Sunday, 2 August 2009

A life in the day of Christine Pleasants

Christine Pleasants has worked in the office of the Confraternity of St James for the last three years. She deals with the administration: from membership subscriptions to payments to the bookshop. Christine always impresses me as the “still small voice of calm” in what can be a very busy office. I thought I should write a profile of Christine so that we could see inside the workings of the CSJ. I didn’t realise that I would discover the tale of such a committed and adventurous pilgrim. This is Christine’s story.

The day begins at 6am when Christine gets up in her home in Bedford. After breakfast she sets off by train to London. The journey lasts 1 hour. On arrival the jobs to be done are many. Dealing with internet orders for guide books and other publications, preparing cash for banking, planning the Practical Pilgrim Days which the CSJ has been running for a long time and dealing with telephone enquiries.

Although Christine’s association with the CSJ began 15 years ago her interest in pilgrimage is life long. She recounts vivid memories from her childhood of pilgrimages to Walsingham. There she learned about walking the Pilgrim Mile barefoot and felt compelled to do it. This is a re-enactment of a pre-reformation tradition when pilgrims reached the “Slipper Chapel” about one mile from Walsingham they removed their shoes before walking on.

From this start at the age of 11 the idea of pilgrimage was planted in Christine’s mind and never really left her. Like many people the idea took some time to germinate assisted by events such as having her wedding on St James’ Day then only realising it had been the Feast Day when she was on honeymoon in Spain. There she heard about the pilgrimage to Santiago, read some books and suggested to her new husband that they return the following year to celebrate their first anniversary by walking to Santiago. But they only had a week’s holiday from work so she contacted Marion Marples the secretary of the CSJ and attended the AGM in 1993 to get more information.

Christine decided to walk in stages from the Pyrenees. But she had no intention of ever receiving a Compostela. She thought of it as a sponsored walk and simply wanted to raise money for charity. Her husband accompanied her in the family car and he quickly decided that walking was not for him. The bargain was struck that if Christine continued to walk this route in future years she would do so on her own!

Over the next 2 years Christine completed the Camino Frances in 3 stages arriving in Santiago in 1995. There were few albergues and few pilgrims. However the Camino had taken further grip and with a walking friend Christine began walking in stages from Le Puy.

One day Christine heard about a sea trip being organised by a group of pilgrims in Cornwall. They planned to sail from England to Spain then walk to Santiago following the sea and land route of the medieval pilgrims. After considerable planning and preparation all was ready by 1999 for a Schooner and a Tall Ship each carrying 15 pilgrims to set off for Spain. In the footsteps of their forebears the pilgrim group walked from Padstow to Fowey on the Saints’ Way. The boat met then in Fowey, sailed to Falmouth and from there they set sail for Spain. The weather was foul but they hoped to reach A Coruña where they would disembark and walk the Camino Inglés to Santiago. However it turned out the Captain had little understanding of what pilgrimage is about and no understanding of the attraction of the destination. To him a port was a port.

They sailed over to France and then round the coast of France because sailing across the Bay of Biscay was impossible. As would have happened in medieval times after 7 days sailing plans changed and the boats docked in Santander rather than much further along the Spanish coastline at A Coruña. By a circuitous route by bus the pilgrim group eventually reached A Coruña and set off to walk to Santiago in three days of “perpetual rain”. This had become a pilgrimage of many trials and there was a feeling a huge satisfaction when they reached the Cathedral in Santiago.

Christine brings all of this experience to her job and gives words of advice to prospective pilgrims who telephone or call into the office. It is busy and lunch is a sandwich at her desk.

One of the most interesting things about the job, says Christine, is seeing the pilgrimage develop with pilgrims coming from farther afield. Over the last couple of years there has been an increase in enquiries from the Eastern European countries now she is seeing an increase in bookshop orders from Finland.

In her spare time Christine is a volunteer footpath warden with the Ramblers Association and she looks after the footpaths in her home parish. She likes to put on walking shoes at least once a week!

Christine keeps in touch with lifelong friends she made on the Camino such as an American lady and a Spanish chap she met in 1994. As it happens they walked with Shirley MacLean whose book helped to popularise the pilgrimage.

At home Christine listens to modern jazz and is currently reading the Art of Fiction by David Lodge. A favourite dinner with her husband in the evening is roast duck.

Christine still wants to walk the other arm of the Camino Inglés from Ferrol and she says she would go back anytime to walk that section of the Le Puy route around Conques.

For Christine sleep usually comes easily. If it doesn’t she simply walks a route in her head and soon drops off!

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