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The pilgrims I've seen in my time here grip their walking poles with a steadfast determination

As we move from the fierce rays and heatwaves of summer our roads will soon be dotted with a familiar sight.

Les Pelerins – the pilgrims – marching their way through the prescribed villages stretched all around here.

Of course, there were many who ignored the enervating earlier temperatures and strode out through the months of July and August.

I'd see them, sweat-stained and weary, often slumped by the ditches, gulping bottles of warm water, eyes glazed as they contemplated their folly.

But most, wisely, choose the cooler months to wend their way the hundreds of miles over the Pyrenees to the dominating cathedral in Santiago, in north-west Spain, where the bones of the Apostle, St James, lie in a silver casket.

According to legend, his remains were taken there by sea from Jerusalem after coming ashore at Finestere before being interred in the area, which became Santiago de Compostela.

The discovery of the tomb in 830AD came at a handy time, as Muslims and Christians fought for the conquest of Spain. It provided a focus for reigniting Christian zeal in the battles that were a mere forerunner of the Crusades.

And for more than a thousand years men and women have tramped the Way of St James, to approach the last few metres on bended knee before his final resting place.

By the 12th century the shrine ranked with Rome and the Holy Land in importance, With a belief in indulgences – basically a get-into-heaven-free card with a shorter stopover spell in Purgatory – the early pilgrims came with a hope for eternity or a deep need to purge earthly sins.

Once they came dressed in rags to signify their worthlessness; the scallop shell sign of the holy traveller tied around their necks, giving them protection from brigands who feared the wrath of God more than the wrath of man.

The shell also conferred the responsibility of hospitality and aid from all on their many routes through France, Portugal and Spain.

Now they come in clothes scientifically created to breathe in tune with the atmosphere and not place a burden on the body. A miracle in itself. Their feet are nursed in lightweight walking boots and soft woollen socks – no longer bare in chafing leather sandals or wooden sabots.

The rough hospices and refuges along the routes have been replaced by welcoming hostels and cheap rooms; the hunks of bread and goat's cheese by three-course specials with wine. Rarely are they ripped off.

Today, those who walk even part of the Way are often not intentionally on a spiritual quest, yet it appears for many the journey turns into that.

Last year almost 200,000 souls were recorded as completing the journey. Countless others were dippers – those who did stages, intending to complete bit by bit over years to come. All have their stages recorded in a passport, stamped at each official point along the route.

The pilgrims I've seen in my time here – in the stamping places of Auvillar and Moissac for example – have been mainly middle-aged and over, both men and women. They have the lean, muscular legs of keen walkers, and grip their staffs or walking poles with a steadfast determination.

A lot travel alone, shouldering huge backpacks that bow them down, and as I pass them I make up fanciful reasons for their journey. All involve tragedy and atonement as in the early days.

Perhaps it is only the semi-retired and retired – the so-called baby boomers – who can afford the time to walk and contemplate in these aggressively driven times. With no demands any longer of work or children they can seek out the esoteric: the path less travelled in package terms; the experience of following in the footsteps of a simpler, truly God-fearing people.

Occasionally I see men and women whose shuffling gait and drenched bodies make me fear for their survival. Perhaps they are the Sunday strollers who are still trying for something more.

Children, teenagers, I have never seen – but then perhaps to undertake the Way of St James one has to have some deeper need than the mere pleasure of achievement.

Writing this I'm almost tempted to make a plan, to find a purpose. Have I stumbled across my next mission in life?

Maybe if I started to walk around my roads and build up the mileage daily, then come, say, May, I'd be ready to take up my staff, sling a scallop shell around my neck and head south-west.

I almost feel a quiver of excitement at the thought of such a voyage. Through the mists I see myself striding out, growing leaner and, hell, taller too – a radiant glow around my form as an angelic choir swells its chords behind me.

I'm going to lie down now. This too will pass. n

cookfidelma@hotmail.com

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