Thursday, 4 June 2009

Pilgrim People Series - Marion Marples

A day in the life of Marion Marples, Secretary of the Confraternity of St James
The more I’ve got to know Marion Marples the more titles I give her in my head: Mum, Wife, Pilgrim, Administrator, Newspaper publisher, social entrepreneur, Pastoral Auxiliary, Singer, Editor, Writer, Lover of early music – click here for her favourite. Most of all, The Boss.
So many talents in one person. Formidable.

Marion’s journey to the CSJ office is short as she lives just across the road from where it is located at the back of Christchurch in Blackfriars. This is in the district with the postcode SE1 and Marion with her husband and son also run a social enterprise publishing a successful local magazine and website called, funnily enough, inSE1.
SE1 is in the Anglican Diocese of Southwark with its beautiful Cathedral. Marion is a Pastoral Auxiliary there. This is a kind of lay ministry where her job is to make links out into the local community. For example she organises volunteers to help in the Cathedral junior school and to visit the older residents who live locally in sheltered housing. She has also been working with a number of local churches to set up facilities for homeless people in the coldest months of the year. At that point in our conversation she says, “ I want to talk to you about that project”. I realise that whatever she asks I’ll probably agree. That’s Marion.

Marion has been the Secretary of the CSJ “for about 15 years, if not more”. She doesn’t seem to care exactly how long it is because it is clear this is more a way of life than a job. Her interest in the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela started when she was at university and attended some lectures on Gothic architecture and pilgrimage. In 1972 she and a friend got a grant to make the pilgrimage. She says with a laugh,” Unfortunately we had no concept of the distances involved, there were no guide books and we just had one book, Great Pilgrimages of the Middle Ages by Hell and Hell! It had wonderful photographs and told us the names of the places we had to pass through but gave no information on how to get there.”
Marion and her friend set off with their tent from Poitiers in France (above). They managed to walk for two days before realising the tent was too heavy, so they started going forward to the places in the book by bus and train and occasionally hitchhiking. After three weeks they got to St Jean de Pied Port which is now the traditional starting point of the Camino Francés. Alas they had completely run out of money so Marion decided to phone home. In those days it took two hours to book an international phone call back to England so they decided to send a telegram. Eventually Marion’s mum sent them £5 which enabled them to get to Pamplona and then Santander where they used their tickets to come home. They never got to Santiago but if they had they would have been pilgrims 7 and 8 because only 6 Compostelas were issued that year.

Whilst the journey to Santiago was not complete, the experience inspired what has become a life long passion for the pilgrimage routes to Compostela. Some years later in 1983 her husband noticed an advertisement in a newspaper calling a meeting of people interested in the Pilgrimage to Santiago. There was a telephone number given and it belonged to Dr Mary Remnant, historian and musician who had organised the first meeting in St James’ Church, Picadilly, London. The Confraternity of St James in the UK was founded at that meeting.

By this time Marion and her husband had a child named James. Marion didn’t work then and used to telephone Pat Quaiffe who was then secretary of the CSJ to plan the many activities of the fledgling organisation.

As baby James grew so did the organisation and time passed. In 1996 Marion managed to have the time to walk with a French group from Bayonne to Pamplona and then in 1996 the rest of the Camino Francés from Pamplona. Gripped by the whole thing Marion then took 10 years to fill in all of the other stages from her home in London to Bayonne. During this time she also walked other routes such as the Camino Inglés. She is now considering what to do next!

While she thinks about it the daily routine of running the CSJ continues. Breakfast is with the family. Marion leaves for the CSJ office to arrive at 9.30. Son James and his Dad work together running the magazine.

Once in the office Marion deals with a constant stream of e mails and telephone enquiries. Most are from people who have been thinking about the pilgrimage for a long time and are now in a position to make real plans. The most common question is “where do I start” and that’s not always a place! Marion thinks that people who contact the CSJ are changing. Previously there were people who had heard a little about the pilgrimage, packed a rucksack and set off. Nowadays people seem to have thought about it for a long time. The most common question is: “How do I get to St Jean de Pied Port?” Also most pilgrims have no knowledge of Spanish.

Then most common piece of advice Marion gives people is to travel light.

A lot of the time Marion helps people prioritise their questions – how long do they have? Do they want to get to Santiago in the time they have available or are they happy to do it in stages? Then they can work back to choose a route and a starting point.
As well as all of this Marion runs the organisation of the CSJ. Much of its work is done in Committees such as the Publications Committee (above) or those which organise and run the two Albergues the CSJ provides at Rabanal del Camino on the Camino Francés and at Miraz on the Northern route.

Nowadays the membership is spread across the world with about 1400 being in the UK and approximately 400 in Europe and the rest of the world. A major task is preparing the quarterly monthly bulletin which is posted out to all members.

The best bit of the job is listening to pilgrims talk about why they want to do it. There is no single reason but people do realise it is a special time out of their daily lives. Some describe this in the language of religion many don’t. Often people ask, “How do I become a pilgrim?” and find it hard to believe when Marion answers, “Pack your rucksack, get to your starting point, and just walk following the yellow arrows.”

Marion has a sandwich lunch at her desk usually but on Thursday there is an open day and the number who can call in demanding attention is unpredictable. Some ask general questions and others are looking for very detailed answers about particular routes. Marion is modest about her ability to answer all of these but in fact her knowledge is pretty encyclopaedic. And if she doesn’t know the answer she always knows someone who does.

She also organises the CSJ’s famous and invaluable Practical Pilgrims Days around the UK. These are sessions which explain the preparation and equipment needed and provide talks about the routes. Ideal for beginners. Marion also spend time linking pilgrims with each other.

Landscape photograph of the Valée d’Aspe on the Arles Route through France - taken by Howard Nelson of the CSJ

Whilst Marion can recount visitors to the office who have been very difficult she doesn’t dwell on that. She’d rather talk about that moment on a route in France, early in the morning, alone, experiencing an immense sense of peace and joy.

Pilgrims know exactly what she is talking about.

On behalf of pilgrims every where – Thanks for all of your work Marion.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for giving a face to the CFSJ. I've perused the website and ordered books numerous times over the years, even encountering the name Marion Marples, unconsciously assigning a male gender. My image of the CFSJ offices was something like a ramshackle Shakespeare theater - I don't know why. Now I will visualize a gracious woman and a warm but slightly chaotic office.