I began writing a novel about the Camino in the summer of this year, but haven't looked at it for several months. Now I realise that it's seriously flawed and needs rethinking entirely. Oh, well. Who ever said writing was easy? I've salvaged a few sections . . .
I’d first heard about the Camino several years earlier. I’d been walking the Pennine Way and had booked my final night in a B&B close to the Scottish border. There I’d met another hiker, a merchant seaman called Martin. Martin used to spend months at sea, followed by equally long non-working periods on dry land. At first he had passed this ‘holiday’ time like many young men with cash in their pockets — drinking, taking drugs, lying on beaches, picking up girls. Then one day it struck him that he was bored and wasting his life. A magazine article about the Camino he’d picked up in a dentist’s waiting room piqued his curiosity. He went to bookshops and libraries, discovering more and more about this old pilgrim route. He was hooked. From that moment on he spent much of his free time trekking these ancient trails. He found that there was not just one but a whole network of paths criss-crossing Europe and beyond. And the more he researched and walked these paths, the more he realised that caminos existed anywhere you wanted them to be. There were caminos in every country and in every culture, caminos across time and through space — even caminos in the mind and in the heart . . .
The story of the Camino goes something like this . . .
After taking Christianity to the Spanish, the apostle James returned to Judaea, where he was tortured and beheaded by Herod Agrippa in 44 AD. According to the legend recounted by various anonymous authors of the 12th-century Codex Calixtinus, and later by French scholar Aymeric Picaud, some of James’s disciples shipped the body of the martyr back to Spain, but their boat sank in a storm just off the northern coast. The undamaged corpse was washed ashore covered in scallop shells — the scallop shell ultimately became a potent symbol for the Camino — and was buried in a secret place. Centuries later a hermit called Pelayo saw a star shining directly over the spot. A bishop called Teodomiro had the site investigated, soon identifying it as the apostle’s tomb. This was a shrewd and farsighted move, promising much future revenue for the church. A chapel was built there, which later became a cathedral, and a city grew up around it, which was named Santiago de Compostela — ‘Santiago’ meaning ‘St James’ and ‘Compostela’ meaning ‘Field of the Star’.
During the Middle Ages, Santiago was celebrated as one of Europe’s holiest shrines. Routes led here from all parts of Europe. The four most well-known paths through France to the Spanish border started in Paris, Vézelay, Arles and Le Puy. It was in Le Puy, of course, that I had begun my own journey. The Reformation and the Black Death put an end to this enthusiasm for pilgrimage for a while, though a trickle of penitents continued to flow. Then, four hundred years later, in the mid-1980s, pilgrim numbers began to rise again, and they have carried on rising ever since. So, this year, perhaps thousands of hikers, pilgrims, tramps and vagabonds had already passed this way before me, vanishing into the dust. Or at least disappearing into the next bar . . .