The Road to Santiago: a Sponsored Cycle from Liverpool to Santiago de Compostella (N.W. Spain)

At last, here are some details about last summer's grand adventure....
In August 2006 I undertook my eighth multi-day sponsored cycle since 1992 with the intention of raising money for a new secondary school, Monsignor Hanrion College, run by my order (the De La Mennais Brothers) in Mango, Togo (W. Africa). This school just opened last year and is badly in need of resources. The Head Teacher there is a good friend of mine, Brother Romain Somoko. We studied together during our first year of training to be Brothers in 1990 and he was our order’s first Togolese Brother.

Monsignor Hanrion College, Mango, Togo.

Pupils from Monsignor Hanrion College.

Having had wonderful experiences hiking and cycling on parts of the Santiago de Compostela pilgrims’ route in France and Spain during my summer holidays going back to 1998 (solo or with a French Brother friend of mine), I decided to retread some of those paths but this time cycle solo from Liverpool to Portsmouth, down through France and across northern Spain to Santiago in the far north-western Spanish region of Galicia. Santiago de Compostela was, during the Middle Ages, the third most important pilgrimage site, after Jerusalem and Rome. Legend has it that Santiago (or St. James), the patron saint of Spain and the first Christian martyr, is buried in Santiago. The Apostle James, brother of John, was beheaded in Jerusalem in 42 AD, and his remains were reputed to have been transported by his disciples to be buried near where Santiago is situated, on the northwest coast of Spain. James is meant to have come to evangelise Spain, but returned to Jerusalem after a seemingly unsuccessful stay. Stories of the discovery of the Apostle's tomb in the 9th Century brought pilgrims from around Europe, and the "Camino de Santiago" (the Way, Path or Road to Santiago) soon became the most important Christian pilgrimage of the Middle Ages due to the Muslim occupation of Jerusalem.

The “Glory Door” of Santiago de Compostella cathedral, with St. James at the bottom in the centre.

Today the Camino is still being travelled by thousands of people each year, hundreds of thousands even. Their reasons for undertaking the pilgrimage vary greatly, but having talked to many people on the Camino during my own pilgrimages, they all seem to find it a very fulfilling and in many cases life-changing experience. But what, I hear you say, is a pilgrimage? Well, a pilgrimage is a long journey or search that may be of great moral and/or religious significance to those who take part. Generally, it is a journey to a sacred place or shrine dedicated to a particular holy person, with the aim of achieving some kind of personal spiritual purification or of offering one’s efforts in prayer for a sick person or some other cause: in my case to raise money for our school in Togo.
I am personally very interested in the whole idea of “pilgrimage”, especially the idea of “walking with” people on their way through life. It is an idea that is at the centre of what it means (to me, at least) to be a religious Brother: someone who is a “brother” to the people they meet and share their life with. This is also a popular theme with Christian writers who often talk about life as being a pilgrimage on our way to God, one that we share with others whom we meet on our path, pilgrims together helping and supporting each other. The actual ride itself went like a dream, completing it as planned on Aug. 29th (1,481 miles in 15 + half days). Just the one puncture, no other mechanical problems and no injuries. I had been greatly aided in my preparation for the ride by my friend Adrian Fitzsimmons (SFX Parents’ Association) who took me to his gym for weights work once a week for about 3 months before the ride. This complemented my Sunday training rides in North Wales and Cheshire with my club, Birkenhead North End.
I stayed in four Brothers’ communities en route (Southampton and three in France) where I met up with many old friends of mine, a monastery in central France and pilgrims’ hostels in France and Spain.

Mont St. Michel on the north-western French coast, one of the many ancient starting points for pilgrims.

If you register as an official pilgrim with a national pilgrims’ association you receive a pilgrim’s card that entitles you to cheap accommodation in these hostels. If you get the card stamped in the places you pass through, you can show it to the pilgrims’ office in Santiago and receive a pilgrim’s certificate as proof of the authenticity of your pilgrimage journey. It was a wonderful experience, made all the more special by the encounters with the many fellow pilgrims (cyclists + hikers), Brothers from my order and native Spanish and French people.

At Carrion de los Condes (N. Spain)

I bumped into one particular group of four French pilgrims - who were mixing hiking with passages by car - a total of seven times between the Pyrenees (on the border between France and Spain) and Santiago, including in Santiago itself amongst the thousands of August pilgrims and tourists who flock there daily. Though each of these encounters was by chance, by the end it did seem to all of us to be far more than just coincidence that brought us together. We have kept in contact by e-mail these past 6 months since finishing our pilgrimages and I am hoping meet them next summer when they come over to North Wales on holiday.

My four new French friends.

Another meaningful encounter took place on my third day in Spain whilst I was having a break in the afternoon. I was standing outside a bar having a nice cold, non-alcoholic(!) drink in the heat of the Spanish afternoon sun, when this dapper-looking Spanish gentleman, probably in his 70s, came across the road over to me and started talking to me very pleasantly in Spanish. Unfortunately, my Spanish is very limited and his English was just as bad. However, I do speak French fluently having studied there for five years and somehow, between the three languages and hand/body gestures, we managed to make ourselves understood to each other. We ended up having quite a deep spiritual discussion that lasted nearly an hour, by the end of which I had began to feel like I had known this man all my life. I was deeply moved by the depth of his faith and his interest in the spiritual aspects of my pilgrimage. But time was moving on and I had to go. He gave me a big hug, wished me well and shouted the traditional cry of encouragement to pilgrims, “Ultreia!” (“Onward!”). I found the whole encounter very moving and uplifting. What compelled him to come over and talk to me? He certainly didn’t have to. Afterwards I rode along as if carried by winged angels for the rest of that day. This was just one of many such experiences throughout the 16 days of my journey.

My new Spanish friend

Once I got back I began the arduous task of collecting in all the sponsorship money from those who had signed up to contribute. After a few months concerted effort, I finally closed the coffers at just under £3,700. This money has been transferred to a De La Mennais Brothers charity account in France, from which Bro. Romain will be making purchases of equipment for his school. Next July, I will be taking 14 young people (12 of which are pupils from Years 10-13 at SFX) on a three-week trip to the school that I raised money for in Togo as part of an educational project organised by our French Brothers. We will be leading a kind of summer camp for children from the school and its surroundings, with activities such as sports, games, music, art + craft, discussion, etc… I hope to be talking about our experiences in next year’s magazine. I also hope in years to come to be able to return to the Santiago pilgrims’ route, either on foot or by bike, and maybe even undertake other pilgrimages (by bike to Rome, perhaps). As well as meeting people, crossing beautiful countryside and visiting places of interest, I enjoy the physical challenge of pushing my body near to its limit, whether it be cycling 100 miles a day (with all my baggage on my bike), or hiking 25 miles a day with a backpack. If any of you are thinking of undertaking such a pilgrimage, I would thoroughly recommend it. There are plenty of web sites and books that can give you information about the route and help you to prepare.

O Cebreiro on the border of the Galicia region of north-west Spain.

A further selection of my photos from the ride can be found at:
Flickr photo album


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