just as in the old days, it opens your eyes to the rest of the world too.

Completely. Pilgrimage was – and always will be – useful in spreading ideas, cultures, even different types of food. In the third programme we go from Istanbul to Jerusalem and one of the things we realised when we were researching was how pilgrimage had helped to spread the exotic foreign culture of washing back to Western Europe. It was pilgrims heading to Istanbul, or Constantinople as it was, who discovered the joys of washing and brought it back and got us all a bit cleaner here. So there were very deeply practical ideas pilgrimage helped to spread as well as the religious ones.

The next episode of Pilgrimage with Simon Reeve will be aired 17 December at 9pm on BBC Two. You can catch previous episodes on BBC iPlayer.