IN 2006, Mefo Phillips, a criminal lawyer by trade, embarked on a 108-day journey on horseback along the Via Francigena, a traditional pilgrimage route whose destination is Rome, specifically the tombs of St Peter and St Paul.
Phillips has previous, having travelled with her sister Susie four years earlier on the Camino Way to Santiago de Compostela, also on horseback. This she wrote about in her book Horseshoes and Holy Water.
While Mefo Phillips, in both cases, followed recognised pilgrimage routes, she was not a pilgrim in the conventional sense. She is cheerfully, and frankly unreligious, undertaking the trip partly as adventure in its own right, but also to raise funds for the Alzheimer’s Society, in tribute to her mother, who died from the disease.
Taking a horse on a 1400-mile road journey across Europe is no easy undertaking, especially if you’re using sometimes unreliable maps with little information on how equine-friendly the roads are likely to be (tunnels and HGV-populated dual carriageways need avoiding at all costs). Add to that the need to find — at the drop of a hat — adequate accommodation suitable for a horse and a support vehicle, in the form of a bulky, ancient Bedford horsebox, and the stakes are high.
Horses are wonderful, long-suffering travelling companions, but they have their own quirks. This is certainly true of Leo, Phillips’s wilful, middle-aged, spotted appaloosa. He is, rightly, the co-star of the book, outshining the author’s long-suffering husband who pilots Bessie the horsebox, and acts as a kind of straight man for her banter.
Mefo Phillips writes conversationally and well, and takes the reader along at a brisk, rising trot. It’s not a quest, but a kind of travel journal refreshed by a self-deprecating, gin-dry wit: travellers’ tales told over a good dinner. It is more about the escapades and the obstacles than the inward pilgrimage, though the memories of her clearly remarkable mother are tender as well as funny.
Malcolm Doney is a writer, broadcaster and Anglican priest.
Long Rider to Rome: 1400 miles by pilgrim horse from Canterbury
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