Bishop Stephen's pilgrimage

to Santiago de Compostella

BBC Essex Interview – 9 October

Listen to the BBC Essex Interview that was broadcast on Sunday 9 October.

Day Twenty Six – beautiful stones

I didn’t get up today till 9:30. It was lovely to lie in and to rest and then to spend the day mooching about. Santiago is a beautiful city, and today the sun was shining and as I sat in a couple of cafes drinking several very delicious coffees (oh, why can’t we get coffee like this in England) I watched the world go by, particularly the next stream of pilgrims arriving.

I forgot to mention that at the Eucharist last night in the cathedral they swung the mighty and famous thurible known in Spanish as a botofumerio. It is one of the things that the Cathedral is famous for, but you don’t always get to see it in action. I was fortunate. I wondered whether it would just be a piece of exotic spectacle, but actually it was done beautifully and prayerfully. After we had all receive communion, the six or seven men that are needed swing the thing came out; a tray of burning coals was placed in the thurible; the priest blessed incense and then the thurible started to be swung, pulled on ropes and swinging north/south across the transepts of the cathedral. I was sitting in the front row of the south transept, so it came directly over my head and startlingly close. But while all this was happening music played and a nun with a beautiful voice who had led the singing throughout the liturgy, led us again in a beautiful devotional chorus. It really felt like an offering of prayer and thanksgiving, and my prayers of thanksgiving rose with the incense.

There is a lovely passage in one of Douglas Coupland’s books where he talks about the simple and childlike pleasure of walking along the beach collecting beautiful shells and stones. He says – and here I am quoting from memory –

“The more I look, the more I realise all the stones are beautiful.”

If someone were to ask me what I have learnt on this pilgrimage, that would be my reply: I have learned that all the stones are beautiful. I have walked on so many beautiful pathways. I have walked along the beach and I’ve walked on mountain trails. I have seen the beauty of the dawn nearly every day. I have eaten many lovely meals. I have had lots of delicious cups of coffee. I have rarely enjoyed a cold beer at the end of the day as much as I have after walking 25 or 30 km in the sun.

I have seen many beautiful views of the sea and have spent days gazing upon beautiful mountains. I have crossed many beautiful rivers, and stood on many bridges and marvelled at the waters beneath me, whether they were tiny little streams running off the mountains or the mighty estuary I crossed when I walked from Asturias into Galicia. I have seen fig trees and lemon trees, and walnut and chestnut trees. I have seen many beautiful birds of prey. I have watched flocks of swallows and sparrows. I have had a beautiful little robin as a companion while I said my prayers. I have met some very beautiful people and received some astonishing hospitality. Even today, walking around the little streets of the medieval city, one of the loveliest things was when Alberto, from Spain, who I’ve hardly spoken to but exchanged greetings with most days for the past two weeks as we walked the way together, greeted me on the street like we were long lost friends. And of course we are; though in our case we have found friendship on the Camino, living and walking alongside each other for a few weeks. All the stones are beautiful. That’s what I have rediscovered.

What else have I learnt?

Well, I’ve learned how to hand wash my clothes and dry them successfully by attaching them to the back of my rucksack. I’ve learnt how to get dressed and pack in the dark without putting my shirt on back to front. I’ve learned to cope with cacophonous snoring. I’ve learned a little bit of Spanish. I’ve learned that there will be somewhere to sleep each night, and usually somewhere to eat; and that anyway, being a little bit hungry from time to time is no bad thing. I’ve learned how to trust. I’ve learned how to be thankful.

So this is the last of these reflections. Thank you for reading them and joining in my journey. From now on, if you want to know what I eat each day you’re going to have to find out by other means. But for the record, lunch today was a delicious tortilla, and dinner was Galician bean and cabbage soup followed by sea bass. And, of course, a cortada to finish.

In the past month I’ve scraped a lot of barnacles from my hull, and that has done me good. However, they will quickly re-attach themselves unless I learn to keep moving. So I am left with a question rather than an answer:

can life be lived as pilgrimage?

A sonet for national poetry day

As today is national poetry day, here is today’s last sonnet of the Camino –

Why are you walking, oh, why are you walking?
Where are you going and what is your way?

To learn how to trust in the things of the moment,
that is the reason I’m walking today.

Why are you walking, oh, why are you walking?
What is your purpose and why no delay?

To learn to be thankful for each day’s provision,
to find that enough is enough for each day.

Why are you walking, oh, why are you walking?
What is the reason and where is the way?

To learn how to stop, is the reason I’m walking,
the reason I’m leaving, to learn how to stay.

Oh, why don’t you join me, and we’ll walk together,
each step a blessing and each road a way.


Day Twenty Five – thankful

Whenever I fly anywhere, as the plane revs up and charges down the runway for take off, I offer a litany of thanksgiving. I simply name the people I love and cherish and all the many things I have to be thankful for. And I think to myself, well, if the plane does crash I want to die with praise and thanksgiving on my lips. Walking the last 20km into Santiago today, I offered a much longer litany of thanksgiving, and tried to remember all the many people through whom I had received blessings in my life, and asked God’s blessing upon them. All of you were prayed for.

The first hour was again in the dark. The sunrise was beautiful. I suppose it always is. And stopping by the side of the road to say morning prayer, with my rucksack at my side a robin came and perched on it and sat there while I prayed for maybe at least a minute. It was just a foot or so away from me. Other pilgrims tiptoed past and marveled at this little robin, as I did too.

There was still one or two more fairly steep Hill is to navigate, but then about midday Santiago came into view and after a long walk through the suburbs I arrived outside the cathedral at just after 1:30 PM and 25 days on the road. It took me one circumference of the cathedral to find the entrance, and I bumped in to the young German couple, Felix and Isabel, who I had walked with on the first week. They were one day head of me and arrived yesterday they pointed me in the right direction. I had to leave my rucksack outside. There is a shop that will look after them for a small price. I went into the cathedral and offered another prayer of thanksgiving: for safe traveling and for blessings received.

In the afternoon I found the little Pensione where I am staying, and then at five met with other pilgrims who had walked the Camino Del Norte and we took a photograph of that sells outside the front of the cathedral. With Barry, the priest from Ireland, I went and hugged the statue of Saint James and also prayed before what are purported to be his relics. I went to the pilgrim mass in the cathedral at 7:30 PM, and in many ways this felt more like the ending of my pilgrimage than walking into the Cathedral at lunchtime.

My pilgrimage began with the Eucharist in my little chapel at Bishopscourt, and it ended here, also around the table.

I had dinner with Martin and Kees from Holland and Manuel from Columbia – fish soup and then steak. Coffee and a very large Brandy to follow.

None of us can quite believe we have walked all this way, and there is a slight sense of anti-climax about the arrival; but of course pilgrimage is about traveling.



Day Twenty Four – almost there

People woke extremely early in the Albergue again this morning, some at 5.00pm! I guess they are planning to walk all the way to Santiago today – about 40 km. I too got up earlier than usual, ate my banana and found a cafe that was open. It was still so dark when I started walking that I needed my torch. I was joined by Ailena a student from Germany that I have traveled with on and off for about the past week. She is faster and fitter than me, so soon began to move ahead.

The sunrise this morning was spectacular. I stood on the hills above Azura and marveled at the dawn for about 15 or 20 minutes. As I did so, streams of pilgrims came past me on the road. Whereas, for the past few weeks I have often been alone on the road and part of a small little community of pilgrims, now I am very definitely one of many. There are hundreds of us walking today. It is a very different experience. It is a bit like that first day when you move from your small primary school, where everyone knows everyone else, to large secondary school where you feel a little lost in the crowd. Those of us who have walked together for the past few weeks nervously seek each other out and smile encouragingly. Also, there is a cafe and bar every couple of kilometres. The Camino is business round here.

I passed Antonio on the road again. ‘Piano, piano’ he said to me. There is no precise English translation to the modern Italian usage of this phrase, but it kind of means ‘gently, gently, softly, softly, slowly, slowly, step by step.’ We are getting there.

In the middle of the morning it started to drizzle,so the blue chasuble made a second appearance. My right ankle is hurting. Nothing serious, but it aches and just wants a rest.

By 1.30 I was at Pedrouzo, my last stop before Santiago.

The Albergue is another huge one: 120 beds. I snoozed and read through the afternoon which was nice, drank some sangria, and also played some guitar thanks to James, a young English guy I met the other day who is walking with his small guitar. We sat outside the Albergue and played and sang – and didn’t upset too many people. Dinner was a very average paella. It suddenly all feels more touristy as we approach Santiago and that, sadly, is reflected in the food and its price. Worst meal I’ve had for three weeks, and twice as expensive.

It will be funny getting up in the dark and dressing by torchlight and walking for the last time tomorrow. But the journey is near its end.


Day Twenty Three – life is so precious and so beautiful

Months ago I bought myself a guidebook to the Camino Del Norte. Before setting out, and in order to save weight, I cut out the pages I needed describing the route from Santander. I then stapled these into seven smallish sections so that I could have the relevant one in my pocket each day to guide me. This morning I took out the final section.

Santiago is only about 60 km away

It was lovely to sleep in the dormitory in the pilgrim cloister of the monastery last night, and think that pilgrims to Santiago have been receiving hospitality there for hundreds of years.

Last night at dinner with my two Dutch companions and my new Colombian friend (it is very useful having someone who speaks Spanish fluently to hand) the conversation turned to the meaning of pilgrimage.

One is walking because he wants to find some answers, but doesn’t really know the questions, and although he has enjoyed the physical exertion of what for him will be over 1200 km, feels disillusioned, and describes himself as a ‘stamp collector’, that is someone just collecting the stamps on the pilgrim passport each day so that he can receive the Compostela – whatever that means – when he gets to Santiago.

Though he is a very generous person, always drawing others on. I told him today he was a stamp maker – someone who leaves a mark. Another walks because he likes walking and because he hopes that along the way a hiker will be turned into a pilgrim. And one is a veteran of the Camino who has walk this way many times and simply finds stillness in the moving. They asked me what I thought pilgrimage means. I said that it was a way of reminding myself that the whole of life is a pilgrimage. We all know that life is a journey, that is not a particularly Christian or religious insight. The journey that begins when we are born, ends when we die. As we get older, we are aware that there is more road behind us than ahead of us.

But from a Christian perspective, and particularly in the knowledge that Christ has gone this way before us and prepared a place that awaits us, then the journey that ends in death becomes a pilgrimage that leads to life. By going on pilgrimage in this life we are not only reminded of this reality, but everything else in our lives is put into its proper perspective.

For most of the time we live our lives as if they are our own and place ourselves at the centre.

I cannot speak for anyone else, but for me coming on pilgrimage is a way of reminding myself that life is a gift, that I do not have anything by right, and the more I am able to travel light enjoy each passing moment, and be trusting and thankful that each day will offer me what I need, the more these few weeks of actual pilgrimage will enable me to live as a pilgrim in the rest of my life.

This is why I walk, I told them, and I believe the walking is doing me good. But it is about the traveling not be the arriving and as I anticipate joining the more crowded Camino Francais later today I wonder whether as I reach the sign that says Santiago one kilometre, I should bow deeply, pause and give thanks, and then turn round. They were slightly amused by this particular observation of the meaning of pilgrimage, but got the point. However, it was a good conversation, and I can’t help but reflect that perhaps it was our presence with the monks at Vespers, sharing in their prayer and stillness, that prompted the more serious conversation that followed.

Today’s walk was relatively easy and compared with other days a little full. Mostly on roads and little spectacular scenery. I kept overtaking a lovely little old Italian man called Antonio. He must be at least 70. He walks quite slowly, and I don’t think he could have stopped all day. Because I would overtake him, then stop for a coffee, or to say Morning Prayer, to write something or make myself some lunch, and after a little while he would come by, and then when I started walking again I would overtake him. He doesn’t speak any English and I don’t speak any Italian, but we exchanged greetings, and I passed him for the last time on the final kilometres into as Azura where I am staying tonight. Walking into the town itself I passed a woman with a meat cleaver killing a chicken on a bit of waste ground by the small block of flats where she lived. In Spain, even in the town the countryside is not very far away.

I booked into one if the many and quite crowded Albergues, met up with some fellow pilgrims from the Caminio Norte for a beer. Lying on my bunk an hour later I heard the clanking if the church bell from round the corner and went to Mass. Several of my fellow pilgrims were there, including Antonio, who’ve I now learned is from Sardinia. As he shuffled back from communion, his feet obviously hurting, he was weeping. I don’t know why he walks or what sadness he carries.

At the end of Mass the priest invited all the pilgrims present to come forward. About twenty of us shuffled out. He sprinkled us with holy water and gave us a special blessing. And then I found I was weeping too, I don’t really know why; I think just because life is so precious and so beautiful and you don’t need to go to Santiago to find this.

Here it was around the altar in this little church: an affirmation of all that is good and true.

Dinner tonight was with my usual international dining club. We had soup, pork and almond tart, a cortada, and Manuel also persuaded us to try a Chupito, a local liqueur. Wasn’t hard. A very tasty end to the day.


Day Twenty Two – horses and turkeys

One quarter of the bones in the human body are in the feet. 26 bones in each foot. Also 33 tendons and 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments. This morning I felt all of them. The psalmist says, ‘I can count every one of my bones.’ So could I today. Each one ached.

Having said that, its amazing what a few stretches and groans can do.

To experience the miracle of dawn each day is a wonderful thing. At the Albergue we were given breakfast by the volunteers working there. Tea and toast.

I set off in the dark and for the first hour walked gently uphill on ancient footpaths through beautiful Galician countryside. I was surrounded by birdsong. There was a deep mist covering the land. There were beautiful rock formations to right and left. For the last couple of days it has taken a while for the sun to break through the mist, sometimes not till midday, but today as soon as the sun came up the mist cleared and I could experience the extraordinary beauty of the low sun in the east casting its great blessing of light through the trees, catching the hundreds and hundreds of cobwebs in the hedgerows and lighting them up. Apart from a horse that I encountered on the path (and gingerly circled), I met no one.

The dawn is always beautiful. But one of the precious privileges of this pilgrimage has been to experience it each day and be out, alone, walking in the countryside. But today it was particularly special.

There were two coffee stops on the way. At the second I was entertained (and slightly intimidated) by the owners’ pet turkey that patrolled the tables hissing and strutting.
I had three phone calls today. BBC Essex in the morning, Rebecca at mid day (who was also out walking) and my mum in the afternoon.

I’m staying tonight at the great Cistercian monastery at Sobrado, dating from 952.
As I came into Sobrado  I passed a huge beautiful lake, which the monks had made 500 years ago by diverting the river so was to provide them with water and irrigation for their crops. As I was walking up the hilI I heard the sound of gentle singing behind me. It was Carlos from Mexico. I had not seen him before on the road. I asked him what he was singing. He replied, ‘Catholic and Mexican songs.’

We arrived at the monastery at almost exactly 3 o’clock. Registration for pilgrims wishing to stay wasn’t till 4.30, so I found a bar for a beer and somewhere shady for a snooze.

Staying in the monastery is lovely. An English brother signed us in. The dormitories are off the pilgrim’s cloister. After a shower and washing my clothes (which are hanging out the back of the cloister) I looked around the church, which is vast and beautiful, but in a shocking state of disrepair. No quinquennial inspections here. I also chatted with a lovely Irish priest, Barry.

Vespers was at 7.00pm. It was moving for many of the pilgrim community that I  have become a part of to join with the monastic community. Dinner followed, with my two Dutch companions and also Manuel from Columbia. Tonight’s menu was anchovy salad, veal steak and chips, flan, coffee and wine.

Several people have asked about the sonnets. So here is one that feels slightly more finished than the others.

Though still in need of some polish. It is about St James himself.

You had no destination here. You moved where the wind blew you, finally to Spain.
It is the price of knowing you are loved.

Made homeless by the one who called you home,
you died traveling. It was the cup you’d
promised to drain to the dregs. You never
knew it would take a lifetime.

The wind blew,
and you, it seemed, would walk this road forever.

Even your bones were not allowed to rest.
They became the end of many peoples journeys, and the seat of their requests.

Pointing to abandoned paths, the steeples
of a humbled church still challenge the sky,
making new beginnings from your story.

BBC Essex Interview – 2 October

Listen to the BBC Essex Interview that was broadcast on Sunday 2 October.


Day Twenty One – writing

It was cold when I set off this morning – 7°c. The walk was flat and uneventful, and the sun didn’t break through till almost midday. Coming into Baamonde I walked with Martin from Holland, my St Christopher from couple of weeks ago, and got to know him a bit better. He is a film maker by trade and runs his own post production company. He is taking snippets of film as he goes and probably turning them into something when he gets home.

This prompted me to own up to him – and now to you – about something I’ve been doing each day, but not mentioned so far. Part of my reason for wanting to make this pilgrimage, was to get back in touch with things in myself that I have lost or mislaid along life’s journey, and to rediscover a simplicity, a thankfulness and trustfulness in each day. I knew this would involve laying some things down, especially things I have come to think of as necessary. My default setting whenever I am left to my own devices, is to write.

Indeed, many people asked me whether I would be writing a book about my journey on the Camino. Well, I haven’t laid down the writing. You know about this daily reflection, but what I have also been doing each day is writing a sonnet. I thought this might be a good thing to do before I set off. It both satisfies my desire and compulsion to write, but is also the sort of thing I can compose in my head as I go along. So as an idea for a poem has come to me, I have conjured up a few lines, and then stopped on the path and dictated these into my phone.

Then when I stop for something to eat, or in the evening, I go over what has been written during the day and see if anything remotely complete emerges. Most days something has come to me, and I am even pleased with one or two of them. Anyway, I told Martin about this, and now I’m telling you. And my reflection on this writing is that as well as satisfying the desire to write and to create, it is also an example of something slightly more uncomfortable I have learned about myself on this journey, namely that it is possible to be driven even when you walk. What began as a journey believing that what I would discover is a simple delight in taking each step as it comes, has inevitably become a series of goals and targets as I plan how far to walk each day, where to stop for lunch and where to sleep the night. And which sonnet to write! I am at ease about this.

It hasn’t stopped me enjoying each step, and the poems themselves have usually been born of an observation or delight that has come to me as I walked and enjoyed the beauty of what is around me, and let things within me that have often been obscured rise to the surface. And of course, I knew it all along, you can leave many things behind on a journey like this, but not yourself.

I’m not sure I’m quite ready to share the sonnets more widely. They mostly need more work. But today’s, like many of them muses on my relationship with God and with the world, and is a sort of conversation with God. One sided. Mostly. But then we all need to learn how to listen.

Martin and I carried on walking together in the afternoon. I had been in two minds as to whether to stop at Baamonde after 20km or press on to Miraz, another 16. We decided to press on. So 36km today. The longest I have done so far. I reckon I am now less than 100km from Santiago.
I am staying at the Albergue run by the English Confraternity of St James. Arriving with Martin we were given a very English welcome, and one of the volunteers helping to run the place is from Elm Park. I also had a cup of tea. My first for three weeks. It was fantastically delicious, warming, satisfying and restoring. Tea really is a wonderful drink. I didn’t realise how much I’d missed it.

The church in Miraz did not have a Eucharist this evening, nor in the morning, but at 7.00pm the church was opened by the volunteers and we had a brief service of quiet reflection. It was very lovely.

I had dinner with Martin and another Dutch guy, Case, in a restaurant down the road: soup, pork, almond flan, red wine and coffee. Also met up with an Australian couple walking the Camino.

It was  cold this evening, and after such a walk I am feeling very tired. The Spanish Brandy with which we finished the meal was warming and welcome.

Day Twenty – clean clothes

As I get nearer to Santiago there seems to be more people walking, and the Albergues are filling up much more quickly. Yesterday, even though I arrived at about 3.30, there were only two beds left. I guess this is because some people walk the Camino from only about 100 km away, and I am approaching that point.

I started early again today, just before dawn. Breakfast was a banana and some bread and jam.

It was really nice to put on clean clothes this morning. Yesterday afternoon I shared a great load of washing in a proper washing machine and dryer with Catherine from France, Aileen from Germany and Eva from the Czech Republic. I have been hand washing clothes each day I hasten to add, but this doesn’t get them really clean, and drying them is even more of a problem, so I am often putting on slightly damp clothes or attaching them to the back of my rucksack to dry during the day.

After only half a kilometre I passed a cafe, and thinking this might be the only one for at long while stopped for coffee.

Today’s walk was a relatively easy one. It was more like walking in Essex. The path was flat. Where yesterday it was all blue sky and sunshine, today has been overcast and chilly. I walked for a little while with Martin from Holland and Aileen from Germany, and we did find somewhere else for coffee along the way. I then stopped by a beautiful little medieval bridge over a river to say my prayers, and then carried on walking through a forest of oak trees.

Towards lunchtime I saw lots of sparrows. You don’t see so many sparrows in England nowadays, at least not on our bird table, yet they were so common when I was a boy. It was lovely to watch them dancing and darting along the hedgerow. Walking for a short while alongside an autoroute I saw a road sign saying Santiago 131km. Getting there.

I reached Vilalba by two and stopped for the day, staying st a small hostel: so pretty basic, but a room of my own and hopefully a good night’s sleep. Just a 20km walk today. Almost a stroll. Dinner tonight was not so good: some rather ordinary chicken and chips. As I leave the coast behind I seem to be leaving the good food behind as well.

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