I left this blog untended for a few weeks, much as I let the land in the valley below grow wild over the late summer. There’s always time to plant again. So I planted winter beans and mange-tout and beetroot, and now I’m starting a completely new 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.
Like so many people, when I consider 2020 I lose count of the many ‘unproductive’ days and hours, the alternating moods of alarm, sadness, and a fatigue sometimes born of over-consumption of news (that compulsive “doom scrolling” through the screens of body-counts, graphs and warnings). In the end there is resignation, a gradual acceptance of peaceful inactivity, and also my right to not know more, just now. Strategies are needed to turn off the endless news about events we can do nothing to change. The best medicine and only sure guarantor of mental health is the OFF switch.
Another strategy is to resist the dangerous message we hear repeated almost daily, “We will never return to normal.” That way is madness. No, resist that and listen to your own normal. Life goes on. Hear the reassuring sounds of normality: a ticking clock, the wind in the trees, the delayed brayed reply from Morris to that unseen donkey two kilometres away by the banks of the river Sella, whose cry was heard on the wind half an hour ago. I imagine that readers of this blog do not come here for more doom-scrolling. This blog needs to be part of the resistance. Welcome to the continuing normal.
During lockdown or individually self-imposed isolation, time may sometimes seem to stand still in a hidden, personal world within four walls. Any expedition outside the gate and the perimeter fence is a small adventure. Is it Thursday? What does it matter? I begin to find a short one-hour 10-kilometre expedition to the Consum supermarket in La Vila Joiosa more interesting than it ever used to be! (Other comestibles stores are available and may be equally interesting.) Contrary to the oft-mentioned lockdown complaint that one day is very much like another, each day in my hermitage routine is quite different. Every day brings some small surprise, even if it is just Rubí donkey biting me on the bottom because I’m giving too much attention to Aitana; gentle Rubí who has taken ten years to summon up the boldness to bite me!
Today I begin this new series of blog posts based on my three-month walk from Worcester to Compostela, a life-changing pilgrimage journey that I reflected upon many times in the past decade but I have not shared more widely.
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.
This blog series may appeal to readers who would like to experience a virtual pilgrimage to Compostela – day by day – in real time. That remains to be seen, but I know that I will enjoy writing it anyway, in the usual manner of this blog which is a sort of journal. The walk from Worcester to Compostela was the first time I wrote a blog, which was at once a simple diary and means of keeping in contact with sponsors for the children’s mobility charity which benefited from my hundreds of thousands of footsteps. One or two readers here still remember that blog, but I deleted the whizz-kidz-pilgrim blog years ago, after it had served its purpose. I kept an archive copy on file – the only written record – and I had not looked at it until recently.
I am calling this blog series Walking out of the World. As I walked the financial world was about to collapse. We did not know it then, but the tectonic plates of the banking system had already been straining at the fault lines for two months 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!) It was a world in which one 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, nor did I know the world was about to become more complicated. 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.
Next you can read Walking out of the World, Part 1 which covers the send-off from Worcester cathedral and the first day’s walk along the river Severn to Tewkesbury abbey. Then following parts will continue the route through Oxford and along the river Thames to London, and heading south through Sussex to the Newhaven ferry to Dieppe. I shall include internet hyperlinks to maps, route details, sometimes cultural information, and of course my own photographs.