‘I blessed the Pope!’ Lesley Joseph on her pilgrimage to Rome and extraordinary meeting

Actor Lesley Joseph talks about her pilgrimage with six other celebrities and their extraordinary private meeting with the Pope...

When actor Lesley Joseph seized the opportunity to don a backpack, walking boots and embark on a gruelling 15 day, 1,000km trek along the ancient pilgrimage route of Via Francigena in Italy and Switzerland, she never imagined it would culminate in a private meeting with the Pope.

Here Lesley, 72 who joined six other celebrities, actor and entertainer Les Dennis, dancer Brendan Cole, comedians Stephen K Amos and Katy Brand, TV presenter Mehreen Baig, Olympian Greg Rutherford and singer Dana, tells TV Times more about her very special trek…

TV Times speaks to Lesley Joseph

TV Times: What made you want to take part?

Lesley Joseph:  “I’m Jewish but for me it wasn’t so much a religious thing.  I’d never been to Rome and I thought it would be amazing to walk into the city via a pilgrims route that people have travelled for thousands of years. When I got the call asking if I’d like to do it I was beyond excited I didn’t sleep for two nights.”

Lesley Joseph and Les Dennis

Brendan Cole, Les Dennis, Lesley Joseph, Greg Rutherford, Dana Scallon, Stephen K Amos, Katie Brand and Mehreen Baig – (C) CTVC – Photographer: Simona Sborchia

TVT: How important is your faith to you?

LJ: “I identify with being Jewish but I don’t lead a Jewish life except on the day of Atonement. I always try and go to the synagogue and fast on that day. I’ve done that since I was a child and so that’s a tradition I like to keep up.”

Lesley Joseph and Les Dennis

Les Dennis and  Lesley meets Les Dennis in Switzerland

TVT: You had no idea which fellow celebrities you’d be travelling with until you got there, were you apprehensive?

LJ: “Les was the first person I met at the station in Switzerland where our trek began. Les and I have known each other for years and of course I’d worked with Brendan on Strictly but all of us just bonded so quickly. We were all ages, all faiths, all different stages of our careers but spending so much time together and being part of this experience brought us together almost immediately.”

TVT: How did you prepare yourselves for such a physically gruelling journey?

LJ: “I did a lot of walking beforehand. I made sure I bought the perfect boots, I got some Nordic walking poles, a Fitbit and I attempted to walk at least five miles a day. I even practiced carrying a rucksack. I wanted to make sure I was as fit as a flea!”

Lesley Joseph

On their first morning in the Italian Alps

TVT: What was the highlight for you?

LJ: “We got to meet the Pope in the Vatican which was extraordinary. It was arranged so that we had half an hour of conversation with him, just the eight of us. We were all taken with how incredibly approachable he was, he laughed, he joked, he was almost flirtatious and had a real twinkle in his eye. When I told him my age he said, ‘You don’t look 72’ and I replied, ‘Ah bless you!’ I blessed the Pope! The whole thing was surreal.”

TVT: Did you feel a bit starstruck?

LJ: “It was extraordinary. I think whatever your religion, whatever you feel about Catholicism you are still meeting someday who is a leader to billions of people all over the world. To have that one-to-one with him and to actually hug him and kiss him and make him laugh was extraordinary.”

Lesley Joseph

Lesley Joseph with  Dana, Katie and St Bernard’s dogs on St Bernard’s pass

TVT: What was the hardest part of the trip?

LJ: “Nothing was particularly hard. Getting a good night’s sleep was probably the hardest part. It was all too exciting to just go to bed early at 9pm. There were some days when you were really tired and thought, ‘Can I do this?’ But once you started walking it was fine because energy creates energy. Plus Brendan and Greg were wonderful. If there was ever anyone limping at the back they’d be there to help. Because Greg’s an Olympian and Brendan’s a dancer they had a lot of good advice on what to eat, what protein you needed and how to give yourself energy. They were absolutely fantastic.”

Pilgramage Lesley Joseph

TVT: Did you surprise yourself with how you coped?

LJ: “Beforehand, sleeping in a sleeping bag in a shared dormitory wasn’t really my idea of where I wanted to be spending the nights but I really enjoyed it! It’s like you build up fears before you go anywhere, for example before I went to India I was terrified I’d get ill the second I stepped off the plane but sometimes you just have to do something and put your fears at rest. I’m an actress so I think I tend to be a bit dramatic about things and build them up!”

TVT: How would you sum up the whole pilgrimage?

LJ: “It was such a special, shared experience and I can’t talk about it without feeling very emotional. If you asked me to name the three most exciting things I’ve done in my life, this would be one of them.”

Pilgrimage: The Road To Rome begins on Tuesday,  BBC1, 9pm