Michaela Strachan: Pilgrimage encouraged me to deal with my profound grief

Alongside the crumbling ruins of Flint castle, overlooking the Welsh-English border, Michaela Strachan is standing above crashing waves while gulls fly overhead. But the Springwatch presenter is not here to tell us about the birds. She’s about to embark on a long-distance trail – a sixth-century pilgrim path called the North Wales Pilgrim’s Way. It was re-established in 2011, nearly 400 years after Henry VIII banned the practisce.

“I don’t follow any organised religion, my faith is the natural world,” the bubbly presenter says before she begins her journey. “But I have a curious mind. I am interested in people who have different kinds of faith.”

It’s a good thing too. Because she won’t be alone on this beach for long. Soon she is joined by six other TV personalities who will walk with her (and take buses) along the 225km trail, over the next two weeks, for the latest series of BBC’s Pilgrimage.

Her walking group includes stand-up comedian Eshaan Akbar, a once-practising Muslim, whose mum died nine years ago – the idea of a god judging her didn’t sit well with him; actor Tom Rosenthal, who has Jewish and CofE heritage but was raised with no religious belief; and former model Christine McGuinness, who is dealing with life after her split from Paddy McGuinness and is not sure if she believes in anything.

Also on the pilgrimage are Amanda Lovett from Traitors – a practising Catholic who lost her mother five years ago and still keeps her ashes by her bed; journalist Sonali Shah, raised in a Jain household but not sure if she’s in fact agnostic; and former Made in Chelsea star Spencer Matthews – whose old school Eton “had a very churchy vibe”, and who at the age of 10 lost his older brother.

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The celebrity cast of Pilgrimage: The Road Through North Wales (Photo: BBC/CTVC)

So what persuaded a self-confessed atheist like Michaela to join them? “I love hiking,” she laughs.

And walk they do. Through hamlets and villages, farmland, moors and mountains, over three episodes, bound for Bardsey Island – Ynys Enlli, the island of 20,000 saints, at the end of Wales’s finger-like Llyn Peninsula.

As they go, talk naturally ensues – about faith (or lack of it), about love, and life, something Michaela had hoped for. “It’s really good sometimes to plonk yourself with a group of people that don’t fit your normal circle, because that’s how you learn and start expanding your mind again,” she says.

Undertaking a pilgrimage as a non-religious soul was more than just the opportunity to expand her social circle. It was also a chance for her to process her own year of loss.

“I had just lost my best friend Lucy from breast cancer before we started filming,” she explains. “She was diagnosed a few years after I was. She didn’t make it. I did. That’s very poignant and it hit me very hard. I was in a very different emotional state than usual.”

It is Michaela’s pensive mood that is perhaps the most striking throughout the series. She is noticeably quiet as the group traverses the rugged terrain towards Eryri National Park, learning about figures from Celtic Christianity – such as St Winefride, beheaded by an unwanted suitor only to have a spring appear where she fell, which allowed her to rise again – and spending the night in caravans, climbers’ huts and even Hobbit houses.

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Michaela Strachan at Aber Falls, one of Snowdonia’s most dramatic waterfalls (Photo: BBC/CTVC)

“I like to be part of a big group and am usually at the very heart of it,” she says. “They’re a fantastic bunch of people, and we had a great laugh, but there are some large characters and sometimes, when you’re not feeling robust, you feel like you want to withdraw. This was a side of myself that I was not used to.”

This happens in the mountains, where Michaela decides to sleep outside, alone, rising early at dawn to see the light play on the mountains. And again, when she meets a “pioneer priest” who works with worshippers in the natural world, and encourages them to take a “ponder spot” alone.

“I did feel I had a heavy burden and was still processing all this grief,” she confesses. “But doing the pilgrimage encouraged me to deal with the raw emotion. It gave me time to be with my thoughts and find my own way through it.”

Since the pilgrimage, Michaela has been inspired to mark the death of her mother-in-law in a similar way. “Watching someone in hospital go is quite traumatic. So, the whole family met up a few days later for a reminiscing walk,” she says. “We went up the mountain and all talked about her and remembered her. It does mark things beautifully.”

Ultimately, she hasn’t changed her view on religion: “Wildlife doesn’t sit there wondering about God so why should we?” But she does love the idea of a walk with purpose, “whether that is to the top of a mountain, a waterfall or a beautiful church”. She has been reminded to take the time to enjoy every single step of the journey.

Pilgrimage: The Road Through North Wales is on BBC Two on Friday at 9pm and BBC iPlayer.

Phoebe Smith’s new book Wayfarer: Love, Loss and Life on Britain’s Ancient Paths is published by HarperNorth, at £16.99