It’s Alf’s funeral today – a good neighbour and friend for 30 years. Always ready for a friendly chat and a great fund of terrible jokes. I remember with particular fondness the two weeks we spent together in 1990.
During our chats we had discovered a common interest in the pilgrimage of St James, from various starting points in Europe to Santiago de Compostella (campus stellae = field of stars) in northern Spain. I had been captivated by the idea when I first heard of it – taking time out from the everyday grind to follow an essentially spiritual objective seemed right. Perhaps I had been a pilgrim in a previous life. In Alf’s case it was less easy to understand, as he professed to be an atheist, despite his many religious friends.
In a busy working life it remained a pipe dream for me until one day just after Alf had retired from his work at the BBC. He wanted to follow the pilgrims’ route to Compostella in his caravan, but wife Janet had herself not yet retired, so did not have the time. Eventually, Alf came up with a proposition – why didn’t I come with him on the route as far as Burgos, and Janet would go out to meet him and complete the trip. Could I get enough leave from work and family?
So it was the two of us set out in Alf’s caravan, complete with bicycles so that we could at least cycle small sections of the route.
Alf had travelled the route before, so he knew the places to visit. This included his own favourites – such as Pegasus Bridge, which played a key part in the Normandy Landings – the small village of Putanges, where Alf said ‘bonjour’ to the Madame who ran the restaurant – and Bourges Cathedral. I just had to climb the cathedral tower, much to Alf’s disgust, but in the end he did climb up with me to enjoy the view, the first time he obtained a ‘plus de soixante ans‘ reduced entry fee.
We joined the pilgrim route proper at Le Puy. At St Michael’s church, Alf was most put out that two nuns took him to be my father. He enjoyed telling the tale for ever more. Here began my education into the many magical churches that await the pilgrim: Estaing, Conques, Moissac, Sauveterre be Béarn and St Jean Pied-de-Port. We had a restaurant meal here near the Spanish border – welcome relief from both our attempts at cooking in the van.
Travelling with Alf was an education in itself as he introduced me to various wildlife and flora – I particularly remember the many red kites and celery flowers by the wayside. And, of course, Alf knew all the tales and legends of the pilgrim way, unfailingly recounting them at the appropriate point.
Then came the pass of Roncesvalles into Spain, and on to Puente la Reina, Estella, Torres del Rio, Najera, Santo Domingo de la Calzada and Burgos. Stopping to pick up something for lunch at Puente la Reina, Alf enjoyed chatting up the pretty lady selling olives, and then proceeded to eat the whole packet one by one as he drove onwards. At Burgos, we chained our bicycles to railings outside the magnificent cathedral and I was overwhelmed by the magnificent exterior, but somewhat underwhelmed by the oppressive interior.
We then cut across to Santander to pick up Janet and deposit me for the ferry back to England and everyday life. Thank you Alf for sharing this journey, for being a good friend, and for the great pleasure you have given to many along your way.
I think you’re now up there in the field of stars, even if your professed atheism would have denied the possibility…
Featured image shows Alf at the top of the tower of Bourges cathedral