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The credencial – as it is known in France and Spain – is your pilgrim passport. It is issued by a recognized pilgrim office or associations, like the Confraternity of Saint James in London and pilgrim offices at main staging points: e.g. Saint-Jean Pied de Port setting out from France to cross the Pyrenees on your first stage; or Roncesvalles if you begin the Camino Francés at the Spanish side of the Pyrenees.
Your credencial will be stamped and dated along the route to prove that you are a genuine pilgrim. The stamps are individual to the place or organisation issuing them, so for example if you start from Roncesvalles abbey, the first stamp in your pilgrim record will be the beautiful medieval stamp shown here.
At the end of your pilgrimage when you reach Compostela pilgrims office the credencial provides the evidence that you have made the pilgrimage in a genuine way. The stamps and the dates are evidence of the pace of your journey and the places you have passed through on route. In Spain it is very easy to find places to stamp your credencial: churches, pilgrim hostels, and even bars and restaurants are all accustomed to being asked to stamp your record.
In France it is also possible to find regular Compostela stamps on the four main pilgrim branches, e.g. the Via Turonensis through Tours and Bordeaux and the Via Podensis from Le Puy.
On many lesser walked routes and variants of the main chemins Saint-Jacques you can ask at any town hall and even small settlements have their own mairie. Along the Route des Anglais from Dieppe to Tours there are no signposts to name the ancient English route, but it is remarkable how many local people are still familiar with the name. As soon as you enter a mairie with your credencial open for the stamp, you need not ask what you seek, for they greet you immediately with, “Bonjour! Un pélerin anglais a Compostelle?”
In England it is hard to find stamps and officials may be uneasy about putting an official stamp on something they don’t recognize! I remember a long and complicated discussion in Abingdon Town Hall before the chap behind the desk reluctantly put the town council stamp on the page, and smudged it too! If all else fails, ask people to sign and date your record, e.g. a priest (see Day 1, Tewkesbury abbey for example).
Finally, your pilgrim record may be added to the pilgrim association records, and the Confraternity of Saint James keeps a record on their website of the registered pilgrims reaching Compostela each year. Only a handful of pilgrims start out walking from England each year, and this is recorded as “Down France” in the records. https://www.csj.org.uk/csj-pilgrim-register On the register, my 2008 Worcester-Compostela pilgrimage is recorded as completing on 24 July the day before the Feast of Saint James on 25 July.
It is a great achievement for all who have their pilgrimage entered on the register, whatever the distance and the particular challenges. There is no particular heroism in doing an extraordinary distance. On pilgrimage it is all relative. I met a group of pilgrims in wheelchairs with their volunteer helpers, climbing a steep incline, three days from Compostela. It was raining. Everyone in the group was laughing and smiling. They had set out from a point 100 kilometres from Compostela!