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As a pilgrim, you never walk alone

05 September 2014

Harry Bucknall, a former soldier, set off on foot from England to Rome, using the ancient pilgrim route the Via Francigena. He recounts his traveller's tales to Philip Sidney


On the road: Harry Bucknall en route

On the road: Harry Bucknall en route

"I MEAN, how much diviner an intervention can you get?" Harry Bucknall says, grinning, as he retraces the steps that led to his walk from London to Rome in 2012.

On a Tuesday morning in July 2007, he had just put the finishing touches to In the Dolphin's Wake, the story of his travels around the Greek islands. Gazing out of the window of his Dorset cottage, he was surprised to see the lazy summer's day transform into a violent thunderstorm.

As his Jack Russell ran for cover, a flash of lightning struck the house - leaving Bucknall one computer and 80,000 words the poorer. Swallowing his disbelief, he left the room. Downstairs, while making a cup of coffee, he picked up a newspaper and came upon a map of the Via Francigena.

Seven years and 1411 miles later, the book Like a Tramp, Like a Pilgrim follows Bucknall's journey through south-eastern England, France, Switzerland, and Italy to the steps of St Peter's.

The pilgrimage began as a "romantic journey" rather than an act of spiritual devotion - when asked "Have you got God?" by a disbelieving friend, he replied mischievously that he was walking to Rome "for the hell of it" - but his experiences along the way suggest that it might have been more than simple coincidence that led to his discovery of the map on the kitchen table.

The book is the latest departure in a writing career that, from its outset, has, like the tale of the lightning-struck laptop, combined intrepidity, comic accident, and a touch of the miraculous.

Bucknall's calling as a travel writer came on the Greek island of Paxos, in the seconds immediately after his fall from a cliff. Mid-plunge, he prayed to St Spyridon for aid, promising to dedicate a book to him in exchange.

The saint obliged, Bucknall survived, and the result (eventually, in spite of rogue lightning-strikes) was In the Dolphin's Wake. That episode, however, was just one escapade in what he calls "just the most incredibly, fortuitously interesting life."


"WE ARE all, in some form, adventurers," Bucknall tells me, although his life has been more adventurous than most. He was born in 1965, and his childhood in Dorset was followed by Harrow, Sandhurst, and service with the Coldstream Guards in Bosnia and Northern Ireland, before work in the Middle East as a consultant in the the oil and mining industries. "I'm never going to do anything that's normal," he says. "Ever."

Such buccaneerings resemble those of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Fermor had "an indelible influence" on Bucknall, and helped to edit In the Dolphin's Wake before his death in 2011. "I had a huge amount of respect for him," Bucknall says. "He was incredibly kind and generous to me. No two ways about it, he was a splendid fellow."

Though keen not to put himself in the same literary league as travel writers such as Fermor and Eric Newby, Bucknall concedes that with their shared military background comes "a similarity of mould".

"To be a soldier gives you the authority to pass comment at times when you've seen things that others, perhaps, don't have quite the same ability to pass comment on. You know, when you've been in war and come under shell-fire and so on, it gives you a certain joie de vivre afterwards, put it like that."

His training would be useful on the Via itself, as the demands of his journey made themselves painfully apparent. "The thing about walking to Rome is that it requires a significant amount of effort. I have to say I drew a huge amount on my army reserves of endurance and stamina."

Although it began as a jaunt, a "chance to shake free . . . from the chains of reality", the sheer plod of completing each day's mileage soon put paid to any idea of the Via Francigena as gentle stroll. The stick he bought as a fashion accessory soon became a crutch.

"It was one hell of a slog," he says, but the huge distances he covered brought rewards as well as discomfort - rewarding, perhaps, because of the discomfort. After he had trudged 1124 miles across Europe, the first sight of the sea felt "pagan, almost animal-like. Suddenly, you reach the Mediterranean, and you think: 'My goodness, that is incredible.'

"That is how pilgrimage changes you. Because you realise that, if you set your mind to it, almost anything is possible. You just have to keep going. You just plod, plod, plod away, and you'll get there in the end."


BUCKNALL's exhilaration is palpable when he describes these moments, although he is more cautious when discussing his journey's long-term effects. On returning from pilgrimage, "you are a different person. That doesn't mean to say you're changed, but you've just walked 1411 miles, and, whether you like it or not, you are changed by a journey."

The combination of physical exertion and opportunities for extended self-reflection might, he ventures, be salutary for "the lost", whoever they may be. "Some will drop out along the way; some won't," he says. "But those who'll do it would have the chance to think at some length, and to question themselves and say: 'If I can get to the end of this, I can do damn well anything I want to do.'"

This account of pilgrimage as bracingly character-building does not, however, cover all of Bucknall's experiences on the Via. Self- discovery was accompanied by a fugitive but undeniable sharpening of his sense of the world around him - in particular, a sense that he was not travelling alone.

Deep in a wood outside Châteauvillain, in north-east France, he spotted someone crossing the path ahead of him. When he caught up, there was nobody there. Ever the soldier, he surveyed the area, and found it "without any ground sign, any cover broken at all, and it was like someone had just walked across your grave. You knew that some very, very ancient force was with you."

THAT encounter, and others like it, confirm that Like a Tramp, Like a Pilgrim is a spirited book in more ways than one. The gusto with which Bucknall greets each new challenge (a mountain pass, an irascible dog, a "mandatory bottle of the local wine") is complemented by the generosity of his attitude to the people and places around him.

A willingness to look beyond the everyday, he suggests, a little bashfully - "Uh-oh, Harry's gone wookey" - enables us to recognise angelic visitation in a chance encounter on the road, or to determine from a series of apparent coincidences that "there is someone, somewhere, guiding the whole thing."

This openness is at the root of the gregariousness that Bucknall displays both in writing and in person. His is a convivial pilgrimage, untroubled by the doctrinal implications of walking the route from St Paul's to St Peter's.

"My intellect doesn't stand going into a great debate," he says. "Also, this is not the place for it. Let the Fathers of the Church tear themselves apart, but let everybody else read a book that's just an enjoyable journey, and take away the good bits from that."

This straightforwardness extends to his stance on ecumenism: "I think that any rivalry between the two Churches is silly - one of the things about serving in Northern Ireland was seeing that rift, which was so sad."

Ultimately, Bucknall's pilgrimage centred on comradeship: "man's kindness to man." He springs to life when he talks about his fellow pilgrims. Their names - Domingo, Mario, Reto - trigger a flood of memories, and enthusiastic impressions in questionable accents.

"Really, what made it for me", he says, "was not so much the journey itself: it was really the fact that you met such incredible people, such wonderful people.'"

IT IS this companionship, shared on the march, and passed on in turn through the printed page, which animates Bucknall's writing. "That's what life's all about: it's about meeting people; it's about travelling; it's about experiences, and writing them down, and then telling people about it.

"That's what gives me the buzz. You write for the guy on the train who is never going to have a chance to do this, but would love to, so that he can go off and dream about it."

Having walked an ancient way, Bucknall is the latest, as he sees it, in a long tradition of pilgrims who return home brimming with stories of their wanderings.

Having completed the road to Rome, he has another journey in his sights: the map printed in Like a Tramp features an arrow pointing invitingly to Jerusalem. The journey will probably be an uncomfortable one, but it promises more adventure - for Bucknall, and for his readers.

"All that matters, really, is that people enjoy what I've written, and that it makes them happy. That's all that matters - that it brings a smile to someone's face."

Like a Tramp, Like a Pilgrim: On foot across Europe to Rome by Harry Bucknall is published by Bloomsbury at £16.99 (Church Times Bookshop special offer £14.99).

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