Last week I was back on the Camino – and walking through Castrojeriz, a mile-long village, on an early June day. The wheat and barley still a vivid green in the fields, and poppies popping up everywhere, along the field edges and sometimes mixed in with the crops themselves. There is magic here – there’s nowhere that walks and winds quite as Castrojeriz does, with its castillo above, and cafes, albergues, churches and the Hospital de Alma where the music plays ethereal, and the messages are peace and love. The destination may be Santiago, but it is also, simply, the journey.
And then, a week later, walking, just one day, the Cornish coast path from Portloe to Gorran Haven, which runs east of Falmouth and west of Mevagissey. It drizzles and mists and then rains hard and I slip and slither. Where is that promised sun? Round about 2pm it shows itself, and the Cornish flowers – campion and fox glove and ox-eye daisies and it could have been a hundred others – line the paths. Grasses and clover, buttercups and hawkbit, fill the fields. Take a step or two back further from the path and we’re back to big fields and fertilisers, but not here.
Walkers are few and they are wet, and the temptation to take short cuts and get to shelter is powerful, but short cuts aren’t easy. Certainly not to my right as I walk – the sea is up to 300 ft and cliffs sometimes sheer below me! A few seagulls, only the occasional blackbird and chaffinch. Maybe the wind blows too strong here.
At Dodman Point a cross looms in the rain and mist, built we’re told as a navigation aid by the local vicar (not much use today). He inscribed on its base his belief in the sure and certain hope of the second coming of Jesus Christ. Built back in 1896, and built strongly as it is, it might even survive that long.
On the Camino you’re open to a different kind of eternity, sometimes the landscape could be the ocean, spreading great slow waves across the landscape. The pull of the earth is powerful, yet the sky is close. Whereas on the coast path you’re on the edge, the divide between ocean and earth. Both have aspirations to eternity, but the one seeks victory over the other. You can walk with only your boots and your thoughts on the Camino. On the coast path you have to walk with your wits. Beyond every stile or bush or dip in land there could be a surprise. A moment of danger, or a moment of joy. The Camino plays a longer game.
This shows in the villages as well. Towns and villages on the Camino grew up because of the Camino – Villafranca a place name that recurs and reminds us the many Frenchmen who walked the Camino and built settlements along the way. On the coast path they grew up because sailors sought a livelihood from the sea and wherever there was a likely cove they’d stake a claim. At East Portholland the cottages are right up against the sea, with their outer storm doors. Layers of concrete secure the beach against erosion – though would they, could they, break the might of winter storms such as we had three years ago?
Along the Camino countless walkers have journeyed before me. Fewer on the coast path. But out to sea, out into the Cornish sea – how many have journeyed, how many have been drowned or shipwrecked? On other days, clear and sunny, I’ve looked out to sea, and emptied my mind. Today I must concentrate. I slip, come a cropper, three times…
Could I rent, even buy, one of those cottages in the tiny hamlets such as East Portholland along the way, and write stories? At Hemmick here’s only one cottage in the cove.Sadly, I don’t think I have a plot, or a cottage, just yet! For stories, better the Camino? Take almost any one of those countless pilgrims, and walk with him or her, and their memories and aspirations. There are stories in abundance. But who knows what I might yet find among the Cormish cliffs? Who might have fallen there – and never been discovered?