When it comes to travel, has all been said (written) and done? When travelling from here to there, is there anything new to tell? Is there any hidden corner of the world that still remains off the map, that hasn’t been showcased on social media or featured in the written press?
Ask the wrong question and you are bound to get the wrong answer. For the problem is that you have overlooked the mappa mundi of the Ways of Santiago. Among the tangle of trails that inevitably brings to mind the intricate patterns of a spider’s web, a modest, short way to Santiago emerges. Remaining stubbornly within the boundaries of A Coruña, it is essentially provincial in nature, extending for little more than 150 kilometres. Steeped in history, it boasts a wealth of artistic treasures that have fixed it firmly in the pilgrim’s heart. In numerical terms it could never topple the classic French Way or the Portuguese Way, whose coastal route exerts an irresistible appeal for tourists, yet in 2019 it registered the highest growth rate: no less than 11.5%. With figures such as these, there must be something in it.
The English Way is unique in that it is in truth a tale of two trails, as it has two starting points: the cities of A Coruña and Ferrol. Yet there is more to it than that. If the medieval ships that sailed from southern England – hence its name – moored in both cities, it is clear that the pilgrims had travelled from further afield; obviously not all of them lived in those port cities. Indeed, they came from all over England, and even from Europe’s northernmost lands, crossing the Atlantic ocean in order to reach the English coast and their meeting point in the north-east of Great Britain: Finchdale Abbey, founded by the pirate convert Saint Godric. And after resting within the sturdy abbey walls, they would make their way down to the south coast.
And so the travellers of the past flocked to Galicia, just as they do today. Are their numbers greater now than then? Unquestionably so, although in the 14th century they came in their tens of thousands, and there were times when literally dozens of ships were moored in A Coruña. Yet today it is Ferrol that is the most aspirational starting point, as more than a hundred kilometres separate it from Obradoiro, the square which since the 20th century has replaced the traditional meeting point of Azabachería Square.
Anyone expecting to admire huge monuments along the English Way is destined for disappointment. This is the way of lesser things, filled with charm and buildings of mortal dimensions; small churches and chapels built during the splendour of the Romanesque period, although many of them were later adorned with Baroque additions.
What they may lack in size, they make up for in number. Within the municipality of Ferrol, the churches of San Francisco and Caranza, followed by the Monastery of San Martiño de Xubia or do Couto (which at one time was a double house, although the overly enthusiastic mingling of monks and nuns was the cause of such indignation amongst the upper echelons of the Church that this unusual community was eventually dissolved), Neda’s two temples, the architectural heavyweight of Pontedeume and Betanzos – with the Gothic bridge over the Lambre linking one town with the other -, and the small churches of Cos, Leiro and As Travesas, and the even humbler San Lourenzo de Bruma.
It is precisely at this spot, just before coming to Bruma, that the two trails from A Coruña and Ferrol converge, so meticulously signposted that getting lost is simply not an option. Travellers choosing to start from the former will have left behind them the historic O Parrote harbour, and the magnificent Church of Santiago in O Burgo, where the bridge was blown up by the English troops in the war against Napoleon, and rebuilt many years later, and the delightful temple in Sigrás and the little that remains.
And naturally, before setting foot in the municipality of Santiago, travellers have to cross the magnificent medieval bridge in Sigüeiro. A landmark that was and is eagerly sought: it was and remains the way to safely cross the fast-flowing River Tambre.
In short, this is the way that shuns the crowds, where it is possible to stop and chat to the locals working their plots of land (known in Galicia as leiras), where a warm welcome is the order of the day, precisely because it is never crowded, making human contact a real option. A way that was traced in 1417 by England’s most emblematic female pilgrim: Margery Kempe. A pioneer whose memory is still very much alive along the English Way.