A Flintshire priest will walk all the way to Spain on a pilgrimage he has dreamed about for more than 40 years.
On Sunday February 28, the Reverend Hugh Burgess will begin a 1,500 mile journey that will take him from his church in Halkyn to the shrine of St James at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in North West Spain.
As the 61-year-old travels across Wales, England, France and Spain, he will be doing so in aid of mental health charity Jamie’s Fund of which he is chairman.
Set up in memory of four-year-old Jamie Devaney who died while on a fundraising trip to Uganda with his parents, the charity funds mental health services at a hospital in the East African country
But it is also a very personal journey for Mr Burgess who has waited since he was 18 to make the trip.
The Camino de Santiago or the Way of St James, is a pilgrimage that since the middle ages, many thousands of Christian pilgrims have taken to visit the remains of the saint said to be buried there.
“In the middle ages, people made pilgrimages there as penitence,” Mr Burgess tells me.
“At that time it was getting to the shrine that was the important thing. Once you were there you would make your penance.
“With me, it’s more about the journey than the arrival.”
He will travel via Offa’s Dyke and then head down to Portsmouth from where he will take the ferry to Ouistreham in Normandy.
From the port a network of long distance paths lead from the English Channel to the Pyrenees at the foot of which the French border town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port provides the starting point of the 500 mile Camino Francés, one of the options for travelling the Camino de Santiago.
An old medieval route, as many as 250,000 people now make the journey each year and a well-developed system of hostels exists providing simple accommodation.
Mr Burgess will be joined by a friend to travel this final third.
Until then he will be alone and although he hopes to find bed and breakfast accommodation in the UK, he is less sure what will happen after that. And that’s all part of the challenge.
“I’m doing this partly for religious reasons and partly to address my own fears,” he tells me. “It’s more exploration. I’m not going particularly because it’s the shrine of St James. I’m going because it seems the right thing to do.
“I’ll find out why I’m going when I’m doing it.”
As well as being the priest in charge of the three Halkyn Mountain Parish churches and the national spiritual director of the Anglican Cursillo movement, until recently Mr Burgess also worked as an IT programme manager and before retiring there was never the time to make the trip.
Born in Hull, raised in Aberdeen and a resident of Rhydymwyn for the last 23 years, there have been work trips to France but this will be different.
Walking, often alone, will give him ‘a whole different view’ but he is also looking forward to the encounters he hopes to have along the way.
“It will be an exploration of myself – and how I’ll cope.
“I think I’ll cope,” he adds. “I’m fairly resilient.”
When I ask, he assures me his wife and three grown-up children are fully supportive.
“Everyone has been encouraging, maybe even jealous in some cases,” he confides.
And he’s been practising, taking lots of walks with the pack, in preparation.
For someone who is used to having lots of people around him, the key challenge, he says, will be the days on his own.
“That’s quite scary – but you don’t know who you’re going to meet – other people from all over the world. There are lots of these kinds of stories, of being befriended.”
Already, his pilgrimage has been responsible for one encounter. Buying boots, he was asked by a shop assistant if he would be raising money and explained about Jamie’s Fund.
“About 10 minutes later, a couple came and said they’d overheard. Their son had taken his own life and we were able to have a really good conversation.”
He later discovered the couple had donated £200 to the charity.
“I only met these people for 30 minutes – but these little encounters touch our lives.”
Beside the clothes on his back, all he will have with him will be an eight kilo rucksack carrying little more than a tent, cooker, sleeping bag and spare clothes.
“It’s about going with as little as possible. Your imagination can run away with you thinking about all the things that might go wrong
“All sorts could happen - that’s part of the excitement and if you think about it all and try and take something along for every eventuality, you just couldn’t carry it all.”
He has given himself three months for the trip and plans to return in June although in earlier centuries, lives were so bad that many found the experience so liberating, they stayed on permanent pilgrimage.
“Certainly when you go off with everything of note on your back, it does focus your mind on what you actually need,” he agrees. “It’s an experience of shedding things.”
He’s aware that the trip could prove life-changing and I ask if he might follow those who went before him and choose to remain a lifelong pilgrim.
“I don’t think so,” he laughs.And then there‘s a twinkle.
“But you never know!”
l To support Mr Burgess and donate to Jamie’s Fund, visit mydonate.bt.com/events/santiagowalk/280752
See full story in the Leader