The cleats clip firmly into the pedals, lycra makes contact with the saddle, and the rubber once again meets the road. It’s the start of another journey of serendipity. Santiago de Compostela lies 1200 miles in front of me, and I am once again gripped by the anticipation.
Kimbolton to Jordans (63m)
A heart-warming send-off in the company of friends, accompanied by a blessing at our village church, saw me into
the first few strides of the journey. Passing through Ampthill, I had to pay homage to Catherine of Aragon by paying a visit to the monument that marks the location of the Castle where she was briefly imprisoned. My route took me across the Chilterns, where the woods were still alive with bluebells, and onto Chalfont
St Giles, where I ‘stumbled’ across the cottage where John Milton lived, escaping the plague in London, and where he finished Paradise Lost and made a start on Paradise Regained. I was astonished at the number of Windsors who had paid a visit, their names proudly displayed in the visitors’ book.
Two miles up the road, next door to the youth hostel, is the Quaker Meeting Room, famous for its connection with William Penn, founder of the British colony which later became the state of Pennsylvania. Amongst the serried ranks of identical gravestones, you will find his grave alongside other members of his family.
My first night was spent at Jordans Youth Hostel, a “scout hut” arrangement of accommodation that is popular amongst itinerant workers
(land surveyors, TV production people etc) and they thought it novel that a long-distance cyclist should come for a single night. They invited me to join them in their BBQ, and we sat around the camp-fire into the small hours sharing small talk. The next day was Friday and they were all heading home for a relaxing weekend.
Jordans to Portsmouth (93 miles)
En route to the ferry port, there were a few obligatory stops. The first was to the ruins of Reading Abbey, with its legendary connections with the route to Santiago and repository of the alleged left hand of St James. Part of the site is now occupied by the church of St James, which seems to honour these historic ties. Interestingly, behind the church is the site of the prison where Oscar Wilde had been detained.
Though time was at a premium, I still took a detour to make brief visits to the houses of both Jane Austen (Chawton) and the naturalist Gilbert White, but the visits were brief. Both set in the delightful environment of the
South Downs. And one thing that puzzles me about the Downs…….having cycled across them, why were they never called the “Ups”? The impression was singularly one of constantly going up!
Going through Clanfield I chanced by another church dedicated to St James, which seems another clear indication of the traffic that must have passed this way in medieval times en route to Santiago.
And so to the ferry port, for a night crossing to St Malo. Boarding I meet a group of six cyclists (of a certain age!) who are off to spend five days riding, eating and drinking there way around Brittany. I reflect on this, quash a tremor of envy, but they bolster my ego telling me that I’m doing the real thing, that I’m a proper cyclist etc………. The next morning I charge off the boat bidding them “bon voyage”, but their
escapade stays in my mind until the heavens opened and poured its content on my bike, while I’m in a Tourist Office in Dinan writing this blog! What a lucky break!
After completing the Via Fancigena (Canterbury to Rome) last September, I am about to revisit a journey that I last completed in 1993, but this time taking a different route. This sequel will be another ancient route of pilgrimage, established in medieval times on the belief that the body of the Apostle James the Greater was transported there after his execution, and buried at the spot where the magnificent Cathedral of Santiago now stands.
In medieval times, without the benefit of modern means of transport, pilgrims gathered at a local spot in their community, received a blessing for their journey, and then began the long dangerous walk that would take up to 6 months (not counting the return journey!). Although I will have the benefit of a pair of wheels, my plan is to depart from my home in west Cambridgeshire after receiving a blessing at my local church.
My route will take me down to Portsmouth, where I will catch the ferry to St Malo and, from there, will head towards the Atlantic coast, and follow the coastline to pick up the Voie Littorale at the mouth of the Gironde, and from there head down to the Spanish border. There I will pick up the most ancient of routes to Santiago, called the Camino del Norte (North coast route), used by pilgrims till the end of the 15th century when Spain had been occupied by the Moors, and all forms of Christian pilgrimage had been suppressed. The North Coast Route will link with the Camino francés (the French route) that will take me into Santiago de Compostela, a total distance of over 1200 miles. There I will present my “credential” (a passport that has been stamped along the way) at the Cathedral Office, they will ‘interrogate’ me to check that I have arrived under my own steam, and they will then (I hope) present me with the “Compostela”, a document written in Latin declaring that I was a bona fide pilgrim and successfully arrived in Santiago de Compostela.
If time permits, I will then cycle the 88 kms (54 miles) to Finisterre, one of the most westerly points of mainland Europe (so-called because, before Columbus discovered the Americas, it was thought to be the very end of the world) and I will pick up a scallop shell from the beach, the symbolic emblem of pilgrims across the world.
Why a Celtic route? My own family background is deeply rooted in the ancient Celtic traditions of Ireland. My father’s ancestors were driven out of Ireland in 1840 by the famine, and came to Britain seeking work in the iron ore mines of Cumbria. My mother, on the other hand, was first generation Irish, born in the village of Cappamore in Co. Limerick. In planning this journey, I wanted to make connections with some of the pre-Roman Celtic places which lie along the western sea-board of the Continent. The region of Galicia itself, in NW Spain, has a history deeply rooted in the Celtic traditions (with clear evidence of this in their music, dance, use of bagpipes and outfits not dissimilar to what you see in Ireland). The name “Galicia” probably derives from “Gaul” (Roman name for Celts), the Gauls being gradually driven westwards by the invading Romans until they occupied all the most westerly points of continental Europe and the British Isles. Many historians also support the thesis that there was a major migration of British Celts across the Bay of Biscay to Galicia in the 4th-5th centuries, and they were given land in the area now known as Britonia, close to the north coast.
My route to Santiago will pass through Celtic Europe and, as I draw near to Santiago, I will visit some of the places that not only have evident remains of a Celtic past, but even now still celebrate ancient rites like the harvest festival of Lughnasadh on August 1st. It is also well documented that the cult of St James and the Camino de Santiago were developed on an already pre-existing route used by the ancient, pre-Christian Celts, called the Via Lactea (Milky Way) which led them to Cape Finisterre, the end of the known world. The ancient Celts dreamed of the mysterious beauty that must lie across the sea to the west, and their journeys along the Via Lactea were a quest to draw near to this land of perfection.
Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome (CPR)
This relatively new Confraternity (www.pilgrimstorome.org.uk)was born just four years ago, sprouting as an independent association from the Confraternity of St James (Camino de Santiago). I went to my first meeting with them at the weekend, which took place in the conference room of St James’ Church, Piccadilly, a basement room within earshot of the Christmas markets taking place in the street above. Some of the people assembled there were known to me only as names tagged onto emails or message boards, so it was good to put faces to them. Others came from a variety of backgrounds with a fascinatingly motley interest in the Via Francigena, some as pilgrims, writers and researchers, others who were simply drawn out of curiosity and wanted to learn more.
The focus of interest was much wider than the implications of the VF. We were treated to a fascinating visual account of the meaning of Buddhist pilgrimage, by a couple (Ian Brodick and Rosemary Norton) who had experienced the challenges of the Kailash Kora, a high altitude venture in a remote part of Tibet. Jim Brodie brought us further west and took us along part of St Paul’s journey through modern Turkey, finishing at the site of historic Antioch. Walking the route solo, he vividly focussed on the thrills and spills of venturing into remote areas in search of a destination.
The final session, which had the challenge of re-awakening the audience’s attention after generous servings of wine at lunch, really caught my attention. Ian Holdsworth, an Anglican priest, talked about his sabbatical year when he walked to Santiago de Compostela, and how that ignited his interest in restoring the historical significance of the Camino in this country, and re-establishing a route through middle England connecting several St James’ churches, thus linking Northampton with Portsmouth, where a ferry can be boarded to northern Spain, to resume the journey to Santiago. Check out his webpage here
I liked his distinction between a pilgrimage of journeying (where it is the journey that counts) and a pilgrimage of destination (where the arriving is the key thing), and I applauded his acknowledgement that the most important consequence of pilgrimage is how it changes us as people when we get back to where we started (ie home). In other words, pilgrimage is all about leaving your front door, travelling to a distant place of spiritual or personal significance and returning to your starting point with a new pair of eyes. To quote T.S.Eliot again: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring, will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time” (Little Gidding Quartet).
Some local radio producers scour the local press for leads, which is exactly what Sarah did at BBC Radio Cambridgeshire. She came across the aforementioned items in the Huntspost and rang me to invite me to feature on their early Sunday morning programme, which was generally devoted to topics connected with Faith and Ethics. The last time I had been interviewed by local radio was after my ride to Santiago de Compostela in 1993, but that had been conducted by telephone. This time I was invited to sit in a studio, surrounded by the infinite gadgetry that produces the exquisitely programmed sequences of interviews and music that our domestic radios so effortlessly emit. Kevin was my expert host, and he deftly asked several good questions to allow me to expand a little on my pilgrimage experience.
“Tell us about the situation in Haiti”……..”and the money you have raised for the Claretians”………”What were the high points of your cycling experience?”………”Did you have any punctures?”………….”How did your body hold out?”……………..”Is the money earmarked for a specific project?”.
Afterwards, as you would expect, instead of focusing on the things I had been able to say, I thought about all the things I had wanted to say but never got the chance. But that’s the nature of the beast……………
The purpose of travel differs from person to person. In medieval times, the greatest travellers were usually pilgrims, who would set off on foot from their own front door in the direction of a distant holy place. They had to endure not only the hardships of the journey itself, but also the ever present dangers of disease, hunger and highway robbers. Many died en route. Those that arrived at their destinations could not rely on Ryanair to take them home again. The only way home was back the way they had come, on foot. This is what we would call ‘travel with a purpose’.
Modern pilgrimage is a much more clinical experience, though not without its stresses and dangers. With the invention of the bicycle, another mode of transport is added to the duo of walking and horseback. On both the routes to Santiago de Compostela and to Rome, the pilgrim must demonstrate they have travelled ‘under their own steam’ in order to qualify for the ‘Compostela’ or the ‘testimonium’. To do this, they have to carry a credential or passport, have it officially stamped along the route, and present it at journey’s end at the appropriate office.
The fascination of the ‘pilgrim’s progress’ is to travel in the footsteps/hoof prints of tens of thousands of others, along the very same route whose history stretches back 1000 or more years. In the case of the Via Francigena, its history goes back 1400 years to the year 598 when St Augustine trekked to Rome to receive the pallium from the Pope. His return journey would have taken a minimum of 6 months, probably more.
Our knowledge of the route has been informed by recent research into the archives, where the travel notes of Archbishop Sigeric, who travelled to Rome in 990, have been re-discovered and studied in depth. Although some place names have changed, and many of the traversable routes have been reconfigured, it is now possible to trace the exact same route as St Augustine in 598. Unlike the Camino de Santiago, which is now a well established and popular route of modern pilgrimage, the Via Francigena is still largely unknown, but beckons the modern pilgrim to pack his rucksack or pannier, and venture forth.
My plan is to do just that ;0)