Pilgrim’s Road, Bettina Selby (1994)
An inspiring account of a spiritually enthused-pilgrimage undertaken in the early 90s
Little Brown 0316906999 Quarto 212pp £16.99
The challenge of writing a book covering such a well-known route is in investing it with something fresh. As it turns out, that was a task for which Selby was uniquely qualified – at least for readers who have some interest in the spiritual and historical dimension of such a journey.
By the time of writing this, I calculate that Selby was in her late 50s. By then, she was as accomplished author of long-distance cycle tour books.
On this venture, she journeyed in 30 or 40 mile hops, and took around two months, travelling from Vézelay, in northern France. She took the idea of pilgrimage seriously, went out of her way to get stamps in her pilgrim’s record (crendencial del peregrine) stamped, and mounted a scallop shell on her bar bag.
She is not a Catholic, however, but ‘a Christian in the broadest sense’ which is also a strength of the book. By setting out to understand the idea of pilgrimage, and to explain the appeal of this route in medieval times, she manages to provide far more illumination that had she been a true believer at the outset. She found on the route a multitude of sites that have been providing services to pilgrims for centuries; a fair number of indifferent priests; and a rosta of others who feel that it is their job to serve true pilgrims.
But perhaps the greatest strength of this book is the balance that its author achieves. There is enough historical context to provide an understanding of the camino, and a feeling of its magic, even if you are new to the subject. She is very good on the religious sites that she encounters en route. And there are enough serendipitous meetings with colourful characters to leven the mix. There is also space for lyrical reflections on topography.
Here she is on a mountain top in Galicia.
“The skies were not only clear but flushed so softly with a suggestion of pink and gold that it was like the subtle washing in a Japanese print. I pulled on my clothes quickly and went out for a wider view. Around the back of the village past the church and the granite cross, the ground falls away sharply from the road and a range of hills spreads out as far as the eye can see. The valleys were filled with mist and each range of hills was no more than a dark brushstroke. The sun was somewhere behind the mist, invisible, but adding a faint translucence so that the scene appeared quite unearthly and wildly beautiful. I thought as I gazed at it, that it was as close a vision of heaven as I was likely to see in this life”.
The book is not written to serve as a guide to those intending to make the journey. It would be an indispensible primer were one contemplating the pilgrimage, however, as well as providing a potent sense of the antecedents of long-distance touring from an age long before Joseph Starley first set up his workshop.
PS May 10