47 kilometres

Heading west through Asturias towards Galicia we were still walking at eight or nine hundred metres, the landscape reputedly open with fine views, but for us various forms of water kept us close company and the spectacular at bay. It mattered not because what we could see, hedgerows, wild flowers, the yellows of gorse and broom, was gorgeous. There were few options for stops or accommodation, cattle looked out at us from their fields as if we were mad, the restaurants where we found a lunchtime nine euro menu del dia were populated with men wearing Brutus jeans who looked like they’d wrestled a tractor from a ditch, but also their mothers and aunties dressed up for a nice meal out. The portions could feed four. We were always delighted to arrive.

Wilkie, Tash and I spent a rest day in Fonsegrada, a one horse town, in a fine hostel with a decent kitchen, whilst Manika followed her spirit and momentum and pressed on for the promise, two days on, of the urban delights of Lugo.

A party of sixteen Italians, aged sixty to eighty, arrived in dribs and drabs during the afternoon, their support vehicle parked outside. We watched that evening as boxes of lettuces and cherries were washed and prepped, and an hour was spent cubing pancetta and grating cheese, before spaghetti, eggs and all were combined, wine and bread at the table, and all came to sit and eat and laugh and bicker in the curious way of the mediterranean old.

In Lugo, within the Roman walls, we rejoined Manika and then Holly arrived to share the final five days and 100km to Santiago.

The characters we had met along the road, some for minutes, once, others for hours, repeatedly, formed a kind of human tapestry that bound itself, through repeated retellings, to the landscapes and albergues we had passed through. Some names we’d learned, others slipped the noose of memory or else were never known. A short while after passing a marker showing the boundary between Asturias and Galicia, a figure strode toward us, a rare returning peregrino. I recognised him as a frenchman I had walked with for five minutes some three weeks before. He was on his way home, just south of Paris, perhaps 1200km distant, very jolly. We felt like pygmies in a land of giants.

On our first day in Irun, we had met an American woman, as she talked loudly on her phone, and a little later her lumbering, genial eighty year old husband, Jose, with his titanium hips and knee (one remained bone). We passed them ambling along, tried to avoid their bleeping midnight phones (very bad form), spent an evening breaking bread, after which whenever we met, Jose would proclaim ‘Nicholas!’ We would know when our paths were about to cross by hearing the shouts of ‘Jose! Jose!’ in the distance. They are legendary amongst our fellow travellers, but whilst we know she travels with hair rollers, no-one knows her name.

The shapes and sizes, the steady gait, the ambling stroll, the painful inching hobble; the overstuffed bags, the massive trunks and girths, the unlikely speed of both large and small; the accumulation of kilometres and hours and days by people older, less fit, less able, as they kept going, overtaking us, again, as we faffed with something or other, and their steady pace carried them on. I notice all the casual judgements my mind generates about bodies, age, ability, and with a mixture of awe and respect watch as these obvious lies are buried beneath their footsteps. We make progress.

Tash and I watch amused as Holly, Minx and Wilkie gossip, giggle and sing their way through Galician lanes. After a day it feels as though we have been five for the last six weeks. As the kilometres tick down and the end comes closer, our thoughts turn back and we retell stories – people, albergues, weather, climbs, food – as though our memories are a counterweight to the velocity of our fall.

Top tips and insane itineraries marked out the favourites: Terry, from Crayford, in south east London’s hinterland, walked at twice the speed of most, for twice as long, covering vast distances in absurdly short times. He still had time for stories and conviviality, and for sharing the secrets of his high protein diet (yoghurts, sardines, stay away from the bread it’ll slow you down). He came for two weeks, but an all of a sudden wedding (you know I’m on holiday, yeah but don’t worry dad you don’t have to be there) meant a twelve day walk became nine. I kept pace with him for five minutes.

The distances shrink, what was for a long time unimagineable suddenly looms large. The end is in sight.