Saint James Way starts at the 900-year-old ruins of Reading Abbey, in Berkshire, Southern England, and meanders south for 68.5 miles before reaching Southampton. However, that is only the beginning of a network of “Caminos”, medieval pilgrim routes that cross Spain, France and Portugal, all leading to Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of St. James the Apostle are said to be buried.
English pilgrims would have set sail from Southampton for Spain to begin the so-called Camino Ingles from Ferrol, or A Coruña, to Santiago de Compostela. The Camino de Santiago grew in popularity after the Galician priest Father Elías Valiña Sampedro marked the route with yellow arrows in the 1980s. But it wasn’t until 2019 – when a record-breaking 347,585 people hiked the Camino – those numbers approached those of the medieval period, when 500,000 people walked the Camino every year. After two years of pandemic restrictions, 2023 is expected to be the Camino’s busiest year yet.
In recent years, the Camino’s growing popularity has encouraged the revival of pilgrimage routes across Europe, the latest of which is Saint James Way in south-east England. While this path sees far fewer pilgrims than the Camino’s more-popular Camino Frances and Camino Portugues routes, new signposting, mapping, and a network of pubs and churches offering Stamps of Passage, aim to revive England’s lost pilgrimage culture.
“Unless you see yellow arrows and scallop shells, it isn’t a Camino,” said David Sinclair, a Confraternity of St James (CSJ) volunteer who led the trail’s way-marking project. Sinclair joined the CSJ in 2012 after walking the Camino Frances from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Santiago de Compostela. “CSJ members had already done a lot of research on the route when I joined, but I felt that for the Saint James Way to be recognised as a Camino, we needed to way-mark it. We also needed Stamps of Passage.”
Sinclair’s way-marking project came after Galician authorities, in 2016, reduced the minimum kilometres required to qualify for a Compostela certificate from 100 to 75 (the distance from Santiago de Compostela to A Coruña), with the condition that you had to complete at least 25km in your own country. Work to way-mark St James Way – seeking permission from local authorities and hammering up more than 400 way-markers by hand – began in 2020, and took 18 months to complete. Sinclair also encouraged pubs and churches along the route to offer Stamps of Passage to pilgrims, which they can stick in an official Saint James Way Pilgrim Passport: The passport can be purchased at the Reading Museum at the start of the route/way.
Leaving the ruins of Reading Abbey, you walk towards Kennet and the Avon Canal. You pass the Starbucks and Wagamamas of Reading’s shopping centre before following the canal towards Mortimer, where anchored narrowboats, puffing smoke, surrounded by fallen branches float in the muddy water like crocodiles in a swamp.
Six and a half miles after leaving Reading, you reach the water-locked hamlet of Sheffield Bottom, home to migrating swallows, bitterns and the occasional wild Exmoor pony. It’s time to stop at the Fox and Hounds, one of 13 pubs along the route that now offers a Stamp of Passage to Camino pilgrims. You are likely to encounter a young bartender, as you dip the pub’s stamp – a scallop shell with “Fox and Hounds, Sheffield Bottom” inscribed above it – in the ink and press it into your pilgrim passport.
Over the next two days of hiking, you will cross the county border to Hampshire, via the Roman city of Silchester, and the Domesday Book villages of Monk Sherborne and Dummer, and arrive at New Alresford. A tannery town during Henry VIII’s reign, today New Alresford is known as the U.K.’s watercress capital: chalk streams, clearer than glass, filter through dozens of plump watercress beds, where ducks toboggan down sluices and pastel-coloured cafes serve egg-and-cress sandwiches. You can order a watercress and cheddar scone, to go, from The Courtyard Tea Rooms, before pressing on to Winchester, the last overnight stop before arriving at Southampton.
From New Alresford you followed the River Itchen, one of only 200 chalk rivers in the world. The water is so clear you can see right to its gravelly bottom: brown trout the size of your forearm swim upstream with mouths agape, hoping to catch dragonflies. Water-crowfoot – long strands of fluorescent green that flower in the spring – dance under the surface, while warblers flit between weeping willows. Taking time to soak up this rare habitat, you eventually reach Winchester, England’s Saxon capital, probably long after dark.
The next morning, you should start early to stop at the Hospital of St Cross, one of England’s oldest charitable institutions. As well as pilgrim stamps, the Hospital houses the “almshouse of noble poverty” – founded by William the Conqueror’s grandson in the 11th Century – to provide food and shelter for those in need. Believe it or not, they still give a free morsel of bread and a cup of beer to anyone who asks.
Catherine Secker, the Hospital’s porter for more than two decades, will greet you. “Oh, well you look like you’ve come a long way!” she will likely say: At this point, after fifty-four miles, you are more likely to be hobbling rather than walking. “Come on then”, she will say. “I’ll give you your wayfarer’s dole.” Inside the Hospital’s gift shop, she will fill a ceramic cup with Winchester-brewed ale and place it on a wooden plate with a silver cross. A bite-sized chunk of white bread will follow.
“Medieval pilgrims were high society – they wanted the best of everything. Fussy lot they were,” Secker will say. Behind her are century-old black-and-white photos of pilgrims, many with manicured moustaches. “They believed, in them times, that white bread was the best, and beer was safer to drink than water. The wooden plate was to stop the germs. We’ve been serving both like this since 1132.”
Eventually, you reach the Duke of Wellington in Southampton, the last pub on the Way, and the final stamp for your passport. You can then look out onto Southampton’s port: it was here that the Titanic set off on its fateful journey to New York in 1912 and, before that, where medieval merchants and pilgrims sailed to Spain in search of riches and redemption.
You can relax. You have completed Saint James Way, the first stage of the “Camino” to Santiago de Compostela!