Our journey began at the statue of Hemingway in Pamplona
I had a great adventure just over a year ago and I intend to write a book about it. At present it’s a book without words, just illustrations. I’m not a natural writer, and my first novel The Other Things came out of a scrapbook of doodles which guided me through the story.
In late 2020 I walked the Camino Frances de Santiago de Compostela with my partner Kath and two great friends, Botts and Nancy. There’s a map of Spain on our wall with a network of caminos, resembling a diagram of the vascular system, converging on the city of Santiago de Compostela in the province of Galicia. Running inland below Spain’s northern coast is an orange line which threads itself across The Pyrenees and through the great cities of Pamplona, Burgos, Leon and Astorga. The Camino is a pilgrimage, one of the three major Christian paths taken to shed your sins and earn you a ‘get out of purgatory free’ card. The others are in Rome and Jerusalem.
It had been a year in a kind of purgatory already, we had been through the first lockdowns of Covid-19 and had almost given up on our planned walk, until the late summer when the Camino had reopened and a semblance of normality returned. Not that things felt normal. We flew out in late September to join the route in Pamplona and I vividly recall the extraordinary emptiness of the airport as we clattered through the empty concourse to our gate.
Our journey began at the statue of Hemingway in Pamplona and, with the prospect of six weeks walking the 450 miles to our destination, the time ahead felt endless. As we gradually advanced, the shadow of the virus hovered over our route. Rather than the usual 300,000 pilgrims, only 30,000 would make it that year. We watched the news of local restrictions as fishermen do the weather. We missed out on a locked-down Leon, and Santiago shut the day after our arrival.
Saint James (Santiago) was a fisherman, which is why pilgrims traditionally tie scallop shells onto their packs. He walked this track two millennia ago to take his ministry to the Druidic heartlands in Galicia. The path is so ancient it makes one pause to wonder whether Santiago would recognise the drift of the landscape or ate the grapes and figs which refreshed our route.
We didn’t take the route through a religious compulsion, but it would be difficult not to be changed by the experience. Everyday for six weeks there was a new horizon – a feast for the eyes – and nothing to do but walk, eat, drink wine and sleep, which certainly gives you time to think. I’ve finished the first eight watercolours to guide my writing, and maybe this article is the start of swapping paintbrush for pen, and putting it to paper.