October 2018 – I had spent a month in Ireland and had just arrived in London to visit family and lead a Shiatsu workshop. Having stayed the night with my daughter, I woke to find that the sun was shining and I thought I would take my rucksack on a nice walk across London to Chiswick to meet my sister. Approx. 7 miles / 11.5 kms.
I started at Kentish Town West underground station, and turned tail cutting through small streets as they took my fancy, avoiding the busy commuters rushing to work
Refreshed, I found the Owl Bookshop which was full of school children browsing. There was a lovely sense of excitement amongst them at the prospect of the reading.
‘Natural’ is a mix of MAP and Owl, being a café with books stacked in the window!
At the end of Kentish Town Road, I turned right into Hawley Road.
I took a left onto Castlehaven Road and left again onto Chalk Farm Road.
I wound my way between stalls and caravans selling food and other goodies.
You can stand up and paddle on a board under the full moon, at hallowe’en and combine it with prosecco!
When I caught up with it (the church) I appreciated its six-petalled, flower windows.
There were bicycles and a wheel barrow on the roof of a house boat; paintings propped up against trees and hanging on sheets along the washing line; a bench with a proud goat who has curled horns (you will have to go and see!); there was graffiti galore.
Not long afterwards I realised I was not far from Primrose Hill on the right and alongside the world famous London Zoo opposite where the previously mentioned Waterbus makes a drop-off, just before the pretty wrough-iron bridge.
At the Prince Albert Ramp I had the chance of a detour for Camden High Street, and ahead was St John’s Wood, the Snowdon Aviary and Lord’s Cricket Ground. I trundled along taking photos of the wild plants. Joggers jogged and I got to the Jubilee Greenway completed in 2012 to mark the Queen’s birthday and the London Games.
My path took me around Regents Park, named after the Prince Regent, where there’s an Open Air Theatre and a boating lake.
Here there were delphiniums (even though it was October) and foxgloves.
At the Canal Gate (pictured at the top of this blog) I had to leave because the way was blocked off.
I carried on along pavements by busy roads, past underground stations and shops, discovering parts of London I had never visited before. I made my way to Chiswick via Holland Park Avenue, Shepherd’s Bush, the Goldhawk Road, Stamford Brook Road and Bath Road where I met my sister.
My phone ran out so I stopped taking photos and used my handy Belkin Pocket Power (a 5000 mAh portable charger which has been my saving grace many times) to recharge it.
Hot with the action and the weight of the rucksack, I was glad to sit down and have a cup of tea. Had I ‘world enough and time’ I would have visited St Michael and All Angels Church in Turnham Green, an Arts and Crafts building which a gentleman told me about as I stood waiting to cross a road. We had a most pleasant chat while he also regaled me with his life in India. I meet the most interesting characters when I walk.
The Regents Park and Primrose Hill both have excellent views of the London skyline. Royal Parks website.
Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.
The opening lines of ‘To His Coy Mistress’ by Andrew Marvell
Reflecting is a vital part of taking a walk. It helps to embed or integrate the walking experiences – where I have been, and what I have learned – in the hope that any changes wrought will last.
Most of all, though, I failed to comprehend that the best things in life aren’t things that are visibly sexy on the surface. They don’t scream for attention, and they rarely invite adrenaline. Rather they come from quiet commitment, respectful engagement, and a love of something greater than yourself.
Before a sitting meditation I start by acknowledging or noting any issues which are bothering me, either to clear my mind, to problem-solve, or create focus. Then I try to simply sit. I have been doing that for years. As a result I sometimes come up with creative ideas, solutions and greater understanding, or at the very least a recognition of patterns of behaviour.
Walking is a kind of meditation and the more I walk, the more I realise it’s the pilgrimage itself which presents the learning – simply by starting, trekking, and getting to the end of it.
I have habits that I try to pretend aren’t there, aren’t really so bad, or that I can’t help. These come to the fore when walking a pilgrimage. It is in the planning and facing of the realities of the land and the practicalities of accommodation and food which bring me face to face with myself.
Is walking pilgrimage synonymous with being religious?
I do not follow a recognised religion. I was christened into the Church of England by my parents and had to learn tracts of the bible overnight for reciting in primary school the next day. Joining in assembly every morning at secondary school was obligatory, and I sang and read lessons during services; went on a Sunday School holiday; and spent years in the Girl Guides where Christianity was important.
I was steeped in it – the tenets of it seem to be in my soul (or my cells). Religion provided me with a moral and ethical language at the time when I was learning to speak, and I have discovered that it is hard to shrug off.
I might be on a mission to get rid of the destructive part of what I was taught in those early years: I was encouraged to feel guilty; it was assumed that I had Original Sin; and I was told that I was bad in my core, like every other human being. Perhaps I take ecumenical walks to give myself the time to recognise the impact of this and to let go of such negatives.
Nowadays I visit churches sometimes, and I certainly respect believers, but I do not take communion. I have read widely, listened and discussed with friends, but I cannot follow a Faith which seems to exclude or criticise people for being the way they are or believing what they do.
So, I do understand why people keep asking me why I walk pilgrimage. After all, historically it was a religious practice.
Thereafter, his (Bruce Chatwin’s) religious faith became subsumed in his nomadic theory: he believed that movement made religion redundant and only when people settled did they need it.
This question is asked of Guy Stagg who wrote The Crossway. Personally, he knew why he had set out – it was primarily for his mental health – but he repeatedly asked himself, ‘Why pilgrimage, why not just a nice trek?’ The astonished monks asked him too, as he battled through the alps in the middle of winter. Not having been satisfied with going from London to Canterbury he decided to go on to Jerusalem no less.
Tim Moore in Spanish Steps, Travels with my Donkey asks himself, why he is doing the barmy thing of finding, caring for and walking with a donkey along the camino in Spain when he is not religious.
For me, it is a walk but with added zizz! There is an in-built beginning, middle and end; it’s a project all in itself, and it is so much more than a wander round my local park.
it is essential as a reunion with oneself and with others. It’s almost a phenomenon of resistance: walking does not mean saving time, but rather losing it, making a détour to catch one’s breath!
In Chinese Medicine I was delighted to learn that there are a number of different ways to describe the spirit or soul. In Icelandic there are more words for snow than we have in English; in the Orient the parts of ourselves which relate to spirituality, to nature or to our innate relationship with other people are as important as our physical and mental aspects. Although the spirit is amorphous, hard to define, it is something I have a tangible sense of, particularly when I walk in nature. Although sometimes I am content to ‘be’, at other times I become curious and try to understand this puzzle.
When I sit and meditate in my Shiatsu room in Edinburgh I can simultaneously be in Tibet or Japan or China. I don’t know why that is or how it happens and I ponder on these things as I walk. I privately think (well, not so privately now!) that at least one explanation is that I was a nun and a monk in former lives. It is the best explanation I have come across so far. The feeling I had, for example, when I crossed the sands, barefoot, to Mont Saint Michel was real – I ‘knew’ I had walked there before.
What is ‘knowing’?
We have discovered in the last 100 years or so that our physical cells destruct and reconstruct, so the ones I have now shouldn’t be the same ones I had when I was a baby, never mind the ones my mother or grandmother had. And yet we know that we share genetic material.
There is a theory that there is a collective knowledge which accumulates from the generations which came before. It could be this wisdom which tells me where to go to find what I seek, and what has got me here in the first place. However, current scientific methodology and outcomes deny me entry into this collective unconscious. It insists that I enter through the portal of logic and I am not sure that logic is the right way into that sort of understanding.
I have an intrinsic sense of the English phrase, ‘I know it in my bones’. My bones are made up of cells and therein lies my genetic material, yet in every text I read about pilgrimage something inside me recognises it. I seem to share the centuries of that collective knowledge, it is familiar.
* . . . live inside the bone and have long branches which allow them to contact each other …
There is my DNA and my body. There are my mind and my thoughts. There is my self, my soul, my spirit. In my work and my walking I am enquiring into the connections and (re)discovering dissociations between these.
It’s all about love
The more I listen to myself as I traipse, and to my clients in the Shiatsu room, the more I think that what we all seek is the connection to LOVE. It sounds like a familiar new-age thing to say, it is straight out of the ‘all you need is ….’ 1960s, but I keep coming back to it.
I have a hunger for that ‘something for which we search’. And I know it isn’t just me, because when I tell folk what I do, they say, ‘Oh, I wish I could do that’ or, ‘I have wanted to do that for ages’. Or maybe they too have already started!
I seem to be part of a contemporary pilgrimage movement in which it is possible that we are seeking ways to integrate, comprehend and connect our-selves, personally and in community.
Pilgrims walking the Via de la Plata, Spain; Tourists flocking to the Sacre Coeur in Paris, France.
In addition to all this, I notice a compunction to move on, to save my soul, to find, to seek. The ‘thing’ I am looking for is at the same time inside me right now and just ahead of me. It is that towards which I reach or walk. It isn’t new. Everything I have done in my life so far is part of this instinctive movement towards being purer, ironing out the creases. That’s what I believe we are all doing wherever we are.
I know that inside me lies this knowledge just as tangibly as I know my organs are there. I recognise that I am part of a continuum, a humanity of seekers. What is necessary is the time and space to better hear what is happening, and that is hard to find when I am at home looking after people and my surroundings, doing what most of us do in our adult Western lives.
The answer, it seems, lies in introspection. Without trying to be precious, I go quietly back inside myself when I walk to hear the still, small voice.
But it takes intentional steps to change our pace and encounter one another as pilgrims on a journey along with Way. In our time of frenetic political intensity, within a culture addicted to speed, we need to hear and heed the call of this step by step pilgrimage.. Wes Granberg-Michaelsonhttps://sojo.net/articles/all-are-pilgrims
And so it appears I am descended from the ascetics and hermits of my history. I’m reborn into the liberated 21st century. I am, at one and the same time, part of a shared community -walkers and pilgrims, fellow monks and nuns, a group with shared values – and I am alone for to ponder.
Some things are proving intractable and I expect that’s why I have to keep on doing it!
Camino means both the act of walking and path in Spanish. There are many caminos and they all end up at Santiago de Compostella in the top left hand corner of Spain.
Where is the camino?
When you hear someone talking about walking the Camino they usually mean that they are following all or part of the east to west route called the Camino Francés, the most popular.
In what part of Spain is the camino?
This camino starts in France at Saint Jean Pied de Port (Saint John at the foot of the pass) in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques region, crosses the Pyrénées mountains to Roncesvalles, passes through the Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia, ending at….. you have guessed it, Santiago. You can start anywhere along this route.
Sorry, what is it called again ?
Also known as The Way of St James (Sant (saint) iago (James) in Spanish), The French Way, or The Camino de Santiago, it is 500 miles long (near enough 800kms), and takes between 25 and 50 days hiking. You can also cycle it which is quicker, but that’s another story.
The Way is a pilgrimage and those who walk it are traditionally known as pilgrims – peregrinas (female) or peregrinos (males) in Spanish.
Pilgrim Passport / scallop shell
Carrying a pilgrim passport or Credencial del Peregrino which gets stamped every time you stop for the night is a great way to keep a record of your hike. Hanging a scallop shell, symbol of Saint James, on the back of your rucksack is a proud way to indicate your sense of belonging to this famous confraternity.
Who can walk the camino?
People of all ages and nationalities make this trek and they do so for many reasons: religious (especially Catholic); social (it is a great way of making friends); fitness (sensible walking is good for your breathing, circulation and musculo skeletal system); and personal (at times of major life changes, or for the benefit of their mental health).
Do I have to walk ALL of it?
You can walk as much or as little as you like. Some go the length and others do sections several times a year or year-by-year. The most popular part is the final 69 miles (111 kms) from Sarria to Santiago which earns you a Compostella, a certificate in Latin. Aficianados come back time and time again.
How far will I walk every day?
I highly recommend that you take it easy, at least to start with, whether you are young or old, male or female. This means 9 – 12.5 miles (15-20 kms) at the beginning. Even if you are fit and feel fabulous in the glorious Spanish sun, beware! You will almost certainly get blisters and a sprain or strain if you walk too far too soon (unless you honestly walk 9 miles (15 kms) or more every day at home in the same shoes or boots which you intend to wear).
Where do I sleep?
Most pilgrims stay in hostels or albergues. Their facilities vary, but almost all offer a basic bunk in a dormitory for between 5 and 12 euros (£4.50 – £11) per night. You do not have to book in advance, indeed sometimes you cannot. There are also hundreds of hotels and private hostels, usually at a higher cost with greater luxury.
What do I take with me? How much do I have to carry?
Historically everyone would have carried their own clothes and equipment in a backsack. (see What to Put in Your Rucksack). Nowadays there are many companies who offer to transport your stuff from hostel to hostel so that you can walk with a daypack and water only if you choose. You can even hire a donkey!
Many hostels offer a basic breakfast, and shared meals in the evenings can be a highlight. Kitchens, with (or sometimes without) utensils are the norm. There are cafes, bars and restaurants all along the way and at every stop where the food is often delicious and cheap. There are plenty of shops which will sell you most things you need such as suntan lotion or a single egg wrapped cleverly in a paper cone.
Time of year to walk the camino
All times of the year are good for walking the camino! It is hot in the summer (and crowded); cooler in the Autumn with great natural colours (it can also be really warm but with cold nights); pretty with wild flowers in the Spring (lots of daylight); and peaceful in Winter (though some of the albergues will be shut).
Speaking Spanish. Yo hablo espanol.
It really helps if you speak some Spanish. It’s polite, respectful and fun to be able to communicate with the local people. You are also more likely to be served what you have ordered.
Travel from the UK
You can take a boat to Santander (71.5 / 155 kms to Burgos) from the UK; There is an airport in Santiago itself (from there you can take a bus back east to the place where you want to start walking) itself, as well as La Coruna (82 miles / 132 kms from Sarria). Also, Asturias airport for Leon (from Stansted only), Bilbao (from Edinburgh, Manchester and others) for Pamplona, and Biarritz (33.5 / 54 kms from Saint Jean from Birmingham and others); Overland, there are trains taking 5 hours from Paris (4 per day, approx. 35 euros) and the Eurostar from London is smooth and efficient (around £50 and just over 2 hours). You can also take Alsa (long distance) buses or try Bla Bla Car (car pooling).
There are many books and online guides to help you find your way, pointing towards places to stay and eat. Gerald Kelly and John Brierley’s are the best known in English. Using this guide means that you will inevitably walk the same steps (stages of the walk) as other English speaking folk and will therefore have pals to walk and share meals with before long. The municipal hostels at the end of these stages are the busiest.
Start slowly, in short stages, do not be too ambitious until the second week, and that way you will avoid going home early and in pain (I have seen this happen many times). It doesn’t matter if other people are going further. You will either catch up with them later or you will find new companions instead, ones who are enjoying the scenery as much as you.
There are also other caminos in Spain: The Via de la Plata which starts in Seville and goes through Salamanca; the Camino Norte along the coast passing through San Sebastian; the Inglés from A Coruña; Mozarabe through Malaga and Cordoba, and many others. Criss crossing this stunning country, the walking is delightful, the people colourful, and the experience one which you will remember for the rest of your life.
Have you walked the Camino Francés or any of the other ones in Spain? Leave a comment and share your experience.