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Jim with a Pilgrim at Hastingues

Jim with a Pilgrim at Hastingues

We are sitting outside our tent enjoying the early morning sunshine after a night of rain. We are drinking our first cup of tea of the day. Jasmine (aged 8) comes over to talk to us. Jasmine is camped with her family on the pitch opposite ours. We have moved campsite again – this time right over to the Atlantic Coast – and we are staying on a very nice site near Bayonne. Jasmine is very talkative and often pops over for a ‘chat’. ‘Ah!’ she says, ‘A nice cup of tea and a slice of cake … solves every problem!’ ‘Yes!’ says her brother Charlie (aged 5) who has also joined us … ‘Especially when you are attacked by a T-Rex!’ … and off he goes again, shooting an imaginary T-Rex with his imaginary gun!? ‘As I was saying, before I was rudely interrupted’ says Jasmine, ‘a nice cup of tea and a slice of cake solves every problem!’ ‘That is very profound, Jasmine’ responds Julia, ‘where did you learn that?’ ‘From a book!’ says Jasmine … and off she goes … presumably to put the kettle on?!

The other day we went to the old town of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port situated in the foothills of the Pyrénées not far from the Spanish border. In the Middle Ages St-Jean was a great rallying centre for Jaquets – pilgrims en route for Santiago de Compostela in Spain – who journeyed from all over Europe to both worship at the Cathedral where the bones of St James the Apostle are supposed to lay, and at the same time earn merit in the sight of God (by walking the pilgrim way) that will be put toward their credit account in earning their eventual salvation. They wore a heavy grey cloak, a broad-brimmed felt hat turned up at the front and marked with three or four scallop shells (the emblem of the pilgrimage), and carried a bread bag and an eight-foot stave with a water flask attached. There is a wonderful statue of such a pilgrim at the Aire d’Hastingues (on the A64 motorway in the Pau-Bayonne direction), which contains a wonderful exhibition of the famous pilgrimage. Whenever a devout procession of the pious appeared at the gates of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the town became a hive of activity – church bells pealed, priests intoned prayers, children ran out to escort the pilgrims, and the inhabitants, standing on their doorsteps, offered provisions. Thus refreshed and encouraged, the majority of the pilgrims would move on, chanting responses, whilst those too tired to continue could stop overnight. Modern day pilgrims also pass this way … and also receive hospitality in the town. A number of the houses on the Rue de la Citadelle display the scallop shell motif outside to show that they receive pilgrims. What are they offered by way of sustenance today we wonder … a nice cup of tea and a slice of cake perhaps?

The name St-Jean-Pied-de-Port is a reminder that the town lies at he foot of a ‘port’ or pass for travellers heading for Spain. It is the last refuge before the climb to Puerto Ibaêeta (or Port de Roncevaux as it is known on the French side). Beyond the crest the Monastery of Roncevaux still maintains a tradition of Christian hospitality. Roncevaux is also said to be the place where the heroic (or stupid?) Roland perished in 778 when the rear guard of Charlemagne’s army was overwhelmed by the Saracens (or more likely Basque mountain people?) on their way back from a campaign against the Saracens in Spain. According to legend Roland was too proud to blow his horn (though urged to do so by his advisors) and sound the retreat in time to save his men. There is supposed to a cleft in a rock nearby where Roland tried to break his magic sword. If only Roland had taken time out for a nice cup of tea and a slice of cake things might have turned out very differently!?

We enjoy a very happy day wandering around St-Jean-Pied-de-Port taking in all the places of historical importance – the Rue de la Citadelle with its charming 16th and 17th century houses with their rounded doorways and carved lintels; the Gothic Church, Église Notre-Dame, dedicated to the Virgin Mary with its huge prayer candles burning brightly in the gloom of the interior; the Rue d’Espagne, which climbs uphill to the Porte d’Espagne through which the pilgrims left the town, with its quaint shops and houses; the Citadelle itself, now a school, but with its amazing views over the St Jean basin and the neat little villages far below. It is a beautiful day and the streets are packed with tourists all enjoying this wonderful little town with an amazing history.

The pilgrim road to Santiago de Compostela is another of our historic and theological interests. We have travelled much of it over the past few years – by car and not by foot. It would be lovely to walk it sometime – or at least parts of it – and to eventually visit Santiago de Compostela itself. Nevertheless it is good to be here in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, and to be reminded of the benefits of journeying – taking time to walk prayerfully through life contemplating the things of God. We return to our campsite refreshed and renewed, enlightened and blessed, by a really good day. Time to put the kettle on and have a nice cup of tea and a slice of cake!

It is not that we agree with the motives of the majority of the pilgrims down through the ages. We are not really into ‘religious relics’ and certainly do not believe that we have to ‘earn our salvation’. Salvation is the free gift of God, won for us through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, on the cross. As another Apostle, Paul, tells us ‘We are saved by grace, through faith, and this is not of yourselves, but is the free gift of God, not by works, so no one has any grounds for boasting’ (Ephesians 2:8,9).  Perhaps all of us need, from time to time, to take time out to think seriously about the gift of life … and its meaning? Stopping for ‘a nice cup of tea and a slice of cake’ may not solve every problem … but perhaps it might provide space to stop and think about what is really important in life … rather than just be caught up with the rush and bustle of so much that makes for modern life today!? I am sure that I have read that in the Good Book somewhere … o.k., I know that it doesn’t actually mention taking time out for ‘a nice cup of tea and a slice of cake’ … but it does say, ‘Be still, and know that I am God!’ (Psalm 46:10)!

Jim Binney


  1. Hi Jim and Julia, I will be hitting part of the Camino de Santiago (Pamplona) mid-September. Not sure how far I will go on it until I get there.


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