Thursday, 9 December 2010


I haven’t written to you for a while. I’m afraid I have been preoccupied with other things. A few weeks ago I lost a friend and it has had quite an effect on me. I've been thinking a lot about the nature of friendship and the place that friends have in my life. I’ve also been remembering the people that I've met through the pilgrimage routes to Santiago, a few of whom I suspect will be life-long friends.

When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste:
Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
And weep afresh love's long since cancell'd woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish'd sight:
Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er
The sad account of fore-bemoaned moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before.
But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.
William Shakespeare Sonnet 30 

I don’t make friends easily and I don’t go out looking for friends. I understand what people mean when they say that they are looking forward to their pilgrimage “because of all the wonderful friends they will make along the way” but my first choice would usually be to walk one of the less travelled routes where meeting other pilgrims is the exception rather than the rule. Of course it is great to meet other people at the end of a day’s walking; to have dinner and chat about the adventure. However I rarely come home with a pocketful of email addresses.  I suppose I am a person with a very few really good intimate friends and a larger network of acquaintances.  I could count the close friends on one hand probably. They are the people who I might not see for a considerable time but when we get together it is as if we have never been apart. They are the people who have no expectations of me save that I will just be myself.  They are the people who dare to laugh at me and when they do I usually join in. They are the people with whom a friendship is an adventure because we are prepared to share together the triumphs and the real tragedies that occur in all of our lives. I think most of all we are friends because we won’t ever demand anything of each other save our friendship. 

Remembering, how we two walked
The roads to Santiago
How simple was the life we lived
How good the friends, how clear the way
The feelings deep, the troubles halved
A milestone on the road of life,
So many miles that stay with us
Those roads to Santiago

It’s true, it changed so many things
It made us care in different ways,
We shared that life, it made us new
Camino then, Camino now
Remembering still, how we two walked
The roads to Santiago
Roads to Santiago  Cristina and Paul Spink

In many ways the pilgrimage routes to Santiago are like friends to me now. As time goes on we are getting to know each other more closely. The routes are always there. They are full of promise and always bring something new. They expect nothing except that we walk them. They don’t even demand that we walk them to the end. Just that we start.  Increasingly, because of the Guides, people write to me when they are planning their pilgrimages. I feel privileged to have the e mail exchange with them because it is full of their excitement and questions. I get to see their plans change and develop over time until eventually the plane tickets are purchased and I send a final “Buen Camino “ email.

Sometimes I am a little concerned at the expectations they have of themselves and the Camino. I was very much like that myself. I used the programme at the web site Godesalco and worked out the stages I was going to walk on the Via de la Plata. Blisters put paid to that plan and I had to adjust to the realities of the pilgrimage. In doing so I slowed down, built stamina and began to enjoy the pace which emerged. On a few occasions in the last couple of years pilgrims have set out and I have either never heard from then again or I have received a plaintive email where they explain that they had to give up usually for a physical reason. The sense of failure from them is palpable. Yet, I don’t recognise the language of failure when it comes to pilgrimage. For me it isn’t like that: the difficulties, the illness, the injuries, the “giving up” are all part of the experience and learning the Camino brings.
Pause for reflection, Montes de Oca - Michael Krier
One winter I was on the Camino Frances and the weather was dreadful. I looked at the weather forecast and saw that there were to be three weeks of continuous rain ahead. As I walked along a rain sodden path a younger pilgrim passed me. He turned and we had a few brief words before he set off at a much faster pace than me.  The next day as I approached Villafranca de Montes de Oca, 40 or so kilometres from Burgos the rain beat down all day. I felt I was in danger of the recurrence of a serious chest infection from which I had only recently recovered. Hot and wheezy the next morning I checked the long range forecast again: rain, rain, rain. I made the decision to take a bus to Burgos, on to Madrid and then home. Luckily I only had an hour to wait and the people in the bar directed me to the third lamppost past the church which was the bus stop. I stowed my rucksack with the rest of the luggage when the bus arrived and got on. No sooner had I sat down, after removing my hat and rain gear when I turned to see who was tapping my shoulder. It was the young man who had passed my on the path a day or so before. “This is too much” he gestured out the window to the storm we were driving through.  This was Daniel from Malaga who had always wanted to walk to Santiago. We then went on to have a long conversation about pilgrimage, life, politics, God, walking…and when we might be back on the route when it was drier.

I hadn’t seen my friend who died for some time. Quite a long time in fact. As it turned out we ended up living in different parts of the country. I bumped into him earlier in the year at Heathrow Airport. I was leaving as he was arriving. We only had a few minutes together. We both crammed the events of the intervening time into those minutes and of course we promised to be in touch soon. A ruptured aneurysm in his brain removed that option for both of us. He was years younger than me and this was a shock. But in the sadness there is much to celebrate. His short life was well lived. Full of hilarity and pathos his professional success only endeared him more to people he knew. His passing is a lesson.
So, over the next few months I’m putting plans in place to make a big change marked by a big pilgrimage. The notion has been in the air for some time. I now have the courage to do it. I think.

Can I give up everything and just walk a path and see where it takes me? I’ll let you know.   


  1. Intriguing Johnnie! When will we know from where to where?

  2. Johnnie, I am sorry to hear of the early death of your friend. Yesterday I went to a funeral for the father of a former workmate, who died 'too early'. I never knew the man well, but came to know so many precious things about him from the tributes. But the most precious thing of all was the presence of his three year old grand-daughter. The photo they had put on the 'order of service' was of this man holding his grand-daughter. The looks on both their faces was of complete joy and peace in each others' company. That photograph was better than the finest-written epitaph.

  3. Sorry to hear of your loss..... good friends are a treasure for sure. May your memories comfort you. LOVE, Lillian
    PS.... clarify for me "big pilgrimage"?

  4. That does sound intriguing, Johnnie! We await further details in breathless anticipation.

    'I don't recognise the language of failure when it comes to pilgrimage.' Yes, I like that.

  5. It all gets more intriguing- new blog design ready for....what?!

  6. I identify with everything in this post and look forward to hearing about, and following, your big pilgrimage!

    Thank you for this wonderful, informative blog!

  7. A quote I found today that might apply:
    "Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go."
    -- T.S. Eliot

  8. Johnnie, I'm so sorry for your loss. Good friends are a treasure.

    I love your blog, and with the others, I wait with baited breath news of your next "BIG" walk!