A Pilgrim's Progress

Christian Turner

Two friends from York recently walked the medieval pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela to raise money for charity. 'Miles Walker' talked to one of them, Mr. Christian Turner.

"Arriving in Santiago was like being in a dream - we just couldn't believe it. The joy, the sense of satisfaction at having come that far left an inane grin on our faces for days. It was an out of body experience!" This was the enthusiasm with which Christian Turner described the completion of his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, site of the shrine of St James the apostle in western Spain. Along with Joel Burden, a fellow scholar of the Middle Ages, he took ten weeks to walk, between 10 May and 21 July this year, from Le Puy in the French Massif Central over the Pyrenees and across the width of Spain. In doing so they raised 7,500 for the charity for the homeless, Shelter. I met Mr Turner at his home in York to talk to him about his journey.

Elastic Length

"The walking was invigorating and beautiful," he said. "We met one pilgrim who had fractured his heel from the strain, and many others with weeping blisters and torn muscles; but we were very lucky and had no problems." The pair walked between 20 and 40 km a day (12-25 miles), stopping to see a wealth of cultural sites along the route. "It would have been possible to walk the twelfth-century route in about eight weeks" he explained, "but to do so would have been to rush it and so defeat part of the sense of the pilgrimage. Instead, time became very elastic, so that we lost track of what day of the week it was, and only thought as far ahead as the bed for that night, or the next meal. Somehow this seemed to put all the deadlines, schedules and hectic rushing about of life at home into perspective!"

Light Weight

Carrying small rucksacks with only one spare set of clothes, they were determined to keep the weight on their backs to a minimum: "it makes you realise how little you can survive with, and be content, in contrast to all the clutter we normally pile around us." They followed the route described in the twelfth-century Codex Calixtinus, helped by modern way marks painted on trees and stones along the way. They planned their itinerary to arrive at night in towns which had gites d' étapes, small hostels where they could stay. They also found refuge in monasteries and abbeys. The abbess of one nunnery near Cahors in France sent them to stay in the home of her sister, who fed and looked after them, refusing to take money in return. "The scallop shell [traditional symbol of the pilgrimage], which I had tied to the back of my rucksack, opened doors and smiles for us wherever we went", explained Mr Turner, "Cars flashed their lights and honked horns to wish us good luck; farmers asked us to pray to the Saint for them and in Pamplona a businessman paid for our breakfast in a bar without telling us." In Spain there is a comprehensive network of refugios, free hostels run by local communities exclusively for pilgrims. "Some are very basic, with cold water and huge dormitories, while others are relatively comfortable. There is no privacy though, and we quickly discovered that clicking fingers is a cure for thunderous snorers!"


This spirit of the Camino took the two travellers through diverse experiences. They found themselves moving from fiesta celebrations in the Spanish town of Burgos, to wild street parties, to a bull fight, to a monastic retreat at the Gregorian Chant Abbey of Santo Domingo de Silos in the space of a few days. "It left us quite dazed at times" he explained. "The Spanish have this paradoxical ability to display extreme religious devotion alongside drunken celebration. It feels as though we were exposed to 10 years' worth of experience in 10 weeks !"

Camino Camaraderie

In France they generally walked alone, only ever meeting a few other people at night, but once over the Pyrenees they encountered increasing numbers of pilgrims. "As we approached Santiago at the time of the great festival there were up to 100 people a night in the refuges. Many Spaniards try to walk only the last 100 km or so of the route and were surprised to hear how far we had come." This created a great sense of camaraderie, as they were joined by people of all ages and all types, from all over Europe and the world. "Not only did Joel and I get on very well together, but we made friends with 18 year old students from Germany, a 35 year old lawyer from Switzerland, a 17 year old Belgian criminal, sentenced to make the journey by his court, and a 60 year old French engineer, to name but a few." And why were they all doing it? "That is an impossible question to answer. There are such a variety of motives that some people don't even have a clear understanding themselves of why they are there. Many obviously have religious motives, keen to receive the Compostela [a certificate of pilgrimage which grants half the sinner's time off in purgatory] and we witnessed some astonishing displays of faith. Some people broke down in tears on arrival at Santiago. Other pilgrims had personal reasons, perhaps escaping from broken relationships or unhappiness at home; while many Spaniards were doing it simply as a vacation with their friends. As for me, it is equally hard to say. In addition to the fundraising, I have a sense of the journey's end being the journey itself, but ultimately I did it ... because I did it!"

End of the World

Evasive as this may sound, Mr Turner said that he did not feel that he had been changed in any dramatic way. "There was no road to Damascus revelation," he laughed, "but I do feel very enriched, if that doesn't seem too over the top." He explained that the final climax came at Cape Finisterre, literally finis terra, the end of the earth to medieval pilgrims. "When I arrived there, I finally realised that I had walked from the heart of the continent to the coast and that it was at an end. I wasn't sad to finish because to prolong it would have been to somehow diminish it. But as I sat there, watching the glorious sunset over the Atlantic, it did feel like being at the end of the world. Everything we had experienced together, all of the sites we had seen, flashed past like a tape in fast playback. The wonderful tympanum at Conques; the majestic Condestables chapel in Burgos; the meal which we shared with 18 French hikers in a cramped communal bread oven while sheltering from a storm; sleeping in a Roman villa; the aching shoulders and tired feet; the feeling of invincibility and strength to walk forever; the fountain of free wine at Irache; fording the river on the meseta plains; the intense heat and the rain; the swinging of the Botamfumeiro [a giant incense burner] and the celebrations in Santiago; the friends we had made; the moments forgotten; the different landscapes crossed. All of this came together in this last moment. And I finally realised that, at least for a while, I didn't want to walk anywhere!"

About the Author

Christian Turner is completing a D.Phil at the University of York in the English department and works in the Centre for Medieval Studies. His thesis looks at the reception of Plato and Neoplatonisms in late medieval English literature, and as most of Christian's research centres around Chaucer, medieval pilgrimage is not such a bizarre interest. He is twenty-five years of age and enjoys walking, Elvis Presley and custard tart, though not necessarily at the same time!

© Christian Turner 1997

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