When someone close to us dies we grieve. And that grieving can take many forms. We cry, of course. We cross the earth to attend their funeral. We put together collections of photos of the departed one. Maybe of their writings. Sometimes we run. And maybe we’ll walk, ‘in remembrance of’ them. And in my experience there is an urgent need to do some or all of these things in the first year after the person has died. By year, I mean, the actual 12 months. I know from my father’s death that the first year was ‘special’ and the grief did not end at the one year point, but the marking of that year was important. You go through a cycle of grief because you pass ‘this time last year’ moments so often. Anniversaries arrive and catch you unawares, a birthday, the last time you were together; these moments have significance, especially so in the first year.
Of course the person I am thinking about this year is Rachel – it’s her birthday soon. And I’ve been thinking about doing a walk that would be like a pilgrimage – for Rach. For me. Yes I want to walk with Rachel, my beloved friend who died in February. And I have a feeling of ‘If I don’t do it now I may never do it’. It’s the grief, I know. A deeply personal need to in some way still be ‘with’ the one who has died. And I was wondering if you might like to walk with me?
So… this summer I’ve been entertaining fantasies of walking El Camino de Santiago de Compostela (also known in English as The Way of St James) in Northern Spain, maybe in October when the weather is cooler. It’s 485 miles (780km) in total from the start in France to the cathedral in Santiago in Spain, although you can walk part of it, or walk it in sections. So, nearly 500 miles? On foot. Why? Well, it started after I’d watched the film ‘The Way‘ starring Martin Sheen (Jed Bartlet from the TV series West Wing). He plays a father who doesn’t understand why his grown son has given up everything and gone to Europe to ‘find himself’, and they part angrily. Several months later the father ends up following his son to retrieve his ashes…. he’s died on the Camino in a storm. And so, of course, with it being Hollywood, Martin Sheen has a revelation and well, of course proceeds to walk the Camino himself and experiences enlightenment along the way, plus meets other ‘pilgrims’ and they talk about why they are walking and deeper questions about life. It’s well-filmed and has a great sense of place, but is also done without sentimentality. One of those films that makes you say, as the credits roll, ‘Mmm, I fancy going there.’
I’ve since mentioned it to a few people, some of whom have heard of the Camino, who have desires to walk it themselves. But it’s a big commitment, at least to walk it all. If you walk it in one go, it’ll take you about 40 days. On foot. Carrying all your possessions, well that is all your two pairs of socks and a change of underwear. Staying along the way in primitive ‘refugios‘ in dormitories. So to a lipstick-wearing, self-confessed co-ordinated dresser (ie me) does that still sound attractive?
Well, sort of. The desire to walk is very strong. So, during our recent camping trip, thanks to a bout of rain that lasted about, oh let me think, from Friday night and still raining on Sunday morning (when we decided to leave), I read Tim Moore’s Spainish Steps. His personal memoir of walking El Camino with a donkey. Yes, you read that right, with a donkey. A burro. He uses the donkey to carry his possessions as he, like me, doesn’t fancy carrying them himself. Ronnie got me this book out of the library after seeing me perusing various websites about Camino de Santiago – there’s lots of people out there writing about it. Ronnie said he thought the book might give me some idea of what it’s really like. Like hot. Like long. Like foot-washing your clothes in the shower each day and pinning your socks to your rucksack to dry them. Hmmm.
But, many people do walk the Camino. In 1985 there were 2,500 people did, and by 2005 it was nearly 100,000. And these figures are only the people who ask for a ‘Compostela’ which is a Catholic thing (a piece of paper) you can get at the cathedral in Santiago. Something to do with time off purgatory, but of no interest to a heathen like me.
However, the idea of pilgrimage intrigues me. Wikipedia describes a pilgrimage as:
‘a journey or search of moral or spiritual significance. Typically, it is a journey to a shrine or other location of importance to a person’s beliefs and faith, although sometimes it can be a metaphorical journey into someone’s own beliefs.’
So, as I am not a Catholic the Camino pilgrimage seems to me less attractive, although many non-Catholics do make the journey and find meaning in it. I wonder about me though. Realistically. Could I walk that far. On my own? Readers will know that Ronnie and I regularly do a Friday walk – Ronnie writes about them on the ‘a sense of place‘ blog. And Ronnie’s written here, on this blog, about why we walk. As Jay Griffiths says: ‘…. all you need to do is put your boots on and walk. But walk you must.’
Our walks are usually five to six miles long on varying terrain. But if we walk further, even with a light day pack, well, I can’t walk too far without experiencing knees that complain, without discomfort and aching in my right shoulder and chest (both the result of breast cancer treatment involving multiple surgeries and early menopause). Oh don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. I’m very, very glad I can walk as much as I can. That I can be relatively active. To be frank, that I’m well enough to enjoy walking.
So I finish Tim Moore’s book and I wonder about the Camino. If I could do it, if I would need a practice run. As it happens our camping trip has been cut short due to rain, or more specifically, the mud that we are now surrounded by which is getting into everything; and so we’ve packed up and come down to Grange-over-Sands for the afternoon, before we head back to our home in Liverpool. We’ve not been here before, it’s in an area now marketed as ‘The Lake District Peninsulas’, so it’s outside the actual National Park – but still staggeringly beautiful, and – even better – it’s coastal. We find the path which sneaks under the railway station and emerge onto a promenade which opens out across miles of estuary and sand with distant views across Morecambe Bay. ‘Ah,’ we say, ‘that’s better – coast.’
Although the scenery of the Lake District is magical and truly spectacular – mountains and lakes – this is so refreshing, so comforting, so open.
And, I notice a sign which tells me we are on the Cumbria Coastal Way. 180 miles of coast. Maybe this is the practice walk I need? It’s relatively flat; it doesn’t rise more than 300 feet (100m) along it’s length. When I think about the 4,000 feet (1,200m) elevations on the Camino (several of them) that I’ve just read about, and remember our ascent of Helvellyn (England’s third highest mountain) at 3,000 feet (950m) last summer, I can only recall the agony in my knees which lasted for ages. I felt a mild sense of achievement of having ‘climbed’ so high. But really, in all honesty, I prefer the coast. Our Friday walks all involve some coast, or river, or estuary. I like it here, down at sea level.
And when we are back home we talk more about the Cumbria Coastal Way. It follows the coast from Lancashire, around Cumbrian peninsulas with the wide open estuary views. It’s easy to walk in short sections, or even use the train or bus to do some parts. It has plenty of delightful towns along the way – like Grange – places to stop for lunch or to stay in B&Bs or hostels. In fact, it has everything I’m looking for. The essence of what I wanted from the Camino – what is it that I wanted out of that? I wanted to walk. With mindfulness. I wanted to walk and remember Rachel, who died this year. I wanted to mark this significant time in my life. The loss, the memory. I wanted to walk imagining Rach might have walked with me. She so longed to visit me in Britain. As her illness progressed and each incident made it seem that flying was out of the question I joked that she could get the QE2 over here. ‘I will Sarah,’ she said. And when her beloved Anthony told me she had been looking at the timetable before she died, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I know that I would have loved showing Rach some of these places, of west coast Britain, the places I love.
And so I will walk here for the joy of knowing Rach. And if you want to come, you’d be very welcome. Seriously. This walk is open to all. It’s accessible, just a train ride from Liverpool. We can walk the southern part and then cut back across the Lakes through gorgeous Eskdale and get the train back to Liverpool. And then, optional walks over on the Dee Estuary, or a visit to Penny Lane and Plot 44, to visit the Wollemi Pine I planted in memory of Rachel.
How does mid-September suit you?