I chose the Way of Vezelay on the toss of a coin with only a vague notion of the nature of the route, or its historical significance. At the time my only aim was to give myself a two month break after retiring. Anyway, fool’s luck is the best luck as they say.

On a brilliantly sunny day towards the end of April 2016 I found myself on a train rushing across France from Paris to Nevers, from where I would start my pilgrimage. The sun was warm, the grass lush and the trees in full blossom, while the louche company in the carriage looked like they had stepped off the set of french film-perfect. That first evening I stayed at the Espace Bernadette Soubirous, a former convent where the body of Saint Bernadette still resides. A fitting start I thought, as I lay down to sleep in my tiny cell, surrounded by peaceful gardens and long, echoing corridors.

The next morning my feelings ranged from the zing one gets before a first date, to the anxiety brought on by too much strong coffee. Charged by these feelings, I quickly left Nevers behind, crossed the River Loir, and was barreling down its southern bank en route to Sancoins, a ridiculously ambitious 35 km away. Once again my luck held as the route that day was gently undulating, with large tracts following the towpath of the Canal du Berry. However, I did commit a couple of school boy errors that first day, not paying attention to the detail of the map which resulted in a 30 minute detour and secondly, becoming dehydrated as a result of running out of water an hour from my destination which caused a headache.

Having walked both the Camino Frances and the Way of Puy I can say with some authority that one of the joys of the chemin from Vezelay is the eclectic mix of accommodation presented to pilgrims. The first night’s living quarters were in a Gite Communal consisting of a male and female wing, each having 6 beds and separate showers for the sexes. The next evening at Charenton du Cher I found myself lodging in a barn, furnished with bunk beds and a make-shift shower room, albeit with an excellent shower. Subsequent stops would see me stay in several Accueil Pelerin, accommodation offered by supporters of the pilgrimage which involved sleeping in private flats and houses. These stays were particularly welcome as they allowed me to get to know France a little better through shared meals and conversation. This was particularly welcome as the Way of Vezelay is a quiet, lonely route which attracts few pilgrims.

The 26th of April saw me arrive at Neuvy Saint Sepulchre and represented my first low point. The glorious, sunny spring weather had been replaced by blankets of grey clouds, which sucked the life and vitality from the views, while a biting wind and occasional rain added insult to injury. Arriving early, before my Gite opened, I sought sanctuary in a local park which boasted a huge lake, and acted as a magnet for a myriad of feeding swallows. Even these wonderful creatures failed to lift my spirits, I was frozen to the bone, lonely and fed up. I swore at that moment never to ignore a beggar when I passed them in the street, for no one would choose that way of life deliberately if they could help it I was certain.. Despair didn't last long, however, as an hour later I was in a wonderfully warm gite, wallowing in a steaming shower. This, coupled with some delicious green tea and several rounds of bread and jam saw my morale tick upwards. A common theme which I am sure all pilgrims can relate to.

After this point things became easier, the sun shone a little more and I met a few pilgrims, including G, an engineer from Canada with whom I shared a surprisingly large number of life coincidences. Then, on the 12th day of the walk, I finally met the man in black, the elusive, distant figure who had, for the previous two days, consistently outpaced me no matter how fast I walked. I was sitting on a wall just outside a cafe in a hamlet not too far from Benevent l’Abbaye when he appeared from within. A tall, slim, grey haired man dressed in his dark materials, sporting a “Support Combat Stress Badge”. His bearing, spruce appearance and sense of purpose shouted one thing, ex British Army Officer. Funnily enough he looked surprised, when I tendered a, “good afternoon” then suspicious when I said, “I don’t suppose that you are ex-British Military, are you?” Nevertheless, once I explained my reasoning and logic he became far more affable.

Robert had started his journey at the Channel, walking through the battlefields of the First World War on personal pilgrimage, to Vezelay. He too was heading to Santiago. When I suggested that we walk together he said brusquely, “if you can keep up”. It turns out that I could keep up and we walked together on and off until just after Pamplona. Being ex-Navy myself we found plenty in common to talk about, while a lifetime of living cheek by jowl with other men, gave us a high tolerance for each other's foibles. Consequently, we patiently listened, as if for the first time, to each other's stories repeated over and over again, also enduring each other's bathroom noises with equanimity.

Exclusively thanks to Robert’s encouragement and good humour, I managed to complete the two day’s walking from Perigueux to Saint-Foy-La-Grande, which for some reason I found tremendously difficult. I like to think that I performed a similar function for him when we reached the foothills of the Pyrenees, although Robert will deny this! For, as I discovered quite by chance, I have an uncanny knack of walking up hills at pace, perhaps because I’m Welsh?

Together, we walked through the hills of Limousin, valleys of the Perigord and the flat Les Landes, but we both agree that the Basque country and the foothills of the Pyrenees were sensational. Hilly, verdant and peaceful ,with every crest faithfully delivering stunning views they reminded us both of a long disappeared rural Britain. While listening to German pilgrims singing, in the charming, tiny, ancient Chapelle Saint-Nicholas d’Harambeltz filled my heart with a wonderful peace and contentment. Arriving a short while later at the ancient village of Ostabat I had the most uncanny feeling that I must have been a pilgrim in a previous life as the village and surrounding hills seemed amazingly familiar to me. Perhaps I was just tired.

Finally, on our last stage to St Jean de Pied de Port, an incident occurred which made me realise that my trek had somehow changed me quite markedly For, after passing an elderly lady hobbling badly and carrying a heavy pack, Robert and I both looked at each other and literally ran back to her to suggest that we carry both her, and her rucksack, to the next village so she could rest and receive some care. Thankfully, she declined, frankly I am not certain that either of us were up to the task, nevertheless, the fact that we had offered made us fall into a contemplative silence for at least 15 minutes, And that is one of the things pilgrimage is all about isn’t it, discovering ourselves as if for the first time?