The first time I heard about the Camino Inglés was when I was about to set off on the Camino Frances in the early spring of 2007. The credencial – pilgrim passport – issued by the Confraternity of Saint James had on the inside back cover a map of the various pilgrim routes across Spain. At the time, of course, I was interested in the one running due east all the way across the map from the French border. Almost a decade later –
‘What’s that little short one?’ I asked.
‘That little short one’ was the Camino Inglés, and there was a reason for its being short. The English pilgrims would take a ship to the ports of Ferrol or A Coruña and head south. Considering the conditions of medieval ships, this would probably have been just as penitential as doing the whole thing on foot, the way that continental pilgrims could.
These days, the Camino Inglés is one for the connoisseurs. Short – too short (if starting at A Coruña) or only just long enough (if starting at Ferrol) to get the compostela, the certificate of completion and ticket to heaven – but none the less intense. I ordered a guidebook from the Confraternity and looked at the profile and distances with some horror. On the Camino Frances, we’d aimed to walk between fifteen and twenty kilometres every day. The Camino Inglés would call for days of up to twenty-nine kilometres, and steep with it.
When I walked the Camino Frances, I was twenty-one, had finished university with some of my student loan left over (that was just about possible, back then) and hadn’t started work yet. There was no reason on earth why I shouldn’t take seven weeks to walk five hundred miles. A decade on, and gainfully employed, seven weeks was out of the question: anything more than a fortnight required special permission from my line manager.
I’d considered the idea of walking a long Camino in stages, and discarded it again. It hadn’t worked for me on the Pilgrims’ Way (in fact, I’ve yet to make it any closer to Canterbury than Hollingbourne) and the complications of all those extra transfers out and back were too daunting. Plus, I suspected that for me it wouldn’t feel like a Camino. But the five days of the Camino Inglés had definite possibilities.
My brother John volunteered to join me on the walk. This was equal parts reassuring (while I’m not scared of travelling on my own, I wasn’t going to turn down the company) and daunting: John was a lot fitter than me, and had cycled the Camino Frances all the way from Mont-St-Michel the previous autumn. I was worried about keeping up with him, particularly after I, along with half the country, went down with a debilitating and depressing virus in January. I spent a lot of time lying on the sofa bed looking up at the scallop shell which I’d suspended from the curtain rail, and teaching myself more Spanish from Duolingo.
As I recovered, I assigned myself a regime of walks, increasing distance and increasing weight carried. To compensate for the notorious flatness of the Cambridgeshire terrain, I included an optimistically daily climb up the stairs to the top floor of my office. I actually managed an average of three times per week or so. I planned a circuit of the Isle of Wight Coast Path to get some more gradients into my legs, and then over-committed myself and postponed it.
I made kit lists and compared them with what I actually possessed. I considered the relative merits of the two rucksacks in my possession, and compared them both with the third option: buying a new one. There was the one that I’d taken when I walked the Camino Frances and St James’ Way, which fitted like a dream (at least once I’d got the straps adjusted correctly) but whose lining was collapsing into flakes; there was the one I’d got at university, which I’d never taken on a serious walk and which didn’t have anything impressive in the way of support; or there was the off-putting hassle of going to a shop and making a decision and spending another seventy quid. In the end I invested in a whole lot of waterproof bags and went with the one I knew I could carry.
I booked train tickets and ferry tickets and hotel rooms; I made the whole thing fit around my stepsister-in-law’s wedding and my father’s 75th birthday party.
Meanwhile, John was cycling home from his winter job in a ski resort in the French Alps. His Strava updates showed long distances and hours in the saddle, crossing off swathes of France. I worried some more about whether I’d be able to keep up with him.
Then he came off his bike. A very gory photo on Facebook told part of the story; a phone call from my mother supplied the rest of the details. He’d made it all the way to Lisieux before a stick got caught in his front wheel and brought the whole thing to an abrupt and bloody stop.
‘Will he still want to do the Camino?’ I asked, when we’d established that the only lasting damage would be cosmetic.
‘Oh yes,’ she said. ‘I should think so.’
Happy St James’ day, to anybody celebrating it! I’m going out for tapas tomorrow.
This is the first of a series of blog posts chronicling my experiences on the Camino Inglés in May 2017. Next time: part of the Isle of Wight Coast Path, and a lot more photographs.