Camino – all about symbols

The Camino runs in, pretty much, a straight line, but I love the way it weaves itself into your life, with reminders here and there of that extraordinary heritage into which I tapped last autumn.

We stopped in Ludlow ten days ago, and visited the wonderful parish church, which has held on to its medieval heritage better than most. A palmer was someone who’d completed the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and the palm was his symbol. Ludlow’s Palmers’ Guild was formed in 1284 and with wide commercial interests across the area they became very wealthy – and they put that wealth into the church.

But, curiously, I noted that another symbol of pilgrimage, which appears more than once, is the shell, rather than the palm.

The palm had other symbolic meanings, not least triumph and victory. The shell, very much the symbol of the Santiago pilgrimage, had become a symbol for all pilgrimages.

Once you’ve walked the Camino and knowing how many routes cross-cross Europe you’re always on the look out for the shell symbols. It’s there even in biblical representations of St James with no pilgrimage associations – his supposed burial place wasn’t discovered until eight centuries after his death.

I found one in an unlikely place last week, on a muddy track, just off Offa’s Dyke. It was – a large shell-shaped fungus, of guaranteed impermanence, and a clear case of the symbol being in the eye of the beholder.

Camino reminders don’t only come fungus-shaped.

The chancel of Leonard Stanley church near Stroud has a carved capital depicting Mary anointing the feet of Christ, his hand raised in blessing. There’s a wooden head of Christ at South Cerney, a little further east into the Cotswolds, that’s comparable, and it’s thought likely this was brought back by a pilgrim to Compostela in the mid 12th century. The way the beard curls apparently gives the clue: I love that kind of detail. A curling beard another symbol? (Acknowledgements to David Verey’s Cotswold Churches for this information.)

And finally, guess what I’m cooking for supper tonight – scallops, with bacon, and it’s clear from one or two looks in my direction that it’s time I headed for the kitchen…

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