And I would walk 500 miles

Published on: 11 March 2020

On 12 September 2019, Amanda Maundrell set out to walk the 500 miles of the ancient pilgrimage route of “El Camino Frances” across northern Spain, alone. Here she shares her story of why she undertook this challenge and the impact it had upon her.

Starting at St. Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees, I planned to arrive around 30 days later in Santiago de Compostela. I had a one-way flight to Biarritz, and was carrying everything I needed in my rucksack, and would stay in the Pilgrim Hostels along the route.

I was walking in memory of my husband John, who sadly died in September 2018 after struggling for many years with a rare neurological disease called Multiple Systems Atrophy, and to raise money for the new Priscilla Bacon Hospice in Norwich where John had been so wonderfully cared for. But I was also walking for myself, to hopefully bring some sort of punctuation to many years of suffering, and grief.

My first night was at the Orisson Hostel halfway up the pass over the beautiful Pyrenees Atlantiques, which was a gentle, and very friendly introduction to hostel and dorm life.

I am very fit and found that my natural pace meant that I gradually overtook pretty much all the other pilgrims. I felt rather like Forest Gump. This also meant, as was my intention, that I always walked alone.
The first part of the trail took me through vast mountain vistas and then the gentler, but wonderful scenery and vineyards of La Rioja.

I met lots of people from all over the world in the evenings in the dorms but continued to walk alone. The feeling of beginning to cover a vast distance, using only the waymarkers for guidance and just seeing what each day brought was totally liberating. All I had to think about was walk, eat, sleep.

After La Rioja came the Meseta, the vast, bleak, high plain that covers much of central and northern Spain. Life got tougher, not least because finding somewhere to stay each night in the emptiness became a daily challenge.
Life became tougher still on the first anniversary of John’s death, but after a tearful morning, a long, solitary 25 km trudge gave me time to process a lot of thoughts. Somehow after that, I felt lighter, and a few days later I realised that I was beginning to walk with others.

The feeling of lightness increased after a very wet morning climbing “The Mountain of Forgiveness”. At the top is “El Cruz Ferro” where the laying down of a stone brought from home, on the vast cairn beneath the cross symbolises the laying down of one’s burden. Everyone had a burden to lay down.

I finished the walk largely in the company of others. Everyone had a story, and even the most cynical “pilgrims” felt some sort of transformation in their outlook happen along the way.

I arrived in Santiago alone again, 24 days after setting off, but feeling much more at peace with the world and much more eager to engage with it again.


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