Just a few more months and I would probably never have realised my lifelong dream. These are testing times (March/April 2020) when we are living our lives according to rules imposed upon us by the Coronavirus. Perhaps it is time to calibrate our expectations, reflect on our good fortunes and celebrate the small stuff.
I have loved walking since my teens – mainly in the Peak District National Park, which I look on as my playground. Since retiring from my career in nursing, I have also relished walking long distance National Trails such as Hadrian’s Wall Path, The Cleveland Way and The Yorkshire Wolds Way. However, at the age of 76 years I thought my long-distance walking days were over! It was then that three friends, Marilyn, Nick and Karen, invited me to join them on the Camino Pilgrimage – planned for September 2019. I was overjoyed, and agreed in a heartbeat.
Even the planning stage was exciting. My husband Digby and I have worn Rohan clothing for many years, so deciding what kit to take was the easy part. Rohan did not fail me in providing the best in comfort, durability, suitability and security at every stage of my adventure. Along with my esteemed Tilley hat, I’d got it covered.
We practiced our walking capability in preparation for the pilgrimage by booking a cottage in the heart of the Peak District. On three consecutive days we embarked on day-walks in the surrounding area. It was challenging but fun, and afterwards we all agreed that the scenery around Lathkill Dale and Stanage Edge would be hard to beat.
Finally, the day came when we safely arrived in the historic city of Ourense, in Northern Spain. We had chosen to walk the Via de la Plata (less frequented route) over seven days. This 107 kilometre trail leads from Ourense to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela – believed to the final resting place of Saint James.
Left to right, Karen, Nick, Marilyn, Judith walking out of Ourense
My thoughts and feelings were a mixture of excitement and anxiety. “Could I do this? What had I taken on? I didn’t want to let anybody down – especially myself.” I saw this as doing something just for me, to find a peace and stillness, and feel at one with nature. Not necessarily a religious pilgrimage, but maybe a journey of self-discovery and fulfilment.
From the first day, and once out of the city, the walking proved to be a mix of steep, rocky paths and woodland trails; with expansive views over hills and valleys. This was a self-guided walk, supported by walking notes and maps. However, neither of these proved as useful as the yellow arrows, painted by hand on walls and tracks. We were always ecstatic to see one!
We had booked in advance to stay in family-run accommodation along the route, which included bed, breakfast and pilgrim’s dinner. Without exception we enjoyed good, wholesome, locally-sourced food (often sharing communal dishes), and exceptional hospitality.
One of my fears was losing or forgetting something vital such as passport, money, cards etc., or even my hat or poles; which would have been a disaster. This proved quite a concern when staying in a different place each night, with a different room layout. I quickly learned to think clearly and logically, and to trust myself – specially to get up in time every morning! My Trailblazer trousers were brilliant with lots of accessible, zipped pockets where I kept things safely and to-hand – even maps and snacks such as nuts and protein bars.
Early morning starts in the cool of the day soon became an established routine. – aiming to reach our next overnight-stop in time for a reviving shower before evening dinner. We soon discovered a mutual highlight was down-time at the end of the day, when we shared our personal highs and lows over a glass of wine. Struggling with weariness and having to find inner-strength to keep going was something we all experienced, albeit at different times. However, the joy of feeling immersed in the boundless expanse of the landscape, exceeded all our expectations.
Karen, Nick & Marilyn on ancient stone bridge
Marilyn, Karen & Nick after a tough climb
As we journeyed onwards, I became more thoughtful about the purpose and priorities of life and this journey – important things being reduced to food, sleep and fitness to walk. I became more confident, and began to enjoy the challenge of covering the distance. A spiritual sense of awe in the splendour of the sky and every detail of nature around us was almost palpable. I developed an increased awareness of sights, sounds and smells. Birdsong has always been there, but largely unnoticed; until I found myself living in the moment and not thinking what comes next.
On a remote section of track through woodland, we were enthralled to come across a pilgrim’s shrine – completely covered with icons, symbols and messages left by pilgrims. We paused here to reflect on the words and images left by those who had gone before us. Quite humbling – providing a sense of connection with nature and our forebears. It was also a perfect spot to take off our boots and cool our weary feet!
Judith at Camino marker post
Finally walking into the Cathedral square of Santiago de Compostela was our ultimate reward – purpose and ambition achieved. Along with pilgrims from all over the world we joined the Pilgrims’ Mass in the Cathedral, which proved to be a very personal and emotional experience.
The next two days we stayed in a luxury hotel, where we enjoyed a body massage to help our recovery, and relaxation in the garden. Sightseeing on our last day was more about appreciating al fresco eating and the awesome wonder at the architecture, than yet more walking!
Cathedral square through archway
Al fresco dining at journey's end
The pilgrimage was about more than walking. It was about sharing and learning, as well as connection with nature and fellow pilgrims. Personal fulfilment and peace achieved.
“Here I am wearing my Rohan walking dress – it’s at least 10 years old! I love it and wear it every summer.”
A guest article by Judith Parker Dixon. Read Judith’s full feature in Reflections Magazine, published January 2020.