What persuaded you to tackle Spain’s 800km medieval path, El Camino de Santiago?
Debbie McGee: It was last summer and my husband Paul had been dead for just over a year. Initially, I felt like somebody had thrown me out to sea – I was bobbing about, not knowing where to go, and the only way I could keep going was to keep working. I wondered if the pilgrimage [to Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain] would help me find my place back in the world.
The Rev Kate Bottley: Walking is a thing that lots of middle-class Christians do, but I’ve never got my head around it – I’m very good at making a loud noise, but not so good at being quiet and reflective. My bishop had recommended a silent retreat to learn more about myself and my faith, and this seemed in keeping. Walking with people who were largely not of a theological persuasion was also a draw, as I’m more interested in people who don’t go to church.
Debbie: The fact it was a genuine pilgrimage was also attractive. I was married to an atheist who had read widely about religion and formed his views and, although I was raised a Catholic, his convictions had rubbed off on me. But really I was undecided and thought it would be interesting to travel with people of widely different views.
Kate: There’s this idea that, as a vicar, you never doubt, but there are days when it’s tough to believe. Like Debbie, I was interested to see how this new environment would affect my faith.
What were your biggest fears beforehand?
Debbie: This trip was my first time away from home since Paul had died and I did feel anxious about not having my neighbours and family around me. I also worried that there’d be hours of walking with nothing else to think about – I didn’t want to get sad. In fact, it was so hard physically that often I only had one thought: put one foot in front of the other.
Kate: For me, it was the physical challenge itself that was daunting. When you say you don’t like walking, people look at you as if you’re mad, but I genuinely dislike it. I’m a tough girl – I sit with people during their last moments alive – and in terms of robust discussion about spirituality my feeling was: bring it on. Putting one foot in front of the other for 15 days, walking 135 kilometres of the route – that scared me. Sometimes I was such foul company that the best thing I could do was take myself away from people, so I actually walked a lot on my own.
(L-R) Heather Small, Debbie McGee, Ed Byrne, Neil Morrissey, Raphael Rowe, JJ Chalmers, Rev. Kate Bottley (BBC)
All seven of you have diverse backgrounds and faiths, yet you all seemed to bond…
Debbie: From the moment we met, we all gelled, which is amazing really given the little sleep we had and the pain we were often in. Everyone respected that we had different points of view and the debates we had were really interesting. It was a unique experience, with seven people who could not be more different.
Kate: I think when you’re thrown together in extreme circumstances you go two ways – you either turn on each other or you think the only way to survive is to look for the best in each other. Luckily we did the latter. We saw each other in very vulnerable moments, but we also had a lot of evenings sitting around laughing.
Did you come back feeling differently about your faith?
Debbie: There was no big reveal for me and I came back still feeling undecided. I love to go to church on occasion and sometimes I pray, but faith isn’t the driving force in my life and I’m still not sure what I believe about God and the afterlife. I know lots of people who have been married more than once and you think, well – when they die, who are they reunited with, their first or their second wife? Questions like that trouble me.
Kate: Actually, someone asked Jesus that question and he says there is no marriage in heaven, everyone’s equal. On the subject of conversion, there were no Road to Damascus moments along the way, but I think it would be naive to expect any on a two-week walk in the mountains. It was more a case of what you learn about yourself. For me, I saw God reflected in the lovely unexpected friendships that we made.
Did the experience change you in any other ways?
Debbie: For me it was part of a process. Over the course of time, by working and getting on with life, I feel more secure in myself as an individual rather than needing to be part of a couple. Through life when bad things have happened to me, I’ve always had the ability to tell myself that while I may feel fragile now, it won’t always feel like this.
Kate: I don’t know Debbie that well, but what I’ve observed from the time I’ve spent with her walking El Camino, she is a different person from the one who started out on the pilgrimage – but the pilgrimage was just a part of her journey.
Debbie: Absolutely. In that sense the experience was a reminder that life itself is a pilgrimage, really. It’s not what happens to you, it’s how you deal with it.
Pilgrimage: the Road to Santiago is on Friday 16th March, 9.00pm BBC2 (Friday 17th March in Scotland)