Finisterre – end of the known world…

Last year walking the Camino across Spain I put all thoughts of politics out of my mind. I posted a blog when I returned, entitled ‘On being a European’. I had confidence a European and international outlook would win out in the end, whatever the short-term travails. The Brexit vote hit that confidence hard, but walking the Camino Portuguese, and the passing of the weeks, has helped bring calm and perspective. And a shrug of the shoulders – can we really be so daft?

At Cabo Fisterra, Cape Finisterre, where I ventured after Santiago, I clambered down the rocky slope below the lighthouse, and looked out west, over a stretch of ocean which to the Romans would have been at the very edge of the known world – finis terrae. The ocean as the Styx, and somewhere out there would have been Charon, with his boat, ferrying souls.

High cloud patterned the sky but didn’t reduce the sun’s intensity. Mist held to the coast behind me, but not out to sea.

In medieval times, likewise, this was the end of the world, and pilgrims would continue beyond Santiago to Finisterre. In the voyage of St Brendan he sails out west from Ireland and passes over into paradise.

I’ve this fantasy of May, Davis, Fox and Johnson, sitting in a restaurant, at the end of the world (borrowing from Douglas Adams!), having a last meal before they cut ties with Europe and venture off into the unknown. The ocean is peaceful just now but the autumn and winter storms will be mighty.

On another tack, but still in Spain, there’s a quote I like from Gerald Brenan’s classic book, The Face of Spain, about Spain, but more applicable to the UK just now: ‘I do not know where we are going, but I do know this – that wherever it is we shall lose our way.’

And China…. thinking walls, not oceans…. I’ve a sense that the Emperor Shih Huang Ti’s behaviour, as recorded in Richard Flanagan’s novel, The Sound of One Hand Clapping, might just have relevance to our own times: he ‘ordered the construction of the Great Wall and the destruction of all books preceding his reign, so that history would henceforth begin with him and his wall.’

In this post-expertise age, we are in a not dissimilar place. We might just finding ourselves using a new, unknown and very friable building material, not stone, not brick – but brexit. On one side of the wall, the old Europe, and on the other, the ocean.

It’s Thursday 1st September. Two weeks ago as I write. I’m starting from the Catedral Se in Porto after delaying awhile, with the heat building, in the wonderful cloister. A city built on hills, with the proud river Douro beneath, big vistas, and along its banks the old port warehouses of Cockburn, Sandeman and the like.

(Amazing in the twilight also – the previous, Wednesday, evening. Porto faces west, and silhouettes against against the sky. Street music I like: one memorable trio, with the girl belting out Eric Clapton’s ‘Before you accuse me’. If I want to sing blues and sing it seriously… I’ve a long way to go!)

10am and sun already hot as I set off past the Carmelite church (the south side covered, and telling stories, in blue azulejos tiles), along the Rua da Cedofeita, which seems to contunue forever, and on through the suburbs. I haven’t gone far when I’m accosted by a stranger and invited to inspect a newly-opened albergue (Albergue Peregrinos Porto), which brings together under one roof all the best features that Oscar, the owner, has seen on his pilgrim travels. Next time I’ll stay there.


All the buildings, almost, have azulejos tiles, not least the station, and they tell stories, and the cathedral cloisters likewise, less so the outer suburbs. After maybe 12 miles of endless roads I’m into countryside, and a few miles beyond I’ve reached Vairao: staying in a monastery, beds not bunks, and it’s oh so wonderfully peaceful. No monks in sight, and there’s a single volunteer in charge – a Brazilian guy doing a two week stint. The meditation room I’m told is two flights of stairs up. No lights on the stone stairs: I stagger up in the total dark, and flick the light switch: Buddha and cushions but no sign of anything Christian! Yet this is a monastery. As a Dutch lady said to me a day or two later, she loves it all, but compared to the Camino Frances it’s not spiritual in the same way. Being a Camino, that spirituality has to be rooted in Christianity. Churches on the route are closed too often, and I miss the pilgrim masses. And the Templars, and Cluny, never got to work down here and put money into anything like the great Romanesque temples I love on the Camino Frances.

All that said – still an amazing trail to be following. Comparisons maybe miss the point!

Friday 2nd. San Pedro de Rates, drinking water water water, and coffee, under an awning, the clock tower above, and the village square blasted white by the sun. The cafe owner (Cafe Macedo) loves pilgrims: big smile and handshake saw me on my way. Next – Dead Woman’s Peak – Alto da Mulher Morta. (Looked hard for Dead Man’s Gulch, but wrong continent.) Not enough shelter from the eucalyptus and pines as we gently climb. Pedra Furada – a megalithic disc, with a hole… stranded in a paved churchyard, but it still has mystery.

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Barcelos, commanding the river, famous for its legend of the cock which crowed just in time (the victim was already hanging) to save an innocent pilgrim’s life. Now a garish cartoon cock, and he’s everywhere. One marvellous octagonal church, ornate decoration, and another severely Romanesque, the river directly below, with a mill by the bridge. Colourful umbrellas float above the main shopping street.  My albergue was in Barcelinhos, where checking in I’m greeted by the most beautiful girl in the world: dead on my feet and glasses coated with salt and sweat I walk into and rebound from a plate glass door. Impressing women is never easy. Also hurt my head!

Saturday 3rd. Getting hotter by the day. Drink suspect water from a fuente, mild tummy upset – doesn’t help! Ponte da Tabuas, old bridge and river forms a lagoon, and someone’s swimming… Dirt tracks and cobbled roads (all minor roads are cobbled) take you through maize and vines, the vines forming a narrow screen next to the walls of cleverly laid, heavy, solid  granite stones. These are old landscapes, little changed, by the path side, but the fields are often big, and sprinklers throw their water far and wide, and are happy to dowse pilgrims.


A roadside chapel dedicated Our Lady of the Snows. You long for snow in summer, and you don’t have far to go to find it in winter. It’s a lovely evocative name, sounds even better in Spanish: Nuestra Senora de las Nieves. A pulpit sits outside the west door: this intrigued me – was a priest from back maybe in the 18th entity the radicalising Wesley or Whitfield figure of his time ? Preaching out rather than in. There’s a bandstand opposite – what does this signify, I wonder?

One big blister by the time I limp into Ponte de Lima. Wide river with long and spectacular medieval bridge. There’s a big kayak race – why kayaks? Whatever, it’s a big event!  They know how to party here and it’s Saturday night … Supper outside with a Canadian girl and a Italian guy: she works in England at Stevenage hospital, was born in Dubai, has lived in Canada since she was three, and her parents were originally from India, and her boyfriend who she came to England to be with is – Welsh. The multinational Camino represented in one person. She’s walking from Braga to Santiago, another variation on the Camino theme.

Not quite so many walk all the way from Lisbon. Places like Coimbra sound magical, and there’s Fatima, a pilgrimage in its own right. Someone, for much of the Portugues route, and beyond, has happily drawn blue arrows facing the opposite way, the Fatima way, wherever there’s a yellow Camino arrow.

Sunday 4th. Sleep not too easy. Street noise right below the dorm window!  And everyone in my dorm is up at 5.30 – start early and beat the heat. No way can I sleep – so I’m off early to. By 10am climbing sharply, a rugged path to 1400 feet, big views back to the Lima valley, two evocative stone crosses with memorials and mementos, and pine trees with plastic bags attached: they’re collecting resin, and it’s thick and crystalline, and the smell is sweet.

Rubiaes, another municipal albergue. Down to basics – they pride themsleves on how minimalist they can get – as long as there are showers and bunks, they’re right, nothing else matters! And it’s 5 euros! Most of us there by 1pm. Late arrivals sleep on mattresses in corridors. Not much to do, the heat it seems exhausts more by doing nothing than by moving through it, save shower and wash clothes and read and talk and sleep and eat. This is not a metropolis.

Monday 5th. Checked out a Roman bridge in the half-light, we’re following for much of the way the Roman Antonine Itinerary XIX. A major route from the 1st to the 5th century. There are six-foot and bulky inscribed Roman milestones along the way. I love tracing out Caesar or Augustus with my finger. I reach the Spanish border by 11 – Valenca, Portuguese fortress, on a massive mscale, this is serious border country! Fortifications inspired by Louis XIV’s remarkable engineer, Vauban: they are on a vast multi-levelled scale. The Portuguese did not, and rightly did not, trust the Spanish!


Views up and own the Minho river take your breath away. But most pilgrims head straight on, and tourists go for the nicknacks. Stop halfway across the bridge, straddling the border. River impressive – Ben (my son) and I went kayaking just below here ten years ago! Good memories.


Then on to Tui, Spanish border town, solid granite, cathedral a fortress, and cloisters the best place for cool! Carved portico inspired by the Portica da Gloria in Santiago. Dinner with Martin from Dublin (a retired engineer, he has a Camino tattoo on his upper arm) and Ken from Wigan. Broad Lancashire stalks the Camino..

Tuesday 6th. Big view from albergue up the Minho, first semblance of a breeze at 2, we’re all away by 5.30, 100 degree heat forecast. Stars bright, Orion already high, and Sirius just touching the horizon – winter stars, out of place in all this heat. We take the green route round Porrino, avoid the factories – three of us, a Polish photo-journalist, a Czech girl student, and a Brit. Pushing each other. After 22 miles we make Redondela, it’s getting close to 2pm. We get the last places in the dorm. Getting used again to mixed dorms – showers and loos separate. Male showers communal – back to school days! We’re close to a marvellous coastline, the Ria de Vigo: I follow the river and after a few 100 yards it opens out into a tidal creak – water flashing brilliant and enticing in the mega-sun.

Most churches closed but their Romanesque bell towers stand out against the blue skies. I always detour to take a look, while others walk on. One way to find peace. I love the cruceiros, wayside crosses which can sometimes pack the full biblical cycle from the Fall to crucifixion into tableaux carved out of the granite. Everything, all the way from Porto, is granite. Not least the walls, and the narrow posts which would once upon a time have supported the vines that line the field edges.


Wednesday 6th. A shorter walk, to Pontevedra, via the river route – alder and birch mixed in, we’re almost into English greenery. But it’s hotter, and the shade deeper. Santa Maria a remarkable Renaissance basilica – the life of Mary climbs and fills the western front. Sanctuaria de Peregrino  a perfect 18th century rotunda – ground plan shell-shaped. I take a breather – take a cheap hotel! The Asador Virgin del Camino, my oft-related joke being that it’s better than vergin’, it’s actually on the Camino.

St James is more and more entwined with the pilgrim route, the closer we get to Santiago.

Thursday 7th. But first Caldas de Reis. Chatted to Christine from Canada on the way, she’s running a leadership course near Lisbon, and all participants have to walk the last stages of the Camino Portugues. Young people, working in not-for-profit fields, from all over the world.

Caldas – thermal waters, baths and springs since Roman times. Bathed my feet: water seriously hot. Got a disapproving look from a local – no longer a cool thing to do! Ice cream in the Xardin Botanicas – that was a better highpoint. Too much time to kill. Down by the bridge over the rio Umia there’s a wonderful tree-shaded restaurant: if only I’d known!

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Friday 8th. Padron – where St James landed, or at least where he is supposed to have landed. Let’s assume he did! Much more fun that way. The stone to which he tied his boat lies beneath the altar in the Igrexa de Santiago. The hill above the Carmelite convent, the Santiaguino, is where he preached. After his execution his disciples returned to Padron with his body. I bumped into my friend, Martin, from Tui and we walked and talked the hill and its story together. Helps that he’s Irish! Below, in front of the Carmelite monastery there’s a vast platform – a viewing platform, for taking in the landscape, and not half bad for preaching either.

My albergue, all rather prosaic by comparison, is new, compact, and pristine clean – and the individual bunks had curtains. Also memorable: the menu de dia in a local restaurant, I’m now into main meals at lunchtime – do as the locals do. Not forgetting my evening pimientos de Padron, the local speciality.

Saturday 9th. James’s disciples buried his body in Santiago. What route would they have taken? My trail ran past the ancient Iria Flavia basilica, sacked by Almanzor in 997AD (he snatched the Santiago cathedral bells in the same raid), through run-down villages , through eucalyptus and pine, following a delightful wooded river valley, past the oldest of all the cruceiros, 14th century (I had my photo taken there, appropriate for someone who loves all the old stuff, the churches, the religion, however unfashionable that might be), then across the valley, through villages …then one river left to cross, just to tease, and a curiously rural valley for somewhere so close to the centre, another bridge, and finally tired legs into the old town, where it’s Saturday, and I seek out the traditional Portuguese gate of entry, and the different areas of the city are progressing in fancy dress and marching bands, drums and pipes, into the Praza do Obradoiro.

Sadly, as last year, the west front and the Porta da Gloria are covered in scaffolding, and that means I will have to come again! It’s Saturday, as last year when I arrived, but where last time it was politics this time it’s carnival in the streets, colourful costumes,  Galician pipers, big drums echoing down the ruas, captioned horses barely under control, high-steping middle-aged ladies looking gorgeous and showing off their legs, all the Santiago communities dressed up for a big day, and the rain holds off – just. Everyone heading for the Praza do Obradeiro. I watch from the steps with my friend, Michaela, from our big walk from Tui. By mid-afternoon it’s wet.


Behind me is the Portico da Gloria. Under wraps. Inside the cathedral, at the back, there’s plastic sheeting, and you can get down on your knees and peer underneath, and two girls are sitting on stools, under arc lights, chipping away the grime of ages. I think it’s the statue of Master Mateo himself one of the girls is working on. I’d love to have touched heads with him, as pilgrims used to do, in the hope that a little 12th century genius might transfer to the 21st. Outside, on the great western facade, it’s slow work there too, and there’s a lift that trundles incongruously up and down. Just how did they get their building material, and their craftsmen, up there in past times?

Santiago’s history and tradition is now embalmed – explained and served up for pilgrims and tourists. Pick almost any period in its past and the story would have been radically different. In the 13th century destruction followed on a riot in the Quintana, and rebuilding followed. 15th century, another riot, the cloister damaged and rebuilt. I’ve been unable to find the reasons or the consequences, but stories of riots do bring us, as they brought the city centuries ago, back done to earth. What were the conditions the masons and journeymen in the 10th, 13th, 17th and all centuries inbetween worked under? Master Mateo and Archbishop Xelmirez may have been hard taskmasters.

Inside the cathedral it’s evening, and the Pilgrim Mass draws to a close. The great organ strikes up, the botafumeiro is released and pours out holy smoke as it swings in its great arc across the transept. Not I’d have thought the best way to fumigate pilgrims: it may not take our sweat but it does take our breath away. There’s a pilgrim mass in English every morning, in the Chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows. The Irish well represented, including five men in orange T-shirts who are all cancer survivors, and cycling together. The priest is a jovial, over-weight 69-year-old Irishman. I too am 69. We all introduce ourselves, a marvellous diversity, though quite a few like me have come from Porto rather than St Jean. Along one wall a mitred medieval bishop rests, on his side, head on one hand and his other, upper hand clasping the good book to his thigh. He seemed so content, in the sleep of the Lord, death could not touch him.

So many sculptures, and I love getting in close and taking in their expressions. Adjacent to the Porto Sacra are prophets and fathers of the church, and bishops and popes, not psychological portraits, but the sculptors had their fun, making each one different. Calm faces, cool faces, classical faces, and some at the opposite bizarre, plum ugly end of the spectrum. All those empty stares. And noses don’t survive the centuries well.

For paintings and sculptures if you want to see them not with a craned neck but close at hand, then check out the Museum of Sacred Art, a modern miracle of a museum housed within the old Mosteiro de San Paio on the Praza da Quintana. There’s the tabernacle in which St James is supposed to have been originally buried, and statues and paintings of Santiago and pilgrims from all over Europe. What did they wear in their feet, I wondered. Mostly sandals it seems, though one pilgrim had his feet wrapped round in what I assume was leather – almost a shoe!

Pilgrimage is a broad concept. On a path, with a purpose. Once upon a time when we all walked we were all pilgrims… Jesus on the road to Emmaus was joined by two disciples who didn’t recognise him at first, and there’s a wonderful painting, 16th century, almost my favourite item in the whole of Santiago, of the three of them ambling along, talking animatedly beneath towering woodland. Small figures, and a big theme. Three modern pilgrims engaged in animated conversation wouldn’t look that different!


Jesus – lest we forget, the Pope decreed that that this should be a Holy Year of Mercy, and the Holy Door, the Porto Sacra, on to Quintana is open this year, as it would otherwise be only in those Holy Years when the saint’s day falls on a Sunday. But no mention of this in the cathedral: I saw a pile of unused leaflets, that’s all. And tourists were using the Holy Door as just another entrance. If you take confession, and mass, and are free not from sin as such but a disposition toward sin (wonderful semantics!) then you qualify for a plenary indulgence. I’m not a Catholic, and Luther railed against indulgences, but I love the idea of a Year of Mercy, and it’s a shame to see that’s it’s not impacting on the lives of tourists, and pilgrims, a little more.


But Santiago works its magic anyway. My hotel, the Balalada, on the Rua da Xelmirez  (Xelmirez was archbishop in the early 12th century, and the driving force behind the building of the  cathedral), hides out in an old house, and my bedroom window looks over roofs and trees to one of the cathedral towers. There’s a bar four floors below my bedroom and on Saturday nights the party doesn’t stop until 5am, but if you’ve just walked 150, or 500 miles, you’re likely to sleep anyway, and next year – you can drink into the small hours, outside, in the cool of night.

Staying over two extra days I wandered the streets, explored churches, gazed up at high statues, spent time in cafes and restaurants and shops, but nothing quite beat my discovery of the Alamada park, which stretches away toward the sunset to the west of the city, endless green open spaces, trees and walkways, the church of Santa Susana in the middle, a perfect place on a hot day. If lived in the city I’d be retiring there to walk or to run, or with my book, or simply to find peace. And on the far side there’s a wonderful statue of Rosalia de Castro, Galician poet and national hero, whose house I visited in Padron. She has strong features, and a wise face, and I like her. No military celebration, or or pride or pomp, just humility, and wisdom, set on high, so we can look up to her. Below, carved into stone, are the titles of her books – poetry and prose. She had a melancholy cast of mind, there’s a sense of loss, and maybe that’s woven into the Galician sensibility. Not for me to say. But in this place of triumph for pilgrims I’ll end with a quote that’s just a little bit sad, but nonetheless evocative. Santiago is also a place for reflection.

I can only tell you that my songs/ rise in confusion from my soul/ like a sound from deep oak groves/ at daybreak,/ a sound which may be/ the wind’s tease,/ or the flower’s kiss,/ or the simple, but mysterious harmonies/ which, lost in this sad world,/ seek a way to heaven.



Singing your way along the Camino

Many of the songs I’ve sung to myself on the Camino have travel in there somewhere. And, curiously, a sense of losing someone, and looking back. They aren’t songs of triumph – look I’ve made it! But they do tell stories.

What, I wonder, do other peregrinos sing on the Camino? To keep themselves company, for sheer joy and pleasure, or just because they match the rhythm of their step…. A few have headphones and listen to music from downloads, not from memory, and that puzzles me. Singing may be a performance of one, but you’re pro-active, as surely you want to be on the Camino, and not re-active. (Wear headphones and you also miss birdsong, the rush and babble of streams and brooks, the sound of the wind in the grass and trees.)

There’s a sense of re-engaging when you recall an old favourite. And you may be taken by surprise, by something old and long-forgotten. The rhythms of the Camino can take you surprising places.

For me, Kris Kristofferson for starters: ‘Me and Bobby McGee’: From the coalmines of Kentucky to the California sun,/Bobby shared the secrets of my soul….

Leonard Cohen has travelled with Suzanne for fifty years, as I have too (almost!) – I’ve been singing this legendary song since I was 19! On the Camino it was like meeting up with an old friend.  Susanne takes you down to a place by the river/you can see the boats go by,  you can spend the night beside her…

As for the Rolling Stones’ Ruby Tuesday, ‘she would never say where she came from/… ‘There’s no time to lose I heard her say…’

Not sentiments you’d expect from a peregrino. Though how many of us are getting over, or moving beyond, an event that’s troubling us, that’s turned our life on its head? And we peregrinos – we do tell each other where we’ve come from – and hopefully, we have time to lose. We can go slow.

I’ve sung the blues along the way. But not travelling blues. Or Woody Guthrie’s ‘Hard Travellin’: I’ve been doin’ some hard travellin I thought you knowed…’  And I’ve not been riding the blinds – leaping and hanging on to passing trains!

One moment I remember (somewhere between Ponte de Lima and Rubiaes on the Camino Portugues), singing Howlin Wolf’s ‘Spoonful’. (Give me a spoonful of coffee…) After each of three repetitions of ‘that spoonful ‘ a cock crowed. He and I struck up a rhythm together. I tried a fourth time – but he’d lost interest. I carried on of course.

One other song, with no travelling connection at all, but when you sing it you bounce along, and that’s ‘Light my fire’. I love the original Doors version, but try singing it like Jose Feliciano, with a Latin, syncopated rhythm, and, well, not surprisingly, you’re almost dancing. So maybe don’t walk that way with too many other people around.

From the Camino to Cornwall

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?

Back on – or just off – the Camino

I’m back revisiting favourite corners of the Camino, and also taking in places and landscapes which tantalised me last year by being just off route. Above all the monastery of San Millan de la Cogalla, where I’m writing this post.

We’re not staying in albergues, but in hotels – and some are almost smart. Do I miss the dormitories? And the snoring? Maybe not! Though I do have ambitions to walk the Camino Portugues later this year.

The monastery has claims to be the birthplace of the Spanish language, where what became Castilian was first written down by an early 12th century monk as marginal notes to a Latin codex. I knew when I first read about San Millan, in Navarrete last year, that I had to visit.

I loved and love the history of the Camino – the vast church interiors, ancient houses with coats of arms, streets winding through towns and villages as they’ve done for a thousand years, the Templar and Cluny connections, tales of battles against the Moors, my hero Sant Iago, the porch of the ruined church outside Navarrete now gracing the entrance to the cemetery on the other side of town, churches where pilgrims who might not make it to Santiago could nonetheless receive absolution  – all the powerful spiritual connections.

I’d attend pilgrim masses when I could, and light candles.

Down the road from San Millan is Berceo, the birthplace of the first recognised Spanish language poet, Gonzalo de Berceo. Another reason for visiting.

From my hotel window in San Millan woodlands stretch up both sides of the valley into the heart of the Sierra de la Demande. And a cuckoo is calling, as it has been on and off through the day.

San Millan himself was a 6th century hermit, and around him gathered other hermits, and in the 10th century a Benedictine monastery was founded on the site. There are monks here to this day, though I’ve yet to catch sight of any! There are depictions of San Millan is sculpture and paintings in Benedictine attire (hardly a military uniform!) and brandishing a strange red zigzag sword, taking on the Moors as did Santiago Matamoros. Like Santiago he was a patron saint, of Castile and Aragon, but Santiago’s status has fared better down the years.

We walked up the valley this afternoon and climbed the hillside to one of the many hillside caves. The views up to the still snow-touched peaks were wonderful, likewise the woodlands which extend everywhere. We took out all our woodlands back home in the UK for firewood and building ships and to create pasture – not so here!

If you want to be a hermit, I can’t imagine anywhere better.

Final thoughts …

Final thoughts on the EU. Unless provoked!

A friend sent me the link to the Brexit movie, which I mentioned two posts ago.  I viewed and responded to her as follows:

“I’m proud to be a liberally-minded outward-looking Englishman, European, citizen of the world. Any film or message that begins with ‘we the people’ is automatically suspect. Pretending to refer back to the American constitution, but sounding more like Oswald Mosley in the 1930s.

There’s much wrong with the EU. There’s bound to be with any institution which brings together 26 nations. But the important thing is that it’s brought them together. We live in peace, amazingly. After fighting each other pretty much forever. We trade successfully, and we can only lose by leaving. The Leave story here is a disgraceful misrepresentation. Fully-argued surveys on one side against rose-tinted speculation on the other. Which do we go for? And trade means regulations and standards – we will need them anyway if we want to trade with Europe. And on the environmental side, and that includes animal welfare, I’m delighted to see that our standards have been taken up by the EU, and that means countries with much poorer standards than ours.

Listen on iPlayer to Paddy Ashdown  on Any Questions last Friday [13th May] taking apart Liam Fox when Fox tried to dismiss all the world institutions – the IMF, OECD etc – that argue for the UK staying in the EU as somehow biased or self-serving or in the EU’s pay. Only by traducing the integrity of these institutions (and none have come out favouring Brexit) can the Leave campaign make a case for themselves – and it’s profoundly to their discredit that they try. Likewise Mark Carney and the Bank of England – should he not issue warnings when warnings are what his role as Governor requires of him?

I walked the Camino across northern Spain with fellow Europeans last autumn. Not with the Brexit-minded. But with people mainly younger, mainly much younger than myself. They are the future. There’s a spirit of optimism, of sharing.

Sovereignty – that’s how the film begins. Sovereignty is worthless unless you work with others, and that means sharing some of that sovereignty. The EU is what we make of it – and we have one of the dominant voices there.

Immigration – on the plus side, an incontrovertible net benefit to the economy, on the debit side, pressure on resources and in some cases, jobs. How we control immigration (and still get the benefits) should be the issue, not how we oppose it.

Do we really want to turn the world against us?

Boris’s comments about the EU wanting a European superstate as Hitler did are disgraceful. We are the EU. The EU doesn’t have a separate existence. Linking it to Hitler is atrocious history, and populism of the worst kind.

Someone somewhere said he hoped the film would enlighten and entertain. It does the opposite.”



The EU referendum – which way to vote?

I walked the Camino across the northern Spain last autumn, from the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela. I made many friends along the way. We walked as English, French, Italians, Spanish, Belgian, Dutch, Czech …and we walked as Europeans. We walked with Americans and Japanese and Koreans and Indians and Chinese … sharing our continent with people from all over the world who had been drawn to share our history and our landscape. The citizens of Navarra, Rioja, Castile and Galicia will I’m sure forgive me for saying that they represent not just Spain but a continent that until seventy years ago knew best how to pull itself apart rather than pull together.

So you wonder why in the current debate I’m pro-Europe, so strongly in favour of staying in? I’m English, European – and a citizen of the world. I look out rather than in, I’d take my country out into the world, rather than putting up impediments and turning inward. (Brexit supporters would of course argue that once out of Europe we’re open to the world. And I’d argue that we might just not get noticed.)

I believe in trade without borders, and a continent open to migrants and refugees. But always consistent with one thing – that we don’t water down what it is to be British – our language, culture, traditions, our way of life, our moral compass. They are our contributions to the world – as other countries have theirs.

There’s a balancing act required, and it’s that outlook I want to see influence policy. Begin with an open mind, and an open door. There may have to be boundaries, as the Syrian refugee crisis has demonstrated. Some crises may seem all but insoluble. But they will not find final resolution unless we have that open mind.

And to take another key issue in the EU debate. Don’t close your borders (physically and metaphorically) and then build bridges into the air, not knowing if they will find resting-places on another shore. It’s those ‘bridges’, as proposed by Leave campaigners, not least the trade deals which in the Leave imagination will be easy to set up, that worry me.

I want to see us walking and travelling and talking and trading as English, Welsh, Scots, Irish – as Europeans – as members of a world community. Much will be at stake on 23rd June.


Why walk the Camino?

Walking for five minutes or five hours, there’s one recurring question we ask each other. Why are you walking the Camino? Usually in life, maybe standing by a bus stop, there aren’t any easy ways into conversation, and most of us, en route to work maybe, are too lost in our own thoughts or anxieties to want to talk. But on the Camino you’re a big exception if you don’t acknowledge someone with at least a ‘buen camino’, and you may well walk together a little while, and that question will always come up, in one guise or another.

And the answer? Spiritual, religious or personal? Maybe it’s simply the challenge, a bit like walking the three peaks in the UK (Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon) for the hell of it, often against the clock.

The spiritual and religious blur into one another. This blog is inspired by Zen, but also firmly rooted in the Christian tradition. Walking the Camino with an open mind, and finding peace and serenity, and rejoicing each morning as the dawn turns into day – that experience is the same, whether your Christian, or Buddhist, or simply ‘spiritual’, in the best sense of that all-encompassing term.

When asked why I was walking the Camino I’d say my reasons were personal, spiritual – and historical. I love the tradition, that sense of others walking before me for the last 1200 years.

In medieval times you’d be looking for the church (the Catholic church) to grant you absolution from your sins, and the pilgrimage to Santiago was a uniquely powerful way of achieving that. The journey mattered as much as the destination, as a pathway to merit. You couldn’t take a plane to Santiago, or walk the last five days from Sarria, and receive a certificate, as you can now. Wonderful churches, on a scale which would have left pilgrims agog with wonder, grew up along the route, and the hospitals, hostelries, provided care and shelter. This was the Christian gospel in action, in a marvellous way, and even if our faith is not as theirs was, we can pick up on something of their experience, and be inspired by it.

In the movie The Way James Nesbitt plays Jack, an Irish travel writer who, reacting against his upbringing, refuses to enter churches, but come Santiago, he’s there, in the cathedral. Religion as it should be is both celebration and sanctuary, and the pure Romanesque of churches at Torres del Rio, Villalcazar and Fromista, to quote just three examples, reminds us of that. Maybe it influenced Jack (OK, I know he’s fictional!) as it influenced me.

Walking over 500 miles you find your prejudices challenged. All your petty grumbles and bigotries in time come to seem rather absurd. So too with the church, and I’m thinking of all denominations. Too often in ordinary life it mirrors our own human failings, even encourages them. On the Camino it rises above them in a very literal sense – the churches, the great cathedrals, and a path a millennium old, often climbing up ahead of us, as it does onto the meseta, beyond Burgos.

For me, Santiago, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, they’d been companions and support and inspirations for pilgrims a thousand years ago, and they were for me this October. I’m not suggesting they had a literal presence for me. But I walked with an open mind, and set myself to connect with how pilgrims from another very different age must have experienced the Camino.

An open mind requires stillness and, walking in the pre-dawn with the crescent moon behind and stars ahead, you are walking into the stillness, and it takes you over.

‘Be still, and know that I am God.’

The pilgrim and the refugee

Four weeks walking on the Camino, from Logrono to Santiago in northern Spain. (I walked from St Jean Pied de Port to Logrono back in June.) An average of seventeen miles a day, across high plains and mountains, rain and shine, legendary cities such as Burgos and Leon, and villages just hanging on in the modern world. Hard on the feet. But I had a path to follow which others before me had followed for 1200 years, and I had a fabled destination, and I could remind myself that the journey was as much the destination as Santiago itself. And there were new friends to make along the way.

Others have been walking longer distances this summer and autumn, with only a vague destination, somewhere north, maybe Germany, a path with no history (following a route usually taken by road, not on foot), where the destination is everything, and the mode of transport a cruel and hard footslog. Whereas on the Camino you’re welcomed by so many, and you’re a little bit of a hero when you arrive in Santiago, on this other journey there’s often hostility, and while for many there’s been a welcome at the end there’s always been the likelihood that borders will be slammed shut.

If you’re walking the Camino you’ve a home to return to, and maybe a minor hero’s welcome there as well. On the other journey, there’s no home to return to. At best it was a camp, and squalor, and at worst home has been destroyed, and family and friends may have been killed.

On the Camino you can absorb the history of 1200 years, you’re following in the footsteps of countless other pilgrims, there’s a physical challenge to drive you along, and an uplift of spirit and a closeness to creation, and to God if we will, as we walk, and St James, Santiago, to welcome us at the cathedral’s Portico de Gloria when we arrive.

For walkers further east, they’re travelling up through the Balkans to find fences at borders and stations closed, and motorways open so that you can exit a country more quickly – on foot. There is no triumph of the spirit (though there is a triumph of the will), and God’s creation in the heat and the rain is hardly benign.

So little in common between the two paths, the two caminos. The one born of personal challenge, the other of desperation. But the comparison is important, and telling.

We Camino walkers need to remember our good fortune.

But there’s one thing the two journeys do have in common. Refugees heading north across Eastern Europe may meet all sorts of hostility, but they’ve also been met with love and warm welcomes by so many, especially in Germany. We’ve seen a triumph of the human spirit, of all that’s best in us. There’s no better way of demonstrating compassion one for another than finding someone a home.

The refugee issue is the hardest issue of our times, reflecting current crises and long-term population issues. But our starting-point at all times has to be compassion. Political solutions are for the medium and longer term. For now, if we lose sight of compassion we lose sight of our basic humanity.

All the news I haven’t heard….

Returning from walking the Camino, and returning to the world of 24-hour news, which I’ve avoided for four weeks, I’m struck by the intensity, the ranting, that accompanies  so much political discourse. That’s hardly surprising. One reason for being away so long was to point up that contrast between the every day, as we experience it, and the ordinary day – the day that we might enjoy if only we learnt to stand still awhile, take in the dawn and the passage of the sun and the clouds across the sky, to take in a deep breath, and keep breathing.

The ordinary  day as I describe it would for many be an extraordinary day. ‘Life isn’t like that.’ But it is the real life of all history. It is we who are fooled.

I’ve long experience of working with children and schools, as a parent, a school governor and, a little while back (and hugely enjoyably) as a cricket coach. Positive messages, focus on opportunity, on working together, on compassion for others and understanding of our natural environment, that’s what we try and inculcate, along with the hard facts and great ideas and practical skills….

And yet beyond the school gate there’s the TV news and the newspapers, ranting, focusing on personalities and often irrelevant detail, resorting to preconceptions and prejudice at the earliest opportunity. If school is about the getting of wisdom, everyday life for kids is an all-too-rapid getting of unwisdom. As parents, the press and people everyday are perceived to behave – so the world tells them should they, our children, and there’s little that the finest teacher can do about what happens beyond the school gate.

(I’m not overlooking all the negative impacts of politically-driven expectations on schools, children and teachers. But schools remain remarkable places, and teachers, so many of them, no less remarkable.)

Walking the Camino I’m aware how many young people have held on to that wisdom of childhood, and built on it. I walk with optimism. Returning, I’m reminded of realities.

But I’ve not lost my optimism. This blog isn’t will never be a tabloid-style retreat and rant against the world. It is about engagement and purpose, focusing on the simple things, and doing them well.