Faith, friendship and curses as seven celebrity pilgrims trek to Santiago

There were no road-to-Damascus experiences and very little piety. Instead, when seven people in the public eye walked the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage route across northern Spain, there were many arguments and much snoring and swearing.

The group – a priest, an atheist and assorted believers and non-believers – discussed the values shaping their lives while retracing the steps of medieval peregrinos. Along the way, they forged friendships and encountered some of the hundreds of thousands of people who walk the Camino each year, part of a resurgence in pilgrimages.

Pilgrimage: The Road to Santiago, which starts on BBC Two on Friday, followed the modern-day pilgrims along part of the 500-mile route from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela, almost at the tip of Galicia in Spain. The group was made up of Kate Bottley, Anglican vicar and Gogglebox star; actor Neil Morrissey; M People singer Heather Small; comedian Ed Byrne; performer Debbie McGee; journalist Raphael Rowe, who spent 12 years in prison for a crime he did not commit; and TV presenter JJ Chalmers, who survived a bomb blast serving as a Royal Marine in Afghanistan.

As they walked, they questioned their own and each other’s beliefs. “It was eye-opening,” said Rowe, a non-believer who described himself as an “ignorantist”. “It made me think differently about myself, about other people, about religion and faith. I learnt more about religion [on the camino] than I ever have in my life.”

His fear that he might “catch religion” along the way proved unfounded, he said. However, by the end of the journey his “trust in people’s honesty and motivations” had been restored.

Small said the experience strengthened her faith, despite an uncomfortable moment when the group stopped at a monastery and the singer was grilled unsympathetically.

“Along the way you meet people who are genuinely interested in who you are. But then we went into the monastery, and the man there was not interested in me per se – what he saw was my colour, only my colour,” she said. “When you’re being treated as ‘other’, you always know.”

Heather Small

Heather Small: ‘When you are being treated as “other”, you always know.’ Photograph: Toby Lloyd/BBC/CTVC

Small walked out of the monastery, followed by the rest of the group. Their appalled reaction to the incident “showed me we’d really made a bond”, she said.

Bottley had expected the camino to be a spiritual experience but found it a physical challenge. “I hated it with a passion,” she said. The group carried their own gear and slept in basic pilgrims’ hostels, sometimes in dormitory bunk beds. They walked in extreme heat and driving rain.

“It was the hardest thing physically I have ever done, and I’ve given birth twice. The physical act of putting one foot in front of the other, day in, day out,” said Bottley. She had never sworn so much, she added.

The vicar also felt under pressure to defend and explain her faith. “The religious debate was exhausting. I felt I came out to bat a lot. There were a couple of moments when I feared my theological rigour wasn’t enough to carry the debate.”

Pilgrimage was popular in medieval times, when bands of travellers criss-crossed Europe in search of spiritual enlightenment. For many, it was a holiday as well as a religious duty, and a chance to meet new people and hear their stories. The Canterbury Tales, the epic yarn written by Geoffrey Chaucer in the late 14th century, described a group of 30 pilgrims walking from London to Thomas Becket’s shrine in Canterbury cathedral, with each telling the others a story along the way.

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But in 1538 the English pilgrimage movement ended. Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell moved against the pre-Reformation church, destroying monasteries, abolishing saints’ days, banning relics and smashing Becket’s shrine. Pilgrimages disappeared for more than 300 years.

Now the camino has spearheaded a pilgrimage revival. In 1984 just over 400 people completed the final section of the camino, a 62-mile stretch which entitles pilgrims to a compostela, a certificate written in Latin and issued by the cathedral of St James in Santiago. By 2016 the number had topped 278,000, including 6,000 from the UK.

New pilgrimage routes have opened across the UK. The Old Way, a medieval 220-mile route from Southampton to Canterbury, is being revived by the British Pilgrimage Trust. The 92-mile Two Saints Way from Chester to Lichfield aims to “set the modern pilgrim on a contemporary quest for ancient wisdom”.

In Scotland, a number of pilgrim trails have been developed in response to renewed interest, including a route in honour of St Magnus in Orkney and the 72-mile Forth to Farne Way, a stunning coastal walk from North Berwick to Lindisfarne.

Many walking these ancient ways are religious; but many more describe themselves as spiritual. A surprising number seek only to escape the pressures of 21st-century life with a simple existence of walking, eating and sleeping.

All members of the group in The Road to Santiago said they were enriched by the experience, in particular the strength of the bond created between them. They have stayed in contact since completing the camino.

“Did anyone have a road-to-Damascus experience? “No,” said Bottley. “But the camino has a way of showing the best of yourself – and the worst of yourself.”

Pilgrimage: The Road to Santiago begins on BBC Two on Friday 16 March, 9pm

Police investigate possible hate crime over anti-Islam letters

Police are investigating a possible hate crime after reports that anti-Islam letters were posted across the country.

West Yorkshire police confirmed they had received about six reports of letters advertising “Punish a Muslim Day”.

They had received a couple of letters for further analysis to determine the full circumstances and their possible origin.

A police spokesman said: “Counter-terrorism policing north-east are coordinating the investigation at this time and will consider any potential links to existing inquiries.

“Anyone with any concerns about a communication they may have received should contact their local police force.”

Social media users in London and Birmingham also reported receiving the letters.

A Metropolitan police spokesman said it was not yet clear whether any criminal allegations relating to the letters had been reported in the capital.

Iman Atta, the director of anti-Muslim hate monitoring service Tell MAMA, said: “This has caused quite a lot of fear within the community.

“They are asking if they are safe, if their children are safe to play outdoors. We have told them to keep calm, and to phone the police if they receive one of these letters.”

Plan to save Europe’s synagogues receives high-profile backing

Simon Schama, Howard Jacobson and Natasha Kaplinsky among supporters of campaign to protect Jewish heritage

Slonim synagogue in Belarus

Slonim synagogue in Belarus, where relatives of newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky worshipped before the Holocaust.
Photograph: Handout

Its gothic twin turrets and stained-glass window featuring a six-pointed star look out from a hillside over a town in south Wales. A Welsh dragon decorates the building’s gable. But rooms that once resonated to the murmur of prayers and readings from the Torah are abandoned; windows are broken, plaster is crumbling and the roof is open to the sky.

But now the Old Synagogue in Merthyr Tydfil, built in the 1870s, could be reborn. It is part of an extraordinary scheme – to be launched this week by the historian Simon Schama – to map more than 3,300 historic synagogues across 48 European countries, and restore the most significant sites.

The synagogue in Merthyr Tydfil was the centre of a community of around 400 Jews, many from eastern Europe. Its members ran a button factory, a chocolate business, a betting shop, property companies and other local enterprises. The annual Jewish Ball was attended by many of the town’s citizens, Jews and non-Jews.

But by the 1980s, a minyan – a quorum of 10 men – could no longer be reached, and the synagogue was sold. The grade II-listed building became a Christian centre and later a gym; today it lies empty and vandalised.

Now, however, there is hope that it will be preserved and restored as a Jewish museum, part of the scheme being rolled out this week. The project, commissioned by the Foundation for Jewish Heritage, has identified synagogues built before the second world war, from Cork in Ireland in the west to Vladivostok in Russia in the east. Each has been catalogued with construction dates and materials, the Jewish community it served, its present use and condition, and a “significance rating”.

Simon Schama.

Simon Schama. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian

Schama will launch the project in parliament on Wednesday with the backing of more than 40 high-profile supporters including Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, architect Daniel Libeskind, television newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky, artist Anish Kapoor, authors Linda Grant and Howard Jacobson, and former government ministers Malcolm Rifkind and Tristram Hunt.

Before 1939, there were an estimated 17,000 synagogues across Europe, but the majority have been lost. Of the 3,318 surviving buildings, only 718 still function as Jewish places of worship; others are abandoned, in ruins or used for other purposes such as warehousing, factories, restaurants and theatres. One houses a swimming pool; others are funeral homes or fire stations.

The project faced “special challenges around Jewish heritage”, especially in eastern Europe, said foundation member Michael Mail. “The Holocaust was followed by communism. Many buildings were abandoned and essentially lost their communities of users. In preserving these buildings, we also preserve the stories of the communities that for hundreds of years were the heartlands of the Jewish people. These places can serve as profound portals into the worlds that were once there.”

The inventory was undertaken by the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, assisted by heritage experts in individual countries.

“We can’t save them all, so let’s save the best, the most important, the most at risk,” said Mail. “We’ve homed in on 160, and narrowed those down to 19 that we’re particularly looking at, where there’s a good chance of saving and restoring the buildings. Each one of those has a different story. In many cases, these buildings are the last witnesses to a Jewish life that was. This is not just Jewish heritage: it is Europe’s cultural and historical heritage and we’re in a race against time to save it.”

Natasha Kaplinsky.

Natasha Kaplinsky. Photograph: Dave Benett/Getty Images

One of the first buildings in line for restoration is the Great Synagogue in Slonim, Belarus, built in the 1640s. Before the second world war, 17,000 Jews lived in Slonim, more than two-thirds of the local population. An estimated 200 survived.

The synagogue, a baroque building overlooking the marketplace, was used as a warehouse after the war but has been abandoned for 18 years. It has been vandalised and is in danger of collapse, but some of the interior paintings and carvings are intact.

Among those rounded up and killed in Slonim were Kaplinksy’s relatives. The newsreader discovered her Jewish family history when she travelled to the city for the television series Who Do You Think You Are?

“It was devastating to find out that a large number of my family were killed by the Nazis,” she told the Observer. “One key moment [in the Slonim trip] was going to the synagogue where most of my family used to worship before being rounded up and burned alive.”

The synagogue is a “majestic building, absolutely stunning. You can see its history on its walls, but it is falling apart. I was horrified to find swastikas painted on the outside walls.”

After the programme was made, 27 Kaplinsky family members from all over the world met in Belarus to learn more about their history. “We ended up in the synagogue,” Kaplinsky said. “It was hugely symbolic that the building that tore our family apart brought us back together. It was a very special moment.”

There were lessons to be learned from the past, she added. “When you look around the world you can see the devastation caused by prejudice and hatred. We need to educate future generations and remind them of history.”

Discussions are now under way to restore the Slonim synagogue as a Jewish museum, educational and cultural centre, and a place of worship.

In Merthyr Tydfil, the proposal to restore the Old Synagogue as a Jewish museum of Wales and cultural centre is supported by the city council and local politicians.

Gerald Jones, the Labour MP for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, said the restoration plan “would see this building once again playing a part in the life of our community”. The foundation is seeking funding from partners including the Heritage Lottery Fund in the UK. It is also hoping for donations from people with family connections to synagogues.

The Old Synagogue, Merthyr Tydfil.

The Old Synagogue, Merthyr Tydfil. Photograph: Handout