I began this blog series, Walking out of the World, a recollection of the journey on foot from Worcester across England and France, over the Pyrenees to north west Spain, to Compostela and Finisterre. These are reflections on a pilgrimage made in a quite different world, yet not so very long ago. Welcome to the continuing normal. This series of blog posts is based on a three-month walk from Worcester to Compostela in 2008 but written as a reflection on life, vocation, and issues in the Church and in the wider culture during a time of rapid change in the 21st century.
In moments of daydreaming and meditation, I re-live moments of that walk, recalling landscapes, refreshing streams, towns, people, food. It all remains tangible for it was a time when I was free to live the sacrament of the present moment, mirroring my surroundings, as in the “selfie” in the church of Saint-Jacques in Chatellerault near Poitiers. My replica 14th century bourdon is tilted at the same angle as that of Saint James, and it opens a door into a parallel world.
When I received my pilgrim blessing from the Dean of Worcester cathedral on 2 May 2008 and set off across England towards Compostela, I had given up my teaching career and I was then to start at the Pontifical Beda College in Rome in September. So the three months spent on the Camino de Santiago was – in another sense – a walk out of the world. I eventually had to return to teaching for another ten years, but that was a later story! But it was a world that we all walked out of: a “pre-pandemic world” which is a joy to return to!
In that world we could mix freely with others without fear, in pilgrim hostels, bars and restaurants. Three months on the road threw up dozens of chance meetings with strangers every day. I calculated that I met over two thousand people in the 86 days walk from Worcester to Compostela. It was a more polite world where we had not yet heard of “culture wars” and there were no Brexit leavers nor remainers, for the UK was still a leading member of the European Union and any other plan was unheard of. There were no Twitter lies from the White House. A certain Greta Thunberg was just starting primary school so she would only find out about climate change a few years later. And my only knowledge of donkeys was they were just some species of sad horse, but I’d never actually met one. In May 2008 I didn’t know about any of these things. As I set off on foot to Compostela I was aware of a simple recurring theme but had little idea what the mantra might eventually mean: I was walking out of the world.
Part 1 of Walking out of the World covers the send-off from Worcester cathedral and the first day’s walk along the river Severn to Tewkesbury abbey. The route passes through Oxford and along the river Thames to London, and heads south through Sussex to the Newhaven ferry to Dieppe. The Via Turonensis in France and the Camino Francés in Spain take me on a 2500 kilometre journey over three months, and the themes that I discuss reflect the thoughts that I had along the route, and now additional thoughts are included as I remember and describe that journey.