Divine path of pilgrims: If you're taking on the Camino de Santiago, do it the English way

Somewhere in the nest of farmers' lanes beyond Bruma I lost my way, and a good shepherd put me right. Frankly, I didn't know I was lost, and equally frankly I couldn't be sure he was a shepherd, but bear with me on this one. I'd just taken the left fork, up towards a eucalyptus plantation, when this guy with a leathery face pointed back down the hill.

He said something which I'd no hope of understanding, but he knew I was doing the Camino, and it is the task of all good shepherds to keep erring pilgrims on the right path. So I retraced my steps about 50 metres, and, sure enough, there was the sign of the scallop shell.

I'm not, really, a true pilgrim, and I suspect that my good shepherd may not have been a true shepherd either, but when you're walking the Pilgrim's Way across northern Spain, your spiritual antennae are on red alert for any divine intervention. And just as I trusted the shepherd, I was equally trusting of the ornamental drinking water fountains placed at the roadside by charitable benefactors of long ago, never mind that each had recently been adulterated with a "not drinking water" sticker. If it was good enough for pilgrims of old, then it was good enough for a sweaty Englishman in the midday sun. And I survived drinking uncertified water, so perhaps there is a God, after all.

As you'll have gathered, I'm no believer, but then neither are many of the walkers who set out every year on this oldest example of mass tourism.

The Camino de Santiago – aka St James's Way – started attracting international pilgrims more than 1,000 years ago. By the 12th century, half a million a year were arriving in Santiago de Compostela to pay homage to a mythical early missionary who had a habit of appearing on battlefields and saving the day. Such numbers needed more than just water fountains to keep them going: an early guidebook, the Codex Calixtinus detailed the route, and a chain of hostels was built to give the pilgrims places of rest – and to earn merit for the hostel-builders.

These days the hostels (called Albergues; bring your own sleeping bag), like the water fountains, are still there, and they are still so cheap as to be almost free. In Galicia official hostels cost €6 per night; some hostels along the way ask only for donations. The route is still waymarked with the scallop shell that became the pilgrim symbol, and after many centuries of little use, numbers are increasing again.

This year is particularly busy. Holy Years occur whenever St James's Day (25 July) falls on a Sunday, which it does tomorrow, and 250,000 pilgrims – double the usual number – are expected to stagger into Santiago, claim their compostela (certificate of completion) and hug the statue of St James in the cathedral in the hope of absolute forgiveness. You get extra Brownie points upstairs for a pilgrimage in a Holy Year. Even the Pope is making an appearance.

I, however, wasn't after absolution. Footslogging across inlets and over headlands, splashing my face in fountains and walking barefoot along beaches, I was simply out to enjoy an inexpensive, companionable long-distance walk through mellow, luxuriant back yards of Spain. But then I also wasn't doing the usual route, using the hostels and walking all the way from the Pyrenees: I was doing the English Way, and thinking how typically British it was to have come up with a short-cut.

There's not just one Camino across Spain, but five. The main route is officially the French Way, a demanding walk through sometimes harsh landscapes across northern Spain. Then there's the Portuguese Way, the Silver Way, the Northern Way and the English Way.

The latter is the shortest and the least busy. It starts from the ports of either La Coruña or El Ferrol, where the English would have originally arrived by boat. It mixes coastal scenery with rural Spain, takes in a couple of handsome seaside towns and less handsome industrial estates, and can be done in well under a week. At times it felt to me to be quite English, too, as I walked between flower-rich hedgerows, talked to donkeys and crossed creeks that could have been in Cornwall. But the woodland was fragrant eucalyptus, and there were vineyards on south-facing hills. And although it would probably have been better for my soul to have stayed in the Albergues, gathering in the kitchen to compare blisters with other walkers, I chose to do it the easy way, walking between designated points, and being picked up and taken to lovely rural hotels in the evening.

That didn't diminish my sense of satisfaction on arriving in Santiago, however, a city which makes a fitting end to a form of tourism that hasn't fundamentally changed since medieval times. The third-holiest city in Christendom (after Jerusalem and Rome) still feels medieval, its streets paved with granite and lined with granite arcades.

Although I'm not a true pilgrim, I felt at home among the stiff-legged. I hadn't done enough to collect my compostela (you need to complete at least 100km and have the stamps to prove it), but I felt smug with my scenic short-cut, and I'd had my good shepherd encounter, too. It may just have been the relief of arrival, but I did feel somehow uplifted by the whole undertaking, so I went to pilgrim Mass in the towering, sculpture-encrusted cathedral, where it was standing room only.

Outside, the main square was full of buskers, beggars, eccentrics, holy men and pilgrims, tanned and smiley. Tomorrow, that square may be busier than it has been for centuries.

Travel essentials: Camino Inglés

Getting there

* Details of the English Way, along with the other routes in Galicia, can be found at xacobeo.es.

* To do the Camino in more comfort, the Galician Tourist Board (00 34 902 200 432, turgalicia.es) runs packages where customers are picked up at the end of each day and transported to rural hotels along the route. A typical one-week package covering 157km on the French Way, including accommodation, dinner and breakfast costs £500.

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