His new BBC series resists the contemporary habit of dismissing everything religious as either valueless or meaningless
If you did not manage to see Pilgrimage on BBC2 last night, then you can catch up here (provided you live in the United Kingdom).
The programme was fronted by Simon Reeve, who is one of the corporation’s star presenters: likeable, breezy, undeniably contemporary, and yet also able to uncover the truth that lies below the surface. He has made some admirable travel programmes, as well as being an expert on terrorism long before that was fashionable.
In Pilgrimage, Reeve is broaching a new subject – not just travel, but an interior journey. He is not, as he told us several times, a believer, and that perhaps makes him the ideal person for the contemporary pilgrimage: he is modern man in search of meaning. Moreover, and this is the good bit as far as Catholics are concerned, he finds plenty of meaning in religion: he may have no faith, but he is receptive to the beauty and numinosity of many of the places he visits. This is a change, not to say a relief too, from the contemporary habit of dismissing everything religious as either valueless or meaningless. Reeve thinks Lincoln Cathedral the most beautiful building he has ever seen, and at the same time laments its emptiness. At both Lincoln and Canterbury, where he ends the programme, the Saints that once drew people, St Hugh and St Thomas, have gone, which may have something to do with it. He meets few pilgrims, he says: it is hard for the viewer not to contrast England as she was, and as she is today. The Reformation ripped the heart out of English religion, indeed, ripped the heart out of England.
One pilgrim stood out, indeed the only genuine pilgrim he met, a man called Lindsay Hamon who spends his time walking with a 45kg cross: he has done Berlin to Moscow, and now he was on his way to Canterbury, just crossing the M25. Hamon is a remarkable man, at a guess a charismatic Catholic, and the sight of him with his cross walking down an English road attracts attention. While he was with Reeve a man asked him if he would like a glass of water (it must have been a hot day), explaining the offer with the words: “I am a Catholic.” Offering a glass of water to a stranger may well require explanation these days, but being Catholic is explanation enough and has always been. After all, did not Jesus say: “And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because he is a disciple – amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward.” (Matthew 10:42) It was an arresting televisual moment, something that went to the heart of what religion is all about.
Next week it is off to what Simon Reeve calls “Catholic Europe” – now there’s a phrase you do not often hear often enough – and things should get even more interesting there.