Simon Reeve on the “darker, richer, naughtier” side to Pilgrimage

The terrorism expert-turned-travel presenter on his memories of 9/11, the religious journeys of our ancestors and taking inspiration from Michael Palin

Simon Reeve is not a religious man. Brought up as a Methodist, he has lived his adult life without a faith – so why is he making a programme about pilgrimage? “A lot of the series is learning about how our ancestors travelled and that’s of massive interest to me, particularly anything that counters any prevailing stereotype or cliché that our ancestors were just dumbwits who blindly followed the beliefs they’d been told and went off crawling on their knees. This idea that pilgrimage is all about Chaucer and blisters.”


Reeve is out to rectify the above misconception, profiling a “much darker, richer, naughtier side to it as well”. His new series, Pilgrimage with Simon Reeve, takes him across Britain, from Holy Island to Canterbury before journeying onward through Europe’s religious honeypots, over the Spanish Camino and on to Jerusalem and Istanbul.

Tracing ancient traditions and bringing them back to life, he also introduces his viewers to the desire of our ancestors not just to pay religious homage but to see something of the world. “Can you imagine the wanderlust that people would have felt when they were tied to their valley? The thought of what was over the other side of the hill would have been such a part of their lives.”

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But what awaited them over the hill was not confined to prayers and piety. “Along the way are these vices, these temptations that distract you and maybe you’re tempted? Maybe you fall prey to these terrible vices – who knows? This is the rich aspect of pilgrimage I was really interested in. To be honest, we could have probably filmed that aspect a little bit more.”

Of course, there are also the more ardent believers Reeve was somewhat apprehensive of encountering along his route. “I was a bit wary I was going to meet some religious fundamentalists who were going to go on a little bit too much about how Jesus loves them.” The series certainly features some dedicated promoters of their faith, such as 61-year-old Lindsay Hamon who travels to the corners of the globe bearing a 25kg cross on his shoulder.

“I think if you approach life with an open mind, you probably do need to have quite a few questions still in your head. People with faith I’m still wary of but if they’ve got an ability to question themselves and question what they’re doing, as Lindsay does have, then all credit to them.”

He’s obsessed by the word “journey” and the story behind these Middle Age adventures rather than just the destination itself. “The journey is such a part of what makes an adventure memorable and it’s what’s being lost now because it’s much better for travel companies if they can just get us on a plane and get us off, and milk us for our money next to the pool.”

His answers are long and protracted – far from jumbled but brimming with enthusiasm. “I’m trying to extoll the virtues of [pilgrimage] and recapture it a little bit for people who don’t have a faith but still want an adventure that has bloody meaning to it; a purpose and a destination that means it’s going to last in the memory longer than a tan.”

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But does Pilgrimage have an appeal for those without a faith? Our television schedules are hardly crammed full of religious programming – is this really what contemporary telly viewers want to see? “Increasingly I think there is this risk that people who have left faith behind look down upon or think there’s a huge gulf between them and people of faith.

“My personal concern would be there’s a risk we relegate religious programmes to just a Songs of Praise god slot and that we fail to take account of the extraordinary impact religion has had on us historically, culturally and as a civilisation. It’s shaped the structure of our entire existence so to ignore that and just have a little bit of people in a church singing beautiful hymns does not do credit to the impact of it on our lives. To understand who we are, you have to understand faith and belief as well.”

While the subject matter of Pilgrimage is no doubt fascinating, Reeve is known to be something of a thrillseeker. During a ten-year television career he has travelled to meet Islamic militants, been detained on suspicion of spying by the KGB, contracted malaria, swum amongst deadly jellyfish and travelled to war-torn nations ranging from Congo to Somalia. His on-screen career was first born amid the media furore that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America. Back then Reeve was the only person to have written a book on Osama bin Laden and the 1993 World Trade Center bombing – a study that concluded with the prediction of an imminent apocalyptic-style assault on the States.

“I watched on the telly as the first tower smoked and then saw the second tower hit. I was physically sick. I knew that a lot of people I’d interviewed and had a professional relationship with were in those towers. Even before the second tower had been hit, my phone started to ring and it didn’t stop for about a year and a half. I was a nearly-30-something little Brit lad who’d been into this dark world and suddenly the lid was lifted and everybody wanted to know about it.

“I started doing TV interviews about the book, about 9/11 and then started talking to the BBC about telly projects. Eventually we settled on making journeys which I’m very pleased to still be doing.”

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Does he continue to harbour a desire for those more heart-racing moments of his past when he’s trekking across the Camino? “I really love having memorable experiences. Having my buttons tweaked and my senses tingled and that can come in different forms. It definitely does come when you’re jumping into water with box jellyfish but it also comes when your brain is being tickled by the knowledge and the discovery of how our ancestors lived. When I think about them I smile inwardly and outwardly in a slightly daft way and I think for me that’s a sign of a journey that would linger.”

That word – “journey” – again. So, what journey would he like to go on next? “I’d love to do a bit more in Britain. I feel a bit of an outsider sometimes in my own country because I’ve spent a lot of time abroad and away so I come back here and it’s definitely home but I feel slightly disconnected from it in a way I want to resolve.”

In the meantime, he’s just completed two programmes – The Tea Trail and The Coffee Trail looking at where our favourite beverages come from and after that, he hopes, a yet-to-be-commissioned series on rivers.

Anyone watching Reeve on screen will perhaps see an affinity with his idol, Michael Palin – an easy, disarming affability when speaking to those he encounters. “[Palin] made TV programmes in a way that was different, about this strange place called ‘abroad’. It wasn’t patronising, it was on their level – he would sit down with them rather than talking slowly and loudly from on high. That was very inspiring to me and I try and incorporate a bit of that into the programmes I do and don’t just treat abroad as completely foreign.”

When I mention the comparison he looks delighted. “I would take that as a huge compliment, quite frankly.”

Pilgrimage with Simon Reeve begins tonight at 9pm on BBC2

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