Sunday, 14 March 2010

A life in the day of Piers Nicholson - the Precise Pilgrim

It is the mark of an educated mind to rest satisfied with the degree of precision which the nature of the subject admits and not to seek exactness where only an approximation is possible. -Aristotle
Piers Nicholson is the owner of the popular website which I visited many times while preparing for my first pilgrimage. This year it will probably get 2 million views of its pages. I didn’t know the name of the person behind the website but I became very familiar with its contents. Then through a coincidence I met the man who created what has become one of the most popular Camino resources on the internet.

One day I was chatting to one of my colleagues on a committee on which I serve. She was very interested in what I had been doing and when I mentioned the pilgrimage routes to Santiago she said, “Oh,the Camino!, I know someone who has done that. And he has a website about it.” She scribbled down the name of the website asking, “Perhaps you’ve come across it?” “Come across it?” I thought, “I’ve virtually been living in it for months”.

She told me the story. She had taken over the company she worked for when the previous owner decided to retire. To mark his retirement he had walked the Camino and then developed a website which she said, “had taken over his life.” She brought us both together for dinner in her house and I met the most fascinating Piers Nicholson, husband, scientist, researcher, pilgrim, businessman and designer of sundials and websites. That evening I knew we would meet again.
On his return from walking the Camino del Salvador with my friend Rebekah Scott he invited me to lunch at his London Club, the Athenæum. I was familiar with the place and his chosen venue gave me a clue to more of the man behind the bowtie. Some would consider the Athenæum as the most prestigious club. Originally for gentlemen it now thankfully also admits women. It is known as the club for bishops, cabinet ministers and members of the House of Lords. However its main characteristic is that you have to have brains to be a member and historically its membership is drawn from people who gained success or prominence through their intellectual prowess rather than inherited money or titles. Clearly that’s Piers and over that lunch and a reciprocal invitation to la Terazza his story emerged. Much of it is illustrated by his typical daily routine.
Piers and his wife are early birds and usually they get up at 5.45am so that his wife can go swimming. As if in sympathy Piers sometimes goes to the gym. Breakfast is usually muesli with grapefruit juice and a boiled egg which Piers takes from the fridge and boils for 8 mins exactly. No more, no less. It is always cooked perfectly. By 7am he is at his computer. The precise timings involved in his daily routine perhaps come from his scientific background and career where he developed a small company researching the whereabouts of rare minerals and metals used in complex industrial processes. Walking the Camino was very much a rite of passage from that when he retired. However with Piers the use of the word retired doesn’t seem appropriate. Booting up his PC at 7am every day he quickly becomes busy on a number of fronts. In one e mail account there may be orders or enquiries about sundials. Since giving up his company Piers has developed a business designing sundials. He has a lifelong fascination with them which he describes on one of his sundial websites Click the sundial to see his other website and examples of his work.
When Piers stepped out on his first Camino he had no idea that he would be inspired to start a pilgrim website which would become so popular, that his sundial business would flourish or indeed that one day he would be asked to give a lecture in Pamplona entitled, “The Sundials of the Camino to Santiago” in Spanish!
All of these things came to pass. When he returned from walking the first section of the Camino Francés to Logroño Piers started his website with a few of the photographs he had taken. He was surprised when he discovered people were visiting the site to look at the photographs so as his pilgrimage continued he posted more. And got more visitors. After the Camino Francés came the Camino Aragonés, the Via de la Plata from Salamanca, the Camino Portugues and the route to Finisterre. With each trip the web based photograph collection expanded. Piers is now proud that very soon people will be able to see photos of every main route on his website. All of this keeps him very busy and in fact the very day I met Piers at La Terazza he had been meeting local government officials from Catalunya to seek their support for his web site.

So between dispatching two or three sundials a week to customers in various parts of the world and spending around 2 hours a day on his pilgrim website Piers’ day whizzes past. He fuels this with a coffee at two hourly intervals accompanied by a ginger biscuit and lunch is often two sticks of celery, one with humus and the other with taramasalata, peppered mackerel and salad. This is followed by 2 pieces of chocolate. “Never three?” I enquire. “Always two” came the reply.
Most afternoons are punctuated with a 1 hour walk and Piers looks forward to his wife arriving home from work as he avidly avoids cooking. One other hand his wife is an excellent cook and he enjoys nothing more than when she cooks his favourite Steak au poivre. Piers reads a lot and proudly produces he E Book on which he can store several hundred books. He is currently reading short stories by H G Wells and recently read the Last Crusaders by Barnaby Rogerson. Whereas his wife relaxes by watching period detective mysteries such as Poirot and Sherlock Holmes it isn’t surprising to find that scientist Piers prefers programmes about Natural History. Nor is it surprising when Piers tells me that he goes to bed at 9.55pm and is asleep by 10pm.

Piers’ seemingly meticulously worked out daily routine apart our conversation over lunch touched on the nature of pilgrimage and the way it seems to get into the blood. We both reflected on our contact with established religions Piers having been brought up in a Jewish household. Then on the question of faith we both agree that we will be astonished but delighted if we meet each other in an afterlife. Several times in that conversation we touched on the impact of pilgrimage on believer and non believer, on the rational scientist and incurable romantic. Piers shares about the poem he was inspired to write on his pilgrimage. Here it is. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did talking to this fascinating pilgrim:

The Camino

When we started, we did not know - exactly - why we were doing it
We had lives which were - more or less - satisfactory
We had friends known much of our lives
We had children - changed from chrysalis to butterflies
We had things:
things like machines
things like music
things like pictures
things like shelves full of books
things like money and pensions and security
We did not have one thing - and maybe that was why we started

When we started, we put one foot in front of the other
We still did not know - precisely - why we were doing it
The miles passed - many of them pleasantly
Our feet blistered and were slow to heal
Our ankles turned on loose stones
The rain beat its way through our clothes
The cold chilled the marrow of our bones
Some nights, refuge was hard to find
Some days, miles of hot dust had no fountains

When the first few of many long days had passed
We found - without words - that we no longer walked together
That together we spoke in our own tongues
- and often of things we had left behind where we began
That together we shut out new experience with the wall of our togetherness
That alone we spoke in other tongues and of our common experience
That alone we were open - open with interest and curiosity.
Often we met - with gladness - at the end of the day
To know our paths went on together was enough

When we got to the cathedral we sat down
We saw - through the eyes of those long before us
The blinding faith, the crucial thirst for salvation
The tower slowly closing off the sky
And we counted our blessings - several hundred of them
Starting with the kindness of ordinary people on the way
And with the warmth of other travellers on the road
Travellers not at all like us - not in age, not in origin, not in interests
But warm across all these distancings
And ending with the friendship and love
We had left behind where we began.

When we got to the sea at the end of the world
We sat down on the beach at sunset
We knew why we had done it
To know our lives less important than just one grain of sand
To know that we did not need the things we had left behind us
To know the we would nevertheless return to them
To know that we needed to be where we belonged
To know that kindness and friendship and love is all one needs
To know that we did not - after all - have to make this long journey to find this out
To know that - for us - it certainly helped

Written near Sanguesa, Navarra, September 2003


  1. I also used Piers' site as the main resource for info on the camino. One day I decided to download all the questions and answers - over 400 - and create a FAQ page (Sylvia's page under Top Tips for walkers now needs updating and all the links need checking. Mmmm...? Another project for the project box!

  2. Yes Sil, I discussed this with Piers and I asked him if he wanted a few of us to revise the questions and answer with a view to coming up with a Practical Pilgrim A - Z. He said that he wanted the focus of his web site to be the photograph data base rather than more general information. Maybe all of this could be transferred to Ivar's site?

  3. I too have spent a lot of time on this site, and like you, particularly before my first camino. I still go back though -to look at the pictures or for a variety of other reasons - maybe mostly just to immerse myself in the memories at times when I am away too long. How nice to 'meet' Piers after all this time - and what a beautiful poem.
    Thanks Johnnie for all of your contributions to various sites. I really enjoy them. Cecelia

  4. Laurie Bryan Larson8 January 2014 at 16:06

    Hi Johnnie - Wanted you to know that this posting helped to answer a question on the American Pilgrim Facebook site about the authorship of this poem by Piers. Thanks and Buen Camino!!!