One decision, 64.6 million* consequences
On June 23 this year the UK made one of the biggest decisions in recent history: to leave the European Union. The real consequences for the future of the country are as yet unknown, but the result (51.9 per cent voted leave, 48.1 per cent voted remain) has had a major impact since it became public, not only for British citizens but for those born outside the country who, according to the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, make up 13.1 per cent of the UK’s population.
The morning after the referendum everyone had an opinion on what had happened. Brexit will change the current rules and affect the lives of many. Laura Gran talked to people from different backgrounds to understand their reactions to the result.
*Office for National Statistics: UK population in 2014
Place of birth:
Occupation: Director of Professional
Development at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society
Catherine has lived in London for 28 years
“I was quite shocked to find that my family voted Brexit. I come from an Irish family, I have an Irish passport and am the child of immigrants, and very much a Remain voter, but I kind of understand it. The public in the UK is generally quite quiet and reserved but at the moment they are very angry with politicians. All the country feels that it is run too much from London, which is a very different place to anywhere else anyway. They feel unheard, they feel unlistened to, frightened about the world in general and about immigration specifically: the numbers of refugees and potential for more from places like Turkey. The translation of all of that into a referendum vote, which is a very simple ‘should we stay or should we go’, meant that those complex issues were not dealt with properly. So it is very insulting for many people to be called racist or ignorant or stupid if they voted to get out when they feel that they have reasons that are not racist, stupid or ignorant. We all have to have a think about that. My personal view is we are very very wrong to have voted that way. I feel we need to be part of Europe for all sort of reasons that include safety, security, the whole United Nations issues… We need to remember that Europe had wars before we ever had a European treaty.
Did it affect me emotionally? Very much so. I was really shocked on that day and I am probably still angry. I have Irish citizenship, I have an Irish passport, I have an EU passport and do not want a British one because I am Irish/European, which doesn’t mean I am not proud of Britain. I was born in this country but now Ireland has such a complicated problem, with the border and the peace treaty and all of that. They are going to have to put the border back in, which a hundred years ago caused a civil war. Even for my own family who live in Ireland, this is going to be huge. That as a consequence of this vote is massive. Everywhere there is an impact. I understand from a Spanish, Italian or French perspective Brexit feels big but actually even within the closest countries, this is very traumatic”.
María Jesús Rubio
and Robert Tkaczyk
Age: 33 and 35
María Jesús is Spanish and Robert is British
Place of birth: María Jesús in Ágreda, Soria (Spain) and Robert in London
María Jesús works for a PR agency and Robert works for a courier company
Location: The couple married in 2014 and live in London
María Jesús: “Cameron went to the elections promising a referendum and I think it is fair he did it. I do not think the timing was right. The result was emotionally shocking. I was not forced to move to London; I came here because it was easier and quicker than going to the United States to improve my English. Some British people think all European immigrants come to the UK because they are forced to, and that is not true. Perhaps we have better opportunities here in the way career paths go but we could also decide to move away and it would be a loss for the country. When British people go to Spain to live they call themselves ‘expatriates’, but they call Spanish people living here ‘immigrants’. That is arrogant to me.”
Robert: “I found it strange that they were willing to put the country at such an economic risk, and at the risk of losing all the best talent. For me the result is terrible. I woke up to watch the results and could not go back to sleep after Brexit was declared. I think if they go ahead with it, this country will get weaker and will isolate itself away for Europe and the rest of the world.
Brexit probably makes me more determined to move, I have seen a really unpleasant side to my own city: what people say, what people do, how they are treating each other… it is not somewhere to be happy right now. We have a problem with people who have a small island mentality.”
David John Sumpter
Place of birth:
Almería. David moved to Spain in 1985. He worked as Academic Head of various schools and colleges
“I do not think the result of the referendum will affect me personally in any way. I have been living here long enough to feel more Spanish than British. I cannot vote in general elections, but I have my pension, social security… I paid contributions for many years. I do not have dual nationality but I would apply for it if I felt it would be an advantage for me.
Sometimes some of my British friends living here in Spain ask me for advice, or practical help when the language barrier presents difficulties. I know from conversations with them that they have some concerns, especially in the area of healthcare. If Brexit were to affect health-care agreements between the two countries, they say that it might well influence their decision to live in or even visit Spain. Many of my (Spanish) ex-students are now local businesspeople. One, for example, is an estate agent, and has commented that Brexit has affected sales to British nationals. And those who put down a deposit on property prior to Brexit insisted on an extra clause in the contract giving them the right to back out and recover their deposit if the vote were to leave the EU.
There are others who work in the agricultural sector – the major business activity in Almería which, at certain times of the year, produces 70 per cent of the horticultural products consumed in the EU. The UK is a major customer. They are concerned that when the UK leaves the EU this may adversely affect these trade relations, which would have serious consequences on the area’s economy”.
Place of birth: Barcelona
Occupation: Founder of te.chie.la, an IT company he set up in London in 2015: https://te.chie.la/
Location: London, having moved with Telefónica in 2013 as a step forward in his career
“Although I had an indefinite contract, I came to London thinking I would be here for one or two years, just to improve my English, and after that I would go back to Spain. Now, though, I will not leave unless they kick us out – I guess I am comfortable here. I decided to set up my own company in the UK and not in Spain because of the legal regulations for self-employed workers. In the UK I don’t have to pay a cent if I do not have a turnover. I can also be an employee of the company and have my own salary as if I were a typical worker. In Spain I would have to pay my contribution, at least 300 euros a month, regardless of whether I earn money or not.
I agree with the decision to call a referendum because people should voice and define what they want, but I do not agree with the result. It was shocking. I think the referendum was more focused on racist propaganda than on economic figures, I am not sure people were adequately informed. At the beginning I took it badly and considered going back to Spain because I felt that the UK does not want us here. Brexit also worries me because I will need to hire people in my company and it will be difficult to do it if the UK closes its doors. What opportunities will there be in my sector if we need trained people and are not able to find them?”
Cristina Requena and Manuel Saiz
Age: 24 and 23
Place of birth: Caudete, in Albacete, and Cuenca (Spain)
Both recently graduated in Environmental Sciences
Status: They moved to London in March 2016 to improve their English
“Most foreign people who live in the UK get the jobs that British people do not want. If they wanted them, they would get the positions because they speak the language much better than us. I guess perhaps the British are tired of people who want to live here for the rest of their lives because they cannot earn a decent living in their birth countries. Perhaps they feel that we are an invasion… After the referendum I was scared of verbal abuse. I read on Twitter: ‘Europe rats, go back home’. One day on the bus the bus driver said to two girls: ‘If you are going to speak that shit language, go upstairs’. This kind of thing is shocking, but I hope things are calmer now.”
Manuel Saiz: “I have always considered English to be important in order to travel and to get a better job. We lived in London from March until May this year and will go back to the UK in October but to a smaller city, probably Manchester, because London is very expensive. I worked that period of time in the kitchen of McDonalds and none of my workmates were English so we learnt very limited vocabulary. The other problem is that we did not have the chance to make English friends so all the English we learnt was at work, in the supermarket or in dealings with the bank. The current situation does not affect me much because I do not plan to stay in the UK longer than one year.”
Two Anglo-Spanish friends, visual artist Sonia Boué and poet Jenny Rivarola, have produced a creative response to Felicia Browne’s short life. We explain their interest in her and introduce their upcoming Arts Council-funded exhibition: Through An Artist’s Eye.
Artist Sonia Boué first discovered the work of Felicia Browne at the Conscience and Conflict exhibition at the Pallant House Gallery in 2014, which focused on British artists’ response to the Spanish Civil War. She was immediately taken by her remarkable and unsentimental portraits of men and women innocently caught up in the brutality of war.
Her own work on the theme of the Civil War prompted Tate Britain to invite her to take part in a video to accompany their archive of Felicia’s drawings. Now, Sonia’s fascination with her artistic output and life story has grown into a creative project for which she recruited poet and friend Jenny Rivarola. Together they have produced a sequence of paintings and poems that respond to Felicia’s life and act as a tribute on the 80th anniversary of her death and of the outbreak of the Civil War.
Daughters of Spanish exiles
Sonia and Jenny’s commitment to the project has much to do with their own family backgrounds. Both are daughters of Spanish fathers who as Republicans were exiled from their homeland at the end of the war. Both young men endured hardship in the French concentration camps, and both were lucky to escape to England to begin a new life.
Sonia’s father José García Lora became a lecturer and academic at Birmingham University, amassing an extensive collection of exile literature and arranging for Camilo José Cela to receive an honorary doctorate there. Jenny’s father José Rivarola joined the BBC World Service and, under his broadcasting name Ruiz Medina, became the voice welcomed by Spaniards who turned to the Corporation for unbiased news during Franco’s regime.
Who was Felicia Browne?
This emotional connection to the Spanish Civil War has been an important influence in Sonia and Jenny’s project on Felicia Browne. The British artist was born in 1904 in the London suburb of Thames Ditton. After studying at the Slade School of Fine Art and in Berlin just before the Nazis came to power, she became politically active and dedicated much of her time to encouraging working women to fight for better conditions.
In summer 1936 she set off with a friend on a road trip to Spain. The exact purpose of their journey is not known. For Felicia, she certainly intended to paint and draw. And both were interested in the People’s Olympiad in Barcelona, planned as a counterpoint to the official Olympics in Hitler’s Berlin.
Neither knew that on their arrival in Barcelona in July, the Civil War would begin. Felicia volunteered to support the Republican cause and was shot by fascists during her first mission, while trying to help an injured comrade.
About the exhibition
The exhibition Through An Artist’s Eye, will lead visitors through seven key stages of Felicia’s life, from her origins in England to her tragic death near the Aragon front. Each stage is represented through a painting by Sonia and a poem by Jenny. Exhibited alongside will be some of Felicia’s own work and excerpts from the extraordinary letters that charted her fateful journey. The exhibition will include a video about the project.
EVENTS PROGRAMME & BOOKING
Friday 30 September 6.30pm
Marx Memorial Library, 37A Clerkenwell Green, London EC1R 0DU
Thursday 6 October 6.30pm
All Saints Church, Market Place, Kingston upon Thames KT1 1JP
Exhibition Opening Event:
Saturday 8 October 12.00 – 2.00pm
All Saints Church (Weston Green), Chestnut Ave, Esher KT10 8JL
The exhibition runs until October 29.
For more information and to book for an event, follow this link:
Supported by the Arts Council and the Instituto Cervantes London.
By Duncan Wheeler
In April 2016, the third-third edition of the academic cycle of Almeria’s Classical Theatre Festival took place in the neighbouring coastal resort of Roquetas de Mar. The brain child of secondary school teacher and theatre practitioner Antonio Serrano, the University of Almeria took on a more active role this year. Noelia Iglesias Iglesias, a rising star of a new generation of Spanish philologists championing a performance-based approach to Golden Age drama, co-ordinated the academic programme, complemented by the opportunity to watch a series of theatrical productions including Lope de Vega’s recently discovered play, Mujeres y criadas, staged by the Madrid based Fundación Siglo de Oro and co-directed by Laurence Boswell, former associate director at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
I was delighted to accept an invitation to deliver a keynote address on the casting of actresses in male roles in recent English- and Spanish-language productions of Golden Age drama. As a result of actresses being allowed to perform on the Spanish Early Modern stage, their classical tradition features a range and depth of female roles absent from the Shakespearean canon. There is, therefore, less of a perceived need for the kind of cross-dressing casting that has been increasingly prevalent in the UK over recent years; I am, for example, thinking of Maxine Peake’s performance as Hamlet in 2014. Having said this, the most commercially and critically successful Spanish production of a classical play to be staged in recent years had Almodóvar regular Blanca Portillo take on the role of Segismundo in Calderón de la Barca’s La vida es sueño, the play often referred to as “the Spanish Hamlet”.
A beautiful seventeenth-century castle hosting an exhibition of costumes made by Cornejo tailors for theatrical productions, television series and period films such as El perro del hortelano and Shakespeare in Love providing a fitting setting for convivial debate around the issues raised by the performance of classical drama in the present-day, alongside issues of theatrical exchange between Spain and the United Kingdom just days before the twin centenaries of the respective deaths of Cervantes and Shakespeare. Scholarships were provided for undergraduates from Andalusia’s state universities to attend, whilst we were collectively billeted in the Hotel Playacapricho. Honouring its name, it was the first and I fear last time I’ve seen bingo in the swimming pool coincide with spirited discussions on extant editions of seventeenth-century manuscripts. I certainly can’t envisage this happening in Stratford-upon-Avon anytime soon, more’s the pity.
Duncan Wheeler is Associate Professor in Spanish at the University of Leeds, and Visiting Fellow of St Catherine’s College, University of Oxford. His publications include Golden Age Drama in Contemporary Spain: The Comedia on Page, Stage and Screen (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2012). He is Hispanic Editor for Modern Language Review, and Series Editor of the book series Spanish Golden Age Studies for Peter Lang International Publishers. Jornadas de Teatro Clasico in Almeria
By Luis Martínez del Campo
From its origins in foreign policy to the educational, social and cultural focus of the present day, the BritishSpanish Society has a rich and varied history. In commemoration of the Society’s centenary, historian Luis Martínez del Campo takes us through the key moments from 1916 to 2016.
In the early 20th century, culture became a key component of international relations. Many countries realised how useful cultural propaganda campaigns were for diplomacy. France and the UK founded educational corporations to contribute to their foreign policies: l’Institut Français (1922) and the British Council (1934). The Anglo-Spanish Society (now the BritishSpanish Society) is an interesting example of how those pioneer institutions became involved in foreign affairs.
In 1916, the third centenary of William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes’ deaths, which were both in 1616, was commemorated as “another happy tie” between Spain and England. The governments of both countries scheduled events and implemented different projects to pay homage to “the two great literary glories”. As part of these celebrations, the Anglo-Spanish Society was founded to strengthen mutual understanding between the people of both nations. John Macdonald Mackay (1878-1961), Emeritus Professor at the University of Liverpool, became the principal promoter of the association. He implemented the project at the University of Oxford, where he could take advantage of the many contacts he had from his student years.
The next stage of the process for founding the association at a national level took place in London. On November 15, 1916, a meeting was held at the St. Ermin’s Hotel of Westminster. Key figures from leading British universities attended and a preliminary committee was appointed. King’s College London was well represented with two professors, Ronald Burrows (1867–1920) and Israel Gollancz (1863–1930), serving as Chairman and Honorary Secretary respectively. These two scholars sought businessmen who could support the Society. In April 1917 they appointed a provisional Executive Committee, chaired by Lord Latymer (1852–1923), a well-known Hispanophile.
The creation of the Society coincided with the Great War (1914–1918) and this conflict determined the purpose of the association. Its short term purpose was to garner the Spanish-speaking countries for the allied cause, but the Society also fostered British trade links with Latin America, at a time when the US dominated the Latin-American market. Therefore the association assumed two tasks, an economic one and a political one, in line with the Foreign Office’s policy for the Hispanic World. Although its aims were political and economic, its strategies were based on cultural understanding. This new organisation supported the teaching of Spanish language and culture in Great Britain through its branches in several universities and cities in England and Scotland. For this reason, many scholars and intellectuals (Professor James Fitzmaurice-Kelly, Ramiro de Maeztu, William Paton Ker…) joined the Society. Moreover, businessmen and bankers participated in the Economic and Social Section of the association, which endeavoured to put British entrepreneurs in contact with Spanish-American diplomats. Informal and formal meetings were held to bring together different agents who were involved in British trade with Spanish-speaking countries. The Chilean diplomat Agustín Edwards Mac-Clure (1878–1941), who was honorary president of the general headquarters of the Society since 1919, was one of the promoters of these gatherings.
The Society was established to support British foreign policy during the Great War, but functioned most effectively in peacetime. The end of the conflict brought stability for the institution, which carried on even when its ties with the Foreign Office were cut. The association had already started to grow, setting up branches in Oxford, Cambridge, Liverpool and Glasgow. Most of these regional branches were linked to universities in order to accomplish the Society’s educational mission. For instance, the association contributed to the founding of the King Alfonso XIII Professorship of Spanish Literature, which was established officially at Oxford University in 1927.
The Society was restructured during 1924 to 1925, the main purpose being to ensure its stability and continuity. Nevertheless, activity was minimal and the organisation’s branches grew apart from the London headquarters. The decline of the institution came in the late 1920s, particularly during the Great Depression in 1929. The Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Council assumed the functions of the Anglo-Spanish Society, which reduced its activities in the late 1930s. World War II caused the end, with a dissolution of the Society in 1947. Henry Thomas (1878–1952), a well-known Hispanist and librarian at the British Museum, became the last chairman to hold the post at that time.
In 1950, an Anglo-Spanish League of Friendship was founded, but its dynamic was different from the Anglo-Spanish Society. It was no longer intimately related to the British Foreign Office, but rather it followed the policy articulated by the Spanish Embassy in London, leaving the subject of Latin America aside. Another important change was the creation of the Quarterly Journal, which was introduced in August 1951. Among the Spaniards who helped to found the League was Mabel Marañón Moya (1918–2008), daughter of the doctor Gregorio Marañón. Although she did not hold a political position, Marañón Moya’s contribution was essential in the creation of this new association.
During its first stages, the League faced many financial problems and, under the influence of Spanish diplomacy, its activities were politicised. Everything changed in 1958. In that year the League was rebranded as the Anglo-Spanish Society, but, above all, the association was creating its own socio-cultural space, where members have interacted for decades. John Balfour (1894–1983), a former British Ambassador to Madrid, was appointed chairman. He and other members created a stable administrative framework.
In the 1960s membership increased progressively, corporations sponsored the association’s activities and its finances were much more stable. These improvements allowed members to schedule a great number of social events and to promote Spanish culture in London, which became the Society’s field of action in the second half of the 20th century. Without doubt Nan Baxter, honorary secretary of the association from 1956 to 1977, was a key driver of the Society’s success in this period.
The end of the dictatorship and the transition to democracy in Spain had a significant impact on the Anglo-Spanish Society, which was updated to better deliver on its mission. The Society was committed to its educational and social aims, but at the same time it started a legal process which would enable it to become a registered charity, that is, a non-profit organisation with philanthropic goals. In this last period, members pursued exclusively pedagogical and cultural objectives through events, publications and an important scholarship scheme for students, scientists and artists from both Spain and the UK. The association was modernised in many ways, for example, women were progressively involved in leading the organisation. In 2009, Denise Holt became the first woman to hold the Chair position. In addition to this, Jimmy Burns, the current chairman, contributed to the launch of the Society’s new magazine: La Revista, which is now edited by Amy Bell.
The history of the BritishSpanish Society perfectly exemplifies the importance of cultural elements in foreign affairs and particularly in the evolution of British-Spanish relations throughout the 20th century. The Society has lasted because it has adapted over time. Far from being obsolete, the institution is still in good health after 100 years and hopes to continue in its mission to promote “friendship and understanding between the people of Britain and Spain” for a long time.
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).