I did the English leg of the Camino de Santiago – starting in Reading

The UK section of the pilgrimage runs through Berkshire and Hampshire to Southampton, where the faithful would set sail for Spain. And it’s now all waymarked

The man hammering a roundel to a fingerpost between an ancient wood and an electricity substation just outside Silchester was deep in concentration. He seemed both happy and dismayed to see me. “You’re early! I’d better get on with it! Buen camino!”

It was a chance encounter but, as it happens, David Sinclair was waymarking the route I’d set out to follow. I’d just pipped him to the “post”.

This new signage is part of a project to revitalise the Saint James Way, a 68½-mile trail along a probable route taken by pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela. It runs from Reading in Berkshire – the seat of Saint James veneration in medieval England – to Southampton in Hampshire, where pilgrims would have set sail for Spain. This historic strand of the Camino Inglés network is little trodden today, but the hope is that clear waymarking – dark blue circles with yellow arrows and Saint James’s trademark scallop shell – will encourage more modern pilgrims.

Those who embark on this modern-day pilgrimage can also now collect stamps at churches and 13 pubs along the way – with a certificate for those with a complete “pilgrim passport”. My early start from Reading meant that both the city museum and Saint James’s church (where I could have had my “pilgrim passport” stamped) were closed, but I did have a sparkly-blue morning and the ruins of Reading Abbey to myself.

Founded in 1121, the abbey once housed Saint James’s supposed hand – though this revered relic has since been carbon-dated to the 10th century. The flint ruins are impressive but little remains of the enormous, highly decorated edifice that was once one of the country’s most important religious centres.

That this venerable site is just minutes from the Pret and Nando’s of the Oracle shopping centre is both a jolt and a reminder that a pilgrimage is not all about “pretty”. But I soon left the town behind for the serene blue-green Kennet and Avon canal, which is alive with dog walkers, cheerful barges, mallards and red kites. It was lovely, easy strolling for much of the day, via the vast Roman settlement of Silchester, where I detoured to circuit the well-preserved walls. These once hugged a forum, temples and streets thronging with traders; now there are only skylarks and pasture.

However, I did finally start my pilgrim stamp collection in Silchester’s 12th-century church. Soon after I passed Sinclair with his hammer, I found my way well marked into the Hampshire village of Little London, where home for the night was the Chapel, a 19th-century Methodist church turned cosy B&B. Unlike in Spain, where hostels dot the camino, accommodation is trickier to find here. However, owner Giorgia couldn’t have been more pilgrim-hospitable. The woodburner was ablaze, homemade buns awaited, and she’d even created her own stamp. It was a similar story in the Plough Inn that evening: as soon as I walked into the excellent pub I was metaphorically embraced by four gents who wouldn’t allow a solo visitor to drink alone.

I was up early again the next day, reaching Pamber Priory while the deer were still bold and frost was still spangling the grass. While the exact route taken by past pilgrims is unknown, they probably did walk this way; certainly kings and nobles stopped here en route to and from Winchester.

Not long after, the waymarks ran out; I had overtaken David – though this project is now finished. I managed (with guidebook and the OS maps app) not to get too lost as I continued south, passing fields of sheep and pretty woodland, skirting Basingstoke and arriving in the thatched village of Dummer just as a service was finishing at All Saints’ church. On spotting me, one of the congregants rushed over to tell me that, if I needed, she could let me into the loos. I was grateful: food and facilities are a wayfarer’s chief concerns.

The wide Oxdrove Way, an old cattle route across the downs, led me into the handsome Georgian market town of Alresford. Here, after a long day, I collapsed into a snug bed at the Swan Hotel and slept for 10 hours. Fortunately, it was a shorter onward hike to Winchester, largely along Saint Swithun’s Way, which most pilgrims follow in the opposite direction, bound for Canterbury. This took me past a handful of lovely churches, notably Saint Mary’s in Itchen Stoke, which is looked after by the Churches Conservation Trust. It seemed I’d stepped from rural Hampshire into Paris’s Sainte-Chapelle, the rich stained-glass flooding the narrow nave with kaleidoscopic light.

This was an amuse-bouche to Winchester’s enormous, squat cathedral. But I chose not to linger there, ducking into its gothic innards to grab a sticker (not stamp) for my passport and instead continuing to the Hospital of St Cross. Founded by the grandson of William the Conqueror in the 12th century, this church and “almshouse of noble poverty” has been welcoming passersby ever since. The word hospital denotes hospitality not healthcare, and to this day the “wayfarer’s dole” (a horn of beer and morsel of bread) is given to any visitor who asks. After wandering the grounds, I did just that. In fact, it gave me a thirst, so I walked back into town via the Black Boy for another ale, which I supped amid the pub’s eccentric collection of relics, including a menagerie of taxidermy and rubber noses.

I spent the night at Two Bare Feet, which sounded pilgrim-y but turned out to be a very cool, comfy self-catering bolthole with shared kitchen. I woke refreshed for the final push to the coast, following the route of the Itchen, the glass-clear chalk stream that twiddles all the way to Southampton. En route I passed the ranger responsible for footpaths across half the county. “The Itchen’s our Forth Bridge,” he said, wearily. “Soon as you shore up one stretch of bank, another needs sorting.”

So it was with the utmost care that I continued, eventually entering Southampton’s suburbs, passing mighty Saint Mary’s (for worshippers of football, not the virgin) and finally reaching God’s House Tower, the 13th-century gatehouse that once allowed passage through the town walls to the quay. Shuttered for almost a decade, it reopened as an arts venue in 2019, but only Friday to Sunday. No final stamp for me. Instead I completed my pilgrimage round the corner in the Dancing Man Brewery taproom with a half of Necessary Evil stout. An apt end, I thought, to an English camino.

The trip was organised by Visit Hampshire. The Chapel in Little London has doubles from £75 B&B. The Swan Hotel in Alresford has doubles from £110 B&B. Two Bare Feet, Winchester, has doubles from £85 room-only. Guidebook and pilgrim passports available from csj.org.uk/st-james-way. Pilgrim passports also available at Reading Museum

deseña ASINFO