On foot from Madrid to London
Brian Mooney navigates his way from the centre of Spain to the city of London.
I have become alarmingly medieval in my approach to pilgrimage, believing that a pilgrim walk is not complete without the return leg. My conversion was quite sudden. Having walked to Rome in 2010, on my return I was challenged by a friend who observed that pilgrims in the Middle Ages didn’t have the luxury of flying home. Two years later, I flew to Rome and squared the circle by walking back to my home in Coggeshall, North Essex.
On a similar whim I flew to Spain in the early summer of 2014. I had walked 2,300 kilometres from Walsingham to Santiago de Compostela in 2000, thereby linking two of the great medieval pilgrim shrines. It was time for the return trip. Spain was my home for many years – I worked there as a foreign correspondent for Reuters – and I decided to take a few liberties and make a somewhat indirect or roundabout trip home. Instead of beginning in Santiago, I would set out from Madrid. But even with such a devious or unorthodox route, for most of the way I found that I was never far from a familiar scallop shell waymark. Sooner or later in Western Europe, so it appears, all roads lead to and from Santiago.
Indeed for the first four days I followed what has come to be called the Camino de Madrid, the route that leads from the Spanish capital to Sahagún where it links up with the Camino Francés, the historic name for the main way across Spain from France to Santiago. I was in two minds about using my brand new pilgrim passport – the bright yellow booklet issued by the Confraternity of St James that had been so much my companion on the way to Santiago. I decided that fate would determine whether or not to use it, and so made my way from Barajas airport to the Iglesia de Santiago y San Juan Bautista in the heart of old Madrid. The church was open and a priest was in the sacristy preparing for morning mass. He readily offered to stamp my pilgrim passport and was happy for me to sit on a pew in the chancel and change into my walking boots. As I did so, I looked up at the retablo above the high altar – a striking painting of Santiago Matamoros. Setting aside the bloodthirsty sight of the Christian Saint slaying Moors, the image reignited my enthusiasm for the Spanish cult of St. James and gave my journey purpose and a sense of direction – even if I was slightly off course. I felt with the Apostle’s blessing, I could legitimately treat myself as a returning pilgrim.
A few steps from the church led me to the Plaza Mayor and then to the Puerta del Sol, the Piccadilly Circus of Madrid and from which all distances to and from the capital are measured. As well as a kilometre 0 stone in the pavement there is also a plaque on the walls of the former state security headquarters giving the height above sea level – 650.7 metres. I always walk with an altimeter, a useful check for navigation, and I re-set it in anticipation of the climb ahead over the Sierra de Guadarrama.
I relish the challenge of walking in and out of large cities, and particularly enjoy marking the changing tempo and the gradual transformation of the surrounding environment. Walking out of Madrid is very simple; turn left or north on the Paseo de Recoletos and keep going until you reach the Cuatro Torres, the four modern skyscrapers which now define the northern end of the city. Along the way I passed my old Reuters offices and a far more significant landmark in the year of the football World Cup – Real Madrid’s Bernabéu Stadium.
On reaching Plaza de Castilla, I was glad to have to hand an old Confraternity booklet that gives a useful step by step guide to a complicated section that involves crossing the ring road, a motorway and railway. This guide was first published in 2000 and has since been largely superseded by wonderful waymarking along the route put in by the Asociación de Amigos de los Caminos de Santiago de Madrid. Indeed once clear of the M40 and past the Fuencarral cemetery, the way enters open country and follows a succession of vias pecuarias, or drovers’ roads, with scallop waymarks and yellow arrows aplenty. I skirted the walls of El Pardo Palace, home of the former dictator General Franco, and set course across the plateau towards the granite wall of snow-capped mountains to the north.
I followed the Camino de Madrid for four days culminating with a magnificent stage crossing the Guadarrama Mountains on the Calzada Romana – the old Roman road – over the Puerto de la Fuenfría. The original paved stones and arches of three bridges remain intact because the route ceased to be used after the Bourbons drove another road across the range close by to serve their palace at La Granja. The Puerto is 1,792 metres above sea level and is the high point of the route from Madrid. At the top a bronze plaque on a rough hewn granite plinth commemorates José Antonio Cimadevila Covelo (1919-2001), a Galician who was the driving force behind the resurrection and waymarking of the Madrid route.
The way continues through natural pine forest until it suddenly opens out with distant views of Segovia and the vast plains of Castilla over which I would walk. I parted company with the Camino de Madrid the following morning at the 12-sided Knights Templar church of the Vera Cruz, just to the north of Segovia in the shadow of its fairytale castle. The way to Santiago was northwest; I was heading due north.
Crossing Castilla on foot was a revelation. The scorched red earth meseta is seemingly empty, but this once heavily populated country is teeming with life. With regular intervals I would descend little river valleys into another village, or a village would emerge in the distance from its earth-coloured camouflage, announced by a grain silo or the tower of its now oversized church, and invariably with a white stork or two nesting on top. Occasionally I would fall on a castle, an ancient river crossing or the ruins of long-abandoned windmills. I marvelled at the immense horizons, and never tired of the vast shimmering fields of ripening corn and the wayside carpets of red poppy, and flowering sainfoin, echium, mallow, crucifer and mayweed. The birdsong was almost orchestral, and for many days I was accompanied by the chirpy call of cuckoos.
My route took me through Peñafiel, a town dominated by its imposing castle, and the lush vineyards of the Duero Valley and then across the Provincia de Burgos stopping at Tortoles de Esqueva, Villahoz, Olmillos de Sasamón, Nuez de Arriba, Escalada and Corconte. I walked mainly on farm tracks and along mainly deserted country roads, and while the most ubiquitous sign was ‘se vende’, there were little other visible evidence that Spain’s economic crisis had impacted much on rural life. At each stop, I found a comfortable hotel or a casa rural.
Approaching Olmillos de Sasamón on a lonely provincial road a little way beyond the hamlet of Tamarón (the family seat of Spain’s former ambassador to London), I was suddenly aware of loud voices and shouting. Noise is a Spanish national product, but this was more strident and more persistent. On the brow of a hill I could see a long line of pilgrims making their way on foot and by bicycle along the broad ridge of the Camino Francés. I sat by a waymark where our routes intersected and watched this apparently ceaseless procession. A few walking pilgrims responded to my greetings and stopped to chat, but many were bent to the road, head down, charging onwards, driven by the piston action of their walking poles, seemingly oblivious to their environment. Viewed from that intersection between Hornillos del Camino and Hontanas, the Camino Francés has become a sort of long-distance racetrack – much changed from the tranquil uncrowded way I experienced in the early spring of 2000.
The flat meseta is left behind at the Ebro, and after winding through the hidden valley of Sedano, I began to climb the rocky gorges that lead into the Cordillera Cantábrica, which I crossed in swirling mist via the little pueblo of San Pedro del Romeral. At the top I found upland valleys of green fields bounded by dry stone walls dotted here and there with slate roofed farm houses – a landscape more reminiscent of Wales or the Pennines and a dramatic contrast with the parched land through which I had just walked.
My daughter Sophia, who lives in Santander, joined me for a wet day’s walk over the hills from Vega de Pas down to the coast where I was once again in ‘Camino Country’ – this time the Camino del Norte which takes a coastal route to Santiago. I followed it backwards, with occasional diversions on to the cliff top path, from Santander to Irún. I had chosen the toughest sections of the northern route, but the hardest part was not tackling the rugged hills but keeping track of the waymarks. Unlike the Camino Francés, the Camino del Norte is only waymarked in one direction. I was constantly looking out for arrows pointing the wrong way – not always easy when several paths converge in hillside woodland with an arrow strategically placed after the junction!
It was wonderful to share the route, albeit for only a few charged minutes, with so many other pilgrims. On average, I encountered about 40 a day – a large number from Russia. There were also Spanish, Canadians, Dutch, Italians, Germans, Americans, Poles, French, Mexicans and British. One of the most memorable encounters was with a Polish teacher from Kraków who had just come from Rome where she had attended the canonisation of Poland’s late Pope John Paul II. She thrust a card with a portrait of the Church’s newest saint into my hands; I like to think it gave me strength in those Basque Country hills. Another notable encounter, though for different reasons, was Tobin from Wisconsin, who was a self-confessed exile from the Camino Francés. He had started out on the Camino Francés but had peeled off in despair and taken a bus up from Logroño to join the Camino del Norte.
“The northern route is a lot tougher,” he told me. “But anything is better than that mad dash on the Camino Francés every afternoon to join the queue to get into the next hostal.”
The Camino del Norte involved a number of ferry rides across rivers, including a trip over the bay from Santander to Somo, but the best river crossing was on the venerable Puente Colgante over the River Nervión to enter Bilbao from Portugalete.
Leaving Spain, the glamorous French seaside resorts of Biarritz and Saint Jean de Luz provided a refreshing break from the hills and a chance for a brief rest as I readied for the pines and dunes of Les Landes. But apart from the heat, and at times the monotony, there is a very satisfactory walking route the entire length of the 300 kilometre forest. For nine days, from Bayonne to Soulac-sur-Mer, I followed the piste cyclable which runs all the way up France’s west coast. Part of it, in the heart of the forest from Lacannau Océan to Hourtin Plage, follows the old concrete motorcycle tracks which the Germans laid down in World War II to service their gun batteries on the shoreline.
There is also an official Compostela route through the forest, which criss-crosses and at times dovetails with the piste cyclable. This is the way which leads down from Mont-St-Michel and crosses the Garonne – sometimes known as La Voie des Anglais. I followed part of the Mont-St-Michel route after crossing the Garonne on the ferryto Royan as I made my way mostly on minor roads up to La Rochelle, Nantes and Rennes.
Skirting the Bay of Mont-St-Michel and heading for Avranches, I could no longer pretend that I was under the care of St. James. I took the ferry from Granville to the island of Sark and crossed the English Channel from Guernsey to Portsmouth.
From there I hiked over the South Downs to Midhurst and then over the Surrey Hills and North Downs to Guildford to join the Wey Navigation and eventually the Thames towpath. Fifty six days and 1,738 kilometres on foot from Madrid, I walked into the City of London along the Thames Embankment and took my final steps to the west door of the Christopher Wren church of St. James Garlickhythe in the heart of the City. I had ended up where I started – at a church dedicated to the Apostle St. James.
Brian Mooney, author and journalist, has written two books on his walks to and from Rome – A Long Way for a Pizza (Thorogood 2012) and The Wrong Way for a Pizza (Thorogood 2013).