Adventures in Bookland: Rome Alone by Phil McCarthy

One of the unremarked perils of the writer’s life is getting emails from readers, telling you they have written a book and asking if would you like to read it. If the reader has had the courtesy to read one of my books, I generally feel honour bound to return the favour, which was how I learned about Phil McCarthy’s book of his pilgrimage to Rome along the old pilgrim route from Canterbury to Rome, the Via Francigena. But I’m pleased to report that reading the book proved to be a real pleasure and not at all the dull trudge that a number of other, duty-read books have been.

Strange though it might seem, given that we live in such apparently secular times, but pilgrimage is undergoing a major revival at the moment, with record numbers of people walking, cycling and generally making their way across Europe to places such as Santiago de Compostela. But Phil McCarthy, doctor and walker, had already done the Camino de Santiago and wanted something more challenging. He found it in the old Via Francigena, the pilgrim route from Canterbury to Rome that thousands of people from these isles trod in the millennium between the arrival of St Augustine in 597 and the suppression of pilgrimages by the forces of the Reformation – just one of the ways in which the sticklers for puritanism stifled medieval joys. McCarthy was following in the tracks of Hilaire Belloc, who similarly made a pilgrimage to Rome on foot at the start of the 20th century, detailing his journey in The Path to Rome. In Rome Alone, McCarthy recounts what it’s like to make a similar journey early in the 21st century. Having read both, the main differences appear to be the risk of death from passing cars – confirming every stereotype, the risk only increases the closer McCarthy got to Rome – the instantaneity of communication nowadays, and the impossibility of sleeping in barns or expecting accommodation and food from rural peasants. However, in compensation, the pilgrim hostels along the way serve as marvellous way stations and insights into how the Church is faring in what is supposed to an increasingly secular Europe. The good news is, at least from my reading of McCarthy’s book, that it is faring better than the doomsayers would suggest, with many lively parish communities making McCarthy welcome as he makes his way south. The walking doctor is particularly enjoyable on the inadequacies of European walking maps, the danger from dogs and the sheer slog of such a long walk. I’ll long remember his horrified realisation that the lyrics running through his mind as he struggled up an interminable hill, ‘Come on, come on/Come on, come on/Come on, come on/I say!’, were from Gary Glitter’s 1970s hit, I’m the Leader of the Gang (I Am) – given Glitter’s subsequent conviction, the subsequent lyric, ‘I’m the man who put the bang in gang’ becomes even more dubious!

Few books could stand alongside Belloc’s classic travelogue, so it’s much to McCarthy’s credit that I enjoyed his latter-day account of pilgrimage near as much as The Path to Rome.


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