Thursday, November 03, 2011


Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sand of time.

I have a confession to make!
I've written another book - about the Camino. 
I keep asking people not to write about their Camino  - unless it has a fresh or unique angle, perhaps about a different route (there are dozens of books written about the Camino Frances), or if it was an unusual journey.  Perhaps they walked with their dog, or with their children.  Maybe they walked as a mendicant in medieval garb - that would make interesting reading.
There are so many books being published about a walk on the Camino Frances that although they can  be inspirational, they have become almost formulaic and could be told in 10 lines.  They have the  same  landscape, same villages, same albergues, same experiences, same food, same pilgrims.  If you have read as many pilgrim books as I have, you'll know what I mean.

I promised myself I wouldn't write a Camino book - about myself.  So I wrote one about someone else!  Its not anyone you'll know because he lived in England in the 12th century and I made up the story about his pilgrimage to Santiago.   

I first had the idea for this book in 2001 when I joined the Confraternity of St James in the UK and bought a little metal scallop shell brooch.  It is a replica of a  15th century souvenir of a pilgrimage to Santiago, made of pewter, which was recovered in the banks of the river Thames near London Bridge.
It features St James, dressed as a pilgrim, against the scallop-shell emblem.  When I first saw the brooch I wondered how on earth such an intrinsically sentimental, valuable pilgrim badge had landed up in the river.  A pilgrim, presumably from England, had made the long and dangerous journey to Spain in the Middle Ages, bringing back this beautiful little souvenir.  He must have valued it greatly and yet it was dug up on the bank of the river.  

At the time I did some research on Santiago artifacts found in the River Thames and was lead to an article in 'Peregrinations' on the website of the Kenyon university. 

"The “core” collection of the Museum of London (finds that do not come from formal archaeological excavation) consists of 1021 medieval badges, of which 739 are pilgrim signs and the rest are secular badges. Of the 739 pilgrim signs, 45% have the Thames as the find spot, with most of the remainder from riverside sites [John Clark; pers. comm.].  

So how did the brooch get into the the river?

"Unfortunately, there are no accounts in contemporary literature that describe pilgrims disposing of their signs in rivers. Assuming that this is deliberate, it is likely that there was no single motivating factor, rather many reasons for doing this. In the archaeological literature pertaining to pilgrim signs, it has been suggested that this was sort of an offering of thanksgiving for a safe return from the dangerous journey [Spencer 1998]."

I am a Romantic so I decided to write  story around the little metal brooch - or rather, around the original pewter Santiago souvenir.  I played around with a few ideas - male pilgrim, female pilgrim?  Or both? English pilgrims? Where from?  Checked the Domesday book for likely villages.  After a few days of searching villages I settled on one in the south of England, not far from London, that has a fantastic page on the village in the middle ages.  It provides descriptions of the dwellings, the number of people, their industries, village life, their clothing, their religion and names of 12th and 13th century people buried in the church-yard of the Holy Trinity Church.   I found a record of my pilgrim's grave on the website and decided to write the story around him.

Yay!  I had a name, I knew where he lived, what his home looked like and what he did.  I invented his family, including deceased grand-parents, a sister who died at a young age, two older sisters, a younger brother and an uncle.  But I couldn't decide what my main protagonist looked like.   One day I was watching a cricket match and decided that my pilgrim looked like Andrew Flintoff! I don't know why Andy Flintoff but he looked so - English - that I decided my pilgrim would look like him. 
I started doing research into the middle-ages, especially the 12th century. I opened up a folder for each letter of the alphabet and started saving articles - everything from Abelard to Witches.  In the meantime in 2002 I walked the Camino Frances from Roncesvalles to Santiago and collected as many leaflets and brochures as I could from every place we visited, posting them home when I'd filled an A5 envelope.  When I got home I had 7 envelopes full of literature - much of it in Spanish.  The next year I spent a small fortune on books. Our libraries didn't have much on the Camino, there wasn't much on the Internet either 10 years ago, but I could buy books. I bought books on pilgrimage, medieval Europe, on the History of London, a gazetteer on French towns, historical books on the Santiago pilgrimage and Confraternity papers from the Confraternity of St James and the CD Pilgrims & Pilgrimage - Journey, Spirituality and Daily Life through the Centuries. This is an Interactive CD showing the importance of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages and beyond through word and image.  

By the end of 2003 I knew my characters intimately and I had a synopsis of the full plot of the story. The crux of the story starts with a mystery - a question in a recurring dream. My characters go on a penitential pilgrimage to Santiago from April to August in 1178. They ride to Dover, get a boat across the channel and ride to Paris. From there they ride to Santiago and back. In between are plots and sub-plots, Knights, highwaymen, thieves, murderers, a forbidden love affair, a poisonous night that changes their lives forever. The ending provides the answer to the dream. 

In 2004 I visited London and made an appointment with John Clark, curator of the medieval gallery in the Museum of London. He showed me a tray of Santiago souvenirs and other pilgrimage artifacts. I also got to see the original pewter brooch which was the inspiration for my story. I felt as though I'd owned that souvenir!
In June and July that year I walked from Paris to Roncesvalles, in the footsteps of my characters. They were with me all the way and I tried to see things through eyes - no mean feat when half of the monuments, churches, bridges, castles and so forth described in 'The Pilgrim's Guide to Santiago de Compostela" are no longer there! But it was a wonderful experience and once again I sent home bundles of envelopes filled with leaflets, brochures and booklets on the places along the way.  

In 2005 I finished the first draft and handed it over to my Creative Writing teacher (who also happened to be one of the only South African literary agents listed in the Writers and Artists Handbook).  After two days she called.  "Syl - I'm not going to read your manuscript, " she said.  "You have written your story in the first person and it is very restricting.  I'm suggesting you re-write it in the third person so that all the characters can be fleshed out. Then you can bring it back to me and we'll see what we can do with it."

AAAARGHHHH!!!!  I was devastated.  Crushed. Three years of work and I had to re-write it all!  By then I was busy with other things.  I was planning to walk the Via Francigena.  I filed the manuscript away.  I walked the VF in 2006. The next year I walked the Camino Frances again.  In 2009 I walked the Aragones route, and the Camino Ingles, and worked as a hospitalero in Corcubion. 

Later that year Francis became ill and sadly passed away.  I'd lost a friend, a tutor and a Literary Agent. I decided to haul out the manuscript again and started working on it.  Its not that easy to change a story from the first person to the third person.  "I" becomes "he" - "we" becomes 'they".  My character did a lot of thinking and "I thought" had to become "He thought". 

In 2010 I started writing 'Your Camino" - a planning guide for people wanting to walk or ride a Camino route in France and Spain. It is a 330-page encyclopedia of information and it has been published by Pilgrimage Publications in France.   In between two more walks in Spain, I have spent most of this year rewriting "Pilgrim Footprints". I have sent off proposals to agents and publishers, have had two rejections, but am waiting to hear from the others.  Book publishing has changed a lot in 10 years and if I don't find a publisher, I may consider self-publishing or making it available as an eBook.  
Watch this space!


  1. Sil, I think publishers are a dying breed, and writer's agents not far behind them, unless you are doing screenplays. Why not put it out to Kindle asap? You are totally familiar with hmtl, at least at the level of Kindle, so could put out a great book. I'll be one of your customers.

  2. Ditto...with this intro, you've got me!

  3. Just say when.


  4. Sounds like an intriguing story. Can't wait to read it, Sil.

  5. I am a bookaholic, so please may we have a hard copy as well as kindle? Thank you. Hazel