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A pilgrim's progress by pushbike

It's not the gift, they say, but the thought behind it. When I retired, after almost 40 years in the teaching trade, the governors presented me with a multi-geared touring cycle. How appropriate, some colleagues said. I have no doubt that "On yer bike, Duffy", was the unspoken thought.

My reply was half appreciative, half defiant. I'd been reading Hilaire Belloc. Thinking only of sunshine and the south, I said, "I'll ride to Rome", - and that year I did just that, screwing Save the Children sponsorship out of the friends who queried my strange ambition to make the solo trip from the Tyne to the Tiber. It was hot and dusty work but modest adventures befell me and I enjoyed them. What next, I wondered.

I remembered Chaucer's much-travelled Wife of Bath: "At Rome she had been, and at Boloigne; in Galice at Seint Jame, and at Coloigne." Seint Jame was Santiago de Compostela, Christendom's most important place of pilgrimage after Jerusalem and Rome.

Bordeaux, 1,000 kilometres from Santiago, was one of the traditional starting points. I had enough air miles to get there and three weeks or more to make the two-way journey. What was more, I thought, the opening stage to the Pyrenees was reassuringly flat. I was on my way.

In the event, the Bordeaux stretch is featureless and boring. Once at St Jean Pied-de-Port, however, below the mountain border, the feeling subtly changes. You register as a bona fide pilgrim ("Is your journey primarily religious", the ex-headteacher in the pilgrim office asks you, "or is it spiritual, cultural, recreational, or sporting?") and receive in return the carnet or credencial that entitles you to lodgings in the Pounds 1-per-night refugios that stretch, every 20km or so, from here to Santiago.

Then you grit your teeth and start the long climb to the pass of Roncevalles, and you remember The Song of Roland and the great defeat of Charlemagne. At this place, you're a part of history, a pilgrim evenI There are certainly plenty who wish to make the journey. In June, when I travelled, they are either students or well into sturdy middle age, and they come from all over the world, though rarely, as far as I could see, from Britain. Most are on foot, tramping this longest of long walks for six weeks. Two or three are on horseback, a few are cycling.

On the long, long hills of Spain (where children lean from the school buses that overtake you and chant the name of their cycling hero, "In-dur-ain, In-dur-ain" in gleefully derisive tones) you pass and re-pass each other with nods of perspiring recognition. In the refugios (bunk beds, a blanket, a kitchen, a shower) you compare notes and bruises, and tell Chaucerian tall stories.

Only a minority, I would guess, describe their motives as "religious" and few take literally the story of how the apostle's bones came to be found at Compostela 12 centuries ago. It is more probable, they say, that this last outpost of Christian Spain, hemmed in by the tide of Moorish conquest, needed just such a myth in order to stiffen the will to survive.

Nevertheless, they all carry the scallop shell that is the apostle's symbol - and in every village of the journey, on timeless doors and lintels, the symbol is repeated.

Thanks to European Union funding, it's on all the signposts, too. The ancient roadway takes you through the hills of Navarra into the vineyards of Rioja, and then over the high and parched meseta to the mountain passes of the Cordilleras and the deep rainy valleys of the west, through towns and villages that grew up to serve the pilgrim trade and still do so now.

It's an extraordinarily beautiful journey, never more so than at the pass of O Cebreiro, 1,400 metres high, 300km east of Santiago. There is a tiny church here and an inn, as old together as Christianity itself. Tourists visit in buses, but when you've climbed the hill unaided, and the hundreds that precede it, the experience is subtly and memorably different. It's one of the defining moments of the journey.

The other, of course, is the arrival at Santiago. True, the first glimpse is disappointing. Like any city now, the outskirts are a sprawl of tower blocks and Tarmac. It could be Leicester. But once inside the walls, there's an extraordinary transformation. In evening sunlight, the Obradoiro Square is stunning.

Behind its vast facade, the cathedral itself has a deeply satisfying Romanesque simplicity that is only accentuated by the baroque extravagance of the saint's great tomb. You marvel quietly, and then find your way along steeply twisting medieval streets to the seminary that is the last refugio of the journey.

You show your log-book, stamped at every overnight stay, and receive in return your compostela - authentication (depending on how you see it) of your achievement or your status. Then you join the small queue of pilgrims waiting to climb up behind the great high altar to touch the mantle of the 13th-century gilded statue of Saint James.

The silver scallop shells that decorate it are worn smooth by centuries of veneration. And even for the doubters, the pilgrims' mass that follows is deeply moving.

The congregation is bare-kneed and sunburned, and the aisles are full of rucksacks and bedding rolls. There's an almost tangible sense of historical continuity, and people's faces show both the effort of the journey and the joy of completion.

At the climax of the service, in a splendid piece of theatre, six muscular acolytes in scarlet robes swing a huge silver incense burner from the roof of the nave, trailing smoke and sparks above the congregation. Originally, no doubt, there was a prophylactic purpose - medieval pilgrims were regarded as a noisome and unwashed lot.

Much as teachers in Britain are today, in fact. I found myself reflecting on pilgrimage as a metaphor for our calling. Teaching is long and hard enough, certainly - and most staffrooms are even more uncomfortable than the pilgrims' lodgings I had stayed in. And fortunately there are still - though much more rarely, I suspect - those moments of real satisfaction and delight.

How many teachers, though, reach the end of their careers with even a fraction of that sense of achievement and well-being that was so palpable around me?

It was an unprofitable speculation. I went outside, and joined an impromptu and multinational celebration that lasted through the night. Then I caught a bus to Burgos and began the long ride home.

Michael Duffy is a freelance journalist and former headteacher

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