Monday, 29 August 2016


A potted history lesson. James, as he was in his early days, was one of Jesus's inner circle and found himself preaching the gospel on the Iberian Peninsula. On his return to Rome his insurgent views resulted in his having his head chopped off, thus becoming the first martyr. His remains were put into a stone coffin and floated away to eventually land on the Atlantic coast of  Northern Spain where they were found by his followers and buried, but not before a bit of a run in with the local queen Loba, or She Wolf, who happened to be a pagan.

Fast forward to the ninth century when a hermit named Pelagius found a tomb containing remains that he referred to his local bishop. They were led by a star to a field, or a Campus Stellae, and found the tomb, The remains were soon confirmed as those of St James and hence the Way was born, and St James in the field of stars became Santiago de Compostela.

And how did they know they were the remains of St James? I have no idea but one of the best ways to get pilgrims to your area, and hence money, was to have a religious relic such as a piece of the cross or a thorn from The Crown of Thorns. So having the remains of a saint was really hitting the jackpot. So Santiago de Compostela was added to Rome and Jerusalem as a major destination for pilgrims. And as wars made the the first two harder to reach Santiago became a favourite.

The only hiccup came in 1589 when Sir Francis Drake and others were sent to root out those ships that had not been destroyed during the Spanish Armada, the ill fated attempt by Spain to push Elizabeth 1 off the English throne. Drake sacked La Corruna and the authorities at Santiago de Compostela, fearful that he was after the remains of St James, hid them. In fact so well did they hide them that for 300 years they were lost. No one wants to visit an empty tomb so the pilgrims disappeared and Santiago de Compostela became something of a backwater.

It was not until 1879 that the remains were rediscovered but it has taken until the 20th century for numbers to recover. Today walking the Camino is a life ambition for many. I have walked three, the Frances, Portuguese and the Via de la Plata. I should have walked the Norte from Bilbao by now but, as you will read, that was not to be.

My blog and video on the Portuguese  is here

My blog and video on the Via de la Plata is here

OK, lets go for a walk.

It is the 16 th May. The time is 0530. I am leaving Bilbao and I want to get as much under my belt today as possible so anticipate a 12 hour day. I leave my hostel with everyone else still snoozing and groaning and pass the metal plates that form the bizarre tinpot edifice that is the Guggenheim museum. Crossing the river I tramp through the the empty park passing the occasional bleary eyed resident on their way to work.

Heading uphill away from the river I pick up the tram tracks. The road here is dual carriageway and very wide and drivers will not slow down if you do not obey the traffic lights. Jay walkers here don't last very long. To my right is the lattice bowl that houses the local football team that last night was a cauldron of noise and fireworks with the inhabitants caged within its concrete ribs surrounded by riot police. It seems to be the norm the world over that the beautiful game attracts so many imbeciles.

A sharp right then left turn and I'm walking uphill passed the bus station. At the top, near an old hospital, I find my first yellow arrow pointing to the west. I am once more on the Camino.

From now on it is an urban slog. The weather is overcast and it's trying to rain. Passing through the suburbs I could be in any city. It's struggling to get light and the damp streets are becoming crowded with scurrying residents going to somewhere I will never see, but which sustains their life, ambition and hope for a better existence. It is gloomy enough for the cafe lights to reflect a yellow glow off any stonework within a metre range, and they are rapidly filling with those that cannot function properly before they gulp down the day's first thick black caffeine hit.

Soon I am elevated half way between the river and the top of the hill to my left. Below is a large dock that has seen better days. A portrait of an old world superseded by fibre wires and push button finance, and where life now comes from the east, neatly contained in ships the size of a small village. Wherever  these ships land the wasteland below suggest they don't disgorge their disposable consumer goods here any more.

I can see what appears to be the mouth of the river disgorging into the Bay of Biscay but it seems a million miles away as I pound the pavement, now longing  for a greener vista. I have been walking for over an hour and drop down to the riverside where a ferry takes passengers from one apparent wasteland to another. Perhaps it's not as bad as that, perhaps it's me and the thought of the. 400 kilometres that I have yet to cover that is clouding my view. 

The concrete continues to snake out before me. A fusion of new bridges, small factories and industrial land populated by tons of oil, canisters, propane gas cylinders, and a greasy smell that suggests liquid is being sprayed onto two bits of metal to prevent them fusing together.

Around 10am I'm approaching Portugalete. I take a drink and drop my water bottle that rolls over a wall and into a park to come to rest against a bush some 20 metres away. I clamber through the iron bars and in a most ungainly fashion take the five foot drop onto the grass. It makes my arm sockets burn as they support the weight of my body. I'm beginning to wish I had left it and bought another bottle.  

I have been walking now for five hours and my 69 year old legs are beginning to feel as if I never trained hard enough before leaving home. But it always feels like that on the first day of a new trek.

 Portugalete has a beach, but I decline to descend the steep hill at the bottom of which it lies. Instead I follow the arrows that direct me around the cathedral de Santa Maria. I feel a little guilty that I don't
go inside but I have already seen the inside of more cathedrals than I've had hot dinners. I exit half 
way up the hill and am thankful for a street escalator, a few minutes of respite. I can't help thinking 
how helpful it would be if it went all the way the Santiago. 

I meander my way through the bustling town which has a sufficiency of yellow arrows to make my progress easy. All towns seem to  end or begin at a roundabout and this one is no exception. For the first time in around six hours I see countryside.  Albeit bordered by a motorway. No matter, though, as for the next ten kilometres I'll be walking along a swish new pedestrian walking route where young and old, all clad in Lycra with buds in their ears connected to iPods, are walking in the opposite direction to me.  

The walking is easy now and I make good progress and soon I am  tramping along the boardwalk that crosses the beach at Playa de la Arena. A modern iron bridge leads to a car park  and some exceptionally steep steps. By the time I reach the top I am beginning to feel exhausted. 

But now I am walking the cliffs alongside the Bay of Biscay whose waters are remarkably tranquil with only one boat moored some way offshore. This is pleasant. The views are good, the walking easy, and in the distance is Castro Urdiales, which I should reach by early afternoon. Some ten hours after leaving Bilbao. And then I get the call. My phone trills. I know it's not good news as I never get calls when I'm trekking. 

My wife has fallen ill and has been taken into hospital. I acknowledge the call and stare into the distance at the headland a good two hours walk away from me. I turn around and retrace my steps. Twenty four hours and one flight to the UK later I am at her bedside. A week later she is well, but it is apparent that my disappearing for five weeks at a time is no longer feasible. Fifty years go I promised that it would be in sickness and in health, and so it must be. 

But I also have other responsibilities. I walk to collect money for charity, (£24500 so far collected and sent on over the last five years and 2000 miles,) and I have a moral obligation to undertake a trek for those that have sponsored me this year. 

It is now the 6 of September. I am in Ferrol. I have managed to grab nine days to walk the camino Ingles to the Atlantic coast at Cabo Finisterre to fulfill these obligations. It is a walk that I intended to do with a friend some time in the future but he died before we could start out. I have with me a small phial of his ashes.  We will do this trek to the End of the World together. It will be the last Camino for both of us.

In a way it's quite appropriate that I should be walking the English Camino as the route has strong ties to the city that I was born in and now live near. Plymouth, England. In the 13th and 14th centuries England was engaged in what has become known as The Hundred Years War which meant that any English man or woman found walking through France on their way to Santiago de Compostela would not get very far. It was safer to go by sea and Plymouth was one of three ports licensed to take pilgrims to the tomb of St James, landing in Ferrol, among other places. It was then a four day trek to the shrine.

The large scallop shell shown in the photograph above is to be found on a wall near to the spot on Plymouth's Barbican where vessels departed. Around a hundred metres away are the Mayflower Steps from where the Pilgrim Fathers departed in 1620 on their way to what today is America's Plymouth Rock.

Two further photos are of painted tiles to be found on the facade of an 1890's theatre in Plymouth. One depicts the Spanish Armada leaving Ferrol and the other its defeat.


So, in deference to pilgrims past I commenced my trek by disembarking from my invisible ship and making my way to the official starting point near the tourist office.