THE 25-year-old Guy Stagg sets off on New Year’s Day 2013 to walk from Canterbury to Jerusalem. He does not travel light, though it is not his rucksack (“fat with waterproofs and thermals”) that weighs him down. His burden is his past.
For several years, he has suffered bouts of severe depression. Suicide has beckoned. Neither a succession of psychiatrists, counsellors, and therapists, nor devotion to the bottle (“a litre of gin a day”), has delivered him from his demons. Now, though more or less free from his symptoms, for the next five-and-a-half thousand kilometres, dark memories will dog his footsteps.
Everyone asks him why he is walking to Jerusalem. He asks himself the same question without ever finally answering it. Having been in such bad shape, he hopes that the journey might build him up again — not that he has any mystical notions about the healing properties of holy places. Stagg is not a religious believer, and he reaches Jerusalem, if anything, less persuaded to become one than when he took to the road.
Yet what he has ceased to believe still fascinates him. Across Europe, he follows the ancient pilgrim path of the Via Francigena, staying, where possible, in religious houses, hoping to gain insight from the rites that he observes into a world he has rejected.
We can’t blame those who periodically advise Stagg to call the whole thing off. Stagg barely survives his foolhardy midwinter climb through the Alps. Other close calls include a plunge from a broken footbridge into an icy river, a narrow escape from being crushed to death by the hysterical Easter crowds in Rome, a terrifying terrorist bombing in Lebanon, and — almost as high on the Richter scale — explosive episodes of vomiting and diarrhoea.
The Crossway is a chronicle of fleeting encounters, as every such travelogue is bound to be, but Stagg makes each of these meetings memorable. Stagg notices people, the many — never met before, never to be seen again — who cross his path. Such attentiveness is a rare gift. So, too, is his sure sense of the right few words to portray those he meets so that they enrich our journey, too.
Stagg will not forget Gabriella; nor will we. Gabriella prepares meals for pilgrims when they reach her convent in Rome. Before she serves her guests, she kneels to wash and kiss their feet, drying them with a towel.
With Stagg, we are enchanted by the Albanian Sister Alessandra, talking “in tottering French” about her favourite Father Brown mysteries. And we wish that Stagg had made an audio-recording of his conversation with Father Constantine, monk of Mount Athos and formerly head chef of a posh Islington restaurant, as they savoured the latter’s precious Earl Grey tea and his memories of liquid lunches in Soho long ago.
Stagg gets to Jerusalem in the end. Lacing his boots around his neck, he steps barefoot into the Old City. Inevitably, he is disappointed. Among the milling crowds, he’s just another pilgrim. He attends an early service at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. For the first time, Stagg writes, albeit obliquely, of another who set his face like flint to go to Jerusalem. Stagg adds: “This was the end of my pilgrimage too, yet I experienced no sense of triumph, only a weary detachment pierced with regret.” He decides that he must start walking again. He wanders deep into the wilderness of Judaea, expecting to meet a stranger, a stranger who will look on him and invite him to tell his story.
Such is the enigmatic conclusion — not that there are such things as conclusions — of one young man’s remarkable journey.
The Revd Dr John Pridmore is a former Rector of Hackney in east London.