We are all back to normal and Xacobeo 2021-22 is an extended Holy Year, but I find the Refugio Gaucelmo in Rabanal is full.  I’m reminded by the hospitaliers that I should finish walking earlier in the afternoon, for it seems the whole world has walked out of lockdown onto the Way of Saint James, with a great metallic clatter of Nordic walking poles. 


I prefer my replica 15th century wooden bourdon, heavy though it is. It comes into play in new ways each day.  Now I push on it, up the mountain track using it like a punt pole. There is an hour of daylight left.  I have some rations: cheese and chocolate, but no bread; though I trust my ángel de guardia to step in when I need his help.


I forgot my dog-eared Camino guidebook in a restaurant in Astorga, but I know this stretch of the Camino. The old village of Foncebadón no longer looks like the wrong end of Margate, with surplus roof tiles strewn at the side of the road. Revived once again after lockdown, Foncebadón is busy. The restaurant is full, but they give me a big stale loaf.  There is no spare bed anywhere so I carry on.


Going out of Foncebadón, on the left in the middle of a field are ancient church ruins.  The Worcester Pilgrim is there, standing alone in the dusk on the grass: he remembers exactly where the altar stood six-hundred years ago.  I had read The Cockleshell Pilgrim and followed his footsteps from Worcester, carrying a replica of his bourdon.  I first met him in a ruined French abbey in Saint-Jean d’Angely.  He is dressed in a long woollen cloak, a broad hat with a scallop shell on the upturned brim, and knee-length brown boots. I walk over to him. 


“Robert, how are things here in 1423?”

“Late middling,” he replies. “I’ll catch you later.”


I will bivouac at Cruz de Ferro in the porch of the ermita.  Anything is better than another night of madness at Manjarín with Tomás ‘the Last Templar’.  After him it’s too far to Molinaseca and the long twisting descent is too dangerous in the dark.  Tomás himself is gentle and he never turns pilgrims away: his ‘commanderie’ expands miraculously.  But I want some peace up here, not a night of ley lines, tarot cards, crystal gazing and Templar fantasy Star Wars with those types who seem drawn to Tomás at Manjarín. 


Yes, what will suit me best is quiet recollection under the stars here at Cruz de Ferro: even if the temperature drop becomes painful before dawn.  I place my pebble at the foot of the Cross, the pebble I picked up on Newhaven beach, before catching the midnight ferry to Dieppe and walking through France.  I pray for pilgrims in need - present and past - everywhere.


From the ermita porch fifty metres away comes a plaintive voice: “Do you speak English?” 


So I stepped out of my practice of the present moment, out of my internal world into his world. In my torchlight I saw a man about fifty sitting on the floor, one leg stretched out in front and the other drawn up under his chin.  Eric’s right shin was so painful he could not walk.  Nor had he any walking stick.


Tendonitis,” I said. “Your shin was OK uphill from Rabanal?  But it hurt when the road flattened out or sloped down?”


“Yes!” he said.  “Are you a doctor?”


“No, I’m a pilgrim.  It’s what happens. Especially after months of lockdown inactivity.”  


So it was goodbye to my fondly contemplated starry night and hello to Tomás the Templar’s palace of varieties.


“I’ll help you walk to Manjarín.  You can’t possibly stay here.”


“Are there wolves?” he asked.


“No, that was a decades-old panic started by Shirley MacLaine.  Actress and rabies guru.  We’ll see no dogs nor dog-eared Camino guidebook up here.  Without my map, I’d guess three kilometres to Manjarín.  I’ll carry your rucksack.  I want you to take my bourdon – this staff here – for support. Twin metal prongs prevent it slipping.  Cutting-edge Worcester technology from 1423.”


“I am very grateful,” said Eric.


“You might not be when you see Manjarín. It gets weird. Tomás is a good man. Calls himself a Knight Templar, so he’s a magnet.  Just seems to attract a certain type of...”


“Crazy people?” asked Eric. “Any port in a storm, eh?  Maybe it won’t be as mad as you remember.”


“Yes it will.”  I shone the torch slightly ahead of the tendonitis patient on his painful downhill walk.  “It will be chaos in a Holy Year.”


Outside the ramshackle Templar commanderie run by Tomás a few barefooted Italian girls walked slowly round their mystical labyrinth of concentric flickering night-lights chanting; maybe to invoke a Minotaur? Further away under flaming torchlight a group of archers dressed like Samurai fired arrows at a barn door, and a young couple sat crosslegged on a wall, looking at the stars, chanting “Om…”


I led Eric through the bead curtain into a big candlelit room with a long table.  We found Tomás preparing supper under a dim camping-gaz lamp. 


Hola Tomás, buenas tardes,” I said.  “Este peregrino tiene tendonitis. Can we find a doctor tomorrow?


Tomás said he could fetch a doctor immediately, no problem, relax, everything will be fine, garlic soup will be ready soon, but more stale bread was needed to stir into it.  I took out the loaf from my rucksack.  He was delighted: “The Camino provides!”


“God provides,” I said.  “Lord, you open wide your hand and fill all things living with your bounteous gifts. Amen.”  I told Eric that Tomás would send for a doctor.


“Amazing,” said Eric. “Better than the NHS!  You told me to expect chaos.”


 “It will get worse. Trust me.”


A young man in face-paint and a feathered head-dress ran past us towards the bead curtain making bird noises.  Tomás spoke to him as he went out and soon a woman with coloured ribbons in her hair walked through the curtain. 


“Hello, I’m the doctor.  Which of you is it?”


Eric looked amazed.  “I didn’t expect you so quickly...”

”Nobody expects the Spanish physician!” she replied.  “I worked in the NHS in Manchester. Which leg is it?”


Tomás called everyone to supper and through the rattling bead curtain came a Pierrot and a Harlequin, followed by a leaping girl dancer, and the Samurai with bows and arrows.  An Italian girl showed the doctor her burnt foot.  She had stepped on lighted candles while stepping round the wellness labyrinth. A Fool came in juggling oranges. The room resembled the carnival finale for a low-budget remake of Les Enfants du Paradis. 


In walked the Worcester Pilgrim, Robert Sutton from 1423.


“Well done, Robert,” I said.  “Leave your bourdon outside, eh?”


“Is he with you?” asked Eric, open-mouthed.


“He’s a socially-distanced ghost.  He avoids the 21st century but likes to mix sometimes in settings where he doesn’t seem out of place.”


Eric’s eyes widened more as a Civil Guard colonel in a green uniform, carrying a large bottle, fought his way through the bead curtain.


Buenas nights Tomás, and El Wooster Peregrine!  Hola, hola, hola: what have we here then?”  He reached into his pocket and put my dog-eared Camino guidebook on the table with a thud.  “You leaving it on Astorga in the table.


“Thanks, Pablo,” I said. “You’re an angel.”


“So he’s with you too?” said Eric. “I’m kind of noticing that half the chaos came in with you.  Would that be fair comment?” 


“You may be onto something,” I replied, “but none of us choose our ghosts and guardian angels.” 


“Hello everybodys: I am Coronel Pablo Pedalo, and for my sinnings I am this peregrine’s ángel de guardia!  I bringing one bottle of anis for celebrate. Happy Saint Year!  Xacobeo!” 


He unfurled his great white wings, flicked them behind the chair and sat down next to me, putting his black patent leather tricorn hat on the table. 


“So, como estas Tomás, you smelly old communist?”


He poured anis into the garlic soup that Tomás put in front of him.  The doctor tended the burnt foot of the Italian flaming labyrinth enthusiast after bandaging Eric.


“Could this place possibly get any madder?” asked Eric.


“Yes,” I said. “Soon the goats will be returning back in here for the night.”


Eric looked disconcerted by this news. At the far end of the table the Fool juggler dropped an orange in the Harlequin’s soup. Tomás the Templario sat watching the scene, the calm centre in a labyrinth of chaos. My ángel de guardia reached over and poured anis into Tomás’s soup, and passed the bottle down the table, and then he spoke, as the first goats entered, entangling themselves in the bead curtain. 


“Ultreïa!” said Pablo Pedalo. “Good soup, Tomás my brother ángel. It’s good we are all back to normal!”