Give me my scallop shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope’s true gage,
And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.
The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage – Walter Raleigh
As it happened, we walked it in 2007. As we approached July 2006 and graduation, it became clear that neither of us was going to find a particularly interesting job for the next year, so, prompted by Héloïse, we brought the scheme forward and joined the Confraternity of Saint James that summer. We considered leaving from Exeter and aiming to arrive in Santiago for Easter 2007. This proved to be impracticable – Easter was too early in the year – but the idea of walking in the spring remained attractive. The idea of leaving from Exeter also failed to fit into our time scheme: we were obliged to delay our departure until after my father’s 65th birthday party, which was after the end of term, rendering any such plan pointless. Having consulted the CSJ guides, we had concluded that the summer would not be congenial, with the weather too hot and the Camino too crowded, while the autumn of 2006 seemed too soon and that of 2007 too far away.
I bought new boots and telescopic walking poles, and began to get into a routine of hiking around the Isle of Wight. The distance between my parents’ houses – four miles exactly – proved to be ideal for practice walks. Anne, a town dweller, had fewer opportunities to get into condition, but, having completed the Gold Duke of Edinburgh Award, had the advantage in terms of experience. As yet, however, we had no definite date to aim for, nor even any definite starting point. Eventually I took a trip up to York to see her, defying freak weather conditions in the Solent, and we started planning in earnest. We visited the Rohan sale and bought waterproof jackets and zip-off-at-the-knee walking trousers, drifted around Millets assessing the respective merits of various rucksacks, and purchased lightweight ‘sporks’. We laid a map of the Camino out on the floor and calculated how long it would take us if we were to walk an average of 20km per day, taking one day off every week. I investigated ferry tickets and train timetables online. We quibbled a little over the starting date, but eventually fixed that we would leave from the Isle of Wight on 19th March, immediately after my father’s party.
The idea of starting from Le Puy and visiting Conques (home of Sainte Foy, whom Anne had studied in the course of her degree), or beginning at Poitiers (home of Saint Rhadegund, to whom my neighbouring parish church is dedicated) had to be abandoned: we could not afford to spend so long in France, where the accommodation would be far more costly. At the same time, we wanted to give ourselves a few days of easy walking before we tackled the daunting prospect of the Pyrenees. Eventually we plumped for Saint Palais, two days walk from the border, and allegedly the location of a house of Franciscan monks who were quite prepared to put up pilgrims. We did not realise until we got there that it actually made a rather appropriate starting point: a couple of kilometres beyond the town is a monument marking where three of the ancient pilgrimage routes across France met.
I returned home and began six weeks of intensive planning and preparation. I stepped up my walking, paying greater attention to the precise distances I covered and the weight I carried. I tried to pace myself and, like the exam candidate who spends more time colouring in their revision timetable than in revising, ended up with a beautifully planned schedule that I adhered to for perhaps a week. Beside the walking practice it included lists of kit to be purchased, borrowed or found, and a supremely haphazard teach-myself-Spanish course compiled from a pre-GCSE textbook, three freebie CDs from Sunday newspapers, an antique teach-yourself book and a helpful interactive course from the BBC website. The delicate balance of my schedule – which assumed that I would always have internet access, would always be on the Isle of Wight and at my own disposal – was of course disturbed by trips to Exeter and family crises (my mother was taken into hospital one week and moved house the next).
Nonetheless I was relatively confident in my physical and mental ability to acquit myself adequately in the challenge by the end of February, having one day completed fourteen miles of the Yar River trail, which begins very conveniently just down the road from my house, before getting lost in Brading and taking the train home. I had also fulfilled my organisational responsibilities, the principal of which was booking the tickets for the train journey across France, and over the course of several expeditions to Newport (9 miles walk, for I always took the bus home afterwards) had purchased much of the kit – and caught up with an old school friend who was now working in Blacks. I had looked out my tiny Book of Common Prayer and scoured eBay for a similarly sized Bible. On an expedition to a factory outlet mall in Portsmouth my mother bought me a pair of lightweight trousers and a microfibre towel. I was then faced with the problem of keeping the weight to a minimum; the Confraternity recommends a maximum of 8kg, including the water ration. This, I found, is almost impossible, and once we’d begun the pilgrimage I could never bear to weigh my rucksack.
As the date of my father’s party approached the opportunities for practice walks diminished as all hands fell to tidying the house, which, as anyone who has even a slight acquaintance with the family will appreciate, was no easy task – although on the day before the great event I walked from Ventnor to Niton specifically to deliver a large selection of cold meat to the relevant refrigerator. I also tried out my somewhat rusty French in booking a hotel in Saint-Palais. The Confraternity guidebook regarding the Le Puy route had proved to be some years out of date, and the monks had moved.
The party was to follow the usual pattern of cramming as many friends as possible into the comparatively limited confines of the sitting room, providing them with food and drink, and then encouraging musical performances. Suffice it to say that I was there, wearing a black velvet dress distinctly lacking in back on the grounds that this would be my last chance for glamour for the next two months, and the evening wound up with most of the guests several sheets to the wind and singing Nonconformist hymns; also that, mid-party, Heloïse and Andrew inspected our kit thoroughly and recommended the removal of several items – notably a ‘bivvy’ bag, on the grounds that firstly it was unnecessary weight and secondly we were unlikely ever to be far enough from civilisation to need it for any purpose other than sitting on.
The following day, Sunday, the festivities were concluded with a pub lunch with the remaining guests after church. It was Mothering Sunday; my mother was in Yorkshire at the Association of Radical Midwives national meeting (her singing friends, however, had turned up to my father’s party regardless, and given a spirited rendition of Longfellow and Balfe’s splendid piece of Victoriana Excelsior!). This fact did not stop the priest presenting me with a posy for her as he did all the other members of the congregation who might conceivably have a mother in the offing. I saved it and left it on her kitchen table later that day. Besides the more predictable hymns we sang To be a pilgrim (I hadn’t had the heart to inform the choirmistress that Anne in fact dislikes it intensely), and were invited to step forward for a blessing as we departed on pilgrimage. We also received a card; inside, besides the unsurprising ‘May the road rise up to meet you…’ blessing, was a prayer that I had not come across before:
Bless to me, O God,
the earth beneath my foot.
Bless to me, O God,
the path whereon I go.
Bless to me, O God,
the thing of my desire.
Thou evermore of evermore,
Bless thou to me my rest…
As thou wast before at my life’s beginning,
Be thou so again at my journey’s end.
As thou was besides at my soul’s shaping,
Father, be thou too, at my journey’s close.
I copied them both into the miniscule Bible before we left.
A fully laden practice walk to Ventnor and back on Sunday afternoon and a final dash around Newport’s shops on Monday, having taken a fond farewell of my boyfriend at Cowes, left us as ready as we would ever be for the pilgrimage. We distributed Compeed, painkillers, raisins, dried apricots and Somerfield ‘Simply Value’ instant noodles between our two rucksacks, copied friends’ addresses into the Confraternity guidebook, and checked a thousand times that our tickets and passports – and pilgrim records – were where we’d put them last. Giggling geekishly, I scrawled DON’T PANIC across the cover of the guidebook, swore at our sluggish internet connection until it came up with the timetable for ferry crossings to Portsmouth, and decided at the last minute that I could not do without a second jumper, so pulled on a navy blue guernsey. My brother John recommended pasta as a good source of slow-release carbohydrates, so I made macaroni cheese for supper while Anne tried frantically to copy all Héloïse’s annotations to her Confraternity guidebook into our up-to-date edition. She got as far as Castrojeriz, 449km from Santiago, before my mother arrived to tell us that it really was time we left if we wanted to catch the 2030 ferry, so my father promised to follow our progress in Heloise’s book and send any further annotations by text message.
Bizarrely enough, it was snowing when we manoeuvred our laden rucksacks out of the front door, snowing hard enough to make visibility something of a problem for driving. I was half afraid that our plans would be scuppered before we could even leave the Isle of Wight. The snow eased off as we neared Newport, however, and by the time we reached Fishbourne the weather was clear enough for us to look forward with confidence to the next stage in the journey.