Camino to COP – Reflections

Barbara Wilson has spent two weeks on Camino to COP”, a 500-mile pilgrimage from London to Glasgow, arriving in time for the start of the COP26 Summit in November. Parting from the pilgrimage when they reached Birmingham, Barbara shares some of her memories and reflections on her experience.

Hello, we’re walking to Glasgow. Would you like to know why and what we are doing?

This was our regular refrain as we walked in and out of towns and villages distributing leaflets as part of the XR Faith Bridge Camino to COP26.

XR Faith Bridge is an interfaith group formed during the Extinction Rebellion of April 2019. Members are of all faiths and none – spiritual but not religious.

COP26 (the Conference of Parties) is meeting for two weeks in Glasgow this November and will make decisions about the Climate Emergency which will affect all of us. Our intention as walkers is to raise awareness of the climate crisis and the importance of the Conference as a moment for humanity to pause and make key decisions to reduce/ mitigate the impact of the crisis.

Most people are now well aware that Climate Emergency is very real and will impact all of our lives. The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) recently published a report which was described UN Secretary General António Guterres as “Code Red for humanity. Many of those living in the global South are already directly affected by drought or floods or fires or other natural disasters. Climate change is also increasingly a cause of refugee movement.

In Britain we are, for the present, less obviously directly affected. Nevertheless, walking through our beautiful countryside over the last couple of weeks it has been noticeable how there are fewer birds, insects and wild flowers than there would have been a few decades ago and how large and uniform many fields are, with fewer hedgerows and trees. We also passed near the route of HS2 and mourned the loss of many natural habitats destroyed by its progress.

A core group of about 15 are walking the entire route from London to Glasgow and we were joined in Birmingham by a group which had started in Bristol. Some like myself have taken part for extended periods (in my case 120 miles from London to Birmingham) and many others join just for part or all of a day. The route is about 10 miles each day with walkers carrying rucksacks containing all their belongings. It’s sobering to realise how little you need to live when you have to carry it all: about 8-10 Kilos on average with a couple of changes of clothes and washing kit plus sleeping bag and mat. We slept on church hall floors and for the odd night in churches. When you are really tired you sleep well even on a hard floor though we were delighted where there was a carpet or the offer of a shower.

We received a warm welcome everywhere. Almost all our hosts provided a delicious vegan meal. Most evenings this was followed by an outreach event where a couple of the group told their stories of why we’d been drawn to the walk and to become activists for the Climate Emergency. This was followed by small group discussions.

Here, and in our many encounters on the road, we generally found that people are aware that there is a Climate Emergency. Some respond by making small or larger life style changes – recycling, walking rather than driving short distances, eating less meat. These are all good. Laudato Si, Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical written before the last COP Summit, enjoined all of us to do this. But it is nowhere near enough to make the real and radical changes which are needed and are called for by the IPCC.

Laudato Si calls for change at personal, community and political levels. Some churches we visited were Ecochurches; Catholic churches follow LiveSimply. These communities are beginning to make a real difference. But, despite the Government’s plans and broad targets, even its own Climate Change Committee has said that progress is nowhere near urgent enough.

So, what were my own highlights from this walk? I love walking – twice to Santiago in Spain and many long distance walks in Britain, the South Downs way, St Cuthbert’s way and many more. So I was pleased to find that despite the hiatus of lockdown I was still easily able to walk 10 miles a day with my rucksack.

The walkers in the group were delightful. Their ages varied from recent graduates to grandmothers (as I am). A common characteristic was their generosity and kindness to each other and those we met, as well as our shared concern for the environment and those affected by the crisis. We grew closer through regular ‘check ins’ sharing our joys and sorrows including large blisters! We met many wonderful people as well as generous hospitality.

In Coventry, this year’s city of culture, we were entertained by two wonderful women from Zimbabwe. One remembered her daily five mile walk from her village to collect water – and was surprised we took such pleasure in our walking for a less immediate purpose. The other recited her poetry including a poem called I See You.

In Dunstable, the evening group included the local MP who was persuaded to don our Coat of Hopes: a patchwork garment made of embroidered pieces of blanket and decorated with patches by the diverse range of people encountered along our walk.

We took it in turns to wear the coat and my own wearing of it was partly through a field of maize much taller than I! I had to hold the coat’s hem carefully so as not to get it caught up.

The five Year-6 boys who joined us that day were delighted by that adventure and even more so by the next field with alternate rows of stubble and slurry! Other joys were herons and a kingfisher by the canal and fields full of iold flowers.

Not far from Milton Keynes, we held an evening session where local residents who had sewn patches for the Coat of Hopes told us about their hopes and fears. In Milton Keynes the next day, we took part in a service in the Tree Cathedral. A friend and I then spent much of Sunday sewing patches onto the coat in between catching up with everyone’s laundry.

There were many brief but meaningful encounters by the roadside to explain what we were doing – from small children on their way to school to pensioners out for a gentle stroll. Almost all were inspired by our actions, responding thoughtfully as well as sharing a little of their own stories.

Other memories come back to me: a welcome in Birmingham Progressive Synagogue as they built their Sukkah; a local mosque with a reading from the Koran about the environment. There were periods of reflective silence as we crossed fields of stubble and shared prayer with other Christian Climate Action Caministas on several evenings, sometimes with our hosts.

My abiding memories will be of the companionship and love in the group – constant as people came and went – the warm welcomes and hospitality on our route, the beauty of the English countryside and our common sense of purpose. I can’t wait till I rejoin the group in Glasgow.

Please pray for the group as it continues its journey. But even more pray for wise, far sighted decisions by world leaders as they meet in Glasgow

Barbara Wilson – September 2021

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