Monday, 10 February 2020

The Camino is church

The Camino is church

The Camino is the church where you just walk right in. Everyone is welcome, no questions asked. 

The Camino is the church where it doesn't matter whether you have faith, whether you are searching for answers or simply want to enjoy the experience. 

The Camino is the church where apart from walking to Santiago, respecting the way, nothing else is compulsory. 

The Camino is the church where everyone is equal. There are no bosses. 

The Camino is the church where you can pray, think or meditate when you want. Or not! 

The Camino is the church where every meal is a communion which includes everyone around the table. 

 The Camino is the church where the arrows will guide you, not tell you what to do.

The Camino is the church where to lighten the load you can forgive your own sins and those who have sinned against you. 

The Camino is the church where the choir is the dawn chorus of birds in the trees and sheep bleating in the meadow. 

The Camino is the church filled with people just like you where you can make life long friends. 

The Camino is the church where the only peals are peals of laughter from pilgrims.

The Camino is the church which is never full up. Come along there's room for you too. 

Friday, 3 January 2020



 12 years ago, with a basic set of walking notes provided by the CSJ, I set out on the Camino Inglés. The route was badly waymarked and at points I couldn’t find the badly faded yellow arrows. “Why not write a new guidebook?” suggested Marion Marples the secretary of the UK pilgrim association. And so I did.  Then came writing a new guidebook to the Camino Portugués and then the Madrid Route… and the rest is history.

I decided from the beginning that this would be my way of putting something back into the Camino which has given me so much. Therefore over these years I’ve simply handed over my manuscripts for the CSJ and other associations to publish and sell. They’ve kept the entire proceeds with no deductions for expenses or royalties.  It has been my pleasure.

When I started out John Brierley was writing his popular guide to the Camino Francés but there were few other guidebook writers around. Some of my Guides were the first ever, such as the guides to the Madrid Route, the Via Serrana and, more lately, the Route from Lisbon via Fatima. However more and more commercial guides are being produced to the Camino routes and frankly some of them are better than mine as they use better technology with accompanying apps.

Also, as any writer will tell you, it is impossible to be on pilgrimage and write a guidebook at the same time. Whilst walking the routes most years to produce updates has kept me fit I badly miss just walking. To mark this change I am setting out next week to walk the Via de la Plata. This was my                                            very first Camino.

Therefore it is time to change and a few months ago I told the CSJ that I would not be producing any more guidebooks or updates. I’ll still continue to produce the other books published by the charitable publishers Redemptorist Publications.
Thank you to all of the pilgrims who used my books and sent me information about the routes. Thanks to the CSJ and other associations who provided them for pilgrims generating vital funds. Over the years 25,000 people have bought my guidebooks and Spiritual Companions. Thank you on behalf of the pilgrim charities who have benefitted.  

Wednesday, 24 July 2019

NEW BOOK LAUNCHED - It's about time, A call to the Camino de Santiago

I’m delighted to share news of this new book with you. The publishers asked if I would write this in the style of Joyce Rupp’s “Walk in a Relaxed Manner” which was published 15 years ago. I was delighted to do so and even more pleased when Joyce Rupp agreed to write the Foreword. That delight turned to astonishment when Martin Sheen offered to write the concluding chapter. His words are powerful and beautiful.
I’d like to be absolutely transparent about the finances. The publishers are themselves a social enterprise who have been in business for 60 years. The arrangement I made with them is that there will be no author or contributors’ fees or royalties. In return, they have provided me with 2000 copies free of charge to raise money for pilgrim charities, and to give to Pilgrim Associations to sell for funds. Copies will soon be on their way to the Australian and South African Associations. I'm talking with the Canadian Association and APOC, and a supply of books are theirs if they want them.
Right now the book is on sale from the Camino Society Ireland, who are happy to post world-wide:
The price is 10€ - but remember that means that exactly 10€ goes to helping them help pilgrims.The book is also available on Kindle – for Kindle purchases the publishers will donate 50% of the sale proceeds to pilgrim charities.

Saturday, 15 December 2018

Living in Santiago was not my plan

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.

Saturday, 24 March 2018

A story for Semana Santa - Holy Week

Daybreak. Sevilla.

The noise of a door slamming woke me. I had fallen into a deep sleep having tossed and turned all night. I am leaving to walk the Camino to Santiago today and every time my eyes had closed either anxiety or excitement prodded me awake. My rucksack stood against the wall. I looked at it wondering if I should unpack and repack it again to see if there was anything I had missed or anything that could be left out. I laughed to myself. I’d done that a dozen times already. As I reached into the wardrobe to get the clothes I would wear I caught sight of the black robe hanging there. Memories.

This was what I wore as a Nazareno in one of the many processions in Seville during Holy Week. I had worn it proudly even although some of my friends taunted me that the tall hat made me look like a member of the Klu Klux Klan. I was proud to belong to the Hermandad de la Macarena, the brotherhood or confraternity which each year prepares and then carries the statue of the Virgin Mary called the Macarena through the crowded streets of Seville. There are 55 brotherhoods in the city and they carry over 100 pasos which are platforms with statues or scenes from Holy Week. This is the week when the Church remembers the events of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection. Some of the brotherhoods date as far back as the 13th Century. The processions of Holy Week are a long held tradition. It starts today.  Excited as I am about my Camino I have also felt the build up in the town over the last few days. Over 1 million visitors occupy every available bed and cram the streets. Every day there are processions leading up to Holy Thursday when La Madrugá begins. This is 24 hours of continuous processions to mark Good Friday the day of Christ’s death.

I was born into the Hermandad de la Macarena. It is the most important of all of them. The image of the Macarena is famous throughout Spain. My father, his father and grandfather before him were all involved in the brotherhood. People looked up to them. My dad had been the Capataz, the one who directs the paso and gives orders to the costaleros, the dozens of fit young men who carry the float on their shoulders. Often they are hidden underneath. I also performed various roles myself as I was growing up. When I was learning the trumpet in school I was in the band which plays la marcha procesiónal as the paso moves on. I have also been a monaguillo, an altar boy, and also a penitente. Penitentes wear somber robes to symbolize that they are atoning for their sins. In some brotherhoods they walk with their feet bare. Some others wear chains and manacles on their ankles.

The brotherhood meets during the year. The membership is only men. From time to time girls, usually students, have tried to join or even start their own sisterhood. They got nowhere. People just laughed.
Belonging to a brotherhood means learning the traditions. How things are done. There is a pecking order and families like ours who have been involved for generations are the most senior. Members of the brotherhoods each have a heavily embossed metal keyring which they hook over their trouser pockets. It is like a membership badge. Members drink together after meetings when the selection of who will do what next year is planned in meticulous detail.

The churches with pasos have a brotherhood and the local priest is the chaplain. I remember when I was very young the priest came to speak to us about our responsibility to keep the tradition of the brotherhood going. He said we were especially blessed to be brothers together and that what we did was important to God. My chest swelled with pride that year when I was chosen to carry one of the incensarios which sent billows of incense into the air. There were magical moments. We were processing through the narrow streets of the barrio when there was a strange whispering through the crowd. Then they fell to complete silence. From a balcony a man started singing a saeta, a soulful ballad about the Vigin Mary’s suffering as she saw her son put to death. Everyone was transfixed as his voice soared through the narrow streets. As we set off again the capataz whispered in my ear that one day I would be the Presidente of the Hermandad. I was happier than I ever remembered.

I don’t know when the change started to happen. I began to find brotherhood meetings boring. The arguments were petty. Debates about the colour of the ropes holding the canopy over the statue went on for weeks. The election of a new Presidente was like a general election. People took sides. There were rumours about the private lives of the likely candidates. Three of the older and most senior members approached me and asked if I would stand for election. I was flattered and I thought about it seriously. So seriously I decided to speak to a priest.

I hadn’t been to confession for many years. In fact apart from the one or two occasions when the Brotherhood went as a group I didn’t even go to church. In truth I wasn’t sure whether I even believed in God anymore and there were certainly things about the church I didn’t accept. As I waited at the door of the Cathedral for it to open a figure approached wearing a hat, a rucksack and carrying a stick. This was one of the pilgrims we see in Seville from time to time. He looked at the ground and I followed his gaze. There was an arrow inset into to pavement. It pointed across the road. I looked and there on the wall opposite was another arrow pointing right. I watched as the pilgrim followed the arrows until he was out of sight. I decided what to do there and then.
I told everyone that before I agreed to stand for election I would make the pilgrimage to Santiago. To a man they said they thought I was crazy. But I set out.

36 days later I sat in the Cathedral of Santiago surrounded by other people I had met on the way. With some I had formed life long bonds. These were my fellow pilgrims. Along the way I had realized that I wouldn’t find the God I had lost in a theatrical tourist attraction carried through the streets of Seville but in the kindness of strangers and the tenderness of new friendships.

I never did stand for election. When I got back everything seemed different and I felt I wanted other things, including walking another Camino. You see I’ve joined another fellowship now. I have no idea who the other members are that I have yet to meet but I know they will be there along the way.

This morning as the drum sounds and the processions start I wish them well. I have to go by a different road.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

A story - The benefit of the doubt

The benefit of the doubt

As the pilgrims filed into the albergue they were too busy finding their place for the night to notice the scruffy man sitting on one of the beds. His head was down, seemingly minding his own business.
This was Paco. 53 years of age. Originally from Valencia, he had fallen on hard times and like all Spaniards, he knew about the Camino to Santiago and the “free” accommodation for pilgrims. Over the years when times were tough he got a credencial and took to the Way. He knew he could wash and sleep and often the rucksacks of the pilgrims made rich pickings.
In truth Paco hated pilgrims. They were too good to be true. All fresh faced and full of the milk of human kindness, their enthusiastic camaraderie and public displays of friendship were just too much.
He felt the same tonight as he sat on his bed. He could see them in the kitchen preparing a meal, smiling, being nice to each other. He watched them sit down to eat with his resentment kindling. A pilgrim asked them to hold hands and say grace together and Paco’s bitterness rose like bile.
However when one of the women began to serve the food an image of another woman, his wife Anna, serving the family at table, flashed through his mind.
Then Paco heard them talking together. It was like Babel, many different languages, and yet somehow they were communicating. At the end of the meal they went upstairs. As Paco heard them begin to sing he was drawn to the sound. The room was lit with candles and a fire burned in the hearth. Their faces glowed. He hung back in the shadows.
Memories flooded Paco’s mind. Anna, the most beautiful girl in the neighborhood marrying Paco the most eligible boy. The boy with prospects. Setting up home, being promoted to manager of the factory. His two daughters. The loves of his life. The bittersweet memory of reading them bedtime stories. Tear pricked his eyes as he could almost smell the scent of soap and freshly laundered pyjamas when he kissed them goodnight.
As the pilgrims sang their songs scenes from Paco’s life appeared before his eyes like a fast moving film. Work pressures, money worries, his sick mother. Having a few beers after work which soon became many. Fights with Anna then spending more time in the bar than at home. Anna’s ultimatum – clean up your act. He tried so hard. To go straight home. To stop drinking altogether. He even joined a gym.
But soon he was drinking more than ever. Everything got worse. Paco shuddered as he remembered the lost nights, the infidelities, the borrowed money. The debts mounted. The bank sent an eviction notice which he ignored. Then another.
His colleagues at work had been saving up to send one of their terminally ill children to Disney World. A final gift. The cash collected over months was in the safe in the factory.
Paco told himself he would borrow the money to pay a few months’ mortgage and replace it before it was needed.
To celebrate the solution he went for a drink. He awoke next morning in a bed in a seedy hostel. He had only vague memories of who he had been with. The money was gone.
Public disgrace. House repossessed, his wife filed for a divorce, unemployed and charged with theft he could almost have coped with the derision. He couldn’t cope with the look in his daughters’ eyes.
Reviled and rejected Paco took to the road. He hated himself and other people in equal measure.
He was brought from these thoughts when the pilgrims started to sing again. He knew enough to make out some of the words, “Amazing Grace, saved a wretch like me, lost and found, blind but now I see.” Then as the pilgrims held hands and began to say together, “Our Father, who art in heaven,” the long forgotten prayer came to Paco’s lips. He mouthed the words to himself.
There in the candlelight an idea slowly emerged in his mind…then it came with a rush. He would do the pilgrimage himself. Start tomorrow. Atone for his sins. Make a fresh start. He wouldn’t steal in albergues and he’d stay sober. He would do it for Anna, for the children, for the dead boy whose money he stole. He would do it for himself. He would walk with these pilgrims. Talk to them even. Maybe their enthusiasm for life would rub off on him. He planned to clean his clothes and smarten himself up for the morning.
The official with the stamp turned up later than usual and he joined the queue to get the sello on his Credencial, with a new resolve. He was now a real pilgrim. He handed over his Credencial with confidence.
“This last stamp is for an albergue on another route two days ago.” The official then proceeded to examine every previous stamp muttering the different dates in disapproval. "This albergue is only for real pilgrims," he said.
Paco was aware of the restless queue of tired pilgrims behind him. He tried to explain, " I wasn't a real pilgrim before but I want to be one now," he blurted. With a weary look the man handed him back his credencial and looking past him said "next please, this man is just leaving."

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Via Serrana final days

These final days have almost been washed from the memory by the prodigious rain which has fallen in Andalucía. There is a friendly rivalry between Galicians and "Los sureños", the Southerners. The Galicians think that the people of the south are too loud, dramatic, over the top. They disparage their way of speaking where words are diminutised routinely. So a beer becomes una cervecita and a plate becomes un platito. Actually this sits rather well with we Scots where we use the word "wee" with several meanings, so "After I'd been out for a wee drink I had a wee fight with the wife" means just the opposite!

But at the heart of the North/South tension is the weather. The southerners think that northerners are as cold as their weather and Galicians are just jealous of the weather in the south. Until now.

My friends in Málaga say that when it rains they can count the drops on one hand. Not in the last week or so.

Over a substantial breakfast in the Hostal Bobi (we had to tell them to stop bringing food) we looked again at the weather forecast. It hadn't changed and rain was forecast for the next few days. The streets were wet but the promised downpour didn't materialise which was just as well because the arrows were not clear at the exit of the town and we took some time to find and record how best to join the route. It is worth saying though that in general the route is very well waymarked and many of the yellow arrows were fresh.

We decided quickly that the route couldn't possibly be 12 kms along the side of a busy road and after some backtracking and searching we found the way through disused farm buildings and as we walked along a path through the olive grove an arrow appeared. All was well.

There followed an unremarkable 4 kms by the side of a busy road before walking through fields and entering El Coronil. The Hostal Don Juan is one of the options and was very pilgrim friendly with a place to hang washing and clean boots. The woman said that there are many pilgrims in better weather.

Next morning we were up and out to walk the 20 kms to Utrera. The great plain surrounding Sevilla stretched before us as far as the eye could see. This is the meseta. The dark clouds which had been glowering at us passed over and shafts of sunlight lit up the ploughed fields. From far off we saw the dust rising as a horse drawn carriage approached. This was like a scene from a Western. As it drew close we saw 6 mules pulling a cart with father and son delivering sacks to a local farm. They stopped to chat and the father explained to his son that we were pilgrims walking to Santiago. He pointed North with a gesture that it might be as far away as the moon. Then they were off.

We continued to enjoy the monotony of walking the meseta. I think that there is a particular beauty in the rhythm of walking these straight paths the destination in the distance growing closer at a glacial pace.

Much later in the day as we entered Utrera the son of the horse drawn pair we met earlier passed us on a homemade contraption comprising a sledge pulled by a mule with a kitchen chair for a seat. He shouted encouragement and also some surprise that we had got this far.

We checked into the Hotel Vera Cruz which was the most expensive of this Camino. We ate well locally and breakfasted well. However the weather was breaking and our luck with the weather did not hold. There are some 33 kms from Utrera to Sevilla on flat roads and paths. Many would do this in one stretch. We decided to stop in the cummuter town of Dos Hermanas. The rain was heavy and icy. I could have coped with that but I found much of the way amongst the ugliest I have ever encountered including 8 kms straight along the side of a railway line where we had to pick our way through mountains of litter, rubbish which had been dumped illegally and at one point an open sewer. This section has little historic authenticity and let's hope that the Amigos and local councils find a better way.

The following day was a quick march in basically a straight line into Seville. Arrival came as some relief as the rain was literally bouncing off of the roads.

In summary. I found this a wonderful route in spite of the early challenges and the ugliness of the final kilometres. Waking from Jimena de la Frontera and then again from Ronda I encountered stages as beautiful as any I have walked. The route is not "historic" and in parts substantially follows local hiking trails. There is a train line linking the towns in the early stages meaning it would be possible to be based in either Jimena de la Frontera or Ronda and to either skip or walk the most demanding stages without carrying a full rucksack. This plus accurate milages and accommodation will be described in the walking notes which will follow.