My plan was to retire to live in Seville. I had been going there during the summer for some years. I’m a church organist and I played regularly in the Church of San José in the Barrio Santa Cruz. Seville was everything I wanted and I looked forward to lazy days sipping chilled sherry under the orange trees. I had promised myself that when I had enough money to satisfy my needs, if not all of my wants, I’d change from doing the difficult executive jobs which had been my life for a long time to a quieter more sedate existence. Remember that ambition as this story develops!
My plan was to make the Big Change at the age of 50. The children were grown and I was secure. But there was just one last job to be done, one final challenge and so the Big Change was delayed. One evening I went to dinner with friends. “Come and see what Jenny has been up to,” said Graham as he pointed to a map on the wall. There were pictures of Jenny walking along a line across the top of Spain. They explained over dinner that Jenny had walked the Camino to Santiago in stages. Jenny told me about meeting other pilgrims, blisters, albergues, the towns through which she passed and her arrival in Santiago. I’d vaguely heard of Santiago de Compostela, and I knew a little about Saint James, but I had never heard of the Camino.
That conversation sparked off hours of research on the internet and more hours of daydreaming. But that final job was demanding and four years passed before the daydreaming became a reality. I played for the great Feast of Mary, Mother of God in Seville on 1 January 2007 and the next day I set off to walk the Via de la Plata to Santiago. I looked back. “I’ll return to live here,” I thought, “this Camino is the bridge to that future.”
That journey on foot was about the most powerful experience of my life. I met no other pilgrims for three weeks. I spoke little Spanish and communicated with a phrase book. My company along the way was a wave from a lone shepherd and an astonished welcome in some villages. Having spent my youth on the Scottish hills I had packed far too much – including a flask, powdered hot drinks and a short wave radio! Inevitably blisters appeared despite my preparations and I started disposing of unnecessary gear. I’m aware now that I started to also deal with some of my other baggage: the resentments, the bitter memories, the aftermath of divorce, a job that went badly. I found myself praying, really praying, for the first time in years. On a dark morning as the sun came up over the horizon on the long meseta I felt joy and freedom like never before. I was proving to myself I could do this. Make this physical journey. I was venturing into a new land, coping with a language I didn’t know. I was almost self sufficient. In that moment I knew that if all of my anxieties came to pass – if I lost those who loved me, my home, my money, then I could pack a rucksack and survive with very little. That feeling has never left me.
My arrival in Santiago was emotional. I waited in a long line to go up the stairs at the Pilgrims’ Office, full of anticipation, and although my treatment at the desk was cursory, I was overjoyed to receive my Compostela. I went off to the Cathedral for Mass and I was deeply moved that the pilgrims had made it their own. Rucksacks were piled against the walls. Pilgrims sat on the altar steps. The organ began and in the priests’ procession I saw boots and bare legs beneath some of the albs. The Botafumeiro was wonderful. At that Mass I realised deep in my heart that Santiago was where I wanted to be. I believe that this set off the chain of events which followed.
I knew I wanted to walk more and I decided on the Camino Inglés. Marion Marples of the CSJ supplied some walking notes and asked if I would up-date them. As I started work on that first guidebook I also started a blog. I had only ever written management reports in the past and this was an incredibly refreshing development. I’m secretly quite shy and so I adopted the pen name Johnniewalker. Well I’m Scottish and I like a dram! However my idea was that the CSJ could produce a series of low cost guidebooks written by pilgrims for pilgrims on a voluntary basis – anyone could be Johnniewalker. However the name stuck.
I was playing the organ in a church in Clapham staffed by the Redemptorist Order. One of the priests there was appointed Director of their publishing company. I explained to him that one of the questions in my mind during that first pilgrimage was how I could adequately explain the experience to people. I concluded that writing about the experience was only part of the answer. An explanation needed photographs of the wonderful scenery, and prose better than mine, to describe how powerful it was. He was very interested and agreed to publish a booklet in that style. It was the 25th anniversary year of the CSJ and so I asked 25 members from over these years to contribute a reflection which I matched with a photograph and some prose, usually from scripture. The first Spiritual Companion for pilgrims was published and given to members as an anniversary gift.
Soon more guidebook writing projects and Caminos followed and I eventually resigned from my full time position. I started to spend more time in Santiago and became the first long term volunteer at the Pilgrims’ Office. One day, one of the staff, Danny, who has become my best friend here, explained that his family had an apartment which they didn’t use. I went to see it. It had been the home of Danny’s partner’s grandmother who died. His partner’s mother inherited it and having totally refurbished it she then died. Three bedrooms, two bathrooms with views of the spires of the Cathedral, it was like the Marie Celeste. I started using it on my visits, but I could not deny that the arrows were all pointing in one direction, and so I rented out my property in London and some 8 years ago I moved to Santiago to live for most of each year.
In total I volunteered in the Pilgrims’ Office for 7 years, during which time I started the Amigos Welcome Service to improve the reception to the city for pilgrims, particularly English speakers. For the first three years this service was supported and funded by the English speaking Pilgrim Associations, including the CSJ. The volunteering programme is now part of the mainstream activities of the Pilgrims’ Office, funded by the Cathedral of Santiago. I also founded the Camino Chaplaincy, which recruited volunteer priests to provide daily Mass in English in the Cathedral of Santiago. Such was the success of this ministry, the Cathedral now provides this service permanently through the offices of a priest appointed to the Cathedral staff. Just in the last year I’ve been delighted to initiate and help establish the Anglican Camino Chaplaincy.
At one point I was playing the organ for two Masses in the morning and the two evening Masses in the Cathedral, and I realised that my life had become quite the opposite of what I had dreamed of in Seville. I retired from the Pilgrims’ Office and these days I concentrate on writing and updating the CSJ guidebooks and walking more Caminos plus, in recent years, the Way of St Francis from Florence to Rome and the 88 Temple route on the Japanese Island of Shikoku. I also now play in the Jesuit Church of San Agustín in Santiago, which is very rewarding.
I love living here and, as you have read, there is plenty to do. Life isn’t all writing, music-making and eating in the many excellent restaurants here. In the pilgrim season I have lots of visitors and there are always pilgrims needing help and assistance. That might be visiting an English speaking pilgrim in hospital, helping find a stolen rucksack, taking a pilgrim to the dentist or even welcoming the four Irish pilgrims who rowed from Ireland! Each week brings something different.
I think that Santiago is a city of two seasons. From around the middle of April the pilgrims start to trickle into town. By July and August the city is full of pilgrims. I’ve moved house and from time to time I can hear the pilgrims cheering in the Plaza Obradoiro. I now live on the route to Finisterre and every morning I wake to the familiar sound of walking poles click, clicking outside the window.
Pilgrims only stay in the city a day or two at most usually. When they are here they are still in the Camino routine and tend to go to bed reasonably early. However Santiago is also a University City and as the Pilgrim numbers reduce in October the students return, and I assure you they don’t go to bed early! The city then takes on a different ambience. I’m lucky that I live in a very quiet area.
Twice a week usually I go to the Abastos market where I have a regular butcher and fishmonger. I buy fresh vegetables from the ladies who have been up since dawn digging up produce in their fincas. My friend Maricarmen has too many hens and every week or two she hands in eggs. They have the most golden yolks I’ve even seen.
It isn’t all splendid though. The winter months in Santiago are cold, dark and very wet. It rains prodigiously. This is the time when I go walking usually in the South of Spain, where recently I’ve been exploring new routes in Andalucia. It is also the time when I benefit most from having a group of close friends. Gallegos are a diffident people and it takes them a while to trust foreigners, but when they do they are as open hearted as their fellow Celts, the Scots!
My plan was abandoned a long time ago for another Way, from which I get out much more than I put in.