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.”
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.
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