Pilgrimage: the road to the Scottish Isles – BBC 2

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Whatever your personal religious or spiritual beliefs, there’s something very special about travelling to a place which holds significance for you, especially if you’re fortunate enough to have the health and time to make that journey on foot. Well, mostly on foot: this year’s pilgrimage takes in parts of the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland, so, as the land bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland has never got past the vague discussions stage, some of it will obviously *not* be made on foot.  Anyway, boats, buses, feet, whatever, it’s good to see the BBC 2 Pilgrimage programme back, after a year’s break due to the pandemic.

This year, our pilgrims are sticking close to home – heading for the Scottish holy island of Iona, home of Iona Abbey, founded by St Columba in the 6h century AD. BTW, why are some saints’ names in common usage but others aren’t.   How many people do you know who are called George, Andrew or David?   Now, how many people do you know who are called Columba, Ninian or Bede?   Hmm.

Unlike the previous Pilgrimage programmes, this one isn’t following a traditional pilgrimage route.  There is no Camino de St Columba.  Instead, they’re visiting various sites associated with Columba’s life.  Er, using navigation apps on their phones.  And, presumably in the interests of inclusivity – that’s a comment, not a criticism – the emphasis is being put on each participant’s personal “religious journey”.

Incidentally, I always say that I’m a Victorian, but, when it comes to “spiritual” issues, I’m actually very medieval – I look for omens in anything and everything.  The Victorians would have been horrified by that!

An interesting point was made, by Scarlett Moffatt, about religious people being seen as uncool.  I remember there being quite a bit of discussion on this subject in terms of soap opera characters, some years ago.  It was pointed out that the religious characters in soap operas were always old ladies, notably Emily Bishop in Coronation Street, Dot Cotton in EastEnders and Edna Birch in Emmerdale.  Not that old ladies are uncool, but you get the idea.  And I think the scriptwriters took the point, because we suddenly started to get religious teenagers – Sophie Webster in Coronation Street, Bobby Beale in EastEnders and Amelia Spencer in Emmerdale.  Even so, if you were asked to pick which one of the group most identified with formal religion, you probably wouldn’t have picked the young reality TV star.  Just a thought!

We also, with the group visiting Derry/Londonderry, heard quite a bit about the Troubles and the efforts that have been made to bring different religious communities together, including an interview with a lady whose husband was murdered by the IRA, and who now works for peace and reconciliation in tandem with a lady who was formerly a member of the IRA.

That had nothing to do with St Columba, but it had a lot to do with our lives today.   This is an unusual year: it’s quite common for Passover and Easter to coincide, but it’s unusual for Passover, Easter and Ramadan all to coincide, which is happening this year.  Both Easters – Good Friday by the Gregorian calendar coincides with the first day of Passover, Good Friday by the Julian calendar coincides with the penultimate day of Passover, and Ramadan runs through all of it.   I know that there are fears that this could lead to a wave of violence in the Middle East, but hopefully it won’t, and anyone marking any of these festivals (OK, I know that Ramadan isn’t a festival as such,  but I couldn’t think of an appropriate noun to include all three!), or just enjoying the long weekend, will be able to do so in peace … and make the most of it, after two successive springs mucked up by Covid.  If anyone’s read this, thank you, and all the best.

Pilgrimage: the Road to Istanbul – BBC 2

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That’s not Istanbul, obviously 🙂 – that’s my local park.  The first episode of this new series involved a lot of time spent in rural parts of Serbia, and some of the “celebs” taking part said that, for them, getting close to nature was the best way of experiencing peace and spirituality.  It is for me too, which is why I usually spend a weekend in the Lake District at this time of year.  That wasn’t to be this time, but I’m really feeling it even at home at the moment, during this very strange time when everything’s so quiet.

You can hear the birds tweeting, the bees buzzing, and I could even hear the thud of a squirrel’s little paws on the ground earlier today.  In the park, I could hear the sound of the water in the stream as it passed over the stones.  Normally, especially on a Saturday, the place is full of people and noisy dogs, and you can hear the traffic from the busy main road nearby, and sometimes there are planes flying overhead; but, now, it’s as if we’ve gone back in time.  I didn’t even know that that huge bank of daffodils was there.  I always go to look for the daffodils on the other side of the park, but I haven’t walked round that side for years.  There are woodland daffodils, too – they make the wooded areas look like enchanted forests from Enid Blyton books.  And I haven’t stood and watched the stream flowing since I was a little kid going for “nature walks” with the rest of my infant school class.

It’s a strange feeling.  These are very, very strange times – such terrible things are going on, especially in Italy and Spain, and yet, because of it, everything’s suddenly so peaceful and so natural … like it was for our seven “pilgrims” in the wilds of rural Serbia, to get back to the point.

This was scheduled to coincide with the run-up to Easter, Passover and Ramadan, but I think we’re all feeling rather more like hermits than pilgrims at the moment.  Life doesn’t half throw curveballs sometimes, and this is a pretty major one!   Unlike the Santiago de Compostela series and the Rome series, this is following a route which isn’t a historical pilgrimage trail, and in fact is the route which Ottoman armies took on their attempts to conquer Vienna.  It’s now been “repurposed” as the Sultan’s Trail, and the idea is to walk it in reverse, from St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna to the Sulemaniye Mosque in Istanbul, and to see it as a path of peace and a meeting point for all religions.

NB – it’s actually called “the Sultans Trail”, the Sultan being Suleiman the Magnificent, a familiar figure to those of us who did the Tudor period for A-level, but it just looks all wrong with no apostrophe!  Our gang are only going from Belgrade to Istanbul, but that’s OK because it means that most of their religious stop-offs will be Orthodox.  I like Orthodox churches.  Shame about the lack of seats, but they have nice music and lots of nice gold iconostases.  In the first episode, we saw the wonderful 15th century Manasija Monastery, one of the most important cultural sites in Serbia, and we also saw the gang join in a “slava”, a celebration of a saint’s day, in Nis. I’d rather have seen a traditional, historical pilgrimage route,  but I’m still  am enjoying this. We don’t get to see much of the Balkans on British TV.

We also saw the Crveni Krst Second World War concentration camp outside Nis, a reminder of some of the horrors of modern history.

As far as the “celebs” go … well, I’m familiar with Edwina Currie, Adrian Chiles and Fatima Whitbread, and I’d heard of Dom Joly, but I have to admit that I’d never heard of Mim Shaikh, Amar Latif or Pauline McLynn before.  Sorry, folks!  Amar is amazing, though.  He’s been blind since he was 18, but he’s still travelled the world.  They’re from different backgrounds, with different views on faith/religion, and it’s been interesting to hear what they’ve had to say.  I think the people in the first two series opened up more, but this was only the first episode.  What we were seeing was more interesting than what we were hearing, though – some of the most fascinating historical and cultural sites of Serbia, and the glorious, open countryside. There were even lots of fruit trees, in some of the less remote areas.  I love fruit trees.

Don’t get me wrong, I love cities, especially my city, but the noise and the traffic and the crowds can get a bit much.  It was interesting to see Dom Joly walk out of the church in Nis, saying that he found the crowds and the noise overwhelming and wanted to be outside.  We’re only allowed out once a day at the moment, and I am trying so hard to make the most of that.  I’m very sad that I won’t be seeing Grasmere, Windermere, Coniston, Chirk Castle and Biddulph Grange during daffodil season this year, but I’m so very grateful to have our lovely park within walking distance, and, even just in my own garden, I’m really feeling quite close to nature during this strange, quiet, time out from normality.  Wherever you are, if you’re reading this, thank you, and I hope you’re also finding a way to find some peace in these troubled times. Stay safe and well xxx.

I am so sorry if anyone’s had three notifications of this post – I had problems getting the picture to display on the Facebook link and had to keep redoing it!  Sorry!!

Pilgrimage: the Road to Rome – BBC 2

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Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have the time and opportunity to get away from it all for a few weeks and travel along a historic route, dating back well over a thousand years, through the glorious Swiss Alps and beautiful Northern and Central Italy, in blessed peace and quiet?  OK, OK, I’d end up whingeing about the heat, the insects and the lack of proper sanitation, not to mention any walking uphill, but I still love the idea of it.  Like last year’s series about the Camino to Santiago de Compostela, this is following a group of minor celebs, with different backgrounds and beliefs, along a traditional pilgrimage route, this time the Via Francigena (“French/Frankish Way” – it doesn’t sound nearly as good in English!) from Martigny (near Verbier) to the Vatican City.  Featuring St Bernard dogs, thermal baths and wine.

The Via Francigena actually starts from Canterbury, but I suppose that would have taken too long!   They’re using various modes of transport, but the last 100 km (just over 60 miles), from Viterbo to Rome is being done on foot.  And the “pilgrims” involved are Stephen K Amos, Mehreen Baig, Katy Brand, Brendan Cole, Les Dennis, Lesley Joseph, Greg Rutherford and Dana Scallon.

I’ve been to various pilgrimage sites – as a holidaymaking historian, not as a pilgrim (although I think I get some sort of medieval pilgrimage gold star for having been to Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela)! – relating to various different religions/denominations, but, due to being a wage slave, it’s only ever been for the day.  I love the idea of being able to take a couple of weeks, or more, and walk the historic routes – having time out to think and to take in the experience and to see the different places along the way.

I’m not sure that I’d go for the Vatican City, though.  It’s an incredible place to visit, but there’s too much else going on there.  It’s so grand and so full of incredible artwork, and also so much an administrative centre, and it’s surrounded by Rome, the Eternal City, in all its ancient and modern glory … and it’s all just too much to feel really spiritual.  OK, all pilgrimage sites are busy and touristy, and you’d probably feel a lot more spiritual if you weren’t stood in a horrendous queue to see whatever you’d come to see, looking at your watch to see how long you’ve got before you need to be back at the coach, hoping fervently that you’ll have time to get something to eat and drink and that there won’t be a long queue for the toilets.  But I think that places that exist purely or mainly as religious sites – and it can be any religion or denomination; you don’t have to “belong” to that religion or denomination yourself to appreciate the place – maybe work better as “spiritual” places.  Having said which, the Vatican is great, and our eight celebs got to meet the Pope at the end of their journey (which will be shown in the final episode, on Good Friday)!

It’s actually the journey that’s the most interesting bit, though, more than the destination.  We don’t hear that much about pilgrimage routes – although I think that the National Trust are going to try to start promoting some of the old routes within the UK – but they are very much a “thing”. I was quite surprised to see how many pilgrims were heading into Santiago de Compostela when I went there.   It’s not necessarily a religious thing – it’s that taking time out.  It could be, say, the Inca Trail.  Or, nearer to home and with rather fewer altitude sickness issues, the Pennine Way.  Along the Via Francigena, our pilgrims – although they were using apps and Google maps! – found pilgrimage signposts, and “donativo” refreshment places and hostels primarily serving people travelling the route, and had their pilgrimage passports stamped at each stop.

And it seemed so quiet, for all that it’s a “thing”!  OK, maybe other people were just politely asked to move whilst the BBC were filming, but you often see TV programmes filmed amidst hordes of people, so I doubt it.  Peace and quiet are so, so hard to find!  Even when you’re in your own home, even if you’re not answering the phone, there are often dogs barking, kids yelling, cars and motorbikes revving their engines, or someone mowing the lawn or playing music loudly.  And there’s usually a nagging feeling that you really ought to be doing one of the seventy billion things on your To Do List (capital T, capital D, capital L!).

That seemed to be how the “pilgrims” were looking at it too – I don’t think St Peter was mentioned once, and even Rome itself was only mentioned in terms of going the right way, but there was a lot of talk about peace and “mental space” and time out.  There was some general talk about faith and religion, though.  In Viterbo, it’s traditional to go into a Catholic church and receive a pilgrims’ blessing.  Some of the group – with Lesley, who’s Jewish, and Mehreen, who’s Muslim, amongst the most enthusiastic – chose to do this, but others said they didn’t feel comfortable about it.

There was more talk on the subject at other points of the journey, as well.  Dana, a practising Catholic and the most religious member of the group, said that religion is very important to her, but alluded to the “difficult time” in the Catholic church at the moment – i.e. with the child sex abuse scandals.  Stephen said that, as a gay man, he doesn’t feel that any religion welcomes him.  Les spoke about how his mother had once been very religious, but had lost her faith after being shunned by her church when she had a child outside marriage.  Brendan Cole summed it all up very well by saying that the problems are not with particular formal/organised religious, but with some of the people in them.

It was great to see people discussing sensitive issues – faith and religion are awkward topics to discuss, because people can be very sensitive about them –  without arguing and shouting each other down.  I’m so, so sick of seeing social media posts in which people use the word “stupid” (or worse) to describe anyone whose views on a political issue differ from theirs.  Some people will be abusive towards anyone who disagrees with them over a sports event, a film, a TV series, a book … anything!  This was just nice.  It was nice TV.  And it’d be a nice thing to do.  Just given the time …