In July 2021, I read about an Extinction Rebellion group which was planning to walk from London to Glasgow for the COP summit. Much like the historic Camino to Santiago in Spain, the walk was intended to symbolise a path for meditation and growth, and also to connect, not just with nature but with the communities it passed through.
The XR Camino to COP group represented all faiths, and none: anyone who felt the call to make a pilgrimage. In my case the strong call came with a swift reality check, that work and life wouldn’t allow me to take the required 56 days off. So I signed up to take my camera, and do what I could.
Day one started in early September at St James’s Church in Piccadilly. We were thoroughly briefed and warmly blessed, and then a Glaswegian member of the church stood up and sang, with unaccompanied purity, Wild Mountain Thyme. We joined in with the refrain, ‘go lassie go.’ And we did go.
Our group walked through stickily hot London streets, our banners drawing amazed comments: “you’re walking to GLASGOW?” We trekked from Parliament Square north through Edgware, handing our leaflets to hookah-smoking folks at pavement cafés, and on to the white villas of St Johns Wood. Three days later, on the Harrow to St Albans stretch, we were led by a Jewish primary school teacher who alternated stewarding duties with stories of his grandparents. We walked past the cemetery where they are buried before joining the River Ver, a lovely chalk stream much depleted by extraction. At lunch time we ate our sandwiches, hot feet dipped in the cool water.
Then we hiked in silence for an hour: silent walking was a daily communal practice, a way to reflect on the intention of the Camino to be: ‘an act of connection with the earth on which we walk.’ And we took it in turns to wear the Coat of Hope, a handsome grey garment, with space for patches made by communities we passed through representing their hopes for COP. By the end of the walk it had become a Technicolor dreamcoat which passers-by, even those resistant to our message, could always be persuaded to wear and be photographed in.
At St Albans I said goodbye to the group. But I followed their slow and steady progress north from a distance, and rejoined the Camino on day 33 at the Cumbrian village of Kirkby Lonsdale, waiting for the walkers to arrive at the home of our hosts for the night: an ancient stone farmhouse with a rugged bank barn. The hosts were calmly preparing a vegan feast for forty people, with multiple dishes and cakes. As dusk started to fall, the Camino arrived, singing as they walked up the drive. The group I had left at St Albans had grown, bonds had deepened, rituals of arrival and departure had been established, blisters had burst and healed. I felt awed and a little daunted by the Camino’s collective presence and, over the next three days of walking, heartened to be surrounded and absorbed by it.
We walked north through Cumbria, traversing limestone escarpment, lush pastures and hillsides and climbing steep steps jutting from the dry stone walls. Accommodation was in church and village halls – we carried mats and sleeping bags. We sang a Jewish shalom refrain to greet and farewell day walkers and hosts; a protest refrain: “you gotta put one foot in front of the other, and lead with love”; and Celtic blessings. And we hiked, deep in conversation, and in deep silence. Optimism for the outcome of COP was low, but there was a different kind of hope, rooted in the practices of the Camino itself and in the communal activism of walking together.
At the end of each day’s walk, community outreach work began. We talked and listened to anxious teens, parents, local clergy, farmers and even an oil company employee who was buying an ice cream in a village square. The resulting debate was robust, but ended with a handshake.
I said goodbye to the group again, and picked up the Camino on the final day, day 56. The route led from Blantyre to Glasgow along the swelling Clyde, its urgent rushing an apt backdrop to the looming COP conference. A hundred of us walked, joined halfway by a small band of Spanish Caministas who had been hiking a mighty 25 miles per day: twice our speed.
At Glasgow Green we massed together with other walkers from as far as Poland and Sweden. We sang Wild Mountain Thyme together, travelling back to the start of our Camino. There was a rush of feeling for all the steps taken communally and, as we scattered, for the hard journey ahead of us all.
The Camino group reformed into XR Walkers in January 2022. The groups is the ‘walking legs’ of Extinction Rebellion, walking for connection, regen and climate justice. Walks take place at least once a month, and are open to all.
Helena Smith is a writer and XR photographer who grew up in Scotland and Malawi; she now lives in London. In 2021 Helena co-founded Wilder, to promote wildlife-friendly planting in the city. Her recommended read for walkers is The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd, written during World War II and unpublished for 30 years. An antidote to competitive ‘munro-bagging,’ it is a richly sensory and poetic exploration both of the Cairngorms, and of being immersed in the wild.
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