Frances Hillier is a former Link Global Teacher and staff member who worked for us in Malawi. In 2004, she embarked on a truly unique and personal fundraising challenge, setting out to walk the famous Christian pilgrimage route known as the Camino Francés.
Over a period of eight years, Frances has walked over 1,500km on several visits, from Central France, over the Pyrenees and to the town of Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. From tricky mountain ascents to scorching sun, it has been a truly remarkable adventure.
Here is her story...
My initial motivation for making this journey was Paulo Coelho’s book The Pilgrimage. It also seemed like a good vehicle for fundraising for Link. I feel I can never pay back all the opportunities and experiences that have come from being a part of Link.
Most people begin from St Jean Pied de Port at the foot of the Pyrenees. However, as my mother was living in France at the time, we started at the Cathedral in Le Puy en Velay, in the Auvergne province in south-central France, in October 2004.
The first signpost informed us that we only had 1,521km to go to reach Santiago! Often just two of us walked together, sometimes three and once a group of five of us walked the beautiful section between Figeac and Cahors. It has been one of the most rewarding and inspiring activities I have ever taken part in – alongside being a Global Teacher (2001) and working for Link in Malawi!
Walking the Camino, I remembered a phrase so often used during our Global Teacher training: “Just go with the flow!” You just never knew what was going to come up from one day to the next. The physical challenges of tricky mountain ascents; the endurance tests of drenching rain or scorching sun; the knowledge that all you want to do is stop and rest but there are still 5 kms to go to the nearest hostel and a meal!
Making the effort to speak different languages at meal times when you are exhausted brought another kind of challenge, as did the sleeping arrangements. We slept everywhere – a cow-shed, on cold concrete slabs in a disused gymnasium, in an attic. We also slept in monasteries and huge dormitories and occasionally in very smart hotels – the Parador in Leon being the height of luxury!
The stunning scenery, the tiny churches and huge cathedrals, and so many special encounters with local people as well as other pilgrims – all are reminiscent of the times I spent with Link in Africa. Walking across the meseta plateau in June 2009, we could have been crossing the grasslands of the Eastern Cape in South Africa.
Many towns and villages were remote and difficult to access by public transport. We travelled in planes, trains and on ferries – and on coaches, but I’d never do that again! The path itself is well marked with either the modern yellow “scallop shell” signs, or simply by yellow arrows painted on trees, rocks or posts.
On Tuesday 9 October, after ten days of blue skies, warm sun, mountains and forests, we followed the well-signed route into Santiago de Compostela. We were soaked to the skin by rain which we hadn’t had previously.
Crowds of people were standing around in the square in front of the Cathedral, welcoming others whom they had walked with earlier on the route. Everywhere there were huge smiles and hugs of congratulation. It was a fitting end to a truly wonderful adventure which, like everything with Link, prepares you for everything!
I’m delighted to say that I have now reached my original fundraising target of £5,000. However, I’d really appreciate any new donations to Link on my behalf as every penny counts.
If you would like to sponsor Frances, please send a cheque to Link Community Development, Dolphin House, 4 Hunter Square, Edinburgh, EH1 1QW. Please write your name and “Pilgrimage” on the back of the cheque, or include a note explaining what your donation is for.