In praise of water and graveyards

Lately I’ve been enjoying two things a great deal. Churches and swims.

I know pilgrims are supposed to stop at churches, but for my first week I didn’t really bother. Then one afternoon I was tramping along with my trail buddy Dave from Michigan, when a priest in a sharp black suit and tie pulled up in his black BMW (clergy all seem to drive shiny black Beamers over here). He looked young enough to be at university, but clearly wasn’t, and asked if we were planning to visit his 15th-century church on the hill. We hesitated.

‘You must!’ He said. ‘I would show you round myself but I have to make a visit.’

‘I feel like I’m a bit dirty to be wandering into a church,’ I confided.

‘Oh not at all. It’s open. Go right in!’

He glided off, like some incongruous Viking mafioso on his way to eat Norway’s finest spaghetti polpette, and we continued on our way.

At the top of the hill we dropped our packs by the gate, and slipped through the heavy front door. There’s been a heat wave in this part of the country over the last few days, but inside it was blissfully cold, and the thick stone walls blocked out all the sounds of the outside world, leaving complete silence. Round the edges of the room were dusky portraits of parish priests from the late 1400s to our fresh-faced vicar’s predecessor, and we sat quietly, thinking and considering, for longer than either of us meant to.

Since then the churches have mostly been locked, but they’ve still been lovely resting places. They usually have taps to drink and refill your water, benches to take the weight off, and quiet, immaculately tended graveyards for you to enjoy a shady break from the progress of your own two feet. I think they feel sort of half in, half out of the rest of the world.

As for the swims, I don’t think anything can be as wonderful after hours of dragging yourself and an eighty-litre expedition pack through this beautiful but undulating country than that delectable feeling of weightlessness you get from floating on your back above the cold, clean depths of a fjord or lake.

The water soaks out the dirt and cools your skin, soothing bug bites, sunburn and the chafing of rucksack straps, and soaking into tired muscle.

You look back at the thirsty cloud of whining mosquitoes waiting for you on the shore, and wonder how long you can stay afloat before you have to face them.

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