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Book review: The Gathering Place: A winter pilgrimage through changing times by Mary Colwell

20 October 2023

This journey along the Camino was in Covid, says Philip Welsh

ANOTHER writer takes a long walk across the territory between pilgrimage and journey of self-discovery. Currently, it seems to be projects conceived during the pandemic which are coming to birth. What is distinctive about The Gathering Place?

Mary Colwell walked the 500 miles of the Camino Frances — the principal pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela — during the autumn of 2020. Covid is raging, as yet with no vaccine, and she finds this most companionable of pilgrim routes almost empty. Occasionally, she enjoys the kindness of strangers; she is also exposed to the attentions of a demon-haunted religious fantasist.

Solitude sharpens a walker’s inner conversations and, in the Colwell’s case, a fear that the world’s foundations are shaking: a global plague, climate emergency, environmental threat, Trump in the White House, and the Brexit deadline fast approaching.

The author is a widely travelled writer and campaigner on conservation issues, as extracts from her other journals illustrate. But long-distance walking brings her face to face with “my stubbornness, lack of preparation and naïvety”. Her untested new boots are the wrong size, and yet she persists until the painful need for medical attention means days of delay.

More tragically, just after phoning her husband on their wedding anniversary — a rare reference to home life — she is shocked to learn of a family member’s suicide. Suddenly, she must return, to resume her pilgrimage uncertainly and in winter conditions a month later.

Colwell writes out of a Catholicism that “I had been born into but struggle fully to accept,” but is quite clear that the core of the Camino is religious. She pays attention to its Christian history and enjoys its saintly legends. The votive objects that she carefully leaves at a notable shrine seem to tap into a devotional sensibility from her upbringing.

Finally, she makes it to Santiago, and finds the cathedral shut, owing to Covid. It doesn’t really matter: “The extraordinary thing is that this pilgrimage continues to work a thousand years after its humble beginnings.”

The Gathering Place is an enjoyable account of a popular pilgrimage in unusual circumstances. Solitude enables the author to dig deeper into herself and her values; but, in contrast with her medieval predecessors’ experience, Smartphone connectedness informs her anxiety about current events. By now, some of these have a dated ring about them, but the threats that they embody have certainly not gone away.

The Revd Philip Welsh is a retired priest in the diocese of London.


The Gathering Place: A winter pilgrimage through changing times
Mary Colwell
Bloomsbury £17.99
Church Times Bookshop £16.19

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